Posts Tagged ‘novel’

“The lessons you take from your travels across novel-land this month will serve you well throughout the rest of your life. You will walk away from the escapade with a mischievous sense of boldness and an increased confidence in your creative abilities. You will read differently, write differently, and for better or worse, you will begin seeing the world with the ever-hungry eyes of a novelist.” – Chris Baty

The first draft, eh? A bit daunting isn’t it? Remember, every writer you’ve ever loved started out at this exact point — and it scared the crap out of the lot of them.

Here we are, looking out over the vast uncharted territory of your novel. Some of you have map and compass and heavy-duty all-weather gear — others just have crazed expressions and a willingness to roam in the wilderness.

Enjoy the view. You’re looking for quantity not quality. This isn’t the place for perfect grammar or well-constructed sentences — it’s where you go stomping through the mud.

Leave your inner-editor at home. In fact, hand over your inner-editor right now for safe-keeping. Place a comment at the end of this post, relinquishing your inner-editor and saying exactly how you expect it to be treated whilst you’re busy writing your novel.

Don’t worry, you can have it back afterwards. That’s why I said ‘leave it at home’ and not ‘leave it face-down in a ditch.’ After the first draft, your inner-editor comes to the fore.


I used to work for a publisher and assess the suitability of unpublished manuscripts for publication.

People tried all sorts of tricks to make their manuscript stand out — coloured paper, glitter, balloons, wacky fonts — you name it.

Some tried to save money (and trees) by printing it out double-sided. One numbered the pages backwards, in reverse chronological order, ‘to make it more postmodern.’

Others got creative with their interpretation of our submission guidelines or ignored them completely.

For example, instead of sending the standard ‘three chapters and a synopsis, or 30 pages and a synopsis, whichever is less’ one person sent the entire manuscript shrunk down to fit on 30 pages.

Whilst I sympathise with the desire to make your manuscript stand out, or even just to reduce the cost of sending out dead-tree submissions, all they managed to do was annoy me.

The only way these submissions stood out was in the bizarre lengths that the authors had gone to make their manuscripts look unprofessional, difficult to read and maybe not worth the effort.

Publishers have submission guidelines for a reason. Use them. Give the publisher EXACTLY what they ask for.

If they don’t have guidelines, then submit in the Standard Manuscript Format for your country of submission. US and UK formats are slightly different, but very broadly-speaking:

  • Font: A 12-point monospace serif font (Courier is your safest bet)
  • Line spacing: Double-spaced
  • Justification: Unjustified. Flush left, ragged right.
  • Margins: 1.5 inches all the way round.
  • Paper: On single-sided A4 paper if submitted by post.
  • Page Numbers: Unless you want me to kick your ass.

You want your manuscript format to be as standard as possible so that it looks ‘proper’, ‘correct’ — professional.

This gives the impression that you know what you’re doing and also makes your manuscript much easier to read.

Then your work WILL stand out if the quality of the prose is high enough.

A literary attempt to evoke the voice of someone far removed — a different voice and sensibility (eg. of an insane person, animal or child).

The alienation effect is sometimes a work of translation. Translation, at great distance from yourself, of this alien idiom, into your voice, because you can’t always keep up their idiom and vocabulary.

The alternative is to communicate what they know, in your words, to explore the data they acquire at their eye level. You have access to what they can understand, their thoughts, their head, but translated into the writer’s narrative voice. The implied author.

That’s one solution. Any solution is a literary artifice, but can have its own power and poetry. There’s always a meeting of minds (of the character and the writer) but it’s a question of where the emphasis lies, and interpreted by the reader.

Sometimes liminal characters, on the margins in one way or another, are beneath or beyond language. The truly alien, the truly broken. Those who can’t think or are beyond thought. You have to translate from another world — the damaged brain, the feral animal, the extraterrestrial.

This has implications in authorial access to character. Write something that only the character could know. Write it in their language. Then try it in a different narrative voice, someone other than the character.

Some things can only be known through the body. Tell a story that can only be told through the senses of an animal. Talk to the lunatic on the bus. Then write the conversation from their point of view.

This is the real work of fiction. The one thing novels and short stories can do better than film is put the reader inside the heads of others.

“Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.” — Winston Wolfe, Pulp Fiction

How do you make characters that have character? Here’s my carrot and stick approach.

Badly written characters are cardboard cut-outs: unconvincing, sensational, two-dimensional, exaggerated and only there to serve the plot. Like painting by numbers or dot-to-dot, they’re just there to fill in the blanks. They’re often stereotypes and don’t have enough flaws or substance to make them interesting.

Good characters are like icebergs — there’s far more to them than the jagged bit that you can see sticking out of the water. To create them, you have to know what the iceberg looks like underneath the water.

If you know something about the character and don’t say it out loud, it will inform your writing. Your readers will pick up on it sub-consciously and start to ask questions — What’s their secret? What happened to them? Who are they deep down? From the carefully chosen tip-of-the-iceberg, that you show the reader, they’ll infer enough of the rest to keep reading.

Great characters are seriously messed up. They’ve got issues. They’re flawed, believable and have a sense of their own history. What emotional baggage does your character carry around with them? Who are they? What do they do? What do they think? And most importantly, what do they WANT?

Don’t be afraid to base your characters on people that you know. Real people are always far weirder and more complicated than anything we can dream up. Change them just enough to avoid getting sued.

Spend some quality time with your characters. The more you write them the more you’ll get to know them. What’s your protagonist like when they’re not out saving the world? Describe them getting up, getting dressed and going out. What do they wear? What do they put in their bag?

Follow them round for the day. Take them out shopping. See how they cope with the mundane everyday world. Take your time over this (like eating jelly babies). Once you know what they’re normally like, you’ll have something to compare with how they react under pressure — then it’s time to really put them through their paces.

If you don’t believe in your characters then no-one else will. You’ve got to treat them like real people. What’s more, you have to be willing to treat them badly. You want them to be interesting — put them through hell and see how they react. Shove them together just to see how they get along.

Now stir things up a bit. Think of a significant event, one that will challenge or change the direction of that character’s life. Make it happen. What do they want in life? Whatever it is, they can’t have it. Not yet. Put all manner of conflict and obstacles in-between them and what they want. Throw at them everything you’ve got.

Your characters have got to learn to fend for themselves. And in struggling towards what they want, they’ll change. They might not even want or need their goal or object of desire any more by the time they get there.

Audition your characters. Hold tryouts. Make them earn their place. Scar them for life. Take them to hell and back (sometimes literally). Give them a carrot, to go after, and beat them with a stick. Then decide whether to give them a happy ending, or just to happily end them.

If there’s one thing I hate about blogging, then there’s probably a bunch of other things too. My main bugbear is the continual need for new content. Blogs are hungry beasts. Much of what gets written is ephemeral and has a short shelf, no matter how much time you spent on it. With that in mind, I planned a series of ‘best of graffiti living’ posts with curated links to evergreen content from the archives on particular themes. Then I read my blog and realised that most of it was shit.