Friday, July 29, 2011

Top tips for young writers by Jack Heath

I've not had a chance to write up my review for Jack Heath's novel Money Run (we've run out of days in July).  So I've checked out Bookzone's blog and there is a superb review which I'm linking here, to give you an idea of who Jack is and why he's written this blogpost for MFB.

I am a big fan of writing advice - I have a lot of books on them and so make sure that whenever I talk to published writers and do Q&A's with them, I make sure to ask that question: what is your advice for aspiring writers?  When Liz, a freelance PR person asked me to be part of Jack's blogtour with Usborne, I said yes, on one condition; he tells us about his writing and the subsequent article is the result.  I am such a slave driver!

I started writing my first book at the age of thirteen, mostly to impress a girl. I discovered two things – one: that doesn't work. Two: writing is addictive. Four years later I was shoving a complete manuscript into an envelope, scrawling the address of a publisher on the front, and pushing the package through the slot of a mailbox. Eighteen months after that, I was wearing a borrowed suit, watching the girl's father (himself a well-known writer and academic) give a speech at my first book launch.

In the weeks that followed, I was often asked what advice I would give to young writers. I rarely knew what to say. But now, five books later, I think I have the necessary distance to see the things I did right – and the things I did wrong.

Tip 1: Start ASAP
Literally hundreds of people have told me that they want to write a book someday. But if you're the sort of person who puts “someday” into that sentence, chances are you'll never get around to it. If you want to be a musician, you need an instrument, if you want to be a film-maker, you need a camera. These people have an excuse not to start right away. Writers don't – because all you need is a pen, some paper, and an idea. (Bonus tip: Any of those things can be stolen.)

Tip 2: Experiment
This is something I wish I'd done more when I had the chance. Once you're published, it's hard to try new things because you don't want to stray too far from the expectations of your audience. So as a young, unpublished writer, you should seize the opportunity. Come up with as many similes as you can, and see which ones you like. Try out weird voices, like second-person and future-tense. Switch the gender of every character and see how it changes the story. (I guarantee that the men will react differently to the discovery that they're pregnant.)

Tip 3: Don't fantasise
It's tempting to give your protagonist money, fame, looks – everything you've ever wanted. But that's not the makings of a good book. In fact, the happier the life of your hero, the less conflict there is in the story. Instead, focus on taking away the things people depend upon, like safety, or love. And if you do give your protagonist advantages, make sure they come at a terrible cost. Remember, Harry Potter was only rich because his parents were murdered. Dorian Gray was only handsome because of the portrait in his attic.

Tip 4: Put yourself in the character's shoes
Nothing alienates readers faster than characters who make decisions which don't make sense. So with every action your protagonist takes and every word which comes out of her mouth, ask yourself this: If you were in her position, and had her upbringing, would you have done that? If not, you'll have to change the action, or change her back story, or both.

This applies to the villains, too. You probably wouldn't strangle a bunch of puppies, but in order to write a convincing character who does, you'll have to imagine the circumstances under which you might. (Bonus tip: If there's any maniacal laughter in your book, you probably haven't thought enough about the villain's motivations.)

Tip 5: You are your own target audience
To write well, you have to love writing. To write really well, you have to love reading too. The tricky part is separating the two desires. Work out what your favourite books are, and why. Think about your least favourite books, and what you didn't like about them. When you've finished a draft, do a bit of role-playing. Print it out, put it on a bookshelf, and pretend you're in a bookshop. Pick it up and read the blurb – see if the premise grabs your interest. Read the first page and decide if you want to know what happens next enough to make a purchase. After you've paid your imaginary money, sit down on the couch and read it. Make a note of every time you get bored, because that bit needs work.

I guess what I'm saying is, don't write the book you want to write. Write the book you'd want to read.

These are such great - honest and heartfelt - bits of advice.  Thanks so much, Jack. I feel super inspired to plot and plan my new novel after I've edited my current one into shape.


Zoe said...

Great tips! These have helped me a lot. I am now interested in Jack's novel too!

Jenni @ Juniper's Jungle said...

I love this post, it's one of my favourite writing advice posts ever I think. I'm definitely going to be putting all of this advice to good use.

Jack Heath said...

Thanks for the opportunity to write for your blog! I had a great time. Hope your readers like it.

Jack :)

Yahong said...

Wheee, awesome collection of tips! I especially love that first one. And the author's pretty good-looking, too.

(Good thing he already visited and probably won't come back. It'd be embarrassing if he read that. :P)