What I like in such books is not just practical advice, but someone who gives me encouragement.
For this, I recommend Walter Mosley’sThis Year You Write Your Novel. It’s a mere 103 pages, readable in a few hours, but it contains reassuring and common sense advice that any writer could benefit from, even though it’s aimed at debut authors.
Incidentally, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is widely recommended, but bear in mind that it was first published 100 years ago and revised in 1959, making its advice formal and dated. It still holds good advice, especially about concision.
It is available as a free download in several places, but Project Gutenberg offers the widest choice of file types:
The book has an epigraph, a poem by Louis Zukofsky, from his major work called ‘A’. As writers querying literary agents and publishers, we should be so lucky to receive such a letter….
Most honorable Sir, We perused your MS with boundless delight. And we hurry to swear by our ancestors we have never read any other that equals its mastery. Were we to publish your work, we could never presume again on our public and name to print books of a standard not up to yours. For we cannot imagine that the next ten thousand years will offer its ectype. We must therefore refuse your work that shines as it were in the sky and beg you a thousand times to pardon our fault which impairs but our own offices. – Publishers
As I neared the end of writing my fifth Cornish Detective novel last year, I had a rather sardonic thought—that I’m about where I thought I’d be five years after returning to creative writing in 2013. What prompted this bit of reflection was literally a reflection, for the screen of my laptop monetarily darkened, turning it into a mirror, so I had one of those ‘Aargh’ moments when you catch sight of your ageing self going about your business! Here was I, researching a fact about forensic medicine, for a crime novel that had taken me nine months to gestate—that may never be read by any fan of the genre.
It made me wonder how determined or maybe delusional an unknown author, in particular, has to be to keep their nose to the grindstone. Doing writing because you love it is great motivation: anyone who chooses becoming an author as the road to riches, in a J. K. Rowling way, is going to find it’s a rocky track with deep ditches either side.
All of this musing reminded me of something that noted writing guru Noah Lukeman has said several times in his books—that realistically, a new author should plan on it taking several years to get anywhere with their stories—to adopt a mindset that it’s going to be long haul. In answer to a question from a newbie author on how to query a literary agent when you have no proof of your writing ability, Lukeman advises:
You can attain major credentials on your own, but first you must prepare for a sustained effort. Instead of a three or six month plan to attain all the credentials you need, why not give yourself a three or six year plan? With that kind of time, you can attend writing programs, workshops, conferences, colonies; spend extensive time networking and build an endorsement list; get stories published in magazines and online; begin to build a platform; and most importantly, hone your craft extensively. This doesn’t mean you need to refrain from approaching agents before you accomplish all of this; on the contrary, as I said, there is nothing wrong with approaching agents with no credentials whatsoever, and you can work to achieve all of this concurrently with your approaching the industry. But you should always be working to this end, regardless. There are many specific, concrete steps you can take to help get you there (which I explain at length in my book How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent), but perhaps the most important step of all is your willingness to devote a sustained, multi-year effort to building your bio on your own.
Despite this salutary advice, I still harboured the hope that I could earn a few quid from self-publishing my early writing as e-books on Smashwords and Amazon. I was right—I made a small amount—about $40!
After foolishly querying about 350 agents with my first Cornish Detective novel, that was an unfeasibly long 179,000 words, I edited it down by 40,000 words. I also wrote a new opening story at the acceptable length of 80,000 words. I queried another 100 literary agents and publishers with open submission windows, getting more favourable responses and learning how to target specific agents, stalking them on social media to find their likes and dislikes. One large agency, that handles writers, musicians, television programme-makers and actors, asked me if my first novel was part of a series—as it would be easier to pitch to a publisher or television production company.
That had always been my intention anyway, to write a series of crime novels, with a view to them being adapted into a television drama, along the lines of Inspector Wycliffe—which is also set in Cornwall, though it pre-dates the computer age, making it rather creaky.
This sounds ambitious of me, but why not aim for the stars? As Michelangelo said:
The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.
Accordingly, I’ve now built a solid body of work, but in all honesty, how can I know whether it will appeal to anyone? Writing is full of uncertainty: no one knows what will work until it does!
Pride is an emotion I don’t exactly trust, as I’m more stoical in my approach to life, but I am proud of my Cornish Detective stories—and also of my bloody-minded determination to get them written—sacrificing most of what normal people consider essential, such as a social life and a love life. It’s helpful that I’m a reclusive old geezer!
The writing has been joyful to me, but what I’m not looking forward to is returning to the self-promotion trail. Navigating the world of publishing is like stumbling through thick fog with only a candle for illumination, banging the instruments of my one-man-band hoping to attract attention. That’s the feeling I get whether I’m chasing a traditional publishing contract or if I go back to self-publishing. No one else much cares what I’ve created—a hard fact of life every author should quickly realise—so it’s up to me to big myself up.
I’ve sometimes thought, that the best preparation for becoming a writer is to get everyone that you know to say “No” to you, when you ask them something, as it’s a word you’ll be hearing a lot when it comes to trying to sell your book. At least 500 times would be good preparation for growing a hide as thick as a rhinoceros!
How long have you been writing?
How thick is your hide?
Does being an oft-refused author help you cope with rejection is other parts of your life?
Do friends and family admire your determination—or think you’re just a bit mad?!
his Evening Standardarticle discusses writing courses and three recently published how-to guides.
The £4,000 fee for the Faber Academy course Writing A Novel is a strong indicator of how to make money from writing—run a course, writers’ retreat or online pay-for tuition or editing services. Remember, far more suppliers of mining equipment, clothing and food supplies got rich during a gold rush, than hard-working miners themselves.
It’s drummed into writers, the importance of having a strong opening to their story. Whole bookshave been written emphasising how crucial the first few lines, paragraphs and pages are, to grab the attention of readers.
But, what of the closing lines, the end of a story, where an author makes a statement of some kind, even if it’s through the thoughts of their protagonist? I reckon that last lines carry more weight as memorable quotes than opening statements.
Looking at famous books, these endings are variously doom-laden and optimistic.
* From The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson:
She opened the door wide and let him into her life again.
* FromOh What a Paradise It Seemsby John Cheever:
But that is another tale, and as I said in the beginning, this is just a story meant to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night.
* From Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell:
Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.
* From Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling:
The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.
* From Frankenstein by Mary Shelley:
He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.
* From The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger:
It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.
*From Nineteen Eighty-Fourby George Orwell:
He loved Big Brother.
* From The Heart of Darknessby Joseph Conrad:
The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
*From Animal Farm, by George Orwell:
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
I think that there’s a difference between the last lines of a standalone novel and a story that’s part of a series. With a one-off, an author can close the proceedings with a message that encapsulates the themes of the tale they’ve told in a take that way! An optimistic writer who’s embarking on creating a series may well allude to the frame of mind of their protagonist, setting them up for more adventures.
In every end, there’s a beginning.
In my own Cornish Detective series, I always close with my protagonist Neil Kettle alone and contemplating life—in a way that I hope encourages readers to want to find out what happens to him next.
*Book 1: Who Kills A Nudist?: Neil gazed at the departing jet in the distance, its exhaust condensing in the atmosphere. She'd slipped the reminder into his pocket when she pecked him a kiss. Write her? Why not?
He was starting to believe in happy endings.
* Book 2: The Perfect Murderer: As the Chinese saying went,'Enjoy yourself. It's later than you think.' It was time for him to be where he was again, to inhabit himself once more—he'd been missing his own life.
*Book 3: An Elegant Murder: In a few minutes, Neil was letting himself into the front door, walking through his half-finished home to go and feed a solitary cat who would ignore him. What else did a man need?
He couldn't be happier
* Book 4: Sin Killers: He'd be OK. The sentimentality of the season was getting to him. At a time when we were expected to be loving and loved in return, he felt the lack. Criminals didn't care about his sorrow, and there were new cases to run, but they'd keep for tomorrow.
Lone as a mountain lion, he went off through the bulleting rain back to his moorland lair.
Book 5: The Dead Need Nobody: He'd got his hands full with her in more ways than one. Her slim fingers reminded him that he had an ancient sapphire ring that needed a new home.
The inscription Si vis amari, ama floated into view.
If you want to be loved, love.
What else could he do?
I think that it's important to come up with a stylish ending to a story, that's taken you ages to write, rather than have it come to an abrupt stop!
Do you have any favourite famous last lines from literature?