In the run up to the Hursley Park Book Fair this weekend, I’ve paired up with one of the authors to bring you some top tips for writing your first novel. Applicable for all authors, hopefully these do’s and don’ts help. Enjoy!

1. Reality

So, there’s your book. You can see it in your mind’s eye. It’s going to stand out from the rest – after all, it’s yours and bound to be a best seller. First, take a reality check. They say there’s a book in everyone. You would think that was true when you realise it’s estimated that one million English language books will be published this year.

First rule is ‘Enjoy writing for writing’s sake and see where it takes you’. Be an optimist but don’t be disheartened if your first effort doesn’t get the agents and publishers rushing to your door. A rejection letter isn’t an instruction to stop trying. It’s a reminder that you are in a demanding marketplace, awash with mediocrity and that you need to continuously listen and learn if you want to make what is good even better.

2. Plot

The most common question a fiction writer is asked is ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ If you feel like asking that question or don’t have anybody alongside you who is full of ideas, my advice is take up the piano or painting or breed exotic animals!

A fertile imagination is the foundation of almost all successful novelists with a list of novels to their credit.

The essential aspect of a plot is knowing how to get from the beginning to the end or vice-versa. Just sitting down and starting to write will normally get you no further than the first page or the start of the never-ending story.

There are no hard and fast rules. Some authors flow chart every scene out in detail as if it were a screenplay for a film; others, a rough sketch and away they go. I prefer a halfway house that gives me scope to let the characters and scenes come alive and take me off of my predicted course for a while.

3. First or Third?

Now you’ve worked out the plot, are you going to write in the first-person as ‘I’ or in the third-person as ‘he’ or ‘she’? Writing in the first-person is obviously more restrictive as you can’t be everywhere and in everybody’s shoes at the same time. The other first-person trap is that you are either too deeply inside your characters or not enough, possibly basing many of the characteristics on you, the writer. Before you start, describe the main protagonists in your novel in great detail even down to the smallest detail such as the tattoo on her arm and how she got it. You will also need conduits to other characters’ actions and techniques to adequately display intense emotions. If you’re in two minds for this first novel, take the third-person option to start with. Remember, nothing is cast in stone.

4. Overwriting

The curse of the unwary writer. The golden rule is keep it simple and don’t treat your reader as if he/she needs absolutely everything spelled out in detail. Your reader has picked up your work because they want to be stimulated into using their own imagination. If they didn’t, they would probably switch on the TV. No two people will read your work in exactly the same way. There are plenty of articles written on overwriting, so read them. Avoid the temptation. You have thought of three classic ways of describing the instant. They are all brilliant! So, what do you do? You use all three. Don’t! Choose the best and don’t exhaust the reader.

5. Read it aloud

You’ve written the first chapter and you’re pleased with the outcome. Don’t start on Chapter Two. Read out aloud what you’ve written. Get the rhythm or lack of it, register every discordant section and use the experience to check your punctuation based on natural pauses. Whatever you do, don’t dramatize your delivery. Let your prose tell its own story without any ham acting.

6. Fed up with ‘said’

Many aspirant writers when writing dialogue feel that they are persistently using ‘said’ and they must start to use a whole raft of variants. Do you need the gratuitous use of ‘inferred’, ‘exclaimed’, ‘indicated’ or many more alternatives? The answer is a categoric ‘No’. Readers accept ‘said’ as read and will move on untroubled. Of course, if the text warrants a ‘muttered’ or ‘stammered’, then, use it and where you have a two-person conversation, the sense can most often be followed without the constant interjection of ‘said X or Y’. You can also bear in mind that the repetitive nature of toing and froing can be broken up by the use of indirect dialogue.

7. Credibility

The last half of this package of brief hints all concern the author’s golden egg, the talent of being able to hold the reader’s attention, to make him or her feel a personal association with your novel. The easiest thing in the world is to turn him/her off with tired language or scenarios that defy logic or reality. In many cases, life may be stranger than fiction but you need to keep your story credible.

8. Credibility – Clichés

When readers are confronted with clichés in prose, they disengage. You’re helping them to paint the most convenient pictures that most readily fit and to slip into a vacuum. This is the last thing that you want. Of course, if one of your characters is the type that would use a cliché in conversation, no problem but remember be original, don’t regurgitate.

9. Credibility – ‘Show’ not ‘tell’

Think about stimulating your reader’s appreciation of the atmosphere by avoiding attaching an adverb to the way a comment is said or an action interpreted. Instead of saying that your hero was nervous, why not mention his clammy hands or the beads of sweat on his forehead and let the reader draw his conclusion around the scene you have portrayed. The trick is to show enough of the things that your character is experiencing so that the reader can respond without you punching him/her on the nose with the obvious. Enhance the experience with not only sight and sound but taste, smell , touch and, of course, emotion.

10. Credibility – Black and white

Pick up a James Bond novel and you’re pretty much guaranteed a selection of good guys and girls, a fair sprinkling of really bad guys (maybe the odd girl, but rarely), a raft of needy and dependant women and plenty of tough macho men. Maybe Ian Fleming could get away with it but you won’t. The reader will suspend belief. In real life, people may have white or black moments but most of the time we have a good mix of qualities and frailties and you should make your characters realistic and believable.

11. Credibility – Point of view

You’re ramping up the tension in your storyline. The victim is describing the agonies they are going through. The point of the knife draws blood from a cheek. Suddenly, you’re the perpetrator. You’re holding the knife ready to strike the helpless victim. Now, it’s back to the taste of blood in your mouth. Don’t keep losing the reader by switching between characters. Try and deal with a scene from one protagonist’s point of view so that you can maintain the suspense.

12. Credibility – Pace, tension and suspense

Pace is about the rhythm of a novel, making sure that you neither rush or trudge through the narrative. Tension and suspense are what keep the readers turning the pages. Tighten up the pace by eliminating repetition, start the scene at the last possible moment and cut away at the first opportunity. Skip over recaps or journeys, briefings and paperwork and get straight to the dramatic stuff. For the thriller writer, think in terms of the movie adaptation. At what point would the scene start in the movie. When would it end. Keep your reader on the edge of his/her seat.

Geoff Cook is a thriller author. You can buy his latest book, The Sator Square, from Amazon.

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