Bonus episode: Manda’s Basic Tips for Writers
If you’re in the early stages of your writing journey and want some support, these are Manda’s Ten Key Pointers to writing well: a basic Writing Apprenticeship in an hour!
This is a selection of things that I feel really matter if you’re going to write – the basics for creating your own writing apprenticeship.
If it’s useful, let me know. If you want more depth in any particular area, let me know. If you want another one, ranging more widely, let me know…
IF you prefer to read…
Now that our new Thrutopia Masterclass is live and people are beginning to see in detail on the website what it’s about, I’m getting increasing numbers of emails from people saying that they do write – perhaps they’ve written a book or have tried to write a book or are still at the journaling stage – but they are worried that they’re not advanced enough. And will it be okay to come?
And the absolute message is yes, it’s completely fine. This is for anybody and everybody. Whatever your level of creativity, even if it’s not writing, if you want to be part of a group that is creating real, genuine, grounded, plausible ways through to that future that we’d be happy to leave behind us, then we want you to come and join us. However, it has occurred to me that for those who are feeling as if they need a basic primer and writing. Then perhaps I could offer one.
So that’s what this is, my 10 tips for writing the perfect novel, or at least the best novel that you can write or script or play or blog or poem – whatever you’re writing format. I write novels mostly. I’ve done a few screenplays. I used to write a lot of poetry. Those are the fields that I feel that I know about.But actually, I think what I’m about to say will apply to everything.
So if this is your field, pin back by your ears, take on board what makes sense to you. Ignore and abandon anything that doesn’t, because the key with writing is you do what works for you. It doesn’t matter if nobody else has ever mentioned it. If it works for you, if you get something that in the end you are happy with. That is what matters. If you want to know what works for me, then listen on.
Right at the start, I want to say that for me, good writing is instinctive, but instinct in anything I believe rests on a bedrock of learning. You decide what you want to do. You find the people that, in your opinion, do it as well as it’s possible to be done and you study them, you learn from them, you find out how they do what they do. So the absolute fundamental apprenticeship for writing is to read. You read what you like. You read what you don’t like. You find out what your tastes are. Who do you think is the best writer? Who do you not think is the best writer?
But don’t just read a book or a poem or a screenplay once. That’s the key. If you find something that you believe is absolutely amazing, then you need to put a little bit of work into finding out why it is. So for me, for instance, Wolf Hall is one of the best books I have ever read. By Hilary Mantel. It’s worth saying that this book broke quite a lot of fundamental rules.
When I was in the Historical Writers Association, we used to sit and talk to publishers and editors and we would ask, what kind of eras are you really interested in? What’s really going to sell? And quite often they would say pretty much anything except the Tudor era, and please don’t write a saga about the home front in World War Two.
Leaving aside the second one, everybody thought that anything that could ever be said about the Tudor era, particularly about Henry the Eighth had already been said. And then you just read the first paragraph of Wolf Hall. And you know that this is something exceptional.
So you find a book like that and you read it through once in the discovery and the wonder and the joy of something that is so very, very good. But then you go back and read it again, and the first time you read it again, you perhaps are looking at structure. How do the scenes fit together? What’s in the scenes? How exactly does this book tell a story? And with something like Wolf Hall it’s fairly straightforward because it’s essentially a historical narrative of events. It’s not like a crime novel where you have to structure the clues to who’s done whatever the crime is, and you have to make sure that they all tie up at the end and you’ve got red herrings and you’ve got twists and all of those things. Whatever your genre, you need to know how the construction of that genre works, and then you need to find people who do it very, very well and look at how they have done it.
So you want to really take apart the scenes. Why is this scene here? What does it serve? What function does it have? If I were going to fit this together differently, how would I have done it? And if it would work better, why would it work better? But if this person is really, really good, one assumes that they will have considered other options. Why have they done what they’ve done?
And then the next time you read it through, you perhaps are reading for the characters and the voice and the viewpoints. Who is here? Why am I seeing this scene from this viewpoint? Is there another viewpoint from which I could have seen it? Is it a close in first or third person viewpoint? Is it a more distant overview narrative, a viewpoint that doesn’t perhaps feel as personal but gives me a broader reach of view – a wider angle to the lens, if you like?
There’s a huge amount to say about character, and I want to keep this basic and I want to keep it simple, But you want to look at what are the underlying frames? What are the underlying assumptions behind the viewpoints that we are being given? Is this a book, for instance, written by and for straight white men? Does it make the assumptions that that particular grouping of people tend to make? Will it create scenes, set up situations in which a certain style of behaviour is expected and generally given?
If you look at the great swathe of let’s say, American crime novels, almost all of them function from a very particular viewpoint on the world in which a very particular set of rules apply, where justice is a particular thing, where friendship is a particular thing: honour, respect, integrity all have a very particular flavour. And if you want to write in this field, you have to know what those assumptions are.
You can challenge them. That’s absolutely a given. But you probably have to make it clear that that’s what you’re going to do quite early on in the book, because if you lead somebody halfway down a path that they think they’re going on and then turn it over and really begin to hit those big limbic trigger points, you’re going to lose your audience and you’re not going to gain the audience that would have wanted those assumptions to be overturned in the first place.
And I am making the assumption here that you’re writing a book because you want large numbers of other people to read it. Writing a book takes an astonishing amount of time and effort, and human energy just spiritual energy, emotional energy, mental energy. And it may be that you’re writing it just for yourself, in which case you can challenge all of your own assumptions or none of them. And that’s fine. But if you want people to read it, then quite early on you have to give people a flavour of the world that you’re leading them into. So that again, when you’re doing your reading is something else to look at. What is the flavour of this world? What are the frames behind it? I may not like them. I may not agree with them. But I want to know what they are.
So then on the next read through, we want to begin to look at the language of the book. What are the tenses? What’s the choice of words? How are the sentences broken up? There’s an extraordinary fashion, just now for a very, very short subject-less sentences where there’s a verb and an object – which I have to say leaves me with my toes digging into the floor and my teeth aching. But does seem to be a thing, and editors don’t seem to be editing it out, there you go. Look at the sentence breaks. Look at the sentence construction, look at the choice of words.
Writing is on instinct and there are times when you’re writing when something flows from way, way deep in the back of your limbic system and it comes out through your fingers and onto the screen. I’m assuming we’re all writing with a computer. If you can do it with the pen. I’m deeply impressed, but then it’s coming for your limbic system out through your fingers, through the pen and onto the page. That kind of thing doesn’t happen often. And the number of times that it survives into a final draft is probably counted on the fingers of one hand in any given book.
The rest of the time sentences are carved out of the living rock of your soul, word by word, concept by concept, thought, by thought, idea, by idea. And there’s probably eight or nine different ways that any given sentence could be constructed. And you have probably tried at least half a dozen of those. And so when you’re reading, have a look at why the sentences are the shape that they are because almost always a sentence is conveying information, but it’s conveying the frames, it’s conveying the emotional bedrock of the book. It’s conveying all of the multi systemic concepts that we draw in from this amazing miracle of black marks on a white page and turn into a living video in our head, which has, if it’s good, got sights and sounds and smells and tastes – and feeling both at a kinaesthetic level and at an internal, energetic, emotional and mental level. And all of that is achieved by the language that we use on the page.
And a subset of language, something to pay particular attention to – is dialogue. Particularly if we’re going to write something set in another place or another time. There are good ways of writing historical dialogue. And there are immensely bad ways. So for me, Andrew Taylor is one of the masters of absolutely glorious historical dialogue that feels real and yet doesn’t have all of the ghastly anachronisms that people slide in to prove that this is old style writing.
And one of the ways that Andrew does it is by the rhythm of the language, and another is by checking meticulously that every single word that hi people speak was in use at the time. He doesn’t use word that have evolved since then.
And language is consistently evolving. If you’re writing a book set in ancient Rome, you’re not writing it in ancient Latin or it’s in Britain, you’re not writing it in in pre Brythonic Gallic languages, whatever they were at the time.
But you can give a flavour of each of these places by the style of the words that you use, and by the rhythm and the construction of the sentences as the people are speaking. So as a subset of when you’re looking at language, really, really pay attention to the dialogue.
So by now, you’ve read this book three, four, maybe more times than that, and the more often you do this, the more you can condense it down until eventually, I think probably you could do it all in one read. I never have. When I find the books that I think are really, really good, I want to read them again and I want to unpick them because there’s always something new to learn from someone who’s done something that just blows your mind.
But that’s up to you, it depends on how much time you’re prepared to give to this. But I would do it at least once with a book that you like and do it at least once with a book that you really don’t like, which is a lot more painful, but you can go through books that perhaps have an incredibly good idea at their foundation, but that idea was executed, in your opinion, immensely badly. And it’s always a really interesting exercise of how would I have done this differently? What is it that makes this really not goo, that if it were given into the hands of someone brilliant could have been shaped into a book that I would want to read seven or eight times?
So that’s the first of the things that I would say about writing, and to be honest, if that’s the only one that you listen to, then that’s worth it. If we go on to the second, the next apprenticeship for writing… is writing, you will never write a book if you don’t actually sit down at some point in the day and put pen to paper or finger to keyboard.
And you don’t in the beginning have to be writing your magnum opus. There is a book called The Artist’s Way, which I believe is several decades old.
This is a book that encourages you to write three or four pages of free flowing text ever morning in a way that, first of all, nobody else is ever going to read it, and even you are not going to go back and reread it. So that takes a lot of the pressure off. You don’t have to craft fancy sentences. You don’t have to find clever dialogue You are finding out about yourself. You’re writing whatever is the truth for you in this moment. What is most alive for you now. And you’re getting yourself into a state where writing becomes something that you do. Because if that’s not the case, then you will never be a writer.
I did a writing course years ago when I was a baby writer. In fact, when I was still a vet, and all the people around me thought that writing was one of these incredibly weird hobbies like stamp collecting or Trainspotting or whatever. And I wanted to be amongst writers and I went to a place. It was a bit like the Arvon Foundation in Norfolk, and I went three or four years in a row and the first year Terry Pratchett was the tutor in the second year. It was Fay Weldon.
And one of the things that Terry Pratchett taught that he did was to write 500 words a day every day. And if he got to word number 324 and he got to the end of the book, he would start the next book in order to carry on for the next 100. whatever 70 something words.
I have never done that. That’s not the way that I work. But if you write 500 words a day every day, by the end of the year, you’ve got over 150000 words, which for most people is a pretty substantial book and 500 words a day is doable. It’s basically a page,400 words as a page, but 500 is close enough. So that kind of writing doesn’t take hours and hours out of your day. It’s not like climbing Everest. It’s not something where you over face yourself from the start. And I think that’s quite important. We have a tendency to think, first of all, that we have to understan the whole of the book before we start – and we’re going to get onto that in a bit because I absolutely don’t believe that t be true – and second, that we basically have to just sit down and write it and do nothing else until it’s done.
And some people do that. Ian Rankin and Lee Child are both people that I have listened to, sitting on a stage saying, ‘I shut myself away for six weeks and I just write. I do nothing else: 14 hours a day of writing, and at the end of it, I have the novel and I hand it in.’.
But these are both people with 20+ novels under their belts. And you can be sure that they didn’t start thinking about that novel the day they locked themselves away and sat down. They’ve thought through it and through it and through it for the whole of the yea before they sit down and start writing.
So that’s my key to writing. You have to actually write. In the beginning. It does not matter what you write, as long as you were writing and don’t write too much, don’t give yourself the feeling that you have to stare at a blank screen until your forehead bleeds and then produce 4000 words in your first day, and that they have to be good words because that’s a very fast way to set yourself up for internal catastrophe such that you will never want to come back and write again. It’s going to become a poisoned cue. And the thing about writing is it’s a joy. Another thing Terry Pratchett said was writing is the most fun anyone can have with their clothes on.
And he’s right. It’s extraordinarily inspiring and amazing and magical, and the process itself always leaves me filled with awe and wonder and a kind of dizzy, resilient, head-fizzing joy. But you’ve got to get to the point where it flows for that to happen, you’ve got to get into Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state and that takes practise. It probably doesn’t take 10000 hours, but it does take quite a bit of time. So give yourself that time, and don’t terrorise yourself until you’ve got to the point where writing is the thing that your whole being wants to do.
So let’s assume that you got there, you’ve done a lot of reading. You’ve done enough writing to get into flow state and you’re ready to write a novel or a film script or a screenplay or a song or a poem or whatever is there ready to just flow out of you onto the screen or the page.
The next question is how much planning? And if we deal with novels and I suspect film scripts, there are definitely two kinds of people: there are the planners and there are the ‘I really don’t want to plan thank you’. And I am definitely of the latter group. I really am not interested in writing a book where I know what happens, what would be the point?
But there are planners and they do very well. And you can, I think, if you read the novel several times, see the point where they picked up the next file card and read what the scene was about. And they write the scene and they tell you what’s going to happen and they tell you it as it’s happening and they tell you that it’s happened. And then they pick up the next file card and go on to the next one. And I think they’re unbelievably dull. But that doesn’t stop them selling by the bucket load and lots and lots of people want exactly that.
So if you want to plan, don’t let me stop you. But at the times when I talk to people who want to be novelists, the biggest sticking point seems to be ‘I don’t know exactly what happens in this book, and therefore I can’t start writing’. And I have never known exactly what happens in a book. And I’m just in the middle of book number 17. So it’s worked for me so far, and I think it can work for you.
What you need to know. If you haven’t got a structural plot, is what matters to your primary characters? Because then, the power in the book is going to come from their value systems: where they lead them and where the challenge points are.
Nobody reads the books – I don’t think even anybody writes books – where everything is sunny and happy and wonderful from the first bit of page one through to the end of the final page. Even children’s books have some kind of challenge in the middle. So, you need to know what that is.
The first time I really thought about this was with a book called No Good Deed. I changed from writing from first person to multiple third person. I changed from writing crime novels where the main protagonist was nothing to do with the security services (Big mistake) to third person and we’re in the Special Branch undercover. So I don’t need to worry about police procedure because that’s as far as I’m concerned, incredibly dull. And I can instead look at the two things I wanted to look at, which were the relationship between an adult woman and a young boy who was not her child, (apologies for the noise of the dog in the background) – and what would push a woman to kill?
And I knew a little tiny bit of her back history in Northern Ireland, and I knew that she was going to be pushed to the point where she had to protect this child and that to do so, the most obvious way to do it would be to kill someone. But I didn’t know she was going to do that or whether she was going to find a more creative way out. I genuinely had no idea. And That pretty much was the starting point and carried me through to 130000 words later when we find out actually what she does.
So you have to get to know the people. But again, you don’t have to know them right from the start. Any book is about building a relationship with a time and a set of assumptions and the people operating in that time with that set of assumptions and perhaps challenging them. And you can take the time and the luxury to get to know these people better exactly as your reader will be doing. And in the end, any book is like an iceberg: the reader gets to see the tiny fraction of the tip that’s above the surface of the water, and you, as the writer, know all of the rest that is supporting it underneath that they don’t need to see.
But that doesn’t mean you haven’t written it at some point. It just means that you’ve also gone back and edited it out. And I think following this down the line that you probably don’t even need to know exactly what the book is about when you start. I’ve never done that, but I have discovered nuances to the about-ness as I’ve gone through, and I’ve also abandoned some of the things that I think a book is about because it’s just too complicated.
And it could just be about relationship. If you’re listening to this because you want to come into Thrutopia, then I would suggest that the books or the scripts or the screenplays or whatever are going to be about our path from the present moment to a relatively near future – 5, 10, 15 years away – where that future feels fundamentally different, where the value system has changed radically. And it is the value system that shifts us from an acquisition system to a system where we value experience and each other. All of us writing in this genre are going to be finding ways to take our characters – and therefore our readers – from the present moment through what’s going to be quite a challenging set of experiences until this new system becomes dominant.
And so if that’s what your book is about, then you write that, but you’re going to have to have the situation and the nuances and the assumptions and the other colours of the book around it, because that in itself, is not enough to write by.
So this brings us to my fourth rule of writing, which. I was about to say it’s the biggest, but then of course, I think reading and writing and allowing your characters to evolve with you are big. But this one is also really important.
So, I have a belief that underpins everything that I do, which is you can do as much research into the logistics as you like – we in Thrutopia, we can bring in all of the experts to tell us how regenerative cities might look, how regenerative food and farming systems might work, how regenerative power might be generated, how the economy might work, all of the logistical stuff.
But we’re also going to have to find within ourselves the emotional resilience and the emotional intelligence of how it is to live in a new reality. And this is the key, I think. However much research you do, however many facts you gather, you can never write beyond the limits of your own emotional space.
But you can grow that space. And one of the ways to grow it is to read books by people who are already in slightly different spaces. They don’t necessarily have to be in the generative future that our hearts know is possible, but they have to be in different emotional spaces.
And this, I think, is one of the keys to reading and writing. Neil Gaiman gave a talk, 5, 10 years ago. I can’t remember exactly, where he had been talking to the people who planned prisons in the United States. Because if your prisons are private and a source of profit (which frankly, they should never be, but that’s a whole other conversation) then you need to have the right number of prison spaces. If you have too few, you don’t make enough money. If you have too many, then you have empty cells and you need to bribe judges to convict people to put into those cells.
And he asked them how they estimated the number, because you have to start the building projects quite a long time before you want to put the people in the cells. And they had a direct correlation between young men who read books and the numbers of people that they were going to incarcerate 10 or 15 years later. The more people read books, the fewer they needed to incarcerate.
Because books help to expand our empathy, they help us to extend our emotional literacy into spaces that we otherwise wouldn’t go. There is something about the magic of reading those black marks on a white screen or a white page and having to do the conversion in your head that takes you into the world of the people in the book that enables you to see things from other emotional viewpoints and with other emotional spectrums. And that’s so important in the process of reading and the process of whatever it is you’re going to write. Whether you’re planning or not planning, give your book the most emotional space that you can.
But also, and I think this is really important as we write for our Thrutopian futures, we need not to leave people behind. We need not to make emotional assumptions about whoever our readers are going to be because then we narrow ourselves down to a very, very tiny fraction of humanity. If people feel that we’re talking over their heads or that we’re pushing them into political spaces that they don’t already inhabit, then they’re not going to read the book. And then you spend a year of your life the blood, sweat and tears of hacking words out of the rock face of your brain, and nobody’s going to read them.
So you need a wide emotional palette, I think. And then paint with that palette as diversely as you possibly can. There are codas to this – there are codas, to everything. The coda to this is that sometimes you’re writing for the specific emotional that you know or that you want to reach, and that’s fine. If you’re writing for a small audience and you know that small audience, then go ahead and write for it. But if you want to gather a big audience, then you need to have the big emotional space.
So that was number four: big emotional palate. And number five kind of grows out of that, and this is something that Fay Weldon taught on the first of the seconds of the writing courses that I did in Norfolk that I mentioned and that was, ‘Find your own voice.’
And I think particularly the Artist’s Way writing helps with this when you’re just doing three or four pages in the morning and all you’re doing is writing for yourself and you’re never going to read it again. You’re just throwing words onto the page. Whatever you do, it needs to come from the core of who you are. It needs to be your voice out on the page. So this is something to take care of when you’re reading books that you really love is that you don’t internalise the language structures so much that you begin to try to write like somebody you admire.
That way leads to very, very stilted prose. You just need to write as the voice in your head speaks. Don’t pretty it up. Don’t try and do fancy alliteration. Don’t try and do amazing, wonderful metaphors or adjectival verbs or any of the fancy stuff that so impresses people in other books.
They will arise completely, naturally out of your voice. Or maybe not in which case that’s totally fine. What beginner writers often do is they go back over the first few pages, the first few chapters again and again and again and again trying to make them be fancy. And there is nothing more off-putting. Once you’ve been reading a bit, you’ll get to the point where you read the first paragraph of a book and you know if you want to read the rest. And if it has been chiselled to tiny pieces and put together again and re-chiseled and re-chiseled , you’re not going to want to read it. It’s like knitting that’s been knitted and pulled out, knitted and pulled out and knitted and pulled out. And in the end, the wool is so shredded that it just doesn’t hold any shape ever again. So I’m about to talk about editing, but don’t over-edit. Edit for a meaning. Don’t edit for language. Let your voice be your voice, and it will be fine.
So that brings us to point number six, which is editing. So let’s suppose you’re following the Terry Pratchett route and you are writing 500 words a day every day. That doesn’t mean that’s all you’re doing. You’re writing those 500 words new and then you are going back and checking the whole of the previous scene or the whole of the previous set of scenes for coherence and sense. Because the stuff that arises, particularly if you’re in flow state and it’s coming straight out of your limbus and flowing onto the page may make perfect sense in the moment, but the chances of it making sense tomorrow are pretty small.
So unless you’re Lee Child, where your first draft is, your only draft, then each day you’re going to go back and go and check what you wrote yesterday for sense. You’re not checking it to pretty up the language, you’re checking it to say, Does this say what? I need it to say? And if not, is there a way of saying it more clearly? And that might mean I need to give a bit of background. I need to show everybody a little bit more of the iceberg that I know is there because I’m making assumptions that are logical leaps that nobody else might be able to follow.
Or it’s I’ve massively overwritten this. I’ve taken 18 sentences and actually I could cut out 17 of them and it would make far more sense. And the great defect of having word processors that give you a word count is how incredibly painful it is to take your word count and cut it by six or seven thousand words because you realise you just didn’t need those scenes.
Editing is painful and absolutely necessary. So edit and edit and edit and edit, and in the end, even in the first draft, which is the one that you hand to your agent or your editor thinking, ‘Hey, I’ve polished this perfect perfection. They’re going to just hand this straight to the copy editors. It’s going to be wonderful.’ (Trust me, you actually don’t really want that to happen, but everybody thinks they do) That first draft has been edited and edited and edited and edited. And yes, I realise I am contradicting myself slightly. There comes a point in the editing when the balance of the sentence, the position of the semicolons, the choice of verbs, the choice of actual language does become important. But you have to have the strength of understanding of the foundations of your own voice first. And trust that. And please don’t try and pretty it up. Everybody will see the metaphor that you thought was clever and a good editor will take it out, and it’s much less painful if you take it out first. Let the writing evolve from the sense and then it will be beautiful in its own right.
So then the next bit talking a beautiful writing is who do you share this with? And this is really hard, because particularly if you’re beginning, particularly if you belong to a writing group, the tendency is to want to share it with people. And maybe this is just me, but I find that, if I want to share something with somebody, it’s because there are two competing parts of me and the still small voice that actually knows about writing somewhere deep in my limbus is going, ‘What you wrote today is actually a complete heap of nonsense and you are going to have to undo it all tomorrow and rewrite it completely differently. Sorry.’.
And there’s another book going. Yeah, but if I showed this to fill in the blank, my agent, my publisher, my partner, my friends, my writing group, they’ll tell me it’s fine and then I won’t have to do that and it’ll be a lot less painful.
And guess what? The still small voice deep in your limbus is right. And by the time you slept on it and woken up and lain in bed and thought about it for a while, you’re going to know that and you’re going to come back and you’re going to unpick it and start again. As soon as I finish recording this, that is exactly what I’m going to do. I wrote 3000 words yesterday. At least two and a half thousand of those are going to go. But what they did was teach me something of what needs to happen in this particular scene and then I can structure the scene completely differently in a way that makes it a lot less dull and pedantic and utterly uninteresting, and can give it some life and some verve and come at it from an angle that is alive. There is nothing else to say about that.
So, if you find sharing genuinely useful, then do it. But do it sparingly and do it, I would suggest, when you think you are at the stage where it’s ready and finished. And then be prepared to listen to the people who will tell you that it’s not. And if you already have an agent and a publisher, then they are the people to share it with. If you have, other people, beta readers that you genuinely trust, then go with it. But a book is not a committee. There is the old adage of a camel is a horse created by committee. And books created by committee. I think, first of all, are screamingly obvious. And second, are not really very good. So, in the process of finding an agent and an editor, and I will come to that later if we have time, you want the people that you trust so that if somebody says basically you have to throw away half this book and start again (which is what happened with both Into the Fire and Treachery of Spies) you’re prepared to do that because you trust them.
And however much you want to think that this book is finished and ready and can just go straight off to publishing. If they say, ‘No, I’m really sorry, it’s not.’ Then you listen and you go back and you do the rewrite. And we went to 12 drafts of Into the Fire in 17 of Treachery. So a minor thing here is don’t try and write dual timeline novels as your first thing because it’s incredibly hard to get the two timelines so that somebody has to read them both. That takes a lot of work, and it takes editors who really know what they’re doing to help you do it.
But the rest of the time, share with care and share with people that you trust and then be prepared for them to say no, throw it all away and start again and then do it.
And that’s one of the minor advantages, I think of working on a computer. Actually, it is a major advantage – is, nothing’s ever gone. And if you decide in your process of completely rewriting that there was a scene somewhere in the middle of Chapter Six halfway down that actually worked and that would work in the new, but you can go and cut it and bring it, and it’ll all still be there. One of the many advantages actually writing on a screen, but not by hand, but if you want to write by hand, please don’t let me stop you.
So the next bit in all of this rewriting is to be aware that the first draft is you telling yourself the story, particularly if you’re not a planner, but even if you are a planner, please let your characters surprise you. Let them take on a life of their own. Let them have needs and wants that you had not first imagined. It will make for a much more lively book, that will surprise the readers and people like being surprised as long as you’re not taking all of their world assumptions and completely destroying them in front of their face.
George Orwell got to the end of the first draught of, I think, 1984 and wrote a letter to his publishers saying, ‘First draft is done. Now the real work begins.’ So let your first draft be that. It’s you getting to know the people and the place and the events, and then you can begin to polish it, so that it all makes coherent sense. So that if necessary, you can go back and fill in bits of people’s back histories so that how they act and why they behave the way they behave makes full sense to the reader. Why your people do what they do is what matters in any novel. Far more than all the logistical research that people seem to think. They absolutely have to get right. And you do have to get it right.
If you’ve got a horse in there and you want to say there’s lots of snow and you say snow up to the fetlocks, as I read in a book once – you just didn’t go and read enough horse anatomy or ask anyone who knows anything because the fetlocks aren’t very far off the ground. So you do need to know the stuff that you’re talking about. That definitely is a thing, but it’s the actions of your people, how they arise within them, why they do the things they do. That’s what matters. And your first draft is you finding that out? And then you can go back and make absolutely sure that everything that happens is coherent within the realities of whatever it is you’re writing.
And then let’s assume you’ve got your novel or your screenplay or whatever else finished. There are so many ways to get these out into the world now. I still think that an agent is an incredibly useful thing, and partly I think this because way back when I was a very baby writer in the mid-90s, I was invited to a publishing dinner in London in the days when I lived in Cambridge and London was more easily accessible. And I sat between two editors who talked across me as if I wasn’t there as often happens. And the one on the left said to the one on the right, ‘We were about to sign a contract and then he went and got an agent.’ And the one on the right said, ‘Oh, bad luck.’ And at that moment, I realised that an agent is a really very good thing for a writer to have.
And publishers are lovely people and building really good relationships with your publisher is a very important part of what you’re doing. But they are business people and your agent is the person who goes out and negotiates business with them to let you build personal relationships so that when your editor phones you up and goes, you realise you’re going to have to throw half this book away, it’s not a business decision, it’s a writing decision. And you can take it at that level.
Finding agents is hard. There are lots of different ways. The tried and tested way is to get a copy of ‘The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’ or whatever is the equivalent in your nation, read the agents who are taking submissions in the field you’re writing and then find out how they want their submissions offered.
Please don’t write to anyone who says they’re not taking any submissions because it does mean they’re not. And even the ones who are, are going to get literally hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts. So yours needs to stand out. You need a really short, clear covering letter that explains in one paragraph what the book’s about, in another paragraph why you are the only person in the world who could possibly have written this, and why all of the publishers and the Sunday magazines and the blogs and everything else are going to love you. And then where you think it’s going to fit on the bookshelf. And almost everybody thinks that their book is unique and it’s not really a crime novel, and it’s not really a fantasy, and it’s not quite historical, and it’s maybe a little bit literary, a little bit of a romance. And so it’s going to fit somewhere in the middle of all those – and guess what? -that doesn’t work. It doesn’t work on Amazon, and it doesn’t work in bookshops. You can cross genres and you can mix genres if you’re very,very clever, and very, very good and you will read books that have achieved that, but you won’t read very many.
If we’re writing Thrutopia novels, I think we are going to have to create a new genre. It may be. We’re going to have to set up a whole new publishing house. I don’t think so, but we’ll see. But they’re going to have to very clearly be that, and it’s going to have to become, I don’t know, a subset of the ghastly named CliFi, which is climate fiction. But it’s not dystopian. That’s the entire point. It’s ways through that are actually from here to there.
So that’s your letter to your agent. You can send to multiple agents and then you wait six weeks, and if you’ve heard nothing, you nudge them gently and then if you hear nothing, you carry on and find another.
And then it’s up to your agent to find a publisher. That’s the good news. If you decide you don’t want an agent or you want to self-publish, then my only possible advice is that you get on the internet and you search other people who’ve done that because that’s not the route that I was lucky enough to take. So it’s not a field that I know anything about. So not even going to attempt to tell you about it.
Either way, my very last piece of advice is: take lots of walks. Go out into the wildest places that you can find. Places where you are not going to bump into other people. If you want to get a dog so that you have an excuse to be there, that can help. But go out and just walk and let your mind go into the world of the book and see what happens. Let yourself be surprised by what you’re creating and then come back and find the absolute sheer, unadulterated joy in writing it down in ways that will help other people to live the world that you’ve inhabited. What better way to pass a day could there be?
So that’s it. That’s my basics. So now, having listened to all of that, you can come in Thrutopia, come along to Thrutopia.life. See what’s there and then come and join the conversation. We need the widest range of people that we can get so that the conversation pushes all of our emotional boundaries so that we get to understand the world from other eyes.
Then, we can write the world from other eyes, and we can begin to create a future that will actually work.
You may also like these recent podcasts
We all know the climate and ecological tipping points are terrifyingly close. What can we do – as individuals and collectively?
This week we talk to Simon Oldridge, who is working to find politically viable ways to address the climate and ecological emergency. I know that many of you listening are not in the UK but I hope that some of the ideas we explore, particularly the bigger ones of global power systems and routes to net zero and nature-based solutions, strike home far outside the boundaries of this island.
We are at a moment of decision: are we ready to claim our birthright as the Interstitial Generation between the old paradigm of extraction, consumption and pollution—and the new one that could arise where we accept the interbecoming of all things, where we as individual humans take our place in a community of care and experience that encompasses all of the world?
How can we, as parents, grandparents and anyone who cares about the fate of future generations, live our lives in such a way that when our children ask us why we didn’t do more, we can say with honesty that we did all that we could? How do we help them to build resilience, to feel safe in a supportive community and in connection with the natural world so that as they grow, they can face the truth about the world they have inherited?
And how can we use our role as parents to create conversations that matter, not only with people with meet in our daily lives but also with those in positions of power.
How much do you know about AI, blockchain and Web 3.0? If you’re like us, the answer is probably very little. But these techs are going to change our world out of all recognition and while there is the potential for catastrophe, in the right hands, the same technology has the potential to help us shape the future we’d all be proud to leave behind and this is what this podcast is about.
STAY IN TOUCH
For a regular supply of ideas about humanity's next evolutionary step, insights into the thinking behind some of the podcasts, early updates on the guests we'll be having on the show - AND a free Water visualisation that will guide you through a deep immersion in water connection...sign up here.
(NB: This is a free newsletter - it's not joining up to the Membership! That's a nice, subtle pink button on the 'Join Us' page...)