I wrote an article on this four years ago, barely a year into writing, just after I’d finished the draft of my first novel. In my unrestrained neophyte enthusiasm, I offered fourteen suggestions, which I will reassess shortly.

But first, an update on the novel that filled me with such plentiful advice for the rest of the world: it didn’t get published. So here’s one-hundred thousand words, and here’s some petrol, now where are my matches?

(Click on PDF icon, upper right, if you prefer to read this as black print on a white background)

I did get an offer on it, from a small publisher. But a voice nagged at me: the novel probably isn’t good enough, and, this small publisher seems to be trying to do too much with too little. I was right, on both counts. I haven’t actually read the novel in a few years, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t good enough. And that small publisher? Folded last year. Took on too many authors, had hardly any time for editorial oversight on the books commissioned, or for promotion. Whirling, whirling into the abyss of this industry. Bullet dodged.

So my advice on writing a novel #15: Don’t be desperate.

I’ve written three more novels since. The second was an ambitious political science fiction novel set in Colorado, a searing critique of oligarchy and Ayn Randian thought, that, if released, would have been a perfectly timed critique of the Trump regime.

The only problem: It fucking sucked.

Blasted into orbit by a beta reader not at all disinclined to tell me how it is. He told me.

So, advice #16: Find trustworthy beta readers capable of stopping you from humiliating yourself.

This isn’t to say these novels couldn’t be resuscitated (the first could not, though I think the second could, if I re-wrote the first half). If I’m honest, this probably won’t happen. It does seem an awful waste of time and intellectual energy, throwing two manuscripts into the dumpster, though I suppose these two failed attempts made me a better writer and blah blah blah fuck off.

The third novel I wrote was good. I nailed it. I played to my strengths: science fiction noir set in Southeast Asia. I pitched it as Blade Runner meets Goodfellas. I still like that pitch. The agent I tried it on also liked it, a lot. That was 18 months ago, and he’s still trying to sell it, so maybe I shouldn’t be saying too much here.

Just this: the agents are the new gatekeepers. The major publishers now rarely, if ever, have open submissions. So if you want to go big (and I do) the traditional route still has the highest hit rate for decent money. I discuss the agent-acquiring process here.  In short: you’ll need an agent if you want to sell a novel outside of Australia, it’s really fucking hard to get one, and they still might not sell it anyway.

The fourth novel is done, printed out, and ready to be given to my long-suffering number one beta reader, my wife. Ernest Hemingway said: the first draft of everything is shit. So it is a special kind of torture, I think, to give someone all of one’s first drafts. But this I have, and for that am eternally grateful (see point #5, below).

I’d observe, #17: Maintaining a character’s voice is hard. Over 90,000 words I had to keep at least six key characters, from four different cultures, consistent. This time around I blu-tacked every major and semi-major character on the wall around my writing desk, so I could remind myself of their background, way of speaking, physical attributes, all that. They’ve been up for close to two years and I want to tear the damn things down. Nearly. Just four beta-readers and two edits to go. Then the agent. Then one more edit. Fuck.

At some point I’ll do a check for #18: Overused words / phrases. Various free apps out there can do this for you. All writers tend to use particular sets of words as a crutch, sometimes out of laziness, sometimes subconsciously. Weird ones will stick out and often annoy the reader (Richard Morgan overuses ‘fractionally’ which really gets on my tits), while other ones usually represent bad writing (such as the overuse of ‘that’, I word I inevitably search for at the end of whatever I’ve written, and set about excising).

For my own amusement, I did a quick swear-check in the latest manuscript:

shit – 38 times

cunt – 27 times

fuck – there are too many results to show here

It’s a gangster novel, so this feels about right.

The fourteen points I made last time:

1) Write every eay. Truer than ever. I still write every day except Sundays (though sometimes I will write even on the sabbath after everyone else has gone to bed). Still do five hundred words per day, minimum, which gets me to about 150,000 a year. I’ve done this each of the four or so years I’ve been writing. This includes articles for this blog, and yes, I include background notes for novels and short stories, but mostly, those words are good words, for fiction.

On the question of when to write, many writers will advise: do your own thing – I’m okay and you’re okay. I don’t. Because it’s bullshit. I’m not okay, and you’re probably not either. Whatever your rituals of creative output, discipline and hard work are essential for anyone who a) wants to make a living and b) doesn’t have a parent working in acquisitions for a major publisher. I don’t know a single successful writer who doesn’t have a strong work ethic.

2) Listen to everyone. Yep, sure. Join a writer’s circle, build a set of readers you can trust, and listen to them. But this always leads on to 3) Listen to yourself. Often, you’ll get advice from a very talented writing friend, which nonetheless doesn’t feel right. I always put aside a short story or novel after receiving feedback in order to let the criticisms settle in. The period of time is usually proportional to the length of the work and the harshness of the criticisms, so anything from three days to three months. Seven stages of grief: however long it takes to get to acceptance of what has been said.

As time goes on, I’ve tended to rely on my own judgement more and more. I know some experienced writers who no longer even use beta readers, but rather just submit straight to their publisher / agent. I’ll never get to that point, I think, as I prefer a diverse (culturally and socially) range of views on my work before it goes somewhere more official, but I’ve certainly relied on a lower quantity of crits as time has gone on.

4) Write short stories. Four years ago I argued, as a novelist, there were four reasons to write short stories: “…learning to use language economically, learning to submerse the reader immediately in a rich and textured new world, and to efficiently portray characters with depth. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the dramatically shortened cycle of write-edit-critique-edit-submit-rejection for the short story does in a month what normally takes more than a year with a novel.”

Still good advice.

5)  Don’t get cranky at your partner when they critique your work. I really need to remember this one.

6) Exercise every day. Yep, still do this. Great for mood and concentration.

Sub-point: If you write a lot of fight scenes, like me, consider taking up martial arts. I did, a little over a year back. I found a school with no psychos, family friendly. I go there with my son, we both love it, I’m fitter, and I’m also better at writing believable fight scenes.

7) Red widely and well. I mean, duh. You’ll hear this, and the ‘write every day’ advice, pretty much from all good writers. I aim for 40 – 50 books a year, and read primarily outside the science fiction genre.

8) Get out of the house or apartment. Talking to humans, in person, is good for one’s mental state. Fresh air, nature – I find all that bullshit insipid; nonetheless, some of my best thinking comes from trudging through the bush, trying to get my daily exercise.

9) Disconnect from the Internet completely at least once per week. I still do this, and have been trying to do it more during work hours. I have one of those focus tools that blocks a range of websites if I’m on them (singly or collectively) for more than ten minutes between 10am and 8pm.

There is a secondary point here to be made about social media. There is a growing body of evidence that shows it has a negative effect on mood. We also know Facebook has a strategy of identifying and catering to one’s prejudices, and of locking people into political bubbles. Clickbait that conforms to one’s world view is far more likely to be clicked, after all.

I don’t think a bubble is a good place to write a novel.

Related, point #10) Don’t shout at people on social media. Stepping back from Facebook and Twitter made me realise, among other things, how much time other writers spend on both. On my Facebook page, for example, perhaps 20 per cent of my friends are writers, the rest from the aid industry, school, all that. Yet, writers always account for nine of the first ten posts when I open the page.

This is even with me carefully clicking the “I want to see less of this” button every fucking time I get on. I can’t help but conclude, a) these people are not writing enough, and b) sharing way too fucking much.

11) Don’t, in the initial excitement that comes with finishing a novel, send it to a publisher too early. Yeah. See above.

12) Same goes for short stories. Not sure why I included this point the first time, but sure, agree.

13) Live in Ha Noi. Oh yeah. What a wonderful three years. Would go back, easily. Actually, the just-finished manuscript is set in Ha Noi (I returned to Australia about two years ago); the experience has worked itself through my creative system.

Hmm. Does the last sentence sound like I’m talking about pooping? Fine. I ate up my Vietnam experience and pooped out a novel.

14) Love what you do. Yeah, cheers Einstein. Not sure why I included this the first time around, presumably because there seems to be a large number of writers in the community who complain incessantly about the field.

I’d add this: write your passions. Political, environmental, military, sexual, whatever. Again, seems obvious, but my there’s a lot of writers out there who seemed passionate about nothing bar their own careers.

Coming from aid, a really tough field filled with extraordinarily committed people, brings with a range of concerns I naturally put into my work (along with copious fistfights and hallucinatory weirdness, as the need arises). Passion gives the work a beating heart.

That’s it, I suppose. Other than this: #19) Writing a novel is really. Fucking. Hard. I don’t mean simply typing ninety thousand words end to end. A lot of people do this, chuck it up on Amazon, and hey, I’m a novelist. I mean a coherent set of words, with believable characters, a readable storyline, adequate dialogue, and plot strands that go somewhere. Shit. Fucking hard.

It occurs to me now I need one more to make twenty. To this end: (it doesn’t hurt to) Learn the basics. I didn’t. I never took a course, never went to a workshop, never read a book on how to write a novel. Never learned about the three act structure, all that, which is why I haven’t included any such recommendations here. Personally, I think a lifetime as a voracious reader teaches these lessons, and right from the start I was structuring short stories and novels correctly, without realising what ‘correct’ was.

However, it wouldn’t have hurt to know these things in advance. It doesn’t hurt to know the theory, to think about where one’s work conforms to narrative norms, and where it deviates.

That’s it. I’d really rather this column was: How to Sell Your First Novel. Hopefully I’ll get there soon.

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