Introduction Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four
They Don’t Write Themselves You Know!
The book proposal you have just read is exactly how a writer should present their work, every time. From now onwards you should only ever use a neat and clean font like Times or Arial and in black. All submissions should also be presented with 1.5 line spacing. Nothing screams amateur or first time submission quite like bold pink or dingbats or any other ‘attention seeking’ tactic. Keep it plain, readable and professional, although you can include illustrations if they are good enough. Finally, you do not have to spend much time editing as all publishers have their own editors anyway. They are not looking for the odd miss-spelt word or misplaced comma; they are looking for content and saleability. It is not an English exam. I have a friend who has spent over 10 years editing and re-editing his story and I keep reminding him that a commissioning editor doesn’t want to see the whole manuscript at this stage anyway, they only want a half hour read to see if the idea is saleable. If it is then they will ask for more samples or perhaps the whole manuscript. Get the idea down, get it submitted and get on with something else. The days of labouring over your story, and perfecting it before presenting the whole thing to a publisher, have long passed.
Although there are no right and wrong ways to actually write a book, no rules and regulations, there are tips, techniques and definitely things to avoid, at all costs, that will reveal your manuscript to be an amateur attempt at first glance. To begin with then, start by setting aside some of your free time every day and a chose a regular workplace. The discipline of writing has to come first, actually sitting down and writing, rather than carrying a story around in your head and waiting for the right moment of inspiration to hit you like a thunderbolt. Hoping you will then sit down and the whole thing will come pouring out, is not the way a professional writer approaches their projects. Books are never written like that, or very rarely are. (American Beat writer Jack Kerouac claimed that his classic novel On The Road was written in only ten days, a claim that prompted Truman Capote’s classic remark, ‘that isn’t writing, that’s typing.’)
Instead books take craft, discipline and concentration over a very long period of time. You may only have time to write for a few hours every day but try not to miss a writing session, even if it is only every other day. Routine is far more important and valuable to a writer than inspiration. Actually getting on with the writing is how and when the complete story will emerge. This can be the fun part. But be prepared to re-write, cut, cancel and change anything, but don’t delete anything completely. Keep all unused passages in a separate file full of ideas and notes. They may work perfectly at a later stage in a part, or scene, that, as yet, hasn’t even been thought of. This is the craft of writing. If you are in your writing space, both physically and mentally, then you do not have to look for inspiration. If it knows where you are and at what time you will be there, then it will find you.
In the first place you need to have done some research and read anything you can, fact or fiction, about the subject or story that is being considered. Start by writing a 2000 word outline explaining the characters and the story line. There doesn’t have to be a snappy beginning or surprising ending at this stage but you will have to have the basic story. A great way to get stated, with a blank page in front of you, is to describe the setting for your novel and make it feel real. Is it set in Boston between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day? Is it set on the moon in the year 2050 or is it historic? Is it a western? Write down the dates, the location and anything else descriptive, such as the house, the school or hospital. Describe what you can see and all of these passages can be dropped into the story at the correct place later on, so they will not be wasted words. Secondly, describe your characters and give them authentic international names. All of this preparation can be the most enjoyable part.
Cowboys, for example, are not called Mzeki or Dennis. Victorian nurses are not called Kylie or Zoe. Write a description of the characters and bring them alive in both your imagination and upon the page. Decide who likes who and who are in conflict with each other as you create them. Perhaps they will appear later in the story instead of from the very beginning. Be careful not to over elaborate here but within a few sessions your characters and their environment will be taking shape. You will have a clearer idea of who and where they are, even if you are still not sure what exactly they are going to be doing together. That will come during later writing sessions too.
Once you have your characters, a date and a setting established you can begin by writing a book review of your own planned book. Imagine the Sunday Times writing one next year, after it has been published. A good reviewer should be able to understand the entire story line and highlight the key components in between one and two thousand words. If a writer can do that before actually starting then they know they have a book waiting to be written. Whether it is any good or not remains to be seen but a writer will be able to understand enough of their own story to begin crafting the central theme, chapters, plots and sub plots.
Do some characters never meet each other and only exist alongside each other, affecting each other’s lives without any awareness of doing so? Are they lovers who are affecting each others lives deliberately, for the better or worse? A writer needs to have the general story established before writing and, once they do, each scene, chapter and event can be written as the inspiration or ideas present themselves. If the ideas are flowing then note them down and develop them later. That makes starting the next writing stage very easy. In some cases you will be racing home from work because you know exactly what you are going to be writing and can’t wait to start, even if it is a funeral scene.
Connecting scenes together can come later. It may be late in the story when it becomes obvious that the funeral scene, for example, should be the opening chapter. Or it may be better as the last scene. It doesn’t matter at this stage where it will end up in the storyline, as long as it is written. From this early work your book will begin to take shape. It will open up in front of you and more ideas, plots, twists and turns will become apparent, if not obvious. Start writing; don’t wait for that killer opening line because you don’t need one until the end. Regular routine is the only way a book will be written. No excuses, no cop outs. Be in your writing space at the same time every day and be working on something. Anything.
Ten Things to Avoid with a Passion
1. Never start with a prologue or a preface. Setting the entire scene in advance is lazy and, instead, the story should be told through the dialogue and narrative.
2. Never ever start with a dream, where your lead character wakes up in a cold sweat with a premonition or a determination to prevent the dream becoming reality. Readers feel cheated when this is revealed at the end of the first chapter, however well written it is, to find out that none of it was real. Publishers don’t feel cheated; they wearily toss it in the bin.
3. Do not spend too much time explaining the ‘important story’ and trying to make sure the reader, agent or publisher doesn’t miss the point. Scatter it around throughout the storyline and don’t dump it all in at once. Reading through ‘background information’ is not what a reader wants. If a writer feels as though the reader couldn’t possibly misunderstand something then they have probably gone too far. Give your reader some credit. After all, they paid for it, so assume they understand you.
4. Keep descriptions as short as possible. Endless pages describing the sunset, or city, or lead characters are boring and unnecessary. The central character or location should appear often enough for a thorough description anyway. For example this line could appear halfway through a story. ‘Dan sat back and rolled a joint, as he often did when he was nervous.’ So now we know Dan also likes to smoke weed at certain times and we didn’t need to know that in the first page along with everything else about him.
This is character redevelopment and the reader likes to learn more about their favourite characters as they go along. The final line could be a surprising revelation. ‘And so, with great consideration and a steady nerve, Dan decided this was the right time to tell his wife he has been gay since he was sixteen years old.’ Now, ok, that might not seem to be a great last line because the reader will want to know how she reacted to the news. But, in the context of the story, it may be a great last line. What if she already knew and he was unaware of that?
5. Attract your reader’s imagination but keep it simple and easy. Fewer words are better and long sentences are not always dramatic. You want the reader to see the characters and setting in their heads and be keen to know what happens on the next page. Just tell them a story but only use words you yourself would use. As often as possible, you want the reader to think, ‘I didn’t see that one coming.’
6. Always write with imaginary readers sitting at your shoulder. There is no point in writing hoping nobody will ever read it, so pre-empt them. Imagine what your husband or mother might think when they read your sex scene. Imagine what your children or nephew and nieces will think when they read your drugs scene. But never sanitise it, ever. Just be aware of the likely reaction and this is a good way to self edit, as you write. Imaginary readers of any age and sex are the best critics in the world whilst the writer is writing. At that point they are the only critics.
7. Take your time. Do not rush into the main plot, build up to it. A writer may not even discover it until they get there anyway. It depends on the content of the story but if, for example, it is about a powerful businessman who has an affair with his secretary, gets caught, divorced and then fired (cheesy I know) then don’t start with his schooldays, start with his wedding day, or the day the new secretary started work.
8. Dialogue can go on for too long. There is nothing wrong with dialogue, the more the better, but break it up with narrative. There is nothing worse than a three page conversation between two characters.
9. Decide whether to write in the third person as an observer or in the first person as a narrator. Then stick to it. You can’t do both.
10. Don’t repeat yourself or refer to the past too often. Keep moving the story forwards, at pace. But take your time about it. Remember, it will take a writer ALL DAY to write what can be read in ten minutes. That’s about three pages of a book or one thousand words.
Opening lines are very important but you don’t need one in order to get started. It may appear out of the blue as part of a later chapter. Great opening lines are priceless but avoid the obvious, be original. ‘It was a dark and stormy night,’ is probably all that will be read of your proposal. And a commissioning editor will not go much further than, ‘Dan woke in a cold sweat,’ or ‘as they sat watching the beautiful African sunset’ etc. Think about it and pick up as many books as you can, especially the classics, and read the opening lines.
Ten Famous Opening lines
- The Village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’ In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
- It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of compassion only. A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens.
- Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins.
- In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona, the day before I joined the militia, I saw an Italian militiaman standing in front of the officer’s table. Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell.
- He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway.
- I was born in 1914 in a solid, three-storey, brick house in a large Midwest city. Junky – William Burroughs.
- I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. On The Road – Jack Kerouac.
- We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson.
- My Mother died today. Or it may have been yesterday; I can’t be sure. Albert Camus – The Stranger
- I was not at all curious about who she was, but rather took her for granted at once. Franz Kafka – The Trial
As a Writer is Working – Structure and balance
Once you have organised your files, opened a Working Draft file, a New Ideas File and Research Material File and, armed with knowledge we have, it is time to address the elephant in the room and begin writing. Open the page and list the five or six main themes of your book. In under two thousand words a writer should be able to outline their book idea sufficiently for anybody else to understand it, especially a commissioning editor. If there is more than one idea then outline the others too. It is a start to work that will prove useful later on. Once the outline, or synopsis is complete read it back, possibly out loud, and consider these questions.
1. Is it balanced? If you have written 1500 words outlining four main areas then you should have around 350 on each, not 1000 on one and 500 shared between the other three topics.
2. Is it clear? Does it read nicely, are you explaining your idea?
3. Is it true? If your examples (non-fiction) are simply lifted from the internet then your publisher will probably realise this. If not now then somewhere along the line they will. If they find out after publication and somebody from the other side of the world says, ‘hey, I wrote that on my web page five years ago, word for word,’ then you are in big trouble. Don’t think you can do that.
4. Is it useful information? (again non-fiction)
5. Is it entertaining? If the writer doesn’t enjoy reading their material back to themselves, then it is quite likely no-body else will either. If you have created something fabulous then you will never tire of reading it. If it bores you, the writer, then it is not fabulous. Now, to clarify that; I am sure Paul McCartney doesn’t sit around all day listening to Beatles records, but I suspect he doesn’t turn over when they come on the car radio either and say to himself, ‘I am bored of hearing that.’ He won’t be.
If the answer is yes to all of the above questions then you are off to a good start. Begin a writing routine and keep to it, even if it is only for an hour a day at this stage. It is surprising how the words start mounting up even if a writer only has time for two hundred a day. With a regular routine even that small amount will give you around 3000 words within two weeks and by then, an idea will be taking shape. Carry a note pad and make notes, jot down thoughts and suggestions all the time, everywhere you go, because interesting ideas arrive at all sorts of odd times. Driving home, at the cinema, a chance comment by a friend in a restaurant or even over hearing somebody who is not even talking to you are all a possible sources of inspiration. In fact, everything a writer does is, as long as they are tuned in and the radar is switched on.
Always read through the previous session’s work before beginning a new session, or as part of that new session. It is surprising how daily self editing can improve writing skills and strengthen stories. For example, if a writer only targets themselves two hundred words a day then editing the last session’s work could easily add another two hundred and that’s the new session done, finished. Be patient and try to remember the golden rule; Keep It Simple. Don’t try to be clever, resist the urge to show those imaginary readers behind you how clever you are. And only use words you yourself would use in a conversation.
Just explain and entertain. Tell the story in a simple voice as you would explain it to a friend and release the emotions as you would naturally. The joy, humour, the sadness, regrets. By keeping their prose simple and believable writers usually find that their readers then believe them, and that is a very good thing. Finally, avoid localising anything apart from the environment (obviously), Mention Cape Town by all means but avoid apartheid, segregation, politics and forget all about local slang words apart from during the dialogue, conversations between people. Other than that it should be Standard English for everybody to understand!
Is something I don’t believe in. Poor tortured souls staring painfully at their page waiting for inspiration? Just start writing anything down. I see this as connecting the brain to the fingers. Although a good way of getting started each day is by leaving the final sentence of yesterday’s word count unfinished. That means that when a writer starts work on a new session they are already in the middle of something. Self editing the previous session also helps a writer to get started again. But just get started, because they don’t write themselves. Somebody, in this case you, has to write it, whatever it is. In the worst case scenario researching a subject will help get a scene or passage going again, or perhaps write an email to an imaginary friend explaining what you were doing with your story yesterday and then, obviously, don’t send it.
Sometimes just writing a diary helps to connect the brain with the fingers and the words soon flow, if you have the discipline to show up for work, sit down and write in the first place. It doesn’t matter even if the pages you end up with are unusable. Professional writers have files full of unused material dating back, in my case, twenty years. Sometimes I scroll through some old work and embarrass myself with how bad it is. Writing improves writers and constant practice really does pay off. Write something every day and you will soon be looking back on the old work and feel equally embarrassed by how bad it is but, encouraged by how much better you are.
When working on a long project, such as a commissioned 70,000-word book, there will definitely be days when you just can’t face opening up the page and I experience this regularly. But this is not writer’s block, this is bone idleness. Right now we are 15970 words into this book and I am at home here in Cape Town. It is around 2pm and there is nothing I would like more than to go out into the sunshine or sit back with a glass of wine and read something else for the rest of the afternoon. But here I am, finishing what I have started. I read an article yesterday on the CNN website (or something) reporting that National Novel Writing Month was in full swing again. Writers had been challenged to complete a 50,000 word novel during the month and that last year, the report happily confirmed, of the 120,000 who entered nearly 30,000 completed the challenge. But what that really reveals to me is that 90,000 writers out of 120,000, three quarters of them, did exactly what I want to do right now, which is to open a bottle of something, sit in an armchair and be bone idle. But I am still here.
Whilst that outcome is a very familiar one to me, I suppose the website’s enthusiasm should be understood because it means that nearly 30,000 of the writers did complete the job and they should all be applauded for that, whoever won it. It proved that 30,000 of them were also still working whilst the rest went to the pub, even if they were only plodding along with a low word count. But, there does come a point for all writers where enough is enough and the day is over. If a writer can no-longer concentrate and explain what it is they are trying to articulate for others then it is time to stop, take a break, re-read their work with a critical eye, start editing and then be ready to begin again the following day.
This week’s assignment
Re-write the notes for chapter four (above) in your own words. No less than 500 words and no more than 1500 words. This is a useful exercise as it will re-focus on the chapter and help develop an explanatory style and a discipline for work. Try not to do it all on Sunday afternoon. Try to set aside an hour a day, every day, and aim for around 250 words during each session. Finally, dream up ten captivating opening lines. It could be absolutely anything at all. Open with dialogue ‘Oh my gosh, that’s massive,’ exclaimed Melanie, as the UPS driver handed over her parcel. Or narrative, ‘The look upon Melanie’s face as she was handed the parcel by the UPS driver is hard to describe. She certainly hadn’t been expecting any deliveries.’ Have fun with it and invent ten very different opening lines of your own. Be as imaginative or as cheeky as you like, just make them good and then tell somebody so that you can see their reaction. It’s all part of the process.
Opening lines for fun. (That I just made up)
‘Kill the White’s’ screamed the poster that had recently been pasted at the bus station. Mr and Mrs White hurried away when they saw it.’
‘How about next Tuesday? That could be a good day for what you have in mind.’
No-body could imagine the scale of relief the entire community felt when the news was first announced.
Nobody imagined the level of panic that would set in. And people change when they panic.
‘You want to put what, where?’ asked the nervous minister.
‘If you think that is going to make any difference then go ahead. But don’t say I haven’t warned you.’
As the boat pulled into the harbour Jack was able to imagine, for the first time, the future.
‘Oh my gosh, that’s massive,’ exclaimed Joy.
Jack soon realised that it would probably be the only time it ever happened.
Wherever I travelled, whatever scam or profession I was engaged in, I always eventually found myself on the road back to Penlevan, the sleepy village in Dorset from where I had come.
UK here US here
By Dr Johnson C. Philip (author of over 100 books)
I have been a committed writer now for four decades, and it all started when noticing my interest in writing I joined a course in journalism. One of the first things my mentor advised me was to keep reading books on writing. Thus I picked up this book with great expectation to find something new, in spite of me having read a hundred other books. I was not disappointed.The author of this books has substantial experience in writing, editing, and publishing and he is in a good position to explain the art of writing from three different angles — from that of a writer, and editor, and a publisher. That is what makes this book unique.He introduces the art of writing, and then a lot more. If want to be a writer and if you have never read any book on this topic, I suggest that you read this one. If you have read many, I suggest that you read this book in spite of that. The book has to offer something to every writer, whatever his level and experience might be.Highly Recommended!!
By Mary Crocco (Book Reviewer – Las Vegas)
Discovering Albert Jack’s book of advice for new writers came too late for my first book, but perfectly timed for my second. Packed with information and guidance, I took copious amounts of notes before concluding I needed the book in print, so I ordered a paperback.I found the most appreciated recommendation about writing narrative: to get the plot and ideas down first, and then add the dialogue. This relieves my current struggle of interrupting the flow of ideas while trying to write dialogue, the simple fact to write first and add dialogue later, works. I’ll try a chapter at a time, but the way my mind works, I’m confident in success.Unaware all submissions should be presented with 1.5 line spacing surprised me, I thought 2.0, double spacing.Consider reading, Want to be a Writer? Then Do It Properly by Albert Jack, because it includes easy and significant approaches for writers to develop their skill.
By Stephanie Millar (Australia)
If you want to read ONE book that has EVERYTHING you need to know before you turn on your computer and start the first chapter, then this is the book you need…so much information from this brilliant writer, you can’t go wrong.
Johann David Renner (Australia)
If I had come across this book years ago it would have saved me a lot of time and pain. In this book you find the knowledge and the wisdom many writers work out for themselves over a number of years. Of course, some never do, because they give up. This book starts with the basics, moves on to the really challenging stuff and provides answers to important questions: Why do you write? What about market research? What makes a book a good book? How do you find a publisher? So, ask yourself: Do you want to be a writer or do you just want to write? If you want to be a writer, reading this book can save you a lot of time and pain.
By Eamonn Kelly
This is a very useful book and I found it very informative. This is a useful book in focusing the mind on the whys and wherefores of creative writing and the publishing world.
If you want to read ONE book that has EVERYTHING you need to know before you turn on your computer and start the first chapter, then this is the book you need…so much information from this brilliant writer, you can’t go wrong.
I’m not a writer but I want to learn enough to have a good blog.
Reading this book by Albert Jack gave me lots of good tips.
Now I’m anxious to start using his suggestions.
D Jones (Boston)
Book is very down to Earth, and inspiring for armature writers. I would recommend this book to anyone that is still in closet about being a writer.
This book was not what I had expected at all. If you’re looking for a book that makes fun of the craft, then this your book, but if you are looking for an instruction on how to be a writer, look for another of the zillions of other titles that gives more substance.
There are so many writers out there. Some read books and their new books are not more than summaries of what they read elsewhere.
Albert Jack is different. What impressed me most here was that a writer who is able to live by the income of his books gives advise. Albert Jack is not a dreamer. He writes every day and he states and gives hope to the millions out there who want to be a successful writer, too: Everybody can become a good writer. Talent is good but regular practice and daily writing makes the difference between a nobody and a popular writer.
The first look at the cover did not attract my attention. It looked like the design effort of a child. This book needs no professional design. Its content is enough to make it a “must read”.
It is interesting to see and understand how publishing houses work. The way they choose a book to be publish out of thousands of manuscripts. But I will not quote too much. Read and learn yourself.