Ask Academy with Sarah May

Just before Christmas, we ran a week-long writing clinic on Twitter, where our tutors answered your writing questions every lunchtime. The conversations proved so interesting and informative, we decided to share them here.

Here’s Sarah May, fielding queries on the right time to edit, knowing when an idea is ‘The One’ and forming good writing habits.

FA: Hi, Sarah! Alright, our first question came from one of our Instagram followers: ‘Whenever I start writing a novel, I end up disliking my idea really quickly. Where do your ideas come from and do you ever have to push past the temptation to drop an idea before it’s got legs? Or do you think if you’re struggling with an idea from the off, it’s probably not the right one?’ 

SM: A few things here: first up, you will never know if an idea is ‘the right one’.  No writer does. Going down this path will send you mad because you’ll be constantly looking at your novel from the outside rather than the inside.

Key to getting ‘inside’ your novel is focussing on character rather than the idea. You need to do a 180 here. Stop thinking of your novel in the abstract and instead start thinking of it as a physical landscape peopled by characters. Whenever you sit down to write, what you’re actually doing is spending time with a group of people you will come to know intimately. I’m talking long-term relationships here, so make sure you create the kind of characters you’re happy to make that commitment to. It will change the way you write.

FA: I love that. That’s kind of blown my mind, actually – that idea of the novel as landscape is such a brilliant way of thinking about it. Alright, our second question now: ‘How can I make sure my dialogue feels natural?’

SM: Let’s start by talking about bad dialogue. Bad dialogue is when a writer uses a character as a vehicle for info-dumping. When this happens, there’s usually an excessive amount of uninterrupted dialogue and the reader loses track of who is saying what because essentially it doesn’t matter.

Good dialogue works in the opposite way. It comes from character. What a character says and how they say it is unique to both them and the situation. Unlike bad dialogue, it is reactive. Responsive. Supple. Dexterous. A character should never simply deliver lines. Good dialogue is a conversation/exchange between two or more characters.

Another thing to think about is choreography. What is a character doing while they are speaking? How are they moving about the space where the dialogue is taking place? The last golden rule is, less is more. When it comes to dialogue, make every word count.

FA: Brilliant advice, thank you! A question from Twitter now, although this is one we hear a lot: ‘Should we edit while finishing our first draft or wait until the end?’

SM: If the writing is going well and you have narrative momentum, don’t break off. Just keep on writing and try to get that first draft out of your head and onto the page/screen. Especially if you’re a procrastinator!

And regardless of whether or not the writing is going well, I would advise pushing on past that 25 – 30k marker. It’s when most first-time novelists give up on a story and abandon it. The graveyard of unfinished stories. So, try to push past this. Most writers can expect to work on anything between 8 – 12 drafts of a novel. There’s no point expecting your first draft to look anything like your twelfth!  First draft is a rush – it’s like falling in love. Don’t put the brakes on unless you really have to!

FA: This is so so true – what is it with that 25–30k point that brings ALL the doubts out to play? Okay, we’ve got a related one up last, actually: ‘I struggle to keep up writing regularly. Do you have any advice for that?’

SM: When we write, we use our creative muscle. It’s something we all have because humans are natural born storytellers. The more regularly we use it, the more we can make it work for us.

So, it’s important to build that writing habit in order to build that creative muscle. Half an hour a day is enough. Honestly! Just try to make it the same time each day and then your mind gets used to.

Don’t set yourself unrealistic targets. If you know you’re only going to be able to write for half an hour a day, don’t set yourself a 1000 wordcount goal. You won’t achieve it, and every time you fail to achieve it, you’re giving yourself a reason not to write the next day rather than a reason to write. You don’t have to set yourself a word count goal, but if you are someone who’s responsive to deadlines, etc. 200 – 300 words a day is enough. That will soon grow to around 1500 words a week, 6000 words a month… you see where I’m going with this?

Sarah May is the highly-acclaimed author of seven novels, including The Nudist Colony, which was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. Her second novel, Spanish City, was shortlisted for the Encore Award, and The Internationals was longlisted for The Orange Prize. She is also an experienced playwright, and in 2000 set up The Mayhem Company, a London-based theatre company for young people, with partner and theatre director, Ben May. Sarah has been a freelance writer and tutor of creative writing for over fifteen years. Sarah teaches on our one-day online Start to Write introductory course, and on our six-month advanced Writing a Novel.

Ask Academy with Joanna Briscoe

Just before Christmas, we ran a week-long writing clinic on Twitter, where our tutors answered your writing questions every lunchtime. The conversations proved so interesting and informative, we decided to share them here.

First up was Joanna Briscoe, with advice on research, character development and writing through self-doubt.

FA: Right, let’s get things kicked off, shall we? Welcome, Joanna! And thanks so much for joining us. Our first question: ‘I’m writing a novel set in a particular period of history which I know will require a lot of research but I’m worried that’s going to distract me. Should I do the research before I start or afterwards?’

JB: OK, interesting. I see this a lot. I’ve seen students being completely weighed down by research, to the point where they barely write their novels at all. I’m quite strict about this – think in terms of the characters, plot, narrative arc, as though the novel were not historical, unless what you are writing about is incongruous with the period you’ve chosen.

You will, however, need to get a sense of the dialogue of the time. Do just basic research that will show you that what you’re writing about is historically valid but then focus on the novel as a whole. You can certainly read at the same time as writing, and steep yourself in the period. It can be particularly helpful to read literature from the period, if it exists. You can leave a marker – XX or whatever – where you know you will need to fill things in with historical research later. It’s possible to write and research at the same time, of course, but above all, make sure the novel works as a STORY.

FA: That’s a really good tip re reading literature from the period! And dialogue too. Do you have any thoughts about fictionalising real people/events? (I’m thinking of The Crown of COURSE, but a student asked me about this recently too)

JB: My advice would be: be careful! There are too many rules and laws on this to cover here, but often writers use a real event or a real person in history as a starting point, and then let their imagination take off.

FA: Very wise words! Okay, let’s move on to our second question. Something a little more general this time – one of our newsletter subscribers asks: ‘I’ve been told that my characters feel underdeveloped. Do you have any tips on how to fix this?’

JB: I certainly do! I think many characters are underdeveloped until you get to know them. In many cases, it’s simply a question of real character work. You get to know your characters over time by being curious, much as you get to know someone in the real world.

Simply put, characters are fleshed out over time. It’s worth doing exercises. I now make myself do the character exercises I set my students, and the most useful is one where you look at the character completely objectively, as though they’ve just walked into a room. Describe them in real detail. Get a sense of their walk, even their smell, their voice, and every aspect of their physical appearance. That can lead into a greater sense of who they are inside.

FA: I love that, especially the exercise – I can happily spend hours filling in questionnaires about characters’ biggest fears/earliest memories etc but actually having a physical sense of them is so important isn’t it… Do you have any all-time favourite characters?

JB: Hmmm… yes… I love Tess Durbeyfield but I find myself drawn to the minxes you don’t really want around in real life – Scarlett O’Hara, Holly Golightly.

FA: Alright, this one will feel familiar to so many of us: ‘I’m really struggling with my confidence after a previous manuscript failed to sell to publishers. I’m finding it impossible to finish a first draft without worrying that this one isn’t good enough either. Do you have any advice on writing through self-doubt?’

JB: I sympathise. It’s very, very common to be rejected, but heartbreaking after so much work. And of course it affects confidence. Remember, rejection is the norm. You have to deal with it in this industry. And remember that the really good writers are the ones who have crises of confidence. It’s the over-confident ones who are usually no good. Published writers nearly all struggle with confidence. It goes with the territory. You do just have to continue and break through the pain barrier.

FA: That’s a really good way of thinking about it. It’s so true re the over-confidence! Do you find setting yourself eg word targets helps you on doubtful days, and is there ever a point where you think taking a break from the manuscript is necessary?

JB: Yes, I set myself word targets and hour targets on different days depending where I am, and other times I am less disciplined. Taking a break can clear your head for sure. I find a walk nearly always helps me to think better.

FA: YES, the power of a walk is really something, isn’t it? I also find the shower to be some kind of mystical source of plot fixes and inspiration!

JB: Interesting. I’m a bath person. Perhaps I should try the shower. Good to hear this tip!

FA: I can’t recommend it enough! Okay, last question for you – and it’s a tough one! ‘I find titles so hard! How do you choose yours and do you do that first or once the book is finished? What do you think makes a good title?’

JB: Titles… Yes, titles are tough. I’ve done both – known the title immediately, and struggled with it. My usual technique is to note down potential titles as I’m going, however ridiculous they sound – and there are some corkers – and then go over them much later. There’s sometimes some treasure among all the dross, even if it’s one word that sets off another chain of thought. My title Sleep With Me was actually in the ms, and I hadn’t noticed it. A character says it.

Good titles are often quirky…who would ever dream up Hideous Kinky? Yet it’s a great title. And they are often the perfect summary of the novel’s entire theme. I think they mostly just take a lot of work, and trying them out on your friends. Good luck.

FA: I like that technique! Do you have any almost-titles for your books that you still look back on wistfully? Or can you only imagine them with their final titles now?

JB: Good question. I don’t, really – I tend to forget all those misses and near-misses and screaming bits of rubbish on my lists. Oh, except my novel Skin. Four books with that title came out the same year.

Joanna Briscoe is the author of the novels Mothers and Other Lovers, which won the Betty Trask Award; SkinSleep With Me, which was published in eleven countries and adapted for ITV by Andrew Davies; You, which was published by Bloomsbury in the UK, USA and through Europe, and Touched, which was published by Arrow. She works as a literary critic for the Guardian and has written for all the major national newspapers. She broadcasts on Radio 4, and has taught for the Arvon Foundation, and for the Birkbeck and City MA degrees in Creative Writing. Joanna is one of the tutors on our flagship six-month Writing a Novel course.