I have been looking at my old work again and my first ever attempts at writing a full length novel. To say I’ve learnt a lot since then would be an understatement, and I couldn’t help but cringe at the mistakes my younger self made which seem so blindingly obvious to me now, but weren’t obvious to me back then. I wish I had had someone telling me back then what not to do and what to avoid.
So, if you’re just starting to write your first ever novel then here are some tips and words of advice from someone who has already been there…
- Don’t use curse words unless it is absolutely necessary for your story.
Have you ever been out in public and noticed that when someone starts swearing, even just casually throwing the odd curse word into a normal and relaxed conversation, that they somehow become less attractive? They suddenly turn from being a likeable person with a nice voice to someone who just sounds a bit crass and dumb? It’s the same when you’re writing dialogue for your characters. As soon as a character starts swearing, no matter how realistic it may be, it makes it harder for the reader to like that character.
You would think, particularly with young adult and teenage characters, that swearing would just be normal. Young adults and teenagers (and adults) often curse in real life, so why not in fiction? Well it is like I said before, it makes the characters less likeable. Instead of sounding ‘cool’, ‘mature’ or ‘clever’, they sound harsh, cold and stupid. A character who curses too much is tedious and unpleasant to read.
Curse words also add unnecessary words to the word count. If you can say the same sentence without the swearing, then you don’t need the swearing.
As a rule of thumb, just don’t use curse words. You should be able to write your story with the same levels of emotion, tension and excitement without swearing.
- Avoid unnecessary adjectives.
If you’re finishing dialogue with phrases like… ‘he added annoyingly’, ‘she said excitedly’, ‘he said sadly’, etc., etc., then you can probably remove all of the adjectives. What I mean by this is you don’t need the ‘annoyingly’ or ‘excitedly’ or ‘sadly’, because it should be obvious from the context of the situation and conversation what your characters are feeling. If your character is annoyed by something another character has said, then it should be obvious from the dialogue and the character’s actions. You don’t need to add ‘he said annoyingly’, you just need ‘he said’, or nothing at all.
You only ever need to use these adjectives if it isn’t obvious what your characters are feeling, but really you should try and avoid this altogether.
- Unlikeable protagonists.
Again, unless it is absolutely necessary for your story then avoid creating an unlikeable protagonist, especially if the reader can’t feel any sympathy for this character.
It is difficult for readers to keep engaged with a story if they really don’t like the main protagonist. However, i have seen unlikeable protagonists before with tragic backstories, but it is risky and there is a 50/50 chance that your reader will sympathise with your character enough to let go of all of their unlikable qualities. Personally it is another one to avoid unless it is absolutely integral to your story.
- Instant-know-it-all characters.
Nothing is more infuriating than having a character that just seems to know and accept every strange thing that is happening. It’s not realistic and it doesn’t allow your readers a chance to figure out stuff on their own first. Think how annoying it would be to watch a film and have the main character narrating and clarifying everything you can see on the screen. It would take away all the mystery and intrigue, you wouldn’t even need to watch the film. It’s the same with books if your characters know too much and point things out. Your characters end up being two steps infront of the reader when really you want both of them to progress at a similar pace.
- Avoid unnecessary gore or uncomfortable scenes.
This is particularly aimed at horror, crime and thriller writers. If you can take paragraphs out of your book without it really having a major affect on your story, then you don’t need them.
I have read two unnecessary scenes of a sexual nature in horror stories and they wouldn’t have changed the story at all if they had simply been removed. It’s lazy writing when an author adds these in just to make the reader feel uncomfortable. Your horror story should be scary enough on it’s own without these unnecessary additions.
Gore is another one, you can go too over the top with gore and violence. Authors usually do this when they are trying to make their story as scary as possible, but it often becomes tiresome and unpleasant to read. Horror is a very particular writing style, but often authors make the mistake of not really understanding what is and what isn’t scary. They will go for the obviously crude, violent and uncomfortable scenes which are shocking and stomach-turning, rather than something so scary it gives you goosebumps.
Tread carefully if you’re writing horror, and don’t add in unnecessary gory or uncomfortable scenes unless you really need them.
My parting words are… don’t give up. The one thing people won’t tell you is that your first novel and even your second and third novels probably won’t be that good, but that’s ok, you need to write them and go through those stages in order to get to the point where you can write good books. You have to keep learning, keep reading and keep writing in order to improve. You will probably end up rewriting your first novel dozens of times before you get to a stage where you and your agent or/and publisher are happy with it. So don’t give up! Keep on going, it’s hard work but it’s worth it.