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Peter James is the UK’s biggest thriller writer. With more than thirty books under his belt, which have been translated into thirty-seven languages and sold over 19 million copies, James has won countless awards, including the Best Crime Author of All Time, and has had a number of his books adapted for film, television and the stage. Suffice to say, it is not hyperbole to refer to James as one of the the most successful writers on the planet. “How has he done it?” we hear you cry. Well, luckily for you, Peter James was kind enough to provide some terrific advice to baby writers.
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When asked ‘What is your advice to would-be thriller writers, or aspiring writers in general?’ James responded:
1. Create engaging characters.
2. Research every aspect of what you are going to write.
3. Know the ending that you want to get to – I find this enormously helpful – it may change as I approach it but it gives me a vanishing point on the horizon to aim at.
4. Think of a series of high points for your book – and make sure each one is bigger than the previous one.
5. Write something 6 days a week – it is crucial to get into a flow – find an amount that you can write each day, whether is is 200 words or 2000 words, and rigidly stick to them because that will get you into a rhythm.
6. And finally… Have fun! If you enjoy writing, that will come through in the pages!
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It’s time for National Novel Writing Month, a hellish and delightful month-long exercise for writers of all skill levels and prior experience. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words of fiction by the end of November, creating a bit more every day (1,667 words, to be exact). The outcome of NaNoWriMo is often a mix of joy and incredible frustration. Here are six pieces of serious advice from famous classic and contemporary authors to help get you through every step of the NaNoWriMo process.
1. Let your favorite books inspire you.
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Superstar horror novelist Stephen King, author of hits like It and The Shining, considers the relationship between writing and reading to be quite serious: “if you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” In fact, reading does make you a better writer— not necessarily because it makes you ‘more educated.’ In fact, many famous novelists never earned a college degree. By understanding the things you like best in your favorite stories (a richly realized setting, efficient pacing, possibly dragons), you can seek to recreate those elements in your own work. It’s not plagiarism to love in-depth character development.
2. Research your topic.
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Few authors ever write the proverbial ‘Great American Novel,’ but many believe that classic writer and humorist Mark Twain is one of these few. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn author advises: “get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” While you don’t need to, say, drop everything and move to London to write your WWII period piece, you should also know more about WWII than to say for sure it happened. Make sure you have insight into the small details of the places, times, and circumstances you address— even if you feel familiar with them already! Others may share your experiences but feel differently about them. You may also find that immersing yourself in the mood and tone of a topic can make your work more atmospheric.
3. Ignore your self-doubt.
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Sylvia Plath, literary icon and author of The Bell Jar, cautions against the self-doubt that can spell the sad ending of a writer’s dreams: “everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” No matter the scope of your project (sweeping epic fantasy) or the difficulty of the subject matter (devastating political crisis), there’s only one thing that determines whether your novel gets written. Spoiler alert! It’s you. Bonus: if you write with self-confidence, your novel will have a stronger and clearer narrative voice. Take control of your feelings and your work— they both belong to you.
4. Accept that you might need ‘warm-up’ time.
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“You have to resign yourself to the fact that you waste a lot of trees before you write anything you really like, and that’s just the way it is. It’s like learning an instrument, you’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot, ‘cause I wrote an awful lot before I wrote anything I was really happy with.”
First drafts are more than just mistakes to be rewritten— they’re actually a necessary part of the process. If you’re a new writer just starting out, every sentence you despise is just the next step towards a sentence that you love. The only way out of the self-hate spiral is through it!
5. Consider your words.
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So you’ve gotten to the most important part of writing your novel— writing it. Conveniently, this part is usually also the hardest. It’s a challenge to be objective about your own work, and while it’s easy to tell whether or not you’re meeting the word count, it can be substantially less easy to tell whether or not the words are what you hoped they would be. George Orwell, classic author of 1984 and Animal Farm, has a series of blunt but helpful questions:
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
1. Could I put it more shortly?
2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
6. Finish the story.
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While the Internet is full of awesome writers’ resources, too much of a good thing can turn into a thing that distracts the absolute [email protected]#$ out of you. The purpose of something like a character sheet isn’t to help you end up with a filled-out character sheet. The point is to end up with a complete character… who then lives inside a complete story. As John Green, celebrity author of heart-wrenching novels Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, so eloquently puts it: “go spit in the face of our inevitable obsolescence and finish your @#$&ng novel.” You can find this wisdom and the rest of his NaNoWriMo pep talk here for advice, inspiration, and blatant common sense.
One last piece of blatant common sense: always save your drafts!
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