Not the only 5 things, obviously, but in a decade of writing fiction, in my experience from online chatter, etc., these are the things that we writers seem to obsess about the most. Looking back, I think I went into it somewhat naïvely. Creative writing and essays always came easy to me at school, but producing a full length novel is a different ball game.
Screenwriting is a whole different planet. On top of story structure, you must learn a new set of rules and etiquette.
With those in mind, for me, 5 or 6 important lessons stand out in a decade of writing fiction and screenplays.
1 Every project takes ten times as long as you think
At the start of a decade of writing fiction, I didn’t appreciate this. As a reader, you’re viewing the fiction world and characters from the other end of the telescope, and you simply don’t see the depth of field (unless you’re a pro, experienced in these things.)
As a writer, you ask yourself these questions before you start. What’s the point of your novel? What’s it about? How about the genre? Which shelf will I find it in the bookshop, irl* or virtual? you must design characters, decide on your main character, his allies and enemies, and make a whole bunch of decisions, like theme, for example.
When you’ve fixed a theme, the reader will experience it through the eyes of the main character, and other characters must represent a different aspect of theme.
And that’s before you’ve designed the story. You may know the beginning and the end, but you’ve got approaching 100,000 words to bash out to fill the space between the two. But before you hit the keyboard or prime the AI, there are different story ‘shapes’ and you gotta pick one.
Point Of View
Point-of-view. When you hear fiction writers bouncing the word ‘POV’ like tennis balls, that’s what they’re talking about. ‘I’, ‘you’ or ‘he’/’she’?
Each choice comes with consequences.
For example, ‘I’ allows you inside the character’s head and sets you up for more emotional writing, but you can’t take the story anywhere the character is not present, and that can be limiting.
Story design is subject to fashion. Currently, ‘I’ is in fashion, and ‘3rd personal universal viewpoint’ less so.
Anyway, you’ve made the design decisions and created your story outline. So far, so good. Now you only have to write the damned thing.
Is there a draft in here?
But not so fast… there are the drafts… first (messy draft) and subsequent, as your brain reveals more story, and you move things around. When you’ve narrowly avoided having a nervous breakdown in finishing the thing, there are the editing stages (how soon you bring an editor in is, again, a personal choice, and editors perform different roles – e.g. a developmental editor does his work before a copy editor gets his red pencil out) and finally, proofreading – multiple rounds.
2 Indie Publish or Mainstream?
Lowlife or respectable? After a decade of writing fiction, despite the runaway success of the indie (or self-publishing) market, I feel the old prejudices still hang around. Unless a fiction work is branded by a big publisher, the great reading public tend to consider it lesser quality.
For the author, it’s a personal choice and it depends what you can stomach. The choice is between writing hundreds of queries (each one takes half a day, and every literary agent wants a different format and content, so they must be bespoke) and hoping one will bite and request your full manuscript.
Or the writer can self-publish and take on all the extra stages themselves of producing a final product, marketing and selling it. Either way is soul-destroying, unless you sell lorry loads, then, like childbirth, the pain is forgotten.
3 Should I Be Writing or Promoting?
It used to be that only indie authors had to take on the full responsibility of promotion, but these days the lines are blurred and trad. publishers expect authors to do a lot of their own promotion. That eats into writing time and it’s difficult to strike a balance.
4 Nobody Sets Out to Make a Bad Movie
One person… people… are gonna HATE your work. Have you ever laughed at a cleverly written, snarky, review that absolutely demolishes the piece of creative work in question, or an actor, singer or band?
Ever given a one-star rating? Yeah, right. Not everyone knows enough to say a creation is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, not even the top critics. It probably wasn’t to your taste, but other people loved it.
Jake Krueger, head of one of the best screenwriting schools in the world, says if somebody doesn’t HATE your script, you haven’t done your job properly.
All I’d comment is, ‘Nobody sets out to make a bad movie‘, or write a bad book, either.
5 Even After a Decade of Writing Fiction
Everyone is more successful than you are. Self-evident.
I’m surrounded by rich, famous, fiction writers and filmmakers, laughing all the way to the bank, drinking champagne for breakfast and driving around in cars the price of a Belgravia mansion.
I am the ONLY writer starving in a garret. Actually, it’s an oubliette, since everyone ignores me. Hang on, I moved out of the oubliette last year…
Anyway, we all get those feelings from time to time. It’s usually a sign we need a break, a walk or a cup of tea, or something stronger.
6 You Get Such a Buzz When You Hit Publish
For me, that makes it ninety per cent worth it.
Okay, six things. I can’t count, or I decided to add one at the last minute. Writers must be versatile and flexible.
Read one. You might be pleasantly surprised. Thank you very much.
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*irl In real life, POV Point Of View