Welcome to the next in our series of Curtis Brown 120 blog posts, these blogs include exclusive interviews with authors, agents and publishers; writing tips; industry insights – and much more besides.
Curtis Brown 120 is a celebration of the agency’s 120th birthday – and it’s also a celebration of beginnings and how Curtis Brown have been helping writers start their stories since it was founded in 1899. Regular readers of this blog will already know Anna Davis, author and managing director of the Curtis Brown Creative writing school. Here she offers some advice to those who’ve decided that now is the time for their own beginnings as writers – how do you overcome the tyranny of the blank page, start writing your novel – and then, perhaps most difficult, keep on going?
I first started writing novels as a footloose and fancy-free twenty-something, with no kids – no creative writing school to run (!) – and no responsibility for anyone but myself. Looking back now, twenty years later, I can hardly believe the luxurious vats of time I was floating around in, and just how much I was able to produce. But having lots of time and producing loads of material isn’t everything. You can achieve a lot even if you only have tiny scraps of time to write in – and in the end it doesn’t matter if it takes you a long time to get that novel written. This isn’t a race, and writing isn’t primarily a young person’s game, in spite of what many may think. Experience, insight and – dare I say it – wisdom – have a great role to play in the creative process and can really enrich the work. And time-poor people often value their writing time more highly and find ways to use it more effectively. Here are some tips for people who want to write but struggle with getting started:
1. Find your best time: many people write early in the morning – your thinking can be fresh at the crack of dawn before the day starts intruding. But maybe evenings, when the working day is done and/or the kids are in bed, will suit you better. I have a colleague at Curtis Brown, who is now a very successful author writing under a pseudonym: she has a demanding job at the agency, but has – for years now – written for one hour at the end of every working day before she goes home or out for the evening. She is absolutely disciplined about this one hour a day. If you don’t have a chance to write daily, try to squeeze in a couple of hours at the weekend. However, little and often is better than long but infrequent. It’s harder to hold your project in your head with long gaps between sessions.
2. Just do it: if the blank page frightens you, try free-writing using prompts – there are loads online and something interesting may come of it. Then ask yourself ‘what if’ questions to tease out a storyline. Join in with our monthly writing competitions on Twitter – @CBCreative #WriteCBC. Keep a notebook, too – build your confidence by producing material, learning from mistakes as you go.
3. Active Planning: I’m often asked how much planning you should do. I’d say figure out the bones of what you’re working on and what lies at its heart – but write your way into the story before things become too rigid. You can return to your plan frequently throughout the writing process to put flesh on the bones. This process will also help if you get stuck.
4. Keep moving forward: don’t obsess over style, or worry about scenes that aren’t quite right. Fix problems at the editing stage with a complete draft in hand. If you’re fiddling a lot as you go, try writing longhand to freshen things up.
5. Targets and deadlines: setting yourself small goals, such as a daily or weekly word count, can be helpful – as can self-imposed deadlines for completing a draft. But don’t give yourself a hard time when you miss targets – sometimes you need to reflect and let your back-brain catch up, and this can be more important than the word count.
6. End your writing session mid-scene or even mid-sentence: it’s tempting to stop when you hit the end of a chapter, but if you push forward a little way into the next section, you’ll find it easier to get going again when you settle back into work.
7. Get reading: if you want to be a writer, you must also be a reader. Read the stuff you love and books that are newly published to get a good sense of what’s out there. But above all, read.
8. Write a strong first page, but …: make sure your first page gives us a character, tells us where and when your story is happening, and shows us straight away what genre we’re in. Avoid opening with cliche’s such as a person waking up in the morning or staggering around with a hangover. But more importantly, don’t get completely stuck trying to write a perfect first page so that you can’t move forward. You may have a much clearer idea of how to start your story once you’ve got further in – and then you can go back to write your opening afresh.
9. Start with story: many writers spend a long time ‘setting up’ scenes and characters before they make anything happen (this can go on for chapter after chapter before the story really begins!). My advice is to get straight into your story, introducing your characters only when they have a role to play. In every scene, check that you aren’t starting too early and ending too late. We don’t need someone ringing the bell and waiting for it to be answered. Put your character straight into the room where the story happens. Get in and then get out again as quickly as you can.
10. Character motivation: be clear about your characters’ motivations. Know what they want – and what will stop them from getting what they want. This gives rise to conflict – and where there’s conflict, there’s story.
11. Edit: polish your work to a shine. Print it out and edit on paper to spot things you’ll have missed on screen. And read it aloud to hear how it flows, particularly dialogue. But don’t start editing until you’ve got a good chunk of material together – or even a whole draft.
12. A cheeky twelfth tip: check out our creative-writing courses. We’ve often heard from our students that the course commitments and deadlines help them to focus on that writing project they’ve been toying with for ages. A good one to kick off with is Starting to Write Your Novel – which is designed to get you going with planning and writing.
If you’re currently working on the opening of your novel – watch this space – we will be accepting applications to the Curtis Brown 120 Novel Writing Prize in April 2019. The Prize will be open to manuscripts, both finished and unfinished, across all genres of adult fiction.