On writing (again)

A few people have emailed me to ask how I wrote The Dating Detox – how I plotted, and if I have any writing tips.

With novel-writing, as with everything else in life, I specialise in intuitive improvisation (AKA, winging it). So if you read this post and think ‘this chick knows nothing’, you’re right. I don’t.

Caveats out of the way, let’s talk about plots and planning.

I didn’t work out the exact plot of The Dating Detox before I started. I didn’t think it was going to be a real book, you see. For the first few chapters I was just writing to make my sister laugh.

In fact, all I really thought, when I started writing, was ‘cool/witty/normal girl gets dumped a lot, swears off men, is funny’. Then when it was suddenly a real book, I had to nut it out and – importantly – all the subplots, too. It was pretty easy, but this is probably why the book is so character-centric, and why the plot relies on coincidence. I worried about the coincidence thing for awhile, till I thought about all the coincidences in some brilliant books (Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle just happen to go to Pemberly and oh fuck me, is that Darcy home early? etc) and decided it didn’t matter. I also wanted every step of the plot to create a very real world of lovely 20-something friends. I wanted you, the reader, to feel that you would want to hang out with everyone in the book, to feel like you’d be friends with them in real life. I don’t bother with people who aren’t nice and that goes for my characters, too. (I had to write about a bitch in the second book and found it quite stressful. More about that another time.)

I approached the second book – let’s call it The Dating Virgin for the time being – quite differently. I wanted to write about learning to be single after a long period of time in a relationship. It’s a tough and strange thing to do, and a lot of girls go through it, including moi, and it’s not often addressed in books or movies. I wanted to write about dating disasters, about relationship insecurity, and broken hearts, and about how you need to be brave and know yourself to win love. So I wrote the plot out in quite specific detail first.

Then I slowly got to know the main character, Abigail. (I knew Sass straightaway.) All I knew, when I started, was that I wanted Abigail to be different from Sass, but equally funny and lovably quirky. So I gave her a different job (one that I imagined I could do in a parallel universe where I’m, you know, a hell of a lot smarter than I am). Where Sass had been out fending for herself in the tarry bogs of London single life, Abigail finds singledom all a bit scary and bewildering – after all, she’s been in the secure hug of a stable relationship for her entire adult life. So she’s not as attention-seeking as Sass. She’d never jump on a table and do air guitar, for example. Abigail is intelligent, but quite subdued, and modest to the point of being a bit blind sometimes and has trouble reading people, where Sass is a tad cocky and very perceptive. Abigail is generally more inexperienced and naïve. At least, she is at the start of the book…

To make her different from Sass I also decided to make her a bit anti-fashion, which was weird. I don’t really know any girls who don’t like clothes. She ends up being very fashion-savvy, though. I couldn’t just leave her sartorially clueless. (And I didn’t used to speak clothes at all. At my university, it was considered extraordinary if we got out of pyjamas to go to lectures. Then I got to London and realized I hated everything in my wardrobe – I actually had ‘smart’ rugby jumpers and ‘casual’ rugby jumpers – and had no idea how to get dressed. Some people would probably say I still don’t.)

Now, about writing. I know a bit more about this. I’ve been an advertising copywriter for almost 10 years, have a degree in English and a postgrad in Journalism. I could talk to you about copy for hours, about structure and syntax and lexical denseness and tone of voice and all that shit. But right now, let’s just talk about what makes good copy.

I think that good copy is entertaining and has a point. And to produce good copy that entertains and has a point you have to read, write, and edit.

Read everything. Especially fiction. (I don’t trust people who don’t ever read fiction, I think they might lack imagination and the ability to empathise.) I will talk about reading another time, if you’re interested.

Write as much as you can. Write emails and poems and stories. Write op eds and essays. Try a blog. And write for other people, not just yourself. When you know other people are reading your words, you’ll try harder to charm and entertain them. As a copywriter, of course, I wrote for other people every day for years, and spent day after day having my copyhopes dashed against the red pen of my seniors. (Advertising is like boot camp for writers.) Try a creative writing course, or post your copy online on one of those forums. (Would I have done that? Fuck, no. I was, simultaneously, too arrogant and too insecure. But that’s me.)

Edit. Think about every word, line, sentence and paragraph. Be as concise as possible. People get bored easily. Don’t let them stop reading: make every line dance for them. Try cutting a piece of copy down by 50%, without losing the tone and facts. It’ll teach you how to, as one of my old bosses would say, get to the fucking point.

By the way, when I say be concise, I don’t mean you have to pare everything down like Hemingway. My novel-writing style is, I hope, warm and chatty. I try to charm and woo people through the medium of copy. So I’m prone to anecdotes and asides, as though we were having a gossip, and it’s all very direct and informal. But I still edit brutally, and every line has been shaped for tone and effect. The Dating Detox is – I hope – a light, funny read, but it takes a lot of whipping to make a good meringue.

I also have some sloppy copyhabits that I want to change. I like to witter on in a long sentence, and meander to and fro and flutter and flirt my words, and then get to the point with a very short sentence immediately afterwards. Like this. It’s a cheap trick, really. I often start chapters with a bald statement of opinion and then go on to say what happened next. That, too, is cheap.

One of my earliest bosses made me read, then print out and stick above my desk, George Orwell’s essay Politics and The English Language, and thank God he did. Here’s an interesting bit:

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?

One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

You can read the whole essay here. http://www.george-orwell.org/Politics_and_the_English_Language/0.html

Lastly, if you keep trying to write and hate everything you’ve got down on paper so far, don’t worry. Just keep going. I’m never that happy with the way I write. I don’t know any writers who are. Complacency and creativity don’t go together; you need the fear of running out of ideas or an imposing deadline to fuel your fire, and you need to be very self-critical to edit effectively. I’ll probably never be able to read The Dating Detox without going ‘oh fuck a cat, what a clunker of a line, I am shit’. But that’s okay. I’m still learning.

Now I have to go and edit The Dating Virgin, my friends. It’s not going to improve itself.

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5 thoughts on “On writing (again)

  1. P

    Great informative post!

    I didn't realise some authors went into novels without a plan – "The Dating Detox" did not give that impression at all. And for what it's worth, I could TOTALLY see myself hanging out with Sass and her group of friends – all their parties just sounded fabulous fun!

  2. Anthony J Langford

    Great post – very interesting… again, alot of writers speak of keeping it simple, and yet how many books are published full of overwinded waffle! drives me nuts! Keep it simple, thats my edict too..and stick to the point..and you take the mystery out of it by being so honest…its full of fear and making mistakes…nice to hear my terror is shared..lol
    Thanks for sharing…


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