The unconfident writer’s top five tips for starting (and finishing) your first novel – Mary Jayne Baker

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By Mary Jayne Baker

My writing journey is unusual in that it happened both very quickly and very slowly.♥

I started my debut novel The Honey Trap, published in August by HarperImpulse, last October after years of only writing non-fiction, and it was accepted for publication in March. On the other hand, that was at least my third attempt to write a romance novel in 15 years. Every single time I’d tried before, I’d reached a certain point – usually between 3000 and 4000 words – looked back at what I’d written, thought “What a load of old rubbish” and given up.

So what changed? Some encouraging words from friends, and the discovery of the excellent resources and forums provided by the people at NaNoWriMo just in time for their November 2015 event, spurred me on, and with that support I finally finished the first draft of what was to be my first novel. Less than a year later, I’ve got another two completed manuscripts under my belt, another first draft nearly complete and have just signed with a literary agent. And while my inner critic is just as loud as ever she was and little one-star reviews prance through my nightmares like evil sheep, I’m so glad I didn’t let lack of confidence in my own writing stop me from following a long-held dream.

So if you’re an aspiring writer struggling with that difficult first manuscript, here are my top tips from my own experience for overcoming your confidence problems and finally getting to a point where you can write “The End”.

1. Push on into the white space

This must be the single best piece of advice I ever received – I just wish I could remember who it came from!

Don’t let that big white page scare you. Just go ahead and get some words into it. Don’t worry about the quality, the polishing will come later with the edit. Right now, you need to get that first draft done so you’ve got something to mould into what will be your novel. If you’re like me, you might like to set a daily word count – I try to write 2000 words every day. But the main thing is to keep pressing ahead, and not worry too much about the words you’re choosing. I quite like the famous quote from Ernest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is s**t”. You don’t need to get it right first time – no one else does – so why try?

2. Don’t try and write to a formula

I did this when I started The Honey Trap. I thought that contemporary romance had to follow a set pattern and style, and I tried to write in the way I thought readers of that genre would expect, even though it didn’t come naturally to me.

That was a mistake. About a third of the way in, I realised my favourite parts to write were the scenes where I’d deviated from what I imagined was the “right” way to write romance and let my characters find their own voices, and after that I stopped reining myself in and followed my own voice. In the end, most of the first third of the book was rewritten to fit with the style I felt most comfortable with, the book morphing from contemporary romance into romantic comedy. An author’s voice is always most authentic and assured when they let it develop in its own way.

3. Let other people read your work

If you suffer from a lack of confidence in your writing, this is essential. I would never have managed to finish a novel without the encouragement of friends and other writers on online forums, who read my work and were kind enough to tell me they thought it was worthwhile. Remember you’ll always be your own worst critic, and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there – you might be surprised at how differently others see your work.

Critique partners – other writers who will agree to a critique swap – and beta readers, the people who read and feed back on an early draft of your novel, are also invaluable. They will give constructive criticism to help whip your novel into shape.

4. Read, read, read

When I started writing, I suddenly became very aware of the nuts and bolts of other authors’ writing – how they transitioned from one scene to another; how they handled scenes with multiple characters; how they switched skilfully between action, dialogue and inner monologue; pacing and balance in their story. I started to notice what I liked and what I didn’t, where I zoned out and where I was gripped, occasionally making notes, and I let it inform my own writing. There’s a difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer, and a lot to be learned from those more experienced.

Non-fiction books on writing can be useful too, although I found they can also be intimidating. It can feel like there’s so much to learn at the beginning, and yet there are really no hard and fast rules to writing, just good practice. My favourite book on writing is called Self-editing for Fiction Writers. Although this is about how to edit your work, I could have saved a lot of time by reading it before I started writing!

5. Know your characters

I rarely have a plot when I start something new. Often I have just a vague premise and one dialogue scene, where I allow a few characters to interact and let me find out more about them. I usually spend a few thousand words writing these sort of interaction scenes, by which time I feel I know the characters well enough to create a plot for them. Plot is important, of course, but it should always be driven by characters the reader wants to spend time with. Some writers like to start with a character sheet, exploring the characters’ likes, dislikes, quirks, appearance, job, back story, etc, but for me it usually starts with that one scene and character sheets follow later.

Mary Jayne Baker grew up in rural West Yorkshire, right in the heart of Brontë country… and she’s still there. After graduating from Durham University with a degree in English Literature in 2003, she dallied with living in cities including London, but eventually came back with her own romantic hero in tow to her beloved Dales. She lives with him in a little house with four little cats and a little rabbit, writing stories about girls with flaws and the men who love them. She goes to work every day as a graphic designer for a magazine publisher, but secretly dreams of being a lighthouse keeper.

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