Today, on my stop for the blog tour, T.A. Cotterell, is giving me his top 5 writing tips! His debut novel What Alice Knew is out now (and you can see what it’s about, below)!
Five Writing Tips
- Know your book
It is all too easy to delineate the plot, sketch out the characters and start writing without fully understanding the implications of the plot and themes on the characters and so on the book. I originally wrote ‘What Alice Knew’ in the third person, I suspect (it was a long time ago!) because I thought it was the story of Alice and Ed, which it is, and isn’t. It is the story of Alice and what she learns about herself and life and knowledge through her relationship with Ed, and therefore the story always needed to focus more precisely on her. Hence, I had to rewrite it in the first person.
- Consider writing in the first person
In some ways it is harder to write in the first person: you have no access to other characters’ interior lives, you are limited to events at which the character is present and you cannot create tension around their behaviour or thoughts without being ‘unreliable’. But there are great benefits when it works. It helps the reader to identify with the character, eliminates the membrane between novelist and character and, if it works, enhances empathy. In short, it allows the novelist to ‘become’ the character.
- Editing is as important as writing
Winston Churchill once said you could count on the Americans to do the right thing, having tried everything else first. I suspect I am the same. My first versions tend to be wide of the mark. It is only by re-reading and editing that plot and character possibilities become apparent. Not only does it allow you to enhance the prose, the immediate vehicle of the reader’s pleasure, but there is scope to give plot or character an extra twist. Looking at something again, often from a different perspective, can change your – and the reader’s – understanding.
- Have a routine
It is essential to have a routine that enables you to create a clear space in your head to write. I write in a café in Bristol because I find the noise of my family off-putting, or I have a nagging feeling I ought to be doing something like emptying the washing machine. The noise of other people or their families is no problem, because it is not my problem. Life always encroaches on writing time: it is imperative you find a way of pushing life out the way.
Writing is hard. There will be times when it gets you down and you lose self-belief. Don’t give up! Keep writing, keep trying to find an answer or an audience. To some extent you make your own luck so if you don’t persevere you can’t get lucky. Nothing is unsalvageable. Think of the painter, Frank Auerbach: he layers paint on and scrapes it off countless times during a portrait or landscape, revising tirelessly, the paint becoming thicker and thicker on the canvas until he is satisfied. It is the same writing a novel. ‘What Alice Knew’ is roughly 90,000 words. I probably wrote and excised three or four times that number.
Two extra tips: you must enjoy the process of writing or there is no point to it. All writing has a life distinct from its published self. Moreover, this is the only time you will write when there is no expectation and you can take as long as you like and need only satisfy yourself. Secondly, when your work is published, be happy to let it go. Different people will take different things from it, interpret it in different ways, sometimes at odds with your own feelings. This is as it should be. It is how it connects and engages, how it is enlarged. The novel has its own life. It is not yours anymore.
How far would you go to keep a secret?
Alice has a perfect life – a great job, happy kids, a wonderful husband. Until he goes missing one night; she receives a suspicious phone call; things don’t quite add up.
Alice needs to know what’s going on. But when she uncovers the truth she faces a brutal choice. And how can she be sure it is the truth?
Sometimes it’s better not to know