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1. Resist the temptation to base characters wholesale on people you know. Not only can this make for some embarrassing moments when the book comes out, but the character will only ever do what the real life person would do.
It’s fine to be inspired by one or two quirks – the friend who can see the potential disaster in every situation, or the cousin who’s incapable of keeping secrets – but take that as a starting point, and build a whole new character round it. (Fact: all the men you know will assume the hero is based on them whatever you write.)
2. Read your dialogue aloud to check that it sounds like a conversation people would actually have in real life. It’s surprising how easy it is to start writing Book Conversation, with great wodges of explanation and ‘Don’t you remember the night Princess Esmerelda planned to escape with the monk but changed her mind at the last moment and joined the circus?’ type back-filling. Also, be ruthless with the adverbs; the dialogue should tell the reader whether the words were expressed loudly, or passionately, or sadly. And I say that as a hopeless over-adverber, who has to go through every ms deleting them relentlessly. Oh dear. See what I mean?
3. Everyone has words they overuse. In my case it’s ‘a little’ and ‘quite’. If you don’t weed them out, the reader will gradually notice them more and more until each one leaps off the page and drags them out of the world you’re trying to create. Again, reading your chapters aloud to yourself will quickly alert you to it.
4. Do plan before you start. I try to create a map of each novel before I begin writing it: I know where I’m setting off from, and I know where I’m trying to get to. I usually know several of the stops I have to make along the way, and most of the people I’m travelling with. I don’t have all the details – quite a lot of the story only comes to me as I’m writing, and the characters are sharpening up – but having a general framework in place gives me a much stronger sense of how far I have to go in each stage of the story, and where I’m heading. For me, that paralysing sense of writer’s block usually isn’t an inability to write, but indecision about *what* to write. Planning helps.
5. Everyone says it, but SHOW, DON’T TELL. Only let a character spend ages telling us Mavis is the nicest, sweetest, kindest donkey sanctuary worker she’s ever known if your next scene clearly shows a masked and cackling Mavis breaking into Hamleys to decapitate all the Action Men for a laugh.
6. Try not to edit as you go along – you’re still too close, and if you’re constantly polishing two chapters, you’ll never reach the end. It’s better to get it all down, leave the whole thing for a couple of weeks, so your brain can reboot, then re-read and re-write with a fresh eye. Printing your work out will often make it feel completely different to the way it was on your computer screen; I’m always surprised by the extra level of detachment it creates.
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