Fay Weldon dispenses practical advice in this guide for rejected writers. I haven’t written a novel but I have had a few short stories rejected and thought I’d get ahead of the game by reading this. I don’t regret it – this was some of the best advice I’ve read to revise a story that doesn’t work. Weldon doesn’t labour what makes good writing – she’s not out to teach you how to write from scratch. Instead she states what can go wrong with a novel and how to fix it. She opens with an a-g list of reasons your novel was probably rejected, including ‘It’s boring’, and ‘the plot makes no sense’. After this is a series of chapters summarising her biggest pieces of wisdom, and then a section responding to the most asked questions from her students.
As someone who started in advertising and moved onto television before writing novels, Weldon is someone who talks about the industry of writing from all sides. I’m a marketer myself, but often forget to think of the imagined worlds in my head as relating to an industry and market. You are writing for an audience. Weldon writes this guide for people who would like to be published, not people who are chasing artistic perfection. She argues against writing for perfection, realistically pointing out that we’re unlikely to be that good (particularly if we’ve been rejected, and particularly for our first novel). Most readers would simply like to follow an interesting story with characters they can relate to, and feel a satisfactory conclusion. She points out that relatable doesn’t mean boring, just like in real life you weren’t drawn to be friends with the nicest and most dull girl in the class.
One of my favourite stories in Fay’s history was her experience writing a serial novel. Each chapter was published in a magazine, and there were over 50 chapters with cliffhanger endings before the story ended. This reminds me that writing is an industry and a craft, and there are many ways a novel can come out.
She has so many gems of wisdom I can’t list them all, but some of my key takeaways from this book are:
– Every character, even minor, should want something. An old piece of advice but a good one!
– Find your cosmic sentence, your elevator pitch. What do you want to say, and how would you explain it to a publisher at a party? In Pride and Prejudice or A Tale of Two Cities the opening line is the cosmic sentence. If you’re stuck on what you want a novel to be about, research latin tags. These outline universal truths such as ‘pride comes before a fall’ which are useful themes.
– Dialogue is often a writer’s kryptonite. Keep it brief and interesting. If you start with hello and end with goodbye that’s not a good sign – describe anything the reader can imagine themselves rather than writing it out as dialogue. Every sentence should progress the story or character, even the actions of the character when they’re speaking.
– Start with dialogue early, or if you don’t want to, consider not starting with a chunk of reflective text. Make the novel something where things happen.
– Use ‘said’ as a dialogue tag. It will disappear in reader’s minds and is more in vogue with modern writing. Similarly use as few adjectives and adverbs as possible. This is also common knowledge in writing guides, but still useful.
– Write chronologically from start to finish if you can. It’s less confusing for you and the reader.
– Note that the first four pages usually suck, so when you’re finished your novel, you’ll probably want to rewrite these.
– Eke out your content and inspiration as if you have a lifetime of writing ahead of you – don’t try to say everything at once. Stick to your cosmic sentence. Usually your inspiration is you exorcising some demon, and is usually about your family. (I love this little piece of insight, and feel it’s probably true!)
– For marketing purposes, make your character in their 20s, and make them look physically different to you so the reader won’t mistake them for you. This is pure marketing, and the unfortunate reality of the industry.
– The end should be closely linked to the beginning
– When starting your novel, rewrite the first page several times and consider the end, your audience and the points of view in the novel before continuing.
– When Weldon writes characters, she draws from her experience in advertising and TV writing… she starts with a stereotype that will serve the plot, and feels as if she is ‘spying on their lives’ as she imagines the fleshed out details of her characters. What they have in the fridge etc… she notes that everyone assumes that the characters are middle looking unless you specify their differences. This is quite different advice to the idea I recently heard that is quite ‘standard’ advice – writing a character profile before you start the story. Weldon’s technique feels more organic to me. She also dispels the myth that a character running away with the plot is a GOOD thing. I’ve heard it described as a positive sign of a character coming to life. She points out it is more likely a sign of a lack of structure, plot and purpose in a piece.
Definitely worth a read!