Twenty-Five Tips for Aspiring Writers

Often approached by aspiring writers, Irena Karafilly here attempts to answer the questions she has been asked over the years. N.B. The tips are not guaranteed to make your book an international bestseller, but they may brighten your day. At the very least, you will know you are not alone.

Make it your habit to write every day. Don’t let thoughts of potential failure block you.

There is no need to worry about posterity’s judgment the first time you sit down to write a story or a novel. Start humbly, with one interesting sentence, one compelling paragraph, and see where it takes you. If it doesn’t lead anywhere, consider some other occupation.

Don’t sit around waiting for inspiration.

If authors wrote only when inspired, Amazon would be out of business. On really bad days, start by reading someone you admire.

Don’t discuss your project with everyone on Facebook before writing it.

Federico Fellini once said that whenever he talked about a film he was planning to make, the film never got made.

Avoid obsessing while writing your first draft.

Don’t stop to admire – or criticize – every sentence generated by your excited imagination. Go with the flow until you reach the end, then… (see no. 5 below)

Don’t despair while reading your first draft.

Learn to re-write. And re-write. And re-write. Even literary giants like Flaubert agonised over their drafts.

Unless you are a journalist, don’t tell your readers what happened; try to dramatise.

For example, consider the difference between “It was raining” and “The rain made a steady spitting sound as it hit the roof”.

Avoid adjectives and adverbs as much as possible. Look for strong verbs instead.

Consider the difference between HE WALKED SLOWLY and HE AMBLED, SAUNTERED, SHUFFLED, etc.

Repeat every morning: literary talent and command of English grammar are not mutually exclusive.

If you don’t know the difference between the Present Perfect and the Past Perfect, chances are you’ll confuse your readers.

Weed out cliches, platitudes, or jargon.

Your characters may occasionally use them in their dialogue, but the author must avoid them on pain of landing in an editor’s wastebasket.

Don’t sneer at the old-fashioned idea that most stories still need a beginning, a middle, and an end.

You may eventually want to break the rules, but it’s best to start by mastering them.

Avoid sacrificing your characters to linguistic fireworks.

Nothing will make a story more memorable than an interesting character.

Make your readers care about your characters’ fate.

This demands that you know, and understand, your protagonists better than you do your nearest and dearest.

Never use your story or novel to preach or opinionate.

There are far more lucrative professions for those unable to resist such impulses.

Keep an open mind while listening to criticism.

Don’t assume your critics are philistines just because they seem incapable of appreciating your exquisitely subtle symbols and metaphors.

Don’t take criticism personally.

If your teacher or classmates have problems with your work, be willing to consider it’s not because of your punk haircut or your nasal twitch. Do your best to listen, and to learn from criticism.

Don’t let daydreams come between you and hard work.

Think about your fictional plot, not about how you’ll spend your first royalty cheque.

Think about your characters’ feelings, rather than the satisfaction of thumbing your nose at the kindergarten kid who forgot to invite you to his birthday party.

If and when your work is published, you can send him/her an invitation to your book launch.

Don’t forget: life is stranger than fiction.

Just because something really happened will not necessarily make your plot believable. It takes enormous experience to make the improbable seem inevitable.

Try to learn from your predecessors.

Read everything you can get your hands on, good as well as bad. You can learn as much from others’ mistakes as their triumphs.

Unless she has relevant credentials, don’t ask your grandmother to read your work.

Or, if you really can’t help it, consider that love may indeed be blind.

Research the market before submitting your work.

Study literary and commercial magazines; carefully consider an agent’s particular interests, etc. Remember to follow professional guidelines.

Don’t expect an agent to triumph over unsaleable writing.

An agent might kiss your feet if s/he thinks there might be gold dust between your toes; otherwise, you’ll be lucky to get a polite form letter.

Don’t expect your first book to become an instant bestseller.

It’s been known to happen, but remains as unlikely as your playing Mozart the first time you sit down at a friend’s piano.

Don’t let rejection slips stop you – and don’t toss them out in a fit of rage.

Some day, they may provide you with a unique decorating idea.

Don’t think your problems are over if and when you get a publishing contract.

Enjoy the champagne, then pray for a good night’s sleep in the months to come.