Author Gillian Harvey’s 7 Top Tips For Budding Novelists
The brilliant and prolific author and journalist Gillian Harvey shares the secrets of successful writing in this guest post, with her 7 top tips for budding novelists.
Do it every day
When I was first trying to write a full-length novel, I found the process quite overwhelming. The word-count I was aiming for loomed large in my mind and was so intimidating, some days I decided to give myself a break and do something different. The result? Every time I felt ready to return to my manuscript, I had to re-read what I’d already writtenbefore I could even set finger to keyboard. A complete waste of time and energy. Now, when I’m working on a book, I aim to write 2,000 words a day. But the important thing is not the word count, but the frequency. As long as you write something every day, you will stay ‘in’ the story. Your subconscious will continue working on it for you and none of your valuable writing time will be wasted on back-tracking.
Make it your creative focus
You’ve heard the expression ‘Jack of all trades, Master of none?’ If, like me, you’re a creative person you probably love writing but also quite enjoy a bit of art, or playing an instrument, or perhaps like to dabble in pottery. The mistake I made in the past was to try to be brilliant at everything I did – meaning I spread myself too thin. Writing was always my main passion, but I played the cello (never practiced enough), did (mediocre) painting and always had several projects on the go. I realised one day that if I really wanted to get somewhere as a writer I had to prioritise. For a time, I abandoned all other creative outlets, and concentrated on my writing without distraction. It made a huge difference and although I might try cello lessons again someday, right now I have no regrets.
Do it your way
People often ask authors, ‘Are you a planner or a pantser?’ my answer? Yes.
For me, a mixture of a loose plan and the freedom to go off on a tangent if one presents itself, is the perfect balance. Listing the main events of a story gives structure but doesn’t destroy the moments of creativity where my characters may take on a life of their own. In my most recent novel ‘Perfect on Paper’, there’s a pivotal moment that I hadn’t planned on – I went with the idea when it appeared, and it changed the entire book, and the life of my character.
I see pictures on Instagram of writers with colourful post-it notes or comprehensive white-boards and I feel intimidated. But then I remember that I do what works for me. It’s not pretty – and definitely unconventional. But it’s my way. There is no one way of writing a novel, so experiment and find the route that helps you most.
Back up your work
Yep. This is the boring bit. But I’m telling you to back up your work for good reason. Twice I’ve lost a chunk of work – and once a whole novel! I sent the first draft of ‘Everything is Fine’ to an agent and shortly afterwards, my laptop had a meltdown. Luckily, I wrote to the agent who was able to send me a copy of my own manuscript back!
Make that approach
Areyou ready to approach an agent? Should you approach an agent? Or should you complete one more edit first?
While it’s important to have your novel written when you send off your synopsis and 3 chapters (or whatever your chosen agent wants from submissions) don’t put off that moment because you don’t feel ‘ready’ or ‘good enough.’ Because you will probably never feel ready or good enough.
The best agents will see potential in work and will work with you to hone your manuscript further anyway, before sending it to publishers. And while editing is an important part of the process, if you think it might be time to send off your work, don’t let the voices of doubt in your head put you off.
See each setback as an opportunity
However good you are, however successful, you will have setbacks. These might be emotional – when you suddenly lose confidence in your work or they might be to do with a bad-review or missing out on a shortlist. When it comes to my own work, each and every minor blow feels magnified thousands of times. There are times when I’ve had bad news, or learned that I’ve missed an opportunity, and in that moment it can feel like the end of the world. But I try to get up the next day with a positive attitude, and thoughts of what I can do next. Taking action – even if it’s writing a plan, penning a short story for a competition or arranging an Instagram live with another writer – puts me back in the driver’s seat.
Don’t forget to enjoy it
Publishing a novel is both amazing and discombobulating. And if you’re not careful, the ups and downs, edits, in-between moments and minor setbacks will take over your life. As I approached publication day in May 2021, I suddenly realised that I’d let my book and thoughts about my book bleed into all areas of my life. And because of this, I’d put my happiness into the hands of others – reviewers, readers, publishers, my agent.
In this game, you can get swept along, you can easily become obsessive. Whenever you achieve a goal, you see another, bigger goal looming behind it. It’s not easy, but now I’m trying to enjoy the moment rather than always focusing on the next big thing.
Gillian Harvey’s second novel ‘Perfect on Paper,’ published by Orion, is out now.
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