Having never taught creative writing and having avoided writing workshops, mentoring and such things, I’ve always been reluctant to give writing tips. Over the years I’ve trotted out the same pat answer: Imitate the manner of the writer you most admire, using your own material.
While I still think this is good advice, I find, now that I’m halfway into a new book and thinking about the process more than I usually do, I can add a few more suggestions. I emphasise that these apply primarily to writing genre fiction, entertainments, not literature.
1 Keep the chapters short. Genre readers like to feel that they are going on a journey, but they also like to feel that they’re making progress.
2 End each chapter with what I would call an electrical charge. It can be positive or negative but, as with the suggestion above, the aim is to provide reader momentum.
3 Always try to end a writing session knowing what will come next to avoid the next session being too much of a plot/scene/character challenge. This was Ernest Hemingway’s practice and he knew a bit about writing.
4 Be very sparing in the use of children. Genre readers are adults and, in general, want to be taken into an adult world. It’s permissible for a child’s account of events to be presented, but it should then be interpreted by an adult.
5 Clichés such as: For a big man he moved with amazing speed or Her legs seemed to go on forever, should be avoided unless you can think of some way to get some extra juice out of them.
6 This, I believe, applies to all sorts of fiction writing: be very sparing if rendering slang and demotic speech phonetically. In general it’s best to suggest this the first time the character speaks and to let that impression pervade subsequent speech without drawing attention to it. Of course this requires subsequent speech not to be excessively grammatical. It needs a light touch. Patrick White’s use of ‘Yairs’ for ‘Yes’ in The Tree of Man annoyed me and Tim Winton’s persistent phonetic renderings in Cloudstreet (recently voted Australia’s most-read novel) made it unreadable for me.
7 Road-test jokes with someone you know has a sense of humour.
8 It’s advisable for an approved-of protagonist to be aware of safe sex (and a genre novel without sex is like soup without salt). The best way to do this is with a quick condom reference – I scrambled for a condom or He/she produced a condom – at the first encounter. The reader can assume the right thing was done thereafter.
9 If, when out and about, a thought or a snatch of dialogue occurs to you, commit it to memory – don’t write it down. Writing it down will freeze it; swimming about in the warm memory soup, it might just get better.
10 Perhaps most importantly of all – respect the reader. Writers who cannot resist the impulse to demonstrate how much cleverer they are than their readers (politeness forbids me to name some offenders), don’t deserve to have any and in the long run probably won’t.
Of course it’s open to the aspiring writer to observe the advice I think came from the wise old golf pundit Harvey Penick: Ignore all tips!