Five writing tips from John Niven

Posted on 19th August 2015 by John Niven
Hold on, let us double-check this for swearing... No, good. *publish*

This week marks the publication of my seventh novel, The Sunshine Cruise Company. Coincidentally it was ten years ago this December that my first novel Music From Big Pink was published. Well, as the book was just 160-odd pages long it’s probably more accurate to say ‘novella’. Kill Your Friends, finished in 2006 but not published until the beginning of 2008, was my first full-length novel.

But let’s not get too bogged down in detail. Either way I have now been a published author for a decade. I officially left the music business in early 2002 (almost exactly ten years after I entered it) with enough money to last me a year, maybe two, and thinking to myself ‘that’s plenty of time to write the Great British novel.’ I marvel now at the combination of ambition, drive, certainty and, let’s face it, sheer and utter stupidity. But, in those early years, stupidity (and its near-cousin, ignorance) is your friend. It will get you quite a long way. Let’s face it – you’ve most likely got nothing else going for you.

In the end it took me three years to get published – an incredibly fortuitous success story when I look back now. A painful, penurious three years at the time. What have I learnt? How can I help you? Are there any shortcuts going?

Sadly I can offer you no shortcuts if you want to be a writer my friend. I can, however, share these few writing tips I’ve picked up along the way. Trust me, these are keepers.

‘Have them do something, then you’ll have something to change.’ The ‘them’ in this sentence refers to your characters and the situation it refers to are the horrible days when nothing is happening at the desk. I’m not given to ‘writer’s block’ and generally agree with Steven King – the worst three hours I spent at my desk were still pretty damn good. However there are mornings when nothing comes naturally, where it all feels uphill. If you force your characters to do something – anything – nine times out of ten, something will come of it.

‘Don’t get it right, get it written.’ In other words, on the first draft, do not look back. Keep going. Forward motion is all. There’ll be plenty of time to get it all right on drafts two, three and four (or, if you’re writing a film script with a major studio, drafts eighteen, nineteen and twenty) but, for now, just get it over with. With a first draft you’re looking for the thread, the pulse, of the actual story. (If you’re into story that is. I’m a big fan. B.S. Johnson, say, wasn’t.) The faster you can get the end of it, the more of a sense of that story you’ll have.

‘Screenplays are structure.’ This was William Goldman’s famous one, and it took me a while (and half a dozen scripts) to understand what he really meant by it. Structure is no more or less than the order in which you choose to tell your story, and, related to that, the pieces of information you need to do so. If you have unfolded these in the right order you will have a well-structured piece of writing. An easy test here (especially in screenwriting) is this: if you remove a scene there should be repercussions throughout the whole thing. If there are not, then either you didn’t need that scene or the whole thing is nonsense anyway.

‘Writing is rewriting.’ This, perhaps more than anything, is a golden truth. If you have no appetite for revision then start looking for another line of work. My first drafts of anything are appalling – packed with lazy description and perfunctory, overwritten dialogue. By draft three I’m usually onto something. Be warned though – it sometimes takes a colossal act of will to type ‘THE END’ on page 376 and then turn the thing over – this hulking bloody phonebook of typescript – and say ‘and now we start again.’

‘The thousands of wasted hours that writers must learn to take like Spartans.’ I cannot remember who said this (Doris Lessing? Joan Didion?) but it is absolutely true. You will go down dead ends. Blind alleys. Wrong turnings. You will throw characters, chapters, entire drafts, on the fire. And you have to get up and do it all over again.

If you can manage these five you might just have a shot.

So go on, take it like a Spartan and get it written.


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