Good Riddance to Bad Rubbish or Getting over being a new writer

So the beginning of this is kind of the end too. I'll explain. Long form. Big nutshell. Get a drink.

I'm working on a WIP. Something I've had on the backburner a long time (though not as long as some other things...) that I love, and is quite different from my fantasy and sci-fi. It's a black comedy - initially contemporary, but as it took me so long to novelise it nine years passed, and so it's kind of historical now. It's our world though, but though it sounds easier than having to audit your own made-up fantasy world and characters, for a long time I was incredibly caught up in an information overload of another sort, and unable to really make it interesting.

That information was how to and how not to write. All those books, those podcasts, those videos, on how you formulate books, how you formulate stories, what you are forbidden to do if you aren't a famous writer (never think you are good enough to experiment like Anthony Burgess because you ARE NOT HIM!), only using "said" and never any other word, how to simplify this and that and this, never write really long novels because publishers don't like them and blah blah blah... RULES RULES RULES.


It was a big hot mess. Now, I'm not actually one to look at all this "advice" and try and follow it all of it, but it's sat there constantly at the back of my mind every time I've written a book, and in so many ways has held me back from exploring my work in new ways and experimenting with styles like I used to.

When I was younger, I wanted to be a screenwriter. I spent a lot of time and a lot of money taking many courses and attending training days, learning about screenwriting and trying to make my work as close to what we were being taught as possible. I had a short film funded and made too, but I think the training was where the problem started.

Screenwriting is a very strict discipline nowadays, if you're looking to get into real business with it (smaller productions are looser) you are told you need to follow the rules or you'll get nowhere. True. Mostly. But then, hardly anyone gets anywhere with screenwriting anyway in the grand scheme of things.

The problem is that the rules and regulations surrounding screenwriting and touted by the big production companies are flouted, unless you know those in the know. I remember attending a big conference in London, and a talk with the writer of some popular werewolf kids show on the BBC where we were given one of her scripts to read, and at the same conference being at a lecture about screenwriting by a Hollywood pro. The fundamental rules of screenwriting "Show, Don't Tell" was broken on the second page of this werewolf script, even though the BBC drives this mantra forward to prospective new script writers when opening submissions. She was a new writer at the time, I believe (a Writersroom production recipient), and you can imagine how frustrating it was having such close contradiction in such a short space of time. It was after my short film, actually, I decided to give up scriptwriting and move into novels instead. Mostly because I wanted to have far more control over how I write, and also because I didn't like the environment. That and you need a team to create film, where as a novelist you don't. You can, but you don't have to - and only essentially after you've completed the draft MS.

Now before I hear loads of "Show, Don't Tell" is the basis of novel writing, too, I will politely disagree. It is one in film because of the haste with which a screenplay writer needs to get across their story and characters. There is no room for 'directing' your script, or John Steinbecking your scenery, and everything is in first person present tense. Showing is essential, because you're not paid to direct a script. It is not in prose. SDT is used in prose, but it is not the fundamental basis.

With novels, though, you are the god, regardless of perspective. Novels have the capacity to take readers on journeys through descriptive prose, heightened emotions, theatres of war and real stories on the emotional rather than just the superficial level. 'He threw the book to the floor, hard,' is fine, but 'He threw the book to the floor, his decade-long suppressed rage swelling in him, expanding from his heart to his extremities', is far more evoking (and could do with an edit) and ensures the writer's intent is presented correctly. You can't show rage swelling in someone except maybe them getting red-faced, and shaking, but he could be just as easily constipated, right? You can show and tell to your heart's delight, but the point is not to explain everything.


I found novel writing extremely hard a first, and I spent a long time on my first book. I had initially written it as a script (as I used to write everything back then) which was under 60 pages, and then novelised it, expanding it...a lot. I had to try and unlearn all this screenwriting knowledge to free myself of that simplicity, and let go of the limit on myself not to own my worlds, because someone would change it during production. I pushed to try something deeper and more emotionally interesting. Eventually, after many years I finished, I published, and then two years later I republished after stripping 10k words from it and doing a complete revamp. I am very proud of my first novel, and though it's not anywhere near perfect, it was some kind of turning point for me after so much restrictive writing (or style at least) in the past.

So I got to work on my second novel. Really, really hard. Much longer, much deeper, much darker. And it tested some writing boundaries I'd not clambered over before. But when I came to those gorges, I built my bridges across them and wandered precariously over. I also read George Orwell's Why I Write, which has probably the most succinct and simple instructions for how to ensure your writing is at its best and makes sense (the essay is Politics and the English Language). He's speaking of political writing in particular but the advice is transferable.

On the final edit, after publishing it, I looked back. To this day I think it is my favourite work so far. I think it is my best so far (even though I published my third book after that) and probably the one I am structurally most proud of. I also learnt a lot and improved how I went about planning and executing. I opened my mind and expanded my world to my own excitement, spent a far longer amount of time editing, and finally thought, I can bloody do this!

Standing on the precipice...

The problem, I think, began in earnest after this. I wanted to learn more about novel-writing and the process, and how to make my work better, after reading some fantastic indie books (and crappy Big 5 books) started reading and listening to all those novel blogs, and books and videos. The constant "if you want this you MUST do this", or "I did this and now I'm a gazillionaire!" etc. and the "NEVER do these things when writing novels" - my God it was suffocating.

In between my second and third novels, I'd listened to Stephen King's On Writing (then some terrible books on writing from elsewhere). I loved it. It was great hearing about his life from his own mouth, and also about his process - note HIS - and some advice for the newbie. Advice which is also prevalent in Orwell's work. But the most important thing was his assurance that there are going to be very few Shakespeares in the world, not to try to be Shakespeare, and the life lesson most writers are going to fall in the middle-ground. Assured it's OK to be on the middle ground, I remind myself of this every time I write and urge myself to do my best, not the best I think other people want. To write the story I want to write, not the story I think people would prefer I wrote. Some people will say write for yourself, others, write what the market wants. Me? It's your book. How you do or don't waste your time is your business, but passion drives me not market research.

When I wrote In Perpetuity, the chatter of repetitive advice about how people should write was still floating about in my noggin, and I feel it (amongst others stressful things) held me back from really pushing the boundaries. Don't get me wrong, I still love it, but there are things I would change if I were writing it again in how I approached the ideas and the prose. There are also other ideas I'd wish Id incorporated...but there's always the future...

Now we're up to date, the turning point for me is this comedy novel. As I said, originally a script, I decided I loved the characters so much that I wanted to wholly realise it and started writing a novel. It wasn't going particularly interestingly. As a script it was punchy and driven, but shallow. As a novel it was empty and bland, and though the dialogue was snappy and funny (IMHO) and I loved all the characters, the voice of the book wasn't there.

I decided to try it out as a stage play instead. And this was the moment everything changed.

Have you ever been to the theatre and forgotten you were there in a dark room with a bunch of other people? I have never in my life wanted to write for the theatre. I love going, but never wanted to write for it, however, I have seen so many wholly captivating productions, with such simple sets, or amazingly inspired almost-impossible production design, that totally drew me in, I decided it might be an interesting way to look at my story.

And by God, it was the best thing I ever did. I formatted the screenplay as a stage play, then went through it scene by scene to see how it could possibly work. The story had a lot of flashbacks, but was set primarily in one location, but with the characters at different ages. The single location is great for theatre, but the flashbacks not so much. So I looked into how I would tell each character's story from these flashbacks in a way that would not only work logistically on stage but that would show their character's emotions and arcs clearly and in unique ways. It was the moment I found the 'voice' of that story. I never really understood what this miraculous 'writer's voice' was, but I think on this I had the epiphany.

I never actually completed the play script, because once I'd found the characters in how I'd represented their arcs I had the baseline for my book. Not only that, scenes that had to be cut or edited from the play version because they didn't work, got returned in the novel because they worked there. In writing out of my knowledge zone, all the learning for screenwriting I'd done and all the research into novels I'd done was basically useless, and my brain let go and allowed me to experiment.

It was the most invigorated and the most free I'd felt in writing since book two, and before then it would have been before I ever took a course in any kind of writing. Oodles and oodles of scripts I'd finished from those X-Files specs (just me?) to the In Perpetuity feature, the last script I ever wrote, were so much fun to write and explore before all these rules came along. And writing should be fun. It shouldn't be shrouded and there isn't a gatekeeper. Well, there is, and it's you. As a self-pubber you are the one who decides when your work is ready, and though it can be extraordinarily scary, difficult, and can take years worth of labour, imagine how amazing you'll feel when someone gives you a positive review and you can take ALL the credit?

And though George Orwell's words of wisdom in his Politics & the English Language essay (in Why I Write) are still my favourite source when I'm editing (and my advice is read it), it's worth remembering nobody ever said 'Show me a story.'

Though it is possible.

And breathe...

Loyal Lyre
An Indie Publisher
Gloucestershire, UK

©Jessica O'Toole 2021 All Rights Reserved