I’m still very much in the apprentice stage of writing. I read somewhere that you need to write a million words before you know what you’re doing – so I’m headed that way, but I’m nowhere near there. But, for what they’re worth, here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way.
1. It’s OK to screw up. For me, this was the big revelation when I was writing my first book, In the Woods: I could get it wrong as many times as I needed to. I was coming from theatre, where you need to get it right every night, because this audience will probably never see the show again; it took me a while to realise that, until the book goes into print, it’s still rehearsal, where you can try whatever you need to try. If you rewrite a paragraph fifty times and forty-nine of them are terrible, that’s fine; you only need to get it right once.
2. Your character is always right. No real person thinks they’re being stupid or misguided or bigoted or evil or just plain wrong – so your characters can’t, either. If you’re writing a scene for a character with whom you disagree in every way, you still need to show how that character is absolutely justified in his or her own mind, or the scene will come across as being about the author’s views rather than about the character’s. You can’t make the judgement that your character is wrong; let the readers do that for themselves.
3. There’s no such thing as ‘men’ or ‘women’. There’s only the individual character you’re writing. One guy emailed me asking me how to write women, and I couldn’t answer, because I had no idea which woman he meant: me? Eleanor of Aquitaine? Lady Gaga? If you’re thinking of ‘men’ or ‘women’ as a monolithic group defined primarily by their sex, then you’re not thinking of them as individuals; so your character isn’t going to come out as an individual, but as a collection of stereotypes. Sure, there are differences between men and women on average – but you’re writing an individual, not an average. If your individual character is chatty on the phone or refuses to ask for directions, that needs to be because of who he or she is, not because of what he or she is. Write the person, not the genitalia.
4. Kill the dream sequence. My husband, who’s my first reader and who has a demon eye for sloppiness, says that a dream sequence is almost invariably either a repeat of something that’s already been done within the action, or a lazy way of doing something that should be done within the action. I think he’s let me get away with one dream in four books. At this point I just save us both time and kill them before he gets to them. You may well need to write the dream sequence, to help you towards an understanding of something in the book, but it’s very unlikely that anyone needs to read it.
5. Don’t be scared of ‘said’. Writers sometimes go looking for alternatives because they worry that ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ will feel repetitive if they’re used all the time, but I swear, they won’t. ‘Said’ is the default dialogue tag; readers don’t even notice it, the eye just skims over it. Anything else, on the other hand, does stick out. I read one book where the characters never said anything; instead they spent all their time grunting and bleating and hissing and cooing and growling and chirping and… It was like a menagerie in there. After a while I wasn’t even taking in the rest of the book, because that was all I could see: the dialogue tags. Unless your character is actually doing something specific that needs pointing out – shouting the line, say, or whispering it – it’s almost always a good idea to stick with ‘said’.
Tana French's new novel, Broken Harbor, publishes July 24 from Viking.