Just because everybody loves a good listicle (so I hope it qualifies), here’s the A to Z of writing.
A is for Authenticity – you don’t have to know what you’re talking about. Write what you know, write what you don’t know but just make sure you sound like you know what you’re talking about. If you write about the police force and someone actually in the police force reads your book lacking in accuracy or verisimilitude (the ring of truth), then that person won’t hesitate to tell the world. And you’ll just come off as someone who couldn’t be bothered doing a little bit of research.
B is for Brainstorming – it’s one thing to have an idea but to bring it to life with all the little details that give it depth, you’ll have to do a lot of brainstorming. If you want to write about a man who kills his father, great (maybe not for your father, who might wonder why). But it becomes two very different stories depending on whether the son had a happy upbringing or an abusive one. And only brainstorming will get you to the point where the story makes meaningful sense.
C is for Characters – I’ve written about characters before and the roughly seven types (everyman/woman, hero, anti-hero, villain and the three characters who fall between each of those categories). I’ve also written about how characters are one of the three crucial things that make a great book (the other two being plot and the writing itself). So it’s really important to get your characters right. They don’t have to be likeable and, contrary to popular opinion, they don’t have to be relatable. They just have to be interesting and make readers want to spend time with them.
D is for Dialogue – stilted, unrealistic or laughable dialogue is a great way to doom your writing before it even has a chance to get off the ground. Writing dialogue is a talent in itself and there are a few things you can do to help improve it. The first is simply to listen. People talk naturally without giving a lot of thought to what they are saying and if your characters can do the same (or at least sound like they are doing the same), then you’ll be off to a great start. Then edit. Real conversations are peppered with boring stuff that you can cut out to make your dialogue much sleeker. And finally, read conversations aloud or, even better, have a friend or family member act the dialogue out with you so you can hear how it sounds. If you (or your friend or family member) stumble or laugh as you are attempting to get the words out, then the same will probably happen to the reader as they read and you’ll know it needs work.
E is for Editing – your work will always need editing. Even I, a trained editor, have to take off my writer’s hat and put on my editor’s hat when I’m editing my own writing. And even then, I still ask others to read my work and find the things I have missed. Because I make mistakes as I write. I make spelling mistakes, I make typos, I include inconsistencies. Sometimes (although not that often) I even make mistakes as I edit (usually inconsistencies rather than genuine errors). But it happens to the best of us. And as much as possible, you shouldn’t inflict your mistakes on readers.
F is for Feedback – one of the golden rules of writing is that you must listen to feedback. Yes, feedback is often personal rather than objective but that doesn’t make it irrelevant. So whether it’s your partner, your best friend, your writing group or an editor you’re paying, you must listen to their feedback and genuinely consider how to take their advice and make your writing better. You don’t know it all and you never will.
G is for Goals – goals, whether big or small, will help point you in the direction of where it is you want to end up. I advocate for a combination of both because having one big goal can seem impossible sometimes and not having one makes it difficult to know where you’re going. But if you want to write a book (big goal), maybe working towards a single chapter (small goal) or even just 500 words of that chapter (even smaller goal) will be the way to get there.
H is for Help – writing is a solitary occupation but as much as it might seem like you have to do everything, nobody can write, edit, polish, publish and market a book all by themselves. For me, polishing and marketing are the two things I always ask for help with. For you, it might be editing and publishing (I’m helping a first-time writer as I write this to edit and publish his book). Whatever it is, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes you’ll have to pay for it, sometimes people will be willing to help for free. But you’ll never know if you never ask. And if you never ask, your writing will never be the best version of itself or get to the people it needs to get to.
I is for Ideas – the thing that gets the whole process going is one great idea. It’s harder than it sounds. They don’t just pop into your head fully formed. It takes work. It takes a lot of musing. And sometimes it takes just as much effort to figure out if someone else has already had the same great idea. Because there’s no point spending months or even years developing your idea if somebody else has already written an almost identical book.
J is for Job – the one you’ll need to keep until you earn enough money from your writing to be able to quit. And believe me, it can be a long, long time before that happens.
K is for Keyboard – get familiar with the keyboard of your computer because you’ll be spending a lot of time tapping away on it unless you’re one of those nostalgic types who still writes long hand and wants to guarantee crippling arthritis in your later years, in which case you’ll be forced onto the keyboard eventually anyway (or forced to hire someone to take dictation or type up your dictation).
L is for Luck – no matter how much hard work even the most talented writer puts in, sometimes there is nothing that substitutes for a little bit, or even a lot, of luck.
M is for Motivation – why would anyone choose to write when there are so many better options? Like reading, watching movies, eating, socialising, waterskiing, dancing, etc? And sometimes even when you want to write, you just don’t have the motivation required. So if you can motivate yourself, great. If you can’t, sit down and try to write anyway. The motivation might show up. If it doesn’t, keep writing anyway. The mark of a true writer is someone who writes despite the challenges.
N is for Novel and Non-Fiction – almost every writer who wants to write fiction will end up writing non-fiction as well. Sometimes it’s the way into the fiction world (James Phelan’s first published book was Literati, a collection of interviews with notable Australians in the publishing industry, followed by more than twenty fiction novels), sometimes it’s because the established fiction writer has something they want to say about a non-fiction topic (Tara Moss wrote quite a few crime novels with main character Makedde Vanderwall before transitioning into some very deep and important subjects in The Fictional Woman and Speaking Out) and even I have published one fiction and one non-fiction book (so far and mostly because I didn’t realise I was writing the content for a non-fiction book as I wrote my blog posts). Go where the writing takes you.
O is for Originality – it’s becoming harder and harder as each new idea is claimed but there needs to be something different and original in whatever it is you are writing, otherwise what’s the point? If it’s all been done before, then readers might still read you but you’ll generally pale by comparison to whoever did it first. Whether it’s an original plot, an original character, an original genre, an original style or just an original spin on a familiar story, there’s got to be something new.
P is for Plot – the second of the three crucial elements for a good book (the other two being characters and the writing). If you’ve ever read a book review that complains, “Nothing happens!” (not that rare, you’ll see it in some of mine), you’ll know that readers enjoy a good plot. Books in which nothing happens and no one changes are generally felt to be a waste of time from the reader’s point of view. That doesn’t mean your plot needs to be epic. Yes, you can have a cast of characters saving the world but sometimes it’s just as interesting to read about characters who need to save themselves from the trials and tribulations of a normal life.
Q is for Qualifications – you don’t need any but qualifications may help to make you a better writer. In any case, they certainly won’t make you a worse writer.
R is for Reading – because all writers must read. Firstly, because it will expose you to what others are doing. Secondly, because it will teach you more about writing. And, thirdly, because of karma. If you don’t read, how can you possibly expect others to read you?
S is for Style – your writing style is all about the choices you make, the words you choose, the way you structure your sentences and paragraphs. Hemingway was described as having a minimal style, Toni Morrison has a descriptive style and I like to think I have a dry yet humorous style but I’m still working on it. By the way, you don’t have to have just one style. Sometimes different books require different styles or writers simply want to experiment.
T is for Time – something that all writers never have enough of. So write early, write often, write whenever you can and don’t waste a minute.
U is for Universe – the universe you choose to put your characters in, whether that’s a real world universe, an alternative world universe, a dystopian world universe or the Marvel universe. Making up new and different worlds can be a lot of fun but so can putting a fictional character into the real world and imagining how they react to it and how it reacts to them.
V is for Voice – although I should really say voices because it is the thing that makes you sound different from all the other writers and it’s also the thing that makes your characters sound different from each other. Finding your unique voice can develop over time and take a while but it’s one of the things that make readers choose your romance novel or crime novel or memoir over somebody else’s.
W is for Work – hard work, that is. Yes, writing can be fun and exciting and rewarding but most of the time, it is just a long hard slog. The way you generally know that you’re meant to be a writer is that the long hard slog doesn’t make you give up. As my favourite paraphrase goes, “It’s meant to be hard. The hard is what makes it great. If it wasn’t hard, everybody would do it.”
X is for X Chromosome – which women have two of. And unless you’re writing a book about an all-male colony on Mars (or something similar), then you’re going to have to write a female character or two along the way. It’s important not to fall into the trap of writing one-dimensional stereotypes or any stereotypes for that matter. Yes, women can be mothers, virgins, whores and astronauts, but as a general rule that’s not all they are. Your female characters should be complex and layered and multi-dimensional.
Y is for Y Chromosome – which only men have. And your male characters should be complex and layered and multi-dimensional, too, not just tall, dark and handsome action heroes with bulging muscles on a mission to save the girl and the world. Unless all the men in your writing universe have died out (or something similar), you’re going to have to write a male character or two along the way.
Z is for Zillions – this is how many times you will doubt yourself during the writing process and how many times you’ll have to overcome those doubts. And if you’re very, very lucky and very, very motivated and very, very hardworking and very, very original and very, very authentic, then it might just stand for the rewards you receive in the end.