Event Review: 40 Tips to Help You Write That Novel

Event Review: 40 Tips to Help You Write That Novel

Adele Parks
Warwick Masterclass
21 January 2017


Why did I go?

My friend, @WistfulCass, told me about this event and asked me to go with her. I wasn’t sure at first. She has a novel in progress that she is passionate about. I have no less than seven complete or partial very rough first drafts courtesy of NaNoWriMo (not counting the obligatory thinly disguised autobiography), none of which I considered worthy of the effort of taking any further. Of course, my sister, Cass and several other friends beg to differ – in spite of never having read any of ’em. So, having a free-ish weekend, some Christmas money left over, and knowing that the session was being led by a writer whose work I respect and that I’d not had the chance to listen to before, I thought why not? and went along.

What did it cover?

There were about 20 of us there, ranging from the man who had never written any fiction to the woman who has written three novels with the first about to come out in paperback from a major publisher. Tricky class to pitch to! But Adele Parks made sure she found out what we were all working on as well as what stage we were at and, if the conversations at lunchtime and thanks on Twitter are anything to go by, she succeeded in giving everybody things to think about. As you might expect, her 40 tips covered things to help with theme, plot and character; practicalities to do with getting in front of the screen or page; and getting publishers to pay attention as well as readers.

However, she also asked us to consider how we think of ourselves as writers. What’s our motivation? What do we read? Have we found out what works for us? How do we define ourselves and our work? This last question was rather tricky for me since every one of my attempts has been in a different genre. She told me to pick one to think about during the various exercises – but I cheated and oscillated between the literary fiction and the romance.

Adele encouraged us to apply the tips to our own WIP and share our insights and questions. This was a far better approach than studying examples which were bound to be irrelevant to some of us. By the end, we felt we knew enough about each other’s work to offer advice too, and several participants went away determined to stay in touch. (Perhaps I missed a trick by not giving everyone my card: marketing is so not my strong point!)

Who would I recommend it to?

The workshop was a perfect fit for those working on a novel and struggling with it in some way or another – although, as I’ve already said, those at other stages also felt they got plenty out of it. Of course, Adele is well-known for writing contemporary women’s fiction, but she proved herself adept at thinking outside her own field. She helped a crime writer discover their theme, a fantasy author think about their characters’ actions and a comedy writer think about their pitch. Should you have the opportunity to attend a workshop she is running, don’t let her oeuvre put you off.

What’s the biggest thing I’ve taken from it?

Not, this time, a solitary pearl of wisdom or big idea, but motivation. Looking at my drafts and fragments through the lens of these 40 tips made me realise that there is plenty to pillage and a couple of things worth developing. So now, two weeks after the workshop, I have a plan …



How do I deal with writer’s block?

How do I deal with writer’s block?

One of my favourite ways to get started

In the October 2014 edition of Writing Magazine (the one with Philip Pullman on the cover) there’s an article by Simon Whaley  called Software solutions which is about some of the alternatives to the ubiquitous Microsoft Word. He spoke to me about Write or Die (WoD), a program I initially bought for fun in 2009 but has since become  an incredibly helpful addition to my writing toolkit, and included some of my thoughts in the article (fame at last!). The rest of what I said about it is below but first, for those of you have never come across Dr Wicked’s creation, a brief overview.

What is Write or Die?

Write or Die allows you to set a word count goal to reach in a certain amount of time and then provides you with a no-frills environment in which to reach it. No formatting options, no distracting ribbons, no menus, just a window in which to type and a couple of progress bars so you can see how well you’re doing. When you’re done you can save it as a plain text file or/and copy and paste the text into your usual word processing program.

Write or die working screen showing time and word count bars along the top, text in the main screen and time remaining at the bottom.

So far, so straightforward, but what about the silliness? If you stop typing, WoD notices and ‘punishes’ you—it changes colour, makes a horrible noise or even, if you choose ‘kamikaze mode’, starts to delete what you’ve already written! You can select the level of punishment and the grace period before it kicks in, and there is a pause button to use when the person from Porlock calls, so it isn’t quite as counter-productive as it might seem. There’s also a statistics page for the geeky amongst us.

Write or Die statistics screen showing total words typed, punishments, high score, average WPM, average words per session and words eaten.

Version 2 has a prettier interface and offers customisable rewards as well as punishments—comforting backgrounds (visual and aural) that vanish when you slow down, cute puppies every few hundred words … not really my thing so, so far, I’ve stuck with the last iteration of the old version (pictured, and possibly still available here).

Front screen for Write or Die 2 showing options as before plus rewards and speedometer.

You can use WoD online, but I soon invested in the desktop version—why risk a connection glitch in the middle of an hour-long session? Write or Die 2 costs $20 for up to five machines (Windows, Mac or Linux), which I think is pretty good value. (By the way, this post has not been sponsored.)

So, to Simon’s questions.

How does Write or Die help you? What is it that appeals?

Two of my biggest problems are a wandering mind and editor’s eyes. I quite often catch myself staring at the wall thinking of something totally unrelated to what I’m trying to write about and can take ten minutes perfecting a tweet. With Write or Die, if my mind wanders and my fingers stop moving, I get called back to attention. It also lets me disable the backspace, so editing as I go along becomes next to impossible – although it does mean the first thing I do with the completed text when I’ve pasted it into Word or Scrivener is run a spellcheck! I tend to set a word target that I know I can just about achieve in the time and aim to keep the ‘words’ bar just ahead of the ‘time’ bar. (Is my mathematical brain showing?) That, plus the promise of chocolate or wine at the end, is better encouragement than any kitten pictures or whatever it is the new version offers.

When do you use Write or Die?

I initially bought WoD for NaNoWriMo and that’s probably still when I use it most frequently—Scrivener can provide the same target-setting functionality and a distraction-free writing screen, but if I want to get words out fast WoD is still better. However, it is most useful when I realise I’m stuck or am putting off starting something, because the only pressure is to keep typing. I know that some—maybe most—of what I write will be rubbish but it’s OK; by choosing to use WoD I’ve given myself permission to not be a perfectionist, to ignore the little voice which says, “This is awful! Stop and fix it!” or, “If this is all you can come out with, you’ll never be any good!” In theory, I could give myself that permission at any time, but I’m not good at cutting myself slack—the visual cue of a different interface makes sure I get my ideas onto a page where they can be worked on. Besides, as all the adherents of free writing say, it does sometimes help take a piece in unexpected new directions.

Is there a piece Write or Die helped you to produce that you’re particularly proud of?

That’s a harder question, because so much of my writing never makes it beyond the first or second draft. (Who was it said you need to write a million words of garbage before you’ve any hope of being good? I’m getting towards the first target, not sure about the second.) There was a particular piece I got stuck with a couple of years ago: I knew the situation about which I wanted to write, and the character, but there wasn’t really a plot as such. So I used WoD to make myself write 1000 words in half an hour. When I looked through the disjointed paragraphs I’d produced, I found a theme I was able to develop to provide the structure for a reflective short story that has impressed everyone who has read it (sorry, everyone bar one person who never ‘gets’ what I write anyway). It’s not exactly upbeat and certainly not People’s Friend suitable, but I must get round to entering it for some competition or other one day.

So, that’s one of the things I do when I have writer’s block. What about you?