A Book is a Shoal of Fish: Writing Tips
Dave Rudden, author of Knights of the Borrowed Dark, offers writing tips for you and your students! Whether for a creative writing piece for school, an essay for a class, or a piece of personal writing, these suggestions will help all writers find their voice.
I didn’t want to be a writer as a kid. Not because I didn’t love books, but precisely because I loved books – I thought authors were another species entirely. They had professor parents, or had been bitten by a radioactive author, or had went through some kind of [SECRET PROCESS] to become a person that could write a book, possibly involving tweed.
And I rarely give rules when I teach because every person is different, but I have learned this – writing is less about innate talent and more about hard work and dedication. Here are some things I learned while writing my first novel, KNIGHTS OF THE BORROWED DARK, and, while your path to writing a novel might be different than mine, I hope these can be of help.
A BOOK IS A SHOAL OF FISH
I get asked a lot about where I get my ideas, and I find it a fascinating question because people assume ideas are external, that you have to go somewhere to get them. Ideas are responses. They’re solutions. And they come from you.
I wrote KNIGHTS OF THE BORROWED DARK because I wanted to read a book about a kid who wasn’t automatically brave. I don’t know if I’m brave. I’d like to think I am, but I don’t think you can know until it’s tested, and as much as Teenage Dave wanted magic and a hero’s destiny, part of him also had a sneaking suspicion he’d be terrible at it.
That was my starting point. But that isn’t a book. So I had to ask myself –
Who is this kid? Why do they doubt themselves? Where do they live? How can I test them? What’s their shoe size?
These questions gave me direction. I wasn’t trying to come up with amorphous ideas, I was filling the space in an equation. And the answers didn’t come from outside. Instead, I went inwards – giving my protagonist magic because I love stories about magic, but giving the magic a Cost because I wanted my characters under pressure with no easy answers. My villains were bullies because I had been bullied as a kid, and bullies frighten me.
(The Man in the Waistcoat is playground mockery incarnate, the Woman in White brute force, and the Opening Boy a hurt child, because it’s important I remind myself, even now, that that’s what bullies are)
A book is not a single idea. It’s a shoal of fish – lots of tiny creatures moving together so perfectly they look like one single beast. And ideas are everywhere, but so are writers, so remember –
EVERY WORD IS A WEAPON
‘The word rolled from his tongue like a cockroach.’
I was very proud of this line. It tells you everything you need to know about the Man in the Waistcoat’s voice in just nine words, and when I excitedly shared it with an author friend he nodded, smiled, and pointed out… that cockroaches don’t roll.
‘The word skittered from his tongue like a cockroach.’
This might sound utterly pedantic, but there is a lot of competition out there, especially in children’s fiction. The way you stand out is by striving to be original, from your biggest concept to your smallest word. Read voraciously what’s out there. Take sharp left turns from overdone concepts, or turn them on their head.
Every person in the world is an intricate and unique machine. Different things inspire and scare and delight you. Make the book as you as you possibly can, because nobody else can write that book. And, most importantly –
YOU DON’T HAVE TO GET IT RIGHT FIRST TRY
KOTBD went through six drafts.
1st Draft – Me telling the story to myself
2nd Draft – Polishing and cutting and plugging every plot hole I could see.
3rd Draft – Polishing and cutting and plugging every plot hole my friends could see
4th, 5th, 6th – Going over every line, word and comma to make sure they belonged.
No book starts off perfect. They’re huge projects with a lot of moving parts, and it takes multiple drafts to make sure it all hangs together. Sometimes you have to put the wrong word down to find the right one.
You never, ever stop learning as a writer. Read interviews. Read books and watch videos on writing. Read writing tips, try them all, and only keep the ones that work (even these ones!) Share your work with friends and listen to what they have to say. Remember that every one of your favourite writers was in the exact same position you are now.
Best of luck. I look forward to seeing your book on the shelf.