You may know me first as a script editor and consultant, but I’m also a novelist too. I’ve published my book, THE DECISION: LIZZIE’S STORY in both the English language and German, with the follow up, JASMINE’S STORY, coming out September 2014. Working with countless writers over the years, I realise a huge proportion of scriptwriters want to write their own novels. Many make various attempts, but few actually finish or go on to publish their own. Yet, what if I were to tell you being a screenwriter actually HELPS you become a novelist. Here’s how:
1) Road Test Your Concept
Without a great, bombproof concept, you’ve got nothing. It really is as simple as that. So come up with an idea and hone it before you write a single word of your novel, just like you would a spec screenplay. Get feedback on it. Rewrite it, polish it until it shines!
TIPS: Don’t skimp on this aspect; you can’t afford to. Do you want to spend up to a year or even beyond, writing a novel that will sink without a trace because there’s not enough new about it? Didn’t think so. I came up with my concept by mining my own personal experience as a teenage mum, but crucially by identifying what was MISSING from the stories already told about teen mums – ie. abortion; miscarriage; the fact that teen Mums are real people, not stereotypes. Think of your own experience and then identify whether you can present a “fresh take” on something with it. MORE: 7 Steps To Road Testing Your Concept
Being a screenwriter already, you should have plenty of experience planning and writing those screenplays via outlines, treatments and one page pitches. It’s said you should never write a script without knowing the end point first and I think it’s advantageous to do the same when approaching novels. I’ve found most wannabe novelists never finish their manuscripts because they drift off course and/or panic. Yet if you know where you’re going, you know what you’re doing – so you won’t end up demotivating yourself.
TIPS: Write a one page pitch for your novel FIRST; really “sell it off the page” to yourself. Even write a logline if you want to. From there, write an extended pitch, followed by a “blow by blow” outline or treatment. This will be hard work (mine took as long as actually writing the entire novel, in fact!) but believe me, it will pay dividends. As I always say, your best writing is always done by thinking! MORE: Free novel writing pitch template to download, plus other B2W resources.
3) Know your audience
Like a spec screenplay, a slush pile novel without a discernible audience has no identity. This means that however good your writing is, if you don’t know who will appeal to, it will “misfire”. Don’t leave it to chance.
TIPS: Identify your audience; research them. Know who they are, what they’re like, what their POV is … This will help inform not only your marketing at the end of this process, but the story itself as you write it! Really guvnor 😉 I found my audience, teenagers, in “real life” as a teacher, plus on social media – by talking to them BEFORE I began writing, I knew what they wanted and needed from my story, because I knew how teens saw the world.
Structure, whether you follow the 3 Acts, the 22 Steps, Syd Field’s paradigm, Chris Soth’s Mini Movie Method or something else, is the screenwriter’s friend – but it’s also the novelist’s too. A highly structured novel “anchors” the reader in the story and can be highly prized in a slush pile of meandering and vague manuscripts.
LIZZIE’S STORY (and all the subsequent novels) follows a very particular structure:
i) prologue, where the issue is set up
ii) Chapters 1-5, where each different situation is played out, followed by
iii) an epilogue where the character makes her decision.
The above structure is not linear; in living out the various scenarios, our protagonist may go backwards and forwards in time, but the reader is able to follow because s/he realise “where” s/he is in the story and how it relates to what is going on in the “present”. Many novels in the slush pile are very confusing on the element of time because they’re so vague, much like non linear screenplays can seem very disjointed if a scriptwriter has not “restructured his/her structure”.
TIPS: Whatever structure you decide to follow in your novel, make sure it “informs” the story and situation your protagonist is going through. Again, this is where research and just TALKING TO PEOPLE in real life comes in very handy!
Like spec screenplays, novels need strong characters whose journeys the reader can invest in … And like those spec scripts, the reader does NOT want 2D characters, stereotypes or “the usual”, but equally s/he doesn’t want something completely out the left field, either. This might be common sense, but often characters in slush pile novels will make the same howlers as spec screenplays; wannabe novelists need to find out what feels “stale” and “out of fashion” every bit as much as the spec screenwriter.
TIPS: Get researching! Find out what’s on the market and who the characters are and why they appeal. Make sure you follow agents on Twitter and ask them questions about characters they like and/or want to see more of via the #askagent hashtag (if they participate). And most of all, make very deliberate character choices: Lizzie is an unusual character for me, because she’s very much an “EveryGirl”, so the teenage reader can imagine herself in Lizzie’s place. Jasmine from my next book however is completely different: very shy, retiring, a wallflower even. Both characters are not me in the slightest, so I had to really stretch myself. Don’t be afraid of the work!
6) Less Is More
Many writers make the mistake of thinking a novel is very verbose and flowery, but just like a spec screenplay, less really is more! But what does this mean?
Put simply: get to the point. Do not describe “around the houses” or place events “away” from the reader. Involve them however you can. Get the reader to INVEST in your characters’ journeys. And one obvious last point, here – but your manuscript MUST be polished to perfection. Your spelling, grammar and punctuation must be tip top or bust.
TIPS: Do not be vague and cut out the waffle, making sure your manuscript is as shiny as a new pin. MORE: 7 Big Mistakes In Spec Novels
7) Know That Page One is Everything
It’s said that spec screenplays get ten pages to impress, but in a sea of submissions the reality is, it’s actually just ONE page. It’s the same for novels, especially once your novel is on the Kindle or the shelf. People will open your book to SEE…
So never, ever skimp on page one. Make sure you begin with the BEST choices you can, to really hook the reader and pull them in to your novel … Make them have NO CHOICE but to keep reading! MORE: 7 Things Readers Can Tell About Your Script On Page 1.
BIO:Lucy V Hay is a novelist, script editor and blogger who helps writers via Bang2write. She’s one of the organisers of London Screenwriters’ Festival and associate producer of the Brit Thrillers DEVIATION (2012) and ASSASSIN (2014), both starring Danny Dyer. To keep up with LIZZIE’S DIARY, “Like” the Facebook page.