Six Lessons I Learned from Writing ‘The Last Word’

The Last Word wasn’t my first novel, but it was the first novel that became part of the literary world. It got reviews, it was tweeted about- it made me feel like an author. Here’s a collection of things I learnt by writing it.

You have to write something you’d enjoy reading. You need to write stories for you, things that you find engaging and exciting and fun. It comes through in the writing if you’re just following a formula for ‘What I Think A Book Should Be’ and not actively engaged in it. Also if you’re the audience, it’s easier to figure out what type of people will like to read your book, because they’ll be just like you!

Love and cherish your characters. You have to know them, know exactly how they’d react to things, and why they do the things they do. More than that, you have to love them. You have to really feel for them when you cause them pain, have to worry about them when you make them make terrible decisions, and root for them when they need to rally themselves. If you’re not on their side, your reader won’t be either. You need to be both a god and a parent- get them into trouble, but want to protect them too!

-No-one likes everything. There is no point trying to adapt your storyline, characters or themes to fit in with a current trend. There is no point trying to pick a catchy title that plays on something famous, when the story doesn’t relate. Don’t waste your concept on a cheap marketing ploy. Instead, work on creating a story that is coherent and you can feel proud of, and then when someone doesn’t like it (which will inevitably happen, even if it’s a work of genius, there will always be a critic) you can feel safe knowing you created something that was true to you.

Writing what you know is a rule for a reason. I’m not a journalist who fell from grace and fell in love with an editor. But I do know what it’s like to be a writer. I know what it’s like to be a twenty-something who’s worried about making ends meet. I stole some of my favourite memories and put them down on the page. Silly things, like watching Queer As Folk for an entire weekend, having Nothing Days, watching VHS tapes from the charity shop, those are things from my life, with my friends. When readers related to them, because their friends are like my characters, it’s this wonderful affirming connection, and it feels like you’re representing a part of yourself in your work.

Write to discover your stories, your characters and yourself. You don’t have to plot everything out in one go, it doesn’t have to be certain. You’ll often find when you’re writing that you discover new avenues, that things about your characters are ‘revealed’ to you as you go along. That themes develop, problems appear, and you can learn things as you go. Trust in yourself and your process. Don’t feel like you have to rush it.

-Have a message. This is hard to cultivate if you don’t think you have one, but it often comes from the last point. You’re saying something every time you tell a story. If the good guy beats the bad guy, it means there’s justice in the world. If the girl chooses the nerd over the typical hero, it means that true love is based on people truly connecting. Your story is going to have a message, so once you know what it is, make sure it’s something you’re happy to stand behind!

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