Last year we visited the Charles Dickens house in London, which is when we found out there was a 2017 movie about the author’s life called The Man Who Invented Christmas. I only watched it recently – it’s available on Amazon Prime – and then I watched it again and took notes. These are tips based on the movie; few of them can be traced directly to Dickens, although it’s biographical.
Charles Dickens self-published one of the most successful books of all time, “A Christmas Carol.”
Here are 30 writing tips to help you succeed in 2019.
At the beginning of the movie, Dickens is already a famous, successful author – just returning from a tour of America, and lauded as the “people’s author” for writing about the lives of the poor.
When he gets home, he’s broke and stuck. He’s afraid he’ll never be able to write something successful again. He’s overspent on home improvements for his growing family. He has no idea what to write about next.
But he has bills to pay and needs some fast money, so he asks his publishers for a loan. They tell him he’s already in debt, because his last few books have flopped, plus his father has been borrowing money in his name as well.
So he asks, how about an advance, on a NEW book?
TIP #1: it’s easier to write a new, better book than successfully squeeze new life from older books that never took off.
So now, he has intention to write something, AND he’s got some new money – but he has to do some work to earn off the advance. His assistant and friend Foster tells him he has to learn how to say NO.
TIP #2: The easiest way to write more books is to do less of other things. If you want to write, you need to be selfish with your time and spend it wisely (invest you time into building the lifestyle you want).
Dickens is not ready to hear this advice however, and he says “how can I say no if I can be useful, if I can lighten the burden of another?” (Casual statement that will become critical later.)
But there’s no choice. Now he has an advance, and a deadline: the first chapter needs to be done by the end of the year.
TIP #3: Nothing motivates like a hard deadline, with other people counting on you to finish, and real consequences for failure.
Dickens asked “Do you mind telling me what it’s about?”
He’s been collecting interesting names in a notebook, but still has no idea what his new book will be about. But because there’s a deadline and intent, now his experience is filtered through the screen of his imagination.
TIP #4: Creativity is useless without form and structure. You have an unlimited supply, but unless you can collect it and package it together in some form other people can consume and enjoy, it has no worth or value.
He’s still got writer’s block, but is distracted by a new Irish nanny telling children’s ghost stories. She tells him, where she’s from, they believe the veil between the spirit realm is thinnest over Christmas.
TIP #5: You don’t have to create something absolutely new – all great works of literature are based on other stories. Seek ideas everywhere and you’ll never be out of inspiration.
He has the seed of a potential idea now, but still doesn’t know what form it will take. And, the pressure is mounting. He’s complaining about the cost of his wife’s candles, and says:
“I’m just sick of writing tooth and nail for bread. I should have become a journalist, or a lawyer.” Anything for stable income.
His wife tells him they’re expecting another baby.
So now, his whole family and the new arrival is counting on him.
TIP #6: Every writer wishes they could be free to write without worrying about money; but the truth is, financial problems can be VERY motivating – but only if you’re writing commercial books.
And, books written for money are often BETTER than ones written for personal pleasure or satisfaction. (Also, there’s never enough money – Dickens was a rich and successful author, and still in debt – do the work with the time you have, instead of wishing your lifestyle was different and allowed you more time for writing).
He has some flashbacks to his childhood, and we start to see the deep wound of fatal flaw of the main character (which is wrapped up in the figure of his father, who was arrested for debts when he was a kid).
He plays with his kids and asks the nanny to tell him more about the Irish myth.
Then after a public talk, some rich jerk tells him “people like that (poor people) don’t belong in novels.”
Dickens asks where they belong, and the rich guy says,
“Are there no workhouses?”
“You know how many people would rather die than go to one of those places?”
“Well then, they better do it, and reduce the surplus population.”
Dickens gets ANGRY, which fuels his creativity. It gives him a cause and a focus.
TIP #7: Find something you’re passionate about. It won’t be the WHOLE book – because that would be propaganda – but find some contentious issue for your characters to care about.
He now has just a snippet of a conversation, and a desire to express the contradictory view in writing. His brain is spinning ideas now, connecting everything.
His eyes are opened to social injustice. He sees a guy selling young kids for child labor and chases after them. Then he ends up in a cemetery. A rich man was just buried, with nobody but an old, frail partner to mourn him.
The old guy leans in close and says,
Dickens runs home to write and start putting ideas together.
TIP #8: Ideas come to you when you START – not before. You can’t wait for inspiration. Get started, and inspiration will meet you halfway.
Now that he has some ideas, he pitches it to his publisher. He tells them it’s a social commentary,
“A hammerblow to the heart of this smug, self satisfied age”.
He’s met with silent stares, so he says.
“It’s a comedy.”
They ask what it’s called and he tests a name.
“Humbug: a miser’s lament.”
They frown, so he tries some others, that are more obvious.
“Christmas ghost story? Christmas ballad? Something like that.”
TIP #9: You need to pitch your idea in way that resonates with your intended audience. If you want someone to buy or support your book, they have to “get it” and see the benefits – you can’t convince them that they’re wrong to be uninterested in your book. It’s YOUR job to communicate the value.
There’s one more question.
“Why Christmas? It’s just an opportunity for picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December. A minor holiday. Not much of a market for it.”
They go one: “We’re already halfway through October. Even if you’d already finished it, we couldn’t possibly get it illustrated, typeset, printed and bound, advertised and distributed to shops, in only six weeks.”
“Well, thank you for your opinion,” Dickens says, and gives BACK the advance.
On the street he says,
“I’ll do it myself! I’ll pay for it myself. Illustrations, everything. I’ll distribute it myself.”
TIP #10: Self-publishing is a viable option. It allows you to have more control and publish much faster, while keeping more of the proceeds.
First, Dickens has to raise some capital. He takes out even more debt and says “find me an illustrator.”
He hires the BEST illustrator and has the exact specifications he wants for his book.
TIP #11: Please don’t take out massive debt to publish or market your book. You can publish cheaply and see if anyone likes it before investing. On the other hand, if you’re an established author with proven successes, investing in quality book design can make a HUGE difference in sales.
Dickens is now fully committed to self-publishing this book, which he hasn’t written yet, and has less than 6 weeks till Christmas. The first big step is finding a main character. Dicken’s main character, the protagonist, is actually a bad guy (flawed or anti-hero who experiences redemption).
First he discovers the NAME, because according to him, if you find the right name, the character will appear fully formed… which is partially true. You can have ideas, but you don’t have a novel until you have a main character. A novel is the collection of experiences that happen to a main character; the main character or protagonist is the one who is most changed through the events in the novel.
He also finds and reads Varney the Vampire a penny dreadful book he borrowed from the maid. If you’re going to be inspired, it’s better to do it from something outside your genre, so the connection isn’t as obvious. Dickens may have learned more about writing horror or supernatural thrillers, then borrowed some of those writing techniques for his ghost story.
Once he starts with Scrooge, having a conversation with him and figuring out his ordinary world, another character wants to come in. Dickens names him “Marley” and lets the conversation unfold. Marley introduces the inciting incident, intrigue, and CHANGE.
TIP #12: In the first chapter, something new, unexpected, and dramatic needs to happen. Something with real conflict and danger. Describe the ordinary world, then put pressure on the protagonist.
Dickens dresses Marley up in chains and a safe – it’s his criticism of miserly greed; a rant against his creditors and publishers. He’s making progress, when his mother and father move in.
We get another childhood reveal: flashbacks of father, getting carted away, arrested for debt. Dickens going to a workhouse and made fun of by bullies. It’s important, because it sets up the critical flaw or personal weakness that’s holding him back, something he’ll have to transcend in the story. (It also adds a flash of conflict and dread between otherwise calm scenes).
Still, he’s confident.
“How’s the book?”
“Brilliant. Best thing I’ve ever written… I have 11 pages.”
He meets with his fancy illustrator, and tells him EXACTLY what he wants. It must be exquisite.
“You’ll have to sell every copy to make your money back.”
“That is my intention.”
(Dickens’ first run of the Christmas Carol was 6,000 copies – he sold out by Christmas).
TIP #13: Set a clear goal and commit to it. Believe you can do it. HOWEVER – as I mentioned earlier, don’t invest big in your first book. Confidence is a result of action, not a prerequisite.
Foster says, “Before we lay out money for illustrations, we should consider what happens if you don’t finish on time.”
Dickens says, “I WILL finish on time.”
By investing bigger, he’s also raising the stakes – which is fine if you know what you’re doing – but it’s also risky and reckless (it’s a great story of creative confidence, but I’ve seen this same thing hundreds of times from new authors, who let their personal enthusiasm for their project convince them the world is waiting for their book, and they will easily earn back their investment). But few authors ever make any money with their books – it’s very possible, if you do it right, but creative activity silences the pre-frontal cortex, which leads do “divine fury” or mania, a symptom of which is gross overconfidence.
The illustrator balks at all the demands, and says:
“I’m not a hired hand. I am an artist. What you’re asking is impossible.”
“Impossible for an ordinary man, but you are no ordinary man, you are a genius.”
TIP #14: Treat everyone with immense respect; the people you hire to help you will work better, and faster, if you stroke their ego with flattery and stay positive. (Though you should also set clear expectations and deadliness).
His sister comes to visit, and repeats a critical line: “no man is useless if they can lighten the burden of another.” Something they both learned from their father; Dickens still resents his dead-beat dad, his sister and mother try to tell him he’s not that bad.
His sister’s child is sickly, with a crutch.
She says “there goes my heart.”
He’s inspired to create Tiny Tim and the Christmas present.
Now his characters are waking him up at night, so he can get to work.
TIP #15: Your biggest breakthroughs will not come from behind the desk: the answers appear when you’ve exhausted yourself in the quest. So hours of blocked writing and frustration, trying to solve the problem with direct effort, will be indirectly successful when – hours or days later – the solution pops into your mind unprompted.
Get outside; walk around; schedule meetups with friends. Most writers LOVE working on their books and can loose track of time, but when you’re stuck on a problem, more work may not fix it (though, you do need to write forward to the next problem to make progress).
Keep a notepad or “pocket brain” nearby to jot down notes. Have a reliable filing system to keep track of ideas.
Dickens goes for a walk with his characters.
“We’re wasting time, let’s get to work,” Scrooge says.
“I am working.”
“I’m gathering inspiration.”
There’s a tense family dinner – Dickens doesn’t want to “waste time” on family obligations, and he excuses himself to go work.
But he’s stuck again, then interrupted.
He pulls the maid in and starts reading what he’s got so far.
TIP #16: When you’re stuck, go through what you’ve got again until you see the way forward. ALSO: get early feedback from ideal readers, early on in the process.
His wife is jealous that he’s sharing his book with the maid, not her. But she’s the wrong audience! Don’t ask your friends and family for feedback; they’ll be too supportive or too critical if they don’t understand the topic or genre. Find at least one person from your target audience who is willing to bounce ideas around or read an early draft (don’t expect too much from them, and brush off critical comments – if asked to criticize, people will find something they don’t like – all that matters is the rough sketch of the story).
At this point, just having someone sit there you can use as a sounding board, so you can try and communicate or summarize your story into words, can help YOU get clarity even if they don’t provide feedback.
He’s written the 2nd ghost, the jolly giant of Christmas present, and is having trouble getting his illustrator to match his vision.
“No, it’s too gloomy! The ghost of Christmas present should be wonderful, warm, jolly.”
The illustrator tries to give him his money back. “A jolly Christmas ghost? What’s that MEAN? I can’t draw what I don’t understand.”
Dickens gives him an exact model to replicate, by making Foster dress up in cosplay so the artist can visualize it.
TIP #17: Your book designer can’t read your mind. If you aren’t clear about what you want, you won’t get it. (HOWEVER, if the book designer is any good, they’ll make a cover that will sell the book, not the one that accurately portrays your vision. Getting exactly what you think you want is the fast way to a useless book cover).
Don’t lose yourself in book design; hire someone good and let them do their job; unless you’re intimately familiar with publishing specifications and best practices, or at least what bestselling book covers in your genre look like, be wary of calling all the shots yourself.
TIP #18: IF you plan to publish quickly, on a tight schedule, you can start your covers and book design early – before the book is written. You could also have editors or book designers on the payroll, so someone can be working on the details while you’re still writing.
That’s pretty advanced, but once you’re a full-time writer (which means, making a living from your books), unless you’re getting massive – and rare – book advances, you’re never going to be able to write books slowly and worry about all the publishing stuff later. Finding and working with a team, or at least other people who are waiting for you to finish so they can do the job you’re paying them for, all heightens the pressure to finish writing (it may feel like more pressure is the root of writer’s block, and we all dream about being completely free to go at our own pace, but the truth is, creativity works when you do.)
Scrooge meanwhile doesn’t like how this story is going. He says it’s one sided, and wants to write his own speech. Dickens refuses: he’s still writing a flat story, a political allegory against the greedy lenders and misers.
He puts the book up on preorder:
“A new Christmas book by Charles Dickens, order now and avoid disappointment.”
TIP #19: Preorders can work well for book sales – it’s complicated, and you can make arguments for and against, but personally putting a book on preorder, as stressful as it is, forces me to get it done. He also uses scarcity in his call to action.
But he’s having doubts, which are voiced through Scrooge.
“In shops, by Christmas, that’ll be a miracle. 3 flops in a row, up to your eyeballs in debt…”
TIP #20: The closer you get to finishing the book, the more doubts you’ll have about whether it’s any good or if you’ll actually be able to pull it together. This is a normal part of the process; it doesn’t go away. Learn to recognize and work through it. Trust the process.
All his characters are talking to him now. He’s becoming morbid, increasingly stressed and worried.
He writes the ghost of Christmas future: a dreary scene that includes the death of Tiny Tim.
He reads the final chapter to the maid, who says NO.
“Scrooge must save him.”
“He wouldn’t. He’s too selfish.”
“He can change! There’s good in him somewhere.”
“I’m not sure he can change.”
“Of course he can, he’s not a monster, he wouldn’t let Tiny Tim die, would he? It would be too wicked, even for him.”
He gets stuck again, because he’s discovered a real problem with the story.
His father comes home drunk, and Dickens kicks him out of the house.
He reads the story to his assistant Foster who says there’s just one problem.
“Tiny Tim, you’re really going to let him die? It’s a Christmas book, shouldn’t it be hopeful?”
“If Tiny Tim dies, what’s the point?”
Dickens gets angry, and Foster reminds him the last chapter is due at the printers.
TIP #21: Listen to feedback; focus on reader satisfaction.
You can ignore one negative comment. When two strangers agree and point out the same problem with your book, you should listen. Even if you don’t want to. Even if they “don’t get it.” You can never explain your book to readers, it has to stand on its own. They either like it, and feel satisfied with the reading experience, or they don’t – and feel cheated or robbed.
The problem is, he doesn’t know how to fix the problem. First he tries to just order his characters around, but they ignore him.
“I’m the author here!”
His characters are fully formed now, they can’t do things without proper motivation.
His characters aren’t behaving, so he goes out to escape them and gets drunk with Foster. Foster asks leading questions to get at the heart of the issue.
“I need help, I’m struggling with the characters. The problem is, could a man as mean spirited and evil as scrooge, could he become a new person over night.”
“Well what’s so evil about him?”
“He’s a miser.”
“That doesn’t make him evil, just cheap.”
“He worships money, it’s the only thing that matters to him?”
“He has nothing else.”
“No friends or family? No one he trusts? Why?”
“Because he’s afraid.”
“Being found out.”
This exchange gives Dickens a deeper appreciation for Scrooge, though he hasn’t solved the main problem yet. He is shifting from “writing for himself” (to express his opinion) – to “writing for others” (letting the discussion be well rounded and real, not just puppet characters that do what he wants, but real people with depth).
Even the bad guy or antagonist needs to be well-rounded; evil doesn’t just happen. Everyone believes they are doing the right thing, for some reason, or are acting out of fear.
Dickens is drunk so all his insecurities leak out.
“The book, I can’t, the characters won’t do what I want, and I’m afraid… If I can’t finish I’ll never write again. Nobody understands me.”
“What about your wife?”
“Kate, she doesn’t understand me.”
“Nobody understands you Charles, you’re a freak of natural, it’s exhausting to be in your company.”
TIP #22: Don’t ask for support or understanding from your family. Find a community.
Writing can be incredibly isolating and frustrating, but you shouldn’t demand your family’s attention. They aren’t going to stay excited about a book you’ve been working on for months or even years. They aren’t going to understand why you’d spend so much time trying to finish something, that probably won’t make any money (and then invest or borrow MORE money to launch it). I hear this from a lot of authors… “my friends and family won’t even buy my books to support me.”
They aren’t your audience! Don’t ask for favors or support, it will lead to resentment and strife. Focus on supporting THEM in their hobbies and projects and activities. Writing a book doesn’t earn you special privilege, as if your challenge is greater than theirs. You’ll probably want to talk about it ALL the time, and they’ll probably get sick of it, or forget. They won’t understand. Don’t force them to.
However, you definitely SHOULD find a supportive community of writers in your genre who DO understand the struggle and excitement of writing a book – there are Facebook groups for all kinds of genres, make sure to find yours, or start your own. Even a weekly meetup to do an hour of co-writing and 10 minutes of sharing your most recent chapters can do wonders, not only for productivity, but also for mental peace of mind. It’s important, so make this a priority.
Dickens has more childhood flashbacks; he’s mining personal experiences for emotional resonance. He catches his father rooting through his garbage, to see his discarded scraps and notes. He tells his father, “I’m sickened of the sight of you, you are a drag and chain on my life, I owe you nothing. GO!”
As his personal life falls apart, so does his work. He’s irritable and stressed. His characters talk about him behind his back.
“Nobody, the author.”
“No wonder he looks so depressed.”
He freaks out at the maid for interrupting and says he never wants to see her again.
Finally in frustration he tears his office apart, throwing things and shouting “FIGHT ME!” to his characters.
TIP #23: Even though it’s melodramatic, you need to externalize conflict. You can’t have a scene of Dickens sitting quietly at his desk, wrestling with his characters in his head – you have to SHOW the internal conflict with physical action and consequences.
Dickens wakes up the next morning, and argues with his wife, who says she’s frustrated living with him, because:
“Your characters matter more to you than your own flesh and blood.”
“I am who I am,” Dickens says.
“But who is that, it’s as if there are two of you, one who is kind and gentle, and a secret self no one is allowed to know or question.”
His real relationships, along with his critical challenge (writing this book) cause enough friction to make him aware of his own fatal flaw – the one thing he needs to confront, face or heal before he can actually achieve his goal.
He needs to revisit his childhood traumas.
So he goes back to the glue factory. Scrooge teases him:
“Your miserable secret, the famous author, inimitable Charles dickens, once a scabby little factory boy, common bit of riffraff, squalid wretch, no use to anyone.”
He imagines he’s himself as a small boy, fighting back against his bullies.
In the abandoned factory, wrestling with memories and voices in his head, he stumbles and almost falls down an abandoned well.
TIP #24: The central conflict of every story has to seem life or death to the protagonist, because being changed means letting go of his former self. If you can externalize that conflict into actual danger and stakes (going to his childhood prison and almost falling in the abandoned factory), that’s a lot better than the character just sitting and thinking towards an epiphany.
“Who are you?” Dickens asks, as his own creation seems to overpower him.
“I’m hunger. I’m cold. I’m darkness. I’m the shadow on your thoughts, the crack in your heart, and the stain upon your soul, and I will never ever leave you.”
TIP #25: Depression is part of the creative cycle. You may never escape it or avoid it. All you can do is work through it.
Scrooge says, “People don’t change, you’re still the same. Useless just like your father.”
Here we can see that the character of Scrooge is a foil for Dickens’ own fears – Scrooge isn’t capable of changing until Dickens is ready to change as well. However, this time Dickens makes a realization, and he fights back, quoting the sentence that has been twice established casually:
“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of another. My father taught me that.”
TIP #26: Have one great theme or sentence, that shows up 3 times, but the last time it’s essential and the main character’s transformation is revealed through their new understanding or acceptance of the phrase.
It used to be something without meaning; now it’s a critical realization as Dickens internalizes and believes it. He uses it as a mantra to push back against doubt. And it also makes him realize, his father actually taught him something remarkable.
TIP #27: VALUE = usefulness to others! Your work is never useless if other people appreciate and enjoy it.
This realization allows him to gain control of his character, and also turn the tables on Scrooge – he puts him in a freshly dug grave and makes him beg for his life.
Scrooge gets afraid for real.
“I don’t want to die. Not like this. Alone. Unloved, forgotten. It’s never too late. Let me do some good before I I die.”
Dickens runs home to finish the final chapter, because he’s had his breakthrough.
TIP #28: If you want your characters to do something out of character, you have to push them to their breaking point. With proper motivation, we are all capable of wondrous and terrible things.
He finishes the last chapter, apologizes to Tara, the maid, and his wife – then finds his parents and invites them home again.
The printer tells him it’s too late.
“I can’t guarantee anything.”
“I didn’t say I could do it.”
In a weird flex, Dickens nods to his assistant Foster, and he leans towards the man intimidatingly.
The man gulps, “I’ll see what I can do.”
TIP #29: Be clear and persistent about what you want. Assume that the universe is silently conspiring in your favor, and that everything is working out perfectly. But when others don’t share your optimism, it’s OK to get a little pushy and demand results.
On the other hand, emergencies caused by your own bad planning are not other people’s faults. Don’t finish the last chapter the same day you print, bind and distribute your book (though I’ve done that). With self-publishing, you can leave the last chapter off and update it later to meet your deadlines (I’ve done that too).
Especially for your first book, things are going to go wrong, there will be delays, printing errors, and it probably won’t turn out just how you wanted it. That’s OK.
Dickens finished his book in time, and he sold out.
“I’m told you wrote it in only six weeks Charles,” says his least favorite critique. “What a prodigy you are.”
TIP #30: You can write a book quickly, publish it immediately, and it can still be high quality.
A Christmas Carol is only 28944 words, so over six weeks, that’s about 643.2 words a day.
The average writing speed is 40 words per minute. With practice and experience, it’s not difficult to write 643.2 words in a 20 minute writing sprint. You still need to figure out the story, which can be the most difficult part, so people who write by the seat of their pants have an advantage in that they can just keep writing through; but with a tight outline and consistent effort, one or two thousand words a day is attainable in less than 2 hours of writing.
Quality comes mostly from skill and experience – writing one book very slowly will not make you a better writer or it a better book; and neither speed nor quality is the biggest indicator of a book’s performance. Ideally, you should intend to become a better, more confident writer – in which case writing faster is an inevitable result.
The movie ends with Dickens completing the cycle, gathering all his friends and family together under the Christmas tree, and toasting gratitude and hope.
I wish you all many many happy Christmases, and friendships,and great accumulation of cheerful remembrances, in the season of hope we will shut out nothing from out firesides, and everyone will be welcome. Welcome what has been, and what is, and what we hope will be. Merry Merry Christmas, to one and all.