These tips for writers – which I’ll add to as I go along – are just what I say they are – my tips. What works for me may not work for you. We’re all different.
(1) IF YOU’RE STUCK…
Are you stuck? Potholes in your plot? Characters that won’t behave? Or no ideas at all? My solution is to get a wet nose, big brown eyes and whiskers.
I’m serious. Get a dog. My dog Gus needs a walk and I need to think. Taking a dog for a walk gives you thinking time and exercise all in the one go. One of the readers at the Bookgrove event asked me how I sort out problems in my plots, and my answer was that I take Gus for a walk and usually I come up with something. It’s true. I read somewhere that walking is the perfect pace and rhythm for thinking. You have to stay on track enough not to fall over, or get run over, but apart from that, your mind can roam as you stroll along. I find walking the dog excellent for solving problems AND for coming up with ideas.
If that fails, I sleep on it.
That means, I try not to think too hard about my story and trust that overnight, in my sleep, I will somehow (I don’t know how it works!) sort it out. And I do.
(2) KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS
Stories are usually about people. And usually the writer wants us to identify with, love or even love-to-hate the main character. If you can’t see them clearly, neither can the reader. It will be as if they are muffled, out of focus, veiled. Or cardboard cut-outs, or statues, or chess pieces to be moved around to suit plot requirements.
So – main character, protagonist, hero and heroine, anti-hero… How well do you know your character? Here are some questions to ask yourself.
Can you describe him/her? How does he/she walk, talk, dress, sleep, eat? Tea or coffee? Coke or Mountain Dew? Cat or dog? What are your character’s dreams? Ambitions? Hobbies? Loves and hates? How do they speak? Are there any special words or phrases they use? Can you hear your character’s voice?
What’s his/her back-story? Place of birth, home, family, education, work, friends, relationships… Some writer go so far as to make a file for each character. A lot of the information is never used in the story, but it helps the writer create a rounded character.
People are surprising – make sure your your characters are, too. Flaws and faults, fears and problems – even the nicest people have them.
A special case – characters who pop up in a story to move the plot along and then pop back out again. Some writers on writing call them ‘pop-ups’ for obvious reasons. But even pop-up characters can have bit more grit and reality to them. An irritating habit, an individual way of speaking or dressing or moving. I often watch customers in the shop or fellow passengers and try to catch one or two characteristic movements or facial expressions…
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Some people divide stories into those which are are PLOT-DRIVEN (lots of things happen to the character but they basically stay unchanged by their experiences) and CHARACTER-DRIVEN (the character grows, develops and changes but not a lot might actually happen to him/her). Plot-driven stories are where cardboard cut-outs and stereotypes often hang out. Do we care?
Stories are usually about people – and the things that happen to them. There’s a SITUATION(where we start) and then a COMPLICATION or conflict (what happens next). Examples of situations are (a)Waiting for a bus. (b)War has been declared. Possible complications are ( a)The bus is late and a stranger offers a lift and… (b)Your father/wife/boyfriend is an enemy and you don’t know where your loyalty lies and… Have fun dreaming up complications. You don’t need to use them all.
(3) MAKING THINGS HAPPEN
Stories are usually about people – and the things that happen to them. There’s a situation(where we start) and then a complication or conflict (what happens next). Most of my stories actually start with a character.
For instance, by imagining what it must have been like to have been young and poor and powerless in Victorian times, I came up with Verity Sparks. She was a young girl, a milliner’s apprentice with a special gift for finding lost things. She was brave, sensible and kind. She was very observant and shrewd, with a down-to-earth way of looking at things. The situation she found herself in? Framed for the theft of a valuable diamond…and then finding out that she was a foundling. I took it from there.
Here’s a character – you. Here’s an example of a situation. You take a short-cut home but get lost. There’s a tiny cottage nearby. You decide to knock on the door to ask for help…
What complications can you think of? You can have lots of fun dreaming up complications. You don’t need to use them all. I think that writer’s greatest friend is the little phrase “What if?”
(4) APPLY BOTTOM TO SEAT OF CHAIR
It sounds obvious, but if you want to write, you have to write. You have to sit down (though some people do have high desks and stand) and – using a pen/pencil/ball-point/whatever and paper/keyboard (so many choices!) – write. There’s no other way that I know of. One of the most important steps forward for me was to realise that I had to show up at the desk and write. It’s no use waiting for inspiration to strike. All those thoughts and ideas in my head, even the notes and little sketches and snippets of dialogue…not good enough. Get thee to thy study. Apply bottom to seat of chair. Get words on paper.
(5) SELF-EXPRESSION AND COMMUNICATION
Yesterday I had a visit from a young writer. He’d begun work on a novella, and wanted some advice from an old writer. He’d given me some pages to read, and he had the kernel of an intriguing plot. We talked for a while about how he’d come to start writing and what kept him going to get more than 10,000 words on paper. We talked about the possibilities of expanding his story from novella to novel. We mourned the diminishing market for print and he took to my suggestion that he try to find an online community for his kind of fiction.
What impressed me about this young writer was his attitude. He wasn’t expecting me to say “That’s fantastic! I’ll introduce you to my agent”. He was aware that he was new to this business, that he needed to learn his craft. He exemplified what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind”.
And an idea that was (sort of) new to him was the difference between creative self-expression and creative communication. When you first give a manuscript to someone to read, there are a few minimum requirement, and they are real nuts-and-bolts things – like punctuation, correct spelling and word use, paragraphing – that help your reader along. (There’s always the possibility that the writer intends to play with, subvert and/or deliberately ignore those things – perhaps to create a particular voice or an off-kilter world – but in most cases that’s not what a beginning writer will be doing.)
But of course there are deeper and more meaningful aspects to communication. Most writers want readers; they want an audience. And the audience wants certain things from the writer. Lots of different certain things, actually. But typically, a reader will want to go along with the writer on a journey. They’ll want to start in one place (a real or metaphorical place, a state of mind, a stage of life) and finish the book somewhere else. They might like to be entertained; they may prefer to be challenged; often they like to experience vicariously some sweep of movement, growth or change. It’s as if you are a driver – on that journey you’re taking together. Straight from A to B on a freeway might be a bit quick and a bit dull…but then again, too many diversions and you may forget where you were headed in the first place. I guess I’m saying, give a thought to your passenger. And perhaps ‘passenger’ is too passive a word for your reader. Because your reader creates as well. There’s such a thing as too much information (description, explanation, dialogue). There’s real pleasure for the reader in their part of creation.
I’m a playful writer. I get excited by the quirky and the odd. These can be images,words, ideas. I enjoy private jokes and world-play and have a mind packed with trivia – fascinating (to me, anyway) little snippets of information I’ve picked up, or bits of real life dialogue or action I’ve observed. This is all well and good, for it adds texture and personality to my writing, but I can get self-indulgent at times. A bit to clever for my own good. When it comes time to re-read and edit, I often see that I’ve gone overboard. I’ve been too intent on having a good time as a writer, and lost sight of my reader. I have to pluck out those clever little asides that are cluttering the way, and get back on track.
My advice to my young friend was to try being both a reader and a writer. Take a book you love or admire and read a few pages analytically. Try to work out what the author is doing and how she’s doing it. Why she’s doing it. How it works for you. You can do all the writing classes in the world but your best teachers are probably there on your shelves already.
I’ve been cleansing my laptop and deleting files. I found this, compiled for a workshop I gave late last year. My take on the old ‘ 10 Rules for Writing’. There’s nothing here that you won’t find elsewhere – it’s surprising (or not, actually) that the same ideas pop up whenever you find compilations of Writer’s Rules. Like Elmore Leonard’s ‘No Adverbs’ rule – which I totally disregard, because I don’t write like Elmore Leonard.
There’s no-one looking over your shoulder – relax.
Teach yourself to tolerate mess, failure, false starts, shitty first drafts.
Write every day if you can. If you can’t, as often as you can. Even just a bit.
Stewing, brewing, gestating – it all takes time. Don’t hurry it.
From little things, big things grow. Vignettes, miniatures, mini-fiction, novellas…
Don’t forget to play – after all, it’s only art.
Make your own rules.
If it doesn’t work, change something. Point of view, narrator, tense.
Tell the truth, even if you’re making it up.