'The hardest, most challenging thing for many writers is to start writing. The next is to keep going.'
Having learned this the hard way over many years writing short fiction, features, books and a whole lot of other things (t-shirt slogans, greetings cards, radio comedy, a play and even poetry) I was delighted to be asked to share some of the other lessons I picked up as a writer. These became a monthly column called 'Beginners' in Writing Magazine - an excellent print and online magazine and facility (and meeting place) for writers of all kinds and levels, starters and professionals.
That was (to my great surprise, checking back) all of 12 years ago!
Since then, many of the pages of 'Beginners', were, with the kind permission of the editor, morphed into a book called 'Write On! - The Writers' Help Book' now available in print and ebook (see below).
But it recently struck me that along with the current column and the book collection of previous ones, both of which include a heap of Top Tips, it wouldn't hurt to share some of my suggestions and advice with new writers on an occasional basis via this blog .
So, here's the first one I put into the book, starting with the chapter header:
There is no easy way to start writing. You can’t creep up on it stealthily and take it by surprise; nor can you sit and wait for it to happen like an attack of measles.You just have to decide what you want to write … then write.
A bit like walking, really. Only you’re leaning over a keyboard.
Breath out. Flex the fingers … now let the ideas flow.
Where do I begin?
I now know how my father used to feel when my brother or I, on being given some information he undoubtedly thought would help us develop into mature and rounded characters, would promptly come back with, ‘Why’s that, dad, why?’ This, bear in mind, was at the tender age between ‘The Beano’ comic and more ‘serious’ reading, where a boy’s idle curiosity usually outstrips his willingness to go off and find out something for himself.
This revelatory moment came about for me after a gentleman approached me at a conference recently and announced: ‘I’ve never written anything in my life, but I’ve always wanted to write a book. Trouble is, I don’t know what I want to write.’
‘Okaaay,’ I said, not sure where this was leading. Then he hit me with the BIG one, the equivalent to the ‘Why, dad…?’.
‘So where do I start?’
My initial thought was that he would find it easier to put together a nuclear power station (at least there are diagrams available for building your own version of Sellafield, and most DIY stores seem to stock everything required by a budding power freak). But, a serious question requires a proper answer – and he couldn't be alone in wanting to know. What I suggested is (roughly) as follows:
What’s your poison?
A good place to start is to consider what you like to read, on the basis that (a) this is the genre with which you are most familiar and (b) you should at least write something you enjoy, the alternative being, surely, madness. You might also, hopefully, have an idea of what else is on the market, which is far simpler than charging at it blind and hoping you can produce something commercial out of nothing (been there, got the rejections slips…)
Start with a plan, Stan.Once you’ve decided on the genre, it helps to have a plan in mind. Will it be plot-led (say, an action thriller or a torrid romance) or character-led (a family saga, perhaps, or an individual’s journey through a particular event in life – a right of passage, for example)? Is there a particular age group you’re aiming at? Male or female? Adult or teens? Will it be told in the first-person or third? How many main characters will you have? What’s the location – real or made up? Contemporary or historical/future setting? These are just some of the points to bear in mind, rather like deciding the shape and style of a building before you start phoning round the builders’ merchants.
What’s the theme?In other words, the main subject running through the story? Is it one of revenge? Growing up? A journey of discovery? Hardships overcome? The theme doesn’t need stating outright, but recognising it might help you nail the core of the story.
Think about the structure.Ideally, every story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. No doubt some modernists will go puce and mutter ‘phooey’ or some such expletive to this outrageously dated suggestion, but most readers have traditional tastes, and that’s who we write for, not the fadists. Knowing the structure – even in a rough form – will help you work out the rise and fall of your story, building from the introduction of your characters and setting, and leading through the progression of events to the ending. Another function of deciding the structure is to see if the story has ‘legs’ - in other words, do you have enough of a story to write in the first place? And will it sustain a reader’s interest over, say, 80,000 words? This also comes back to the characters, because they will form an integral part of the structure. If they are not engaging, the structure falls down and your readers might as well go and read a sauce bottle.
Write a synopsis.Many writers avoid this like the plague, and only produce one on the threat of having hot needles inserted under their fingernails. But someone totally new to writing should find it a useful exercise. Bearing in mind what I said about ‘legs’, if you can’t put enough of an idea together to write a synopsis (a synthesised version of the story), then you’ll have hell’s own job writing a complete one. Try writing your projected story on a single sheet of paper, concentrating on hitting the main points, characters, events and the ending. From there, you can look at expanding it, adding chapter headings and outlines, secondary characters and scenes you feel are important to cover. In this way, a framework will begin to take shape – and more ideas will flow as a consequence.
Start writing.Stating the bleedin’ obvious perhaps, but like walking, the best thing is to take the first step. You could try writing a short story before you attempt a novel, because then you won’t have expended too much effort to see if you can do it. After that, it’s a question of scale. I have to say, I’ve done a lot of both and find myself sweating rivets over short stories, whereas books give me far more scope and room to work in.
Either way, only when you’ve tried something will you know if you like it… and can actually do it. Hopefully, it will be a bit like sex: if it’s good it will be great; if it’s not good…well, it might still be a lot of fun.
· What do YOU like to read? What themes attract you?
· What style of writing appeals to you?
· You have to feel that you could, at least, do just as good. Better helps.
· Start with a plan. Get the ideas in your head down on paper, then flesh them out.
Write On! - The Writers' Help Book
UK - http://tinyurl.com/nmnt2rw
US - http://tinyurl.com/ncoksh2