Sunday, 23 March 2014

Writing advice part 1: Planning

It recently looked as if I'd have chance to hold a writers' workshop at work - get a few people together and I'd talk about writing and some aspects of publishing before they shared some of their own experiences. As it turned out, the workshop had to be cancelled for a couple of reasons, but as I'd already made some notes, I thought they might be worth adapting to post here. (The original plan involved a fair bit of back and forth with the people involved, so feel free to comment). So for my first one, I'll talk about planning fiction. After that, I'll go through tips on improving your writing skills, debunking the myths of the publishing industry, working with agents and how we can use social media to develop our online presence. I'm not an expert by any means, but I do know what it takes to write a book a publisher will accept and I know a lot about the determination and drive it takes to keep going when it feels every single thing you submit comes back with a big fat rejection. With all that in mind, feel free to take any advice here that works for you and bin the rest...

I figured starting in the place writers begin their stories would be a good move. I’ve been hearing people argue about the best way to start or outline for years and there’s no point to the argument at all. Whichever way works for you is best for you. I really can’t emphasise that enough. If you want every detail – even the stuff that either doesn’t go in the book or ends up being cut – finalised before you start, then that’s cool. It’s for you. If you’re like Stephen King, who’s said more than once that he pretty much makes it up as he goes, that’s fine. As long as you get your story written in the end and don’t get lost in the planning or the stress of starting, then that’s what counts.

Personally, I come up with a pretty basic outline of the main characters and a breakdown of the scenes. Otherwise, I tend to write the first 10k to 15k words and dry up. I get lost. I really like the idea of starting with no idea what’s gong to happen next but I can’t do it. That’s how it works for me. I know a few writers who have pretty much everything in their story world as detailed as everything in their real world. If you’re writing epic fantasy – Game of Thrones sort of stuff for example – this can be very handy. If you’ve got dozens of characters in dozens of places and those places have their own histories and customs, it’s easy for the writer to lose track of what’s going on. And if the writer does, you can guarnatee the reader will. If that happens, you’ve lost. The last thing you want is to lose your reader or remind them they’re reading.

When it comes to characters, I find less is more. I don’t need or want to come with every little thing about them. Just the basics is fine because the reader fills in a lot of the stuff themselves. I’ve got no skills for drawing at all, but if I did and we all drew a picture of a famous fictional character who hasn’t been portrayed in film, I bet our drawings would all be very different because we all picture characters in books differently. So I wouldn’t advise anyone to get carried away with the physical description. Let it work itself out as you go. You can always add details later.

For me, and I imagine it’s the same for a lot of writers, the start of a book can be months or even years before I write anything. I don’t mean I spend all that time jotting down notes and making character profiles. I’d go mad doing that. I mean the basic idea for a plot or character can come along and sit with me for ages.

With that in mind, my first published book was I think the tenth I actually wrote. It was The Red Girl. That came from a couple of different things meeting at the right time. One of them was my second book. I wrote that twelve years ago. It’s about a group of friends in their last year of school and it’s rubbish, to be honest. The thing is, I really liked the characters and a few years back, I found myself wondering what they’d be up to now. They’d be in their thirties, and might be married with kids. They might have mortgages and stressful jobs and maybe the blokes would be losing their hair. I wanted to write about them again. At the same time, I had an idea for a ghost story and regret and the power of friendship. And there it was: the basis for the book that became The Red Girl.

I didn’t do anything with it straightaway. I was writing a couple of things but the idea wouldn’t leave me alone, so one day, I sat down and read the book I wrote in 2001 with the characters at school to reaquaint myself with them and then came with an outline of the scenes for the new book. I didn’t need to spend much time planning the characters, obviously, so that helped. Now with new books, I operate more or less the same way. A bit of background and description to the characters and then make sure each scene follows on smoothly from the one before it.

It’s definitely a case of whatever works for you as a writer is what’s best. I think we can all agree the most important thing is getting our stories written. Whether we plan or not, we need to get the stories written because if we don’t, well, who else will write our stuff?

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