Lesson 7) Style Tips

“Style is to forget all styles.”—Jules Renard 

You need to find your own style – your own voice or distinctive way of writing – but this will develop naturally, over time. It is not something you need to fret over and it will come with practice.

But here are some fundamental dos and don’ts when it comes to style.  Apologies if some of these basic rules are obvious to you, but they are important and so it’s worth being reminded of every one of them.

DON’TS…

– Do not mix your tenses within a passage.

– Do not use clichés – it’s lazy. Using unoriginal overused phrases is off-putting for readers, think of your own expressions or descriptions instead.

– Don’t overuse similes or metaphors.

– Don’t be overly descriptive – too many adjectives will swamp the plot!

– Don’t use descriptive words only found in dictionaries. Being a novelist doesn’t mean showing of your wide knowledge of the English language.  Keep it (mostly) simple or no-one will understand what you’ve written!

– Don’t be repetitive – with your vocabulary, with your description or with your action. This seems sloppy and can jar with the reader if it interrupts the flow of your prose.

– Don’t overuse jargon. Some professions you write about will require a certain level of jargon to remain authentic, but you can’t assume that your readers will have any background knowledge of this field. What’s more, explaining this jargon is exhausting for both you and the reader and can bog down the story in detail. Sometimes its best to just leave it out.

– Don’t use exposition. This is when you tell your readers exactly what is going on in a an obvious manner.  There are more creative ways to convey information (More on this below)

– Don’t overuse or unnecessarily use slang or swearing.

– Don’t over punctuate – especially with exclamation marks!!!

 “Resist the temptation to try to use dazzling style to conceal weakness of substance.”-Stanley Schmidt

 DOS…

– Be concise in everything you write. Too many words spoil the reading experience.

– Be clear in your writing so the reader so they can follow the story and understand why events happen.

– Ensure the subject and verb in your sentences agree. They should either both be singular or both be plural. If in doubt, ask your writing group or a literary friend.

– Use description to enhance the key parts story and bring it to life. Too much description is tedious but leave the reader with not enough and they can’t visualise your characters, backdrop or action.

– Stick to one particular perspective and tense throughout your novel. If you have to switch at all only do it within certain contained chapters – never within a chapter, it’s too confusing.

EXPOSITION

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass”

Anton Chekov

Exposition is “writing or speech primarily intended to convey information or to explain; a detailed statement.” It is also known as lazy writing!  You’ll recognise exposition when you feel like you are giving the reader a history lesson, rather than telling them a story.

Authors use it – either by accident, or because they can’t think of another way – to write backstory, historical context, or prior plot events in a way the reader will pick up on.  What you need to remember is you are more skilled than that, and the reader is cleverer than you think. They like mystery and looking for clues, and will be disappointed if they aren’t left to think for themselves a bit.

The key is to give the reader the right snippets of information at the right time. They only need to understand what’s happening in the moment they are reading. If your novel is set in another place or time, you can allude to this through events and actions which take place, without literally telling your reader: “You are here.” Hint at a past (or a future) through innocuous comments and settings. If you have a particularly complex backstory to explain, you could employ the age-old technique of volunteering one character to ask the ‘dumb’ questions on the audience’s behalf. Aldous Huxley uses ‘the Savage’ as a conduit for exposition in the dystopian environs of Brave New World.

““Isn’t there something in living dangerously?’
There’s a great deal in it,’ the Controller replied. ‘Men and women must have their adrenals stimulated from time to time.’
What?’ questioned the Savage, uncomprehending.

It’s one of the conditions of perfect health. That’s why we’ve made the V.P.S. treatments compulsory.’
V.P.S.?’

Violent Passion Surrogate. Regularly once a month. We flood the whole system with adrenin. It’s the complete physiological equivalent of fear and rage. All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconvenience.’

But I like the inconveniences.’

We don’t,’ said the Controller. ‘We prefer to do things comfortably.’”
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

You obviously need to explain some things – especially in a completely new world – but simply swamping the reader with details (known as an ‘information dump’) is boring and wading through dense narrative, void of personality, makes tough reading.

It is more engaging, and realistic, to “show not tell.” If you need to explain something, convey the information via the actions of a character or the events happening in that scene.  For example it is more exciting to discover a map rather than be told where the treasure is, or to find a diary revealing a secret rather than be told by another gossiping character.

You can use dialogue to impart information BUT don’t have the protagonist sit down and have a heart-to-heart about his feelings, or tell a story about his childhood, or have them tell another character something that character would already know (just to bring the reader up to speed).  Just drip-feed the facts – via actions wherever possible – and the reader will put them together.

For example, rather than using the dialogue – “I’m broke” you could use any one, or a combination of these actions:

– The character’s credit card is declined at a counter.

– They steal food.

– They get an overdraft notice or loan refusal from their bank.

– They turn down going out with friends.

– They look jealously at someone spending money.

See what a difference that makes? It’s much more interesting and engaging if an action shows the reader a situation rather than telling them.

Telling us that Hannibal Lecter is dangerous and has killed in the past is one thing – but putting him in a specially made Perspex cell and putting a mask over his mouth when he’s being transferred so that he can’t bite people is much more compelling. Silence of The Lambs illustrates the character brilliantly without him, or other characters, having to tell us how chilling and intriguing he is.

WRITING EXERCISE – Practise “Showing”

Select character traits or points of information exposition in your story.

How can each of these be shown to the audience?

Try to conjure up several shows for each element, and then select the strongest.

Create an ‘out there’ show which pushes the envelope and surprises both yourself and the audience – is this too over the top or have you created a memorable moment?

“Once upon a time there was a small girl called Little Red Riding Hood. She lived with her parents beside a deep, dark forest.”
– Little Red Riding Hood, Charles Perrault 

PERSPECTIVE

 It is important to consider who is going to tell your story.  The viewpoint you choose will have a big impact on the reading experience.  Often your novel will lend itself to a particular style, but it is worth thinking through your options.  When it comes to perspective in novel-writing, you have four choices:

1) First person – told from the narrator’s perspective (which is often the main character, but not always), using the viewpoint of “I” and “we”. This allows the reader to get to know the inner thoughts of the person, but limits the known feelings of others in the story. It is a subjective view of everything that unfolds, and therefore it can be unreliable.

2) Second person – told from the reader’s perspective of “you.” Do NOT use this when writing a novel, it is best utilised in poetry or songs.

3) Third person limited – one character’s thoughts and actions are told at a time, using “he,” “she,” “it,” and “they.” This is the most commonly used perspective, allowing you to move between the characters and convey all emotions and actions equally. Your viewpoint is “limited” to what the focal character/s knows or feels at that given moment of the plot.

4) Third person omniscient – an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator, who is like a character in itself (but not a written one), who tells the thoughts and actions of everyone. They know everything there is to know, past and present, of all the characters so have very different insight.

FIRST PERSON NARRATIVE

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

In a character-driven novel, the first person narrative is an instantaneous and effective means of introduction. Not only are you positioning you protagonist front and center of the story, you are also inviting your readers into their psyche and forging a relationship which will (hopefully) last for the duration of the novel.

Multiple first-person perspectives can offer you a fun opportunity to play with style and dialogue, as well as delving deep into the minds and motivations of your supporting characters and villains.

The only limitation is your imagination, but there are a few considerations to take into account when you are writing in the first person:

– If you have created a really exciting character whose personality and viewpoint is key to the story then writing in the first person allows you maximize their traits and the reader will feel the world around them as they do.

– As the narrator, the protagonist’s voice must be distinctive enough to carry out the task of telling the whole story – very amusing or intensely creepy, for example. You must consider their style.
– They also have to be likeable (or fascinating if they are a “baddie”) otherwise the reader won’t want to stick with them throughout the book.

– Using the first person from a secondary character’s viewpoint can be very effective so don’t automatically opt for the main character. If Sherlock Holmes weren’t from Watson’s perspective, or The Great Gatsby told through the eyes of Nick Carraway, they would have been very different stories.

– You can obviously never kill off this character, or you are left without anyone telling us how the story ends.

– You story will be inherently biased. The narrating character is all the reader has to rely on to know what’s going on, so make sure the other characters are well-written enough to convey what you can of “the other side.”

– You can’t write about what is happening anywhere else, except where your narrating character is (and what they are witnessing at that location), which could be a difficulty for some stories.

– You won’t be able to describe your narrator’s physical appearance. How the other characters react to him / her will allow the reader to create this image in their mind.

– Your character can have a hidden agenda – maybe his viewpoint is not all it seems. If this is the case, then make sure you drip feed clues to suggest these throughout the novel, giving the reader a sense of intrigue and tension.

– Consider at what point in time the story is being told by the narrator in relation to when the events happened. If the action is present tense, or it happened last week then details are crystal clear.  If aspects occurred 10 years ago, would they be told differently?

– Be careful not to be repetitive when it comes to your character’s thoughts. Of course they will think or feel the same thing multiple times, but you don’t have to tell the reader more than once. Describe their opinions well the first time they are experienced and the reader will assume they stay that way until you tell them otherwise.

THIRD PERSON NARRATIVE

“The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain, he fell madly in love with him.” – Catch 22, Joseph Heller

When you write in the third person tense, you can get away with making dramatic and almost omniscient statements which directly inform the reader about your characters and their motivations. The danger here is that you may become too reliant on the narrative as a tool for characterization, and end up with a novel full of clunky, expository prose.

On the plus side, you have much more leeway to explore random sub-plots and minor characters, and you can jump backwards and forwards in time if you think it would help the narrative.

Here are a few other considerations regarding the third person narrative choice –

– The third person perspective means your narrator is a nameless, faceless voice, which is usually authoritative, so they may not have the same warmth and depth as the first person.

– You can leave some distance between the events unfolding and the feelings of the characters, allowing the reader to use their imagination a bit. Readers don’t need to know every single thought of every single character.

– Without a first person perspective, the reader has to figure out the motivations and decisions of the characters via the action and dialogue, so make sure these are well-written enough to do this job.

– You can flick around between the characters viewpoints which means you can describe how everyone is feeling in a scenario and about each other e.g. the captor and the captive; the husband and the wife. Any argument has two sides revealed, with the reader able to choose between them.

– For a first novel it is best to use a maximum of four characters’ viewpoints or things can get too complicated.

– If you are using multiple perspectives, make sure you write from the viewpoint of whoever is the most important in that particular scene. Stick with them until the end of the scene or until the action makes it necessary to change viewpoint. If you flit about too often the reader will end up irritated and unable to identify with any of your characters.

– Your characters must be distinctive enough (in their views, their tone, their reactions) that the reader knows instantly when you have switched to a new perspective.

Lesson 6) What all stories need

 “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

W. Somerset Maugham 

CRITICAL COMPONENTS

There is no magic formula for a best-selling novel. Every writer imbues their prose with an indefinable quality that either captures the imagination of their readers, or doesn’t. No one can write ‘your’ novel, as you are its heart and its soul.

However, almost all successful novels have the same critical components, which you should try to include in your own story.

Here’s what you need to aim for –

1) Credible characters – your readers should care about your characters, especially your protagonist. But don’t forget to pay attention to the surrounding characters – they need to be rich in detail too. All should have vibrant, complicated personalities, which we can identify with.  Goodies or baddies, we need to understand their actions.

2) Goals – Your main character needs a purpose and it needs to be convincing. What does he want and why does he want it so badly? Will people buy into that goal enough to read the whole book?

EXAMPLE – If Frodo Baggins set out on a simple quest, would The Lord of The Rings have sustained a trilogy and inspired an epic movie franchise? No. A clear goal with high stakes keeps readers gripped: if Frodo doesn’t prevent Sauron, the Dark Lord, from getting hold of the ring, Sauron’s power will become so great that the whole of Middle Earth will be enslaved to him.

3) Obstacles – No hero or heroine’s journey is a smooth one, or every novel would be one chapter long. There needs to be difficulty and decision-making all along the way – and they need to be tough issues to overcome otherwise, who cares? These complications are what give you your plot.

4) An interesting setting – Not every novel needs to be set in a magical world or another planet, but don’t ignore the location of the action. The setting can bring the story to life as much as the characters and it could be vital to the reader if it plays into plot twists.

EXAMPLE – It is often said that in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the moors almost become a character unto themselves. The wild and unpredictable setting is crucial to the plot and characterization, and adds an intangible but moody quality that stays with the reader long after they have finished reading the book.

5) A first page that sells the whole book – Page one is important. It’s what everyone will read to decide whether or not they want to keep reading. If they do, then the chances of the reader wishing to represent you / publish the novel / buy the book are increased. This is your chance to draw the reader into your world and want them to stay.

EXAMPLE – “Last night I dreamed of Manderlay again.” (Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier ); “Call me Ishmael.” (Moby Dick – Herman Melville ); “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” (A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens ) – we all have our favorite opening lines which stick in the memory and conjure up the whole mood of the book to follow.

6) Gripping first 50 pages – Stories have to develop at a certain pace or your readers will get bored and give up on the book. Don’t spend the beginning of your novel droning on about the character’s childhood days – find savvier ways to reveal background information, cut to the chase and get the readers immersed in the actual story. Once you set the pace you also need to keep it up!

EXAMPLE – Karen Joy Fowler’s Booker-prize nominated We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves opens with a violent act of rebellion, which our protagonist tells us is occurring in the middle of her story.  We are already immersed in her world 50 pages in, when it is revealed that her ‘missing; sister is a chimpanzee, setting us up for the real narrative.

7) Drama – This doesn’t have to be a plane crash or a car chase, it can be tense dialogue or an awkward dinner party, but we all want conflict. There must always be some action or conversation propelling the story forward and building the drama.

8) Tension and twists – Give the readers suspense and surprises. Both will spur readers on to find out how it all ends.

EXAMPLE – Gillian Flynn’s bestselling thriller Gone Girl is just another missing person saga until we reach the end of the novel’s first third and discover that not only is Amy Dunne alive, but she orchestrated her own disappearance. This big reveal is the very definition of a page-turner, and won some serious word of mouth currency for its author.

9) Interwoven relationships – How your main character interacts with others will help your story be believable and highlight victories and dilemmas. The characters you create must be as complex as we find people in real life – don’t scrimp on their details just because they are secondary.

EXAMPLEHannibal Lecter is one of the most iconic literary characters of the modern age, inspiring novels, films and even a TV-series. For author Thomas Harris, this is a triumph of characterization. Hannibal is a murderer and a cannibal, yes, but he is also intelligent, cultured, charming and able to form fascinatingly close relationships with the same people who are pursuing him.

10) Captivating (but realistic) dialogue – A great deal can be revealed in short exchange between two characters. Well written, concise speech can convey personality, tension, emotion – sometimes much more effectively than a paragraph of prose. It can also effectively develop the plot. But what you shouldn’t do is have characters sit down and explain things to each other – it’s unnatural and you can convey information to your reader more cleverly. And remember, not all characters speak in the same way!

11) Cliff-hangers – Leave your reader wanting more at the end of each chapter or at least wondering what happens next. You want them to keep turning the pages of your book. Don’t overdo this with a major event every chapter, but give them some intrigue, a dilemma, an argument.

EXAMPLE – George R. R. Martin is an expert at the literary cliffhanger, killing off main characters and introducing new obstacles at breakneck speed in his Game of Thrones series of novels. His most famous cliffhanger is undoubtedly the ‘red wedding’, which took place just over halfway through A Storm of Swords and left many of the series’ protagonists dead.

12) A brilliant ending – It can be shocking, happy or sad – but it must be satisfying for the reader, and all loose ends must be dealt with. Don’t weave many plot threads to leave one ignored in the closing stages, or conveniently kill off a character because you don’t know how to solve his dilemma.  There must be as much creativity and effort put into your final page as you applied to your first.

EXAMPLE – Think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s opus One Hundred Years of Solitude. The ending delivers exactly what the title promises – a story which spans exactly one hundred years and delivers a sense of closure for all characters involved.

We will explain this checklist in more detail throughout the course, and advise on how to achieve each aspect, but while you are thinking up your original idea you need to bear these in mind.

Lesson 5) Methods of Writing

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway

We all have different ways of writing. Maybe you like to savor the act of writing by using a proper fountain pen and good quality paper; maybe you need to take a running start at a blank page with a pencil; maybe you prefer the feel of an old fashioned keyboard under your fingertips; or maybe you are a touchscreen convert. Whatever way you write, it’s the right way for you.

However, when it comes to submitting your work to a publisher, the manuscript must be typed. Typing your novel as you go will save you a lot of time, and even if your typing skills leave a lot to be desired, the more you practice, the faster you will get. The average hand writing speed is around 30 words per minute, while most people can type at a speed of at least 50 words per minute.

Working on a computer also gives you the satisfaction of knowing how many words you’ve typed by the end of your session, and that everything is spelt correctly.

However, in the early stages when you are finding inspiration and mulling over ideas, plots, and characters, having a notebook with you all the time is beneficial.  You can jot down anything that pops into your head and play around with it on the page – brainstorming possible names, drafting a family tree, making a note of key characteristics, even doodling character portraits – and these can be pinned up in your work space to help your thoughts when writing.

WHAT TYPE OF WRITER ARE YOU?

“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way ya write it.” — Jack Kerouac

There are two main types of writer: planners and improvisers. You can be one of these in the extreme or somewhere in the middle.

Planners, unsurprisingly, plan. Everything.  They enjoy it. All plotting is carefully constructed, all characters are fully formed and all settings are totally decided before the writing starts. They know exactly how the story will develop and they gradually lay this on the page.  Taking the time to plan and prepare at the start of your process can pay dividends when the first draft is completed because there will be less editing to do and less agonizing over cutting vast chunks of your beloved work.  But when in the revision stages, planners must be prepared to be flexible with their initial plans, because no first draft is perfect. Changes will need to be made, no matter how well you plan.

Improvisers are more instinctive and generally hate planning.  They write in creative bursts with the story forming organically as they rush to get all their ideas down, before the next surge of enthusiasm grasps them and they rattle off another chapter.  This is just the way some people work, and they will almost certainly finish their first draft before any “planner” in their writers group. But for them, the hard work comes at the end when they need to make more revisions, more edits and much more aggressive and tricky reworking, particularly when the length is a problem or the narrative doesn’t hang together.

Settling on a method that is in the middle is ideal, because planning as much as your personality allows really does pay off, however painstaking it may be.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.” — Elmore Leonard

Whichever writing type you fall into, there are always techniques that you can use to help you get started, or give you focus when you’re having difficulty writing.  Some of these methods may never work for you, others may work on certain days, but it is definitely worth trying a few out:

1) The Word Target.  Write 2,000 words every day – no matter what.  This might only take you three hours, in which case you can skip off to the beach for the rest of the day, or it might take you until 3am to painfully pull these words from your brain one by one.  Either way, you get the words on the page and it moves you forward.  It can make you feel like you have achieved something every day and get your first draft finished in 2-3 months.  Some people may find this a very strict and unenjoyable way to write though. When asked about his writing process, Thomas Wolfe told the Paris Review in 1991:

“I set myself a quota — ten pages a day, triple-spaced, which means about eighteen hundred words. If I can finish that in three hours, then I’m through for the day. I just close up the lunch box and go home — that’s the way I think of it anyway. If it takes me twelve hours, that’s too bad, I’ve got to do it.” – Thomas Wolfe

2) The Word Ceiling.  Write a maximum of 500 words a day.  This may seem a measly amount, you may be ‘chomping at the bit’ to do more, and you may feel that it draws out the production of the first draft too much for you.  The idea behind it is that the 500 words start you off on a train of thought that you continue to develop throughout the rest of the day.  You still get some words down, you don’t feel under as much pressure, and your mind is always churning over ideas to make sure they are brilliant by the time they are typed. Ernest Hemingway set himself a limit of 500 words every day, and made sure he wrote them in the morning, before heat became too much.  Jack London wrote 1,000 words a day every single day of his career.

3) The Burst. You write in 30-60 minute stages.  When you feel the force isn’t with you, leave the desk (or wherever you are working) for 30-60 minutes and then return for another burst.  Having these breaks can be refreshing for a busy brain an help you figure out any problems you are struggling with.  But knowing these ‘rests’ are around the corner can mean that you don’t fully engage with your writing because your thinking about the next coffee break / walk around the garden / episode of your favorite show.

4) The Immersion.  You write in 4 hour blocks. Nothing else.  There are no distractions, everything is switched off, the door doesn’t get answered.  You can completely throw yourself into your writing and think deeply about the aspect you are tackling that day.  Or you can completely dread that four hours that stands in front of you, because it is a very long time if you aren’t feeling inspired. Flannery O’Connor would write for two hours every day non-stop, with absolutely no distractions. However, she did not have much choice in the matter – she suffered from debilitating lupus, which sapped her energy and made any work exhausting.

5) Early Bird.  You wake up at the crack of dawn, and the first thing you do is write.  It is quiet, you’re rested, and you can get a lot done before the rest of the world gets going.  If you have a day job, you feel like you have made another step towards your dream of publication before you go into the office.  Sylvia Plath famously started writing at 4am, while Edith Wharton, Isaac Asimov and Vladimir Nabokov enjoyed a relative lie-in before starting work at 6am. But just because that worked for them, doesn’t mean it will work for you too.

6) Night Owl. The night is when you write. The day’s ‘to do list’ has been completed, the children are in bed, and the night is yours to create your world on paper. This is when some people are most creative, but for others they are exhausted and just need a glass of wine, dinner and bed. Tennessee Williams, Franz Kafka and T.S. Eliot all worked 9-5 jobs and wrote in the evenings, while Stephanie Meyer wrote Twilightat night after her kids had gone to sleep.

For both the Early Bird and the Night Owl, you need to give yourself a set period of time in which you work. An hour, two hours, whatever allows you to do your best work without rushing it, or falling asleep at your desk.

7) The Jigsaw. You start writing the scenes that excite you the most, the inspirational parts that made you want to write a book in the first place.  There is no order to this method in the early stages, you just embrace your initial enthusiasm and rush of ideas and worry about connecting them later.  This can be effective because it ensures your mind, and your novel, are centred around your prize moments.  But you will get yourself in a right muddle if you don’t have a well-thought out plan of how these pieces come together.  If you use this technique, make sure you know your plot line and your character timeline in advance (guidance on these later in the course) or you will be giving yourself plenty of rewriting to do.

As long as you write routinely and steadily you will find your own pace and figure out realistically how many pages you can produce per week.  Don’t rush your writing or you will end up chucking it in the bin, but if you dwell over every tiny detail at the beginning then you will never get anything concrete on the page.

FORMATTING

No matter what your chosen style is, you must format your work properly or you will give potential agents and publishers an instant reason to discard your manuscript.

This is what most professional agents and publishers expect:

– A title page (including the manuscript title and your name – centered, halfway down the page – your contact information, the word count, and your agent’s contact details, if you have one)

– Numbered pages (which start on the first page of your text – do NOT number your title page)

– A header on each page (except your title page), including your name, the title of your novel in capitals, and the page number e.g. Jones – DEATH – 1 or Smith/MONSTER/2.  If your title is long, then a key word is fine for the header.  It is often recommended the header is right aligned.

– Double-spaced text throughout the entire manuscript

– 1” margins

– ½ indent for a new paragraph

– Standard font (e.g. Times New Roman, Arial, or Courier) in 12-point type

– Text aligned to the left

– A page break after each chapter

– Each new chapter to begin one-third of the way down a fresh page.  The chapter number and / or chapter title should be centered and in capital letters.  If you are using both, separate them using two hyphens: CHAPTER 1—THE DISCOVERY

– The body of the chapter text to begin four lines below the chapter title.

– A centered hash symbol in a doubled spaced, blank line at the end of your manuscript to indicate there are no missing pages, or you can simply type The End.

These are your basic formatting guidelines.  ALWAYS double check what the individual publishers / agents prefer and submit according to their requirements, which occasionally vary slightly from what we have listed.

Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.
Jane Yolen

Lesson 4) The Idea

 “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”

Linus Pauling

When deciding on what your novel is going to be about you’d better make sure that you are totally inspired by the idea behind it, because otherwise you are going to give up on your novel when the going gets tough.

This book is going to take up all of your spare time so you need to love it!  Feel passionate about the place your story is taking place, identify with main character, and invest yourself fully in the mystery that needs to be solved. Put a piece of yourself into your novel, because otherwise you will find it too easy to give up and stop typing when you get tired or distracted. Or when someone invites you out for a pint.

Before you start this process, it is important to realise that your first idea might not be ‘The One’.  No novel writes itself, and you can expect your plot and characterization to take many twists and turns before you land at a point where things start taking shape.

Try brainstorming a few ideas to see which one has legs. Enjoy this part and just let your creative juices flow – you’ll know when you’ve found the best idea for you.

GENERATING IDEAS

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One way to explore ideas that will sustain your attention is to think about novels or films that you have been moved by, changed your view of the world, or made the biggest impression on you.  Make a list of these favourite stories and spot what the common threads are through these.  This should point out what excites you creatively, and you should seek to capture these aspects in your own story.

To help you drill down further in to the details of these observations and develop them further, consider these categories when reflecting on your list:

Genre. Do you prefer romances, murder mysteries, or paranormal? Do you like stories set in the “real world” or in a fantasy world? Do you enjoy futuristic, present day, or period novels?

Character. What type of people do you connect with in stories? Who do you empathise with? Do you like stories about princesses and knights in castles or gangs living in ghettos? Political leaders or high-powered women?  A lonely individual or a social butterfly?  A family saga or a group of best friends?

Problems. Do all the characters you love strive for the same goals?  Do you enjoy stories revolving around revenge, rescue, fulfilling a dream, winning a war, freedom, finding love, healing family rifts?  Do you tend to prefer more internal conflict – characters struggling with personal issues, emotional challenges, relationship difficulties?  Or do you love lots of external threats – disease, extreme weather, invasion, strike action, demonstrations?

Themes. What values do your favorite stories concentrate on? What lessons do the characters in them learn or fail to learn?

Another tactic to use when figuring out what your novel should be about is taking just one aspect of a story – the one that grabs you with the strongest grip – and using that as your strong base to build everything else on top of.

IDEA FIRST

Some writers begin with a strong rough idea for a novel, perhaps spinning out from a ‘what if?’ hypothetical question.

– What if a drone aircraft struck a village of innocents?

– What if an adult found out they were adopted?

– What if someone hired a hitman to kill their wife, but the hitman killed her sister instead?

– What if we lived inside a computer simulation?

Starting your writing process with a fundamentally dramatic idea can help ensure that your story will be full of conflict.

CHARACTER FIRST

Some novels might begin life with a fundamentally interesting character, with story then fleshed out on top of the character.  If you decide to start this way, it is important to find a worthy plot through which to exploit the character.

What might initially appear to be a fantastic starting point for a character can quickly become problematic if they cannot then be placed into a compelling and organic story.

SETTING FIRST

Some books begin life with a writer who wants to explore a particular arena which interests them.  This could be a specific country or culture that they have fallen in love with and feel is full or rich imagery and adventure, or it could be a familiar mundane place such as a workplace that a writer knows intimately and maybe wants to ridicule or expose or juxtapose with a unexpected plot.  Settings also give writers an opportunity to explore their passions, for example a sports fan wanting to revolve their story round a game they love may choose the stadium / training ground / locker room settings.

TOPIC, THEME or EMOTION FIRST

Some writers may wish to explore a topic or theme, and will then explore characters and plots which can express the topic which chimes with them.

This can be particularly true of a writer who wishes to express something which has happened to them, or a feeling which engulfs them, or something they see in their day-to-day lives – but who does not wish to simply write verbatim what is going on around them.

Are there feelings or themes which resonate with you?

Do you like underdog tales?

Do you feel frustrated about the amount of greed in the world?

Do you think prejudice can be overcome?

Do you feel love can conquer all obstacles?

Finding your abstract passion can fuel your writing experience, but you must then find strong worlds, story ideas and characters to express your thoughts.

It might not be your experience, instead you might have recently been inspired by someone’s bravery against overwhelming odds and wish to write a plot which embodies that theme.

EXERCISE – Generating Concepts

Experiment with the different ‘ways-in’ to ideas.

Can you think of a fantastic ‘what if’ to base a film on?

Can you think of a unique, odd or engrossing character?

Can you think of a setting which hasn’t been used before, or one which is full of conflict?

Can you think of a theme which resonates with you – maybe even a social issue?

Try to develop a short paragraph idea for a film from a different starting point. Don’t worry about how ‘good’ your ideas are at this stage – the aim is to be freely creative and explore your imagination and story possibilities.

EXPANDING THE IDEA

 “The task of a writer consists in being able to make something out of an idea.”

– Thomas Mann

Imagine you’re at a dinner party (or actually go to one!) and you tell someone you are writing a book… that person will immediately ask you a whole string of questions: What’s it about? Who is the main character? Where does it all take place? What happens at the end?  Of course, you don’t have to answer any of these questions, but you should know the answers deep within yourself

The next step is to add more layers of detailed questions on top of that list.  For example, if the first question is: What’s your main character’s name?

Some more detailed questions could be:

– Who are his friends?
– What does he drive?
– What does his home look like?
– What style of clothes does he wear?
– Where does he spend his weekends?
– What are his weaknesses? (yes, it’s OK for the hero to have flaws!)

We’ll come back to character development later on, where we’ll take this further. But your idea has got to pass the initial tests first!

“The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. They’re a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.” – Neil Gaiman

JUDGING YOUR IDEAS

Once you have conjured an idea, what criteria should you judge it against?

1) Market

– Is there a marketplace for this kind of book?

– What similar novels have succeeded in the past? Is yours different enough?

2) Genre Potential

– Is the genre commercially viable?

– Does the story have the inherent structure or plot to hit on genre expectations? Can your comedy generate constant laughs, can your thriller genuinely spook the reader, is your murder mystery completely intriguing until the big twist or reveal at the end?

– Do you understand the genre and its particulars well enough to write this manuscript?

3) Quality of your Writing

– Can you execute this idea given your current skill set and background?

– If you want to write an historical epic, do you have the understanding, education and research capabilities to write an authentic piece of work?

– If writing a humorous story, are you funny enough? Do other people think so too?!

– Do you know enough about specialist settings such as The White House for a Presidential drama?

– Have you experienced similar emotions or experiences to characters (even if the situations may have been wildly different?).

Give yourself plenty of time to think about each idea in detail, and trace out a rough outline for a plot. If you are struggling to get from A to B, or you just can’t pin down your protagonist, it may be time to move on to the next idea. You should aim to finish your book with enough ideas to fuel several sequels, prequels and appendices, so you’d better make sure your idea truly inspires you.

Don’t try and be trendy for the sake of it. It is much more likely that you will complete your manuscript, be proud of it, and maybe even have it published, if it is YOUR story, rather than your version of Harry Potter.

Don’t stress about being absolutely original either though.  It is very difficult to do this. In the words of one crime writer:

“There is only one plot—things are not what they seem.” – Jim Thompson

The writer’s challenge is tell a story we’ve heard before (love story, heist, whodunit) but differently enough to surprise and entertain people in a new way.  Pick an unusual location, a unique character, or an amazing twist in the tale to make your novel stand out.

Lesson 3) Genre

“His line was the jocundly-sentimental Wardour Street brand of adventure, told in a style that exactly met, but never exceeded, every expectation.” – Rudyard Kipling

The word genre means “kind, sort, or style”.  It is a label that characterizes elements a reader can expect from a novel, so within each genre there will be similarities in style, or subject matter. A novel can be written in any genre. It’s up to you which you pick – or if you decide to combine genres.

Some authors prefer to create there own genre, but it is best to write a book which does have a known category – especially your first – because then publishers know how to sell it and where it will be in the bookshop. If you write something completely different you are limiting your audience, challenging the agent and publisher to take a chance on you, and confusing the bookstore owners who don’t know where to place it on the shelves.  By all means, break rules and blur genre boundaries, just try to keep the novel based in one solid category or you may wind up alienating the people you are trying to impress.

Knowing your genre also helps you figure out who you are writing this book for.  Who is your most likely reader? Just writing a book and hoping someone likes it is a mistake many new writers make.  You need to have more direction to give your novel a chance of publication.  A professional writer will write specifically for a market and send it to publishers who focus on that genre.

MAKING A DECISION

The basic question you need to ask yourself is: what kind of book are you writing?

Beyond that, consider: how is it similar to other books? How is it different from other books? What is the core audience for your novel? Does your story share a set of common conventions with others?

From your own reading, you will know instinctively what type of book you enjoy the most and this is probably going to be the genre you will choose for your own novel.  From western to fantasy, historical fiction to psychological thriller, war, romance and adventure – there are plenty of directions you can take your writing.  What excites you the most?

Whichever genre captures your imagination, your story will broadly fit into one of these categories –

– Action story – plot based, high octane drama, very physical, fast pace, sense of urgency, one cliffhanger after another, dashing here, there and everywhere.

– Reflective story – character based, much slower development, plenty of self-reflection, emphasis on relationships and internal conflict, much more subtle overall.

Which of these does your story lean towards?

Breaking it down further after that, you can think about the emotion you intend to illicit in your audience and that will help you take another step to confirming your genre.

Love = Romance

Laughter = Comedy

Intellectual Curiosity = Mystery & Thriller

Thrill = Action & Adventure

Escapism and Wish fulfillment = Fantasy & Adventure

Just as you might want to sit by a riverbank to contemplate and relax, or go to a nightclub to get wild and crazy, or watch the news to engage with society and humanity, or flick through a gossip magazine for voyeurism and to switch off from a hard day at work, so too do readers like to be able to predict the kind of emotional response they will have to a book, as this is at the core of defining their reading experience.

Whilst mixing some emotions can lead to richer material, you can also unsettle the reader if you misjudge the combination you choose. Understanding which emotions sit comfortably together can help in finding a TONAL BALANCE in your story. Audiences swept up in a breezy romance do not expect the bride to decapitate the groom on their wedding night – romantic main plot mixed with touches of horror would likely alienate an audience.

Now we can subdivide genres even further to narrow your focus…

GENRE TYPES

“There is good and mediocre writing within every genre.”

– Margaret Atwood

Let’s take a look at some of the classifications open to you when writing fiction:

– Action / Adventure – physical jeopardy / journeying outside of the normal world.

– Apocalyptic / Post-Apocalyptic – how people cope with the breakdown of society.

– Biography – focusing on a real life person as subject matter, distilling their struggles or achievements into a feature.

– Comedy – the intention of making the audience laugh.

Black Comedy – examining the darker side of humanity.

Buddy – the trials and tribulations of a usually mismatched pair, and the struggles of mankind to co-exist.

Comedy of Manners – characters struggles to operate in social conventions.

Fish out of Water – juxtaposing an individual to an unusual setting for their characterization, the main character or character finds himself in an unusual environment, which drives most of the humor.

Romantic Comedy – the funny side of our attempts to find and keep love.

Tragicomedy – a story with both humorous and heartbreaking aspects. It can be a sad story but with light, comic moments changing the feel of the overall mood, or a very serious novel with a happy ending.

– Coming of Age – passing from one stage of life to the next, whether childhood to adolescence, or work to retirement –

– Crime – the execution or prevention of crime.

Accidental criminal – ordinary people taking an unexpected opportunity and dealing with the consequences.

Courtroom – ascertaining truth and guilt, the fight for justice.

Detective – following the efforts of a professional, or amateur, to find a perpetrator or evidence.

Gangster / professional criminals / mobsters – organised crime as a way of life, often with a criminal code.

Heist / Caper – executing a criminal plan – a robbery, a murder, a prison break.

Legal – wider than the courtroom film, the process behind justice.

Murder Mystery / Whodunnit – the process of finding out who committed a murder.

Petty criminal – a minor life of crime, often because of social or financial background, and their struggle to survive and change .

– Disaster – coping with momentary disaster – different from the continued disaster of post-apocalyptic novels.

– Drama – a serious story involving plenty of emotional development within the characters. These stories take on intense issues, involve interruptions to everyday life, and a struggle plays out.

– Epic – stories which span locations and time.

– Fantasy – set in brand new worlds, where the appeal often comes from the uniqueness of the setting. A genre generally using magic, mythological beings and devices to create conflict.

Gothic –  strange, life-threatening happenings (often supernatural) take place in isolated and atmospheric settings. Plenty of mystery, peril, and romantic relationships.

– Historical / Period – set in a recognizable era, using historical events or backdrops to transport the viewer to another time.

– Horror – made with the intention to scare and provoke fear responses.

Chiller – our fears of uncertainty..

Survival – our fear of being put into situations where our life is continuously imperiled and we must struggle to survive –

Mystery – where the audience is presented with an intellectual problem and seeks a solution, with elements of the story remaining unexplained until the big reveal at the end.

Political – the use and abuse of political systems and often focused on the corrupting nature of power.

Romance – the pursuit or maintenance of love, a story concentrating on relationships and emotions and all their complexities.

Science Fiction – presenting an alternative science reality – can be a futuristic world with new rules or small ‘what ifs’ questioning the possible effects of science and technology on today’s society.

Sports – the pursuit of victory in games – the ability to rise and find the best in ourselves.

Thriller – full of excitement and / or suspense as a battle between good and evil plays out – usually in the form of a detective investigation. Stories usually involve illegal activities, international espionage, and violence.

“The world of spying is my genre. My struggle is to demystify, to de-romanticise the spook world, but at the same time harness it as a good story.” – John le Carre

Tragedy – a plot which will end disastrously and sadly, with the downfall of the character caused by a flaw within them and their resulting destructive behavior.

War – when greed, violence and grudge erupt on a national scale, and the impacts on individuals.

Western – set on the expanding Western frontier in the United States, but more broadly about new societies forming and the struggle for order.

With some of the main genres listed here, and hundreds of subgenres, and thousands of potential hybrid combinations of genres, it is easy to see just how rich the palette is for writers.

Of vital importance is understanding just what makes each genre tick – how do you scare those reading a horror novel? How do you arrange the clues in a mystery so as to provoke curiosity, make the reader guess the truth, but conceal enough from them that the final reveal will surprise them?

Once you have decided the genre you’re going to work with, you should read even more extensively in that field to help you research what has been done before and why it worked so well.  Also, you don’t want to spend months or even years of your life writing a book that has already been published!

LITERARY FICTION VS. POPULAR FICTION

“The distinction between literary and genre fiction is stupid and pernicious. It dates back to a feud between Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry James. James won, and it split literature into two streams. But it’s a totally false dichotomy.” – George R. R. Martin

“Anything that doesn’t fit this mode has been shoved into an area of lesser solemnity called ‘genre fiction,’ and it is here that the spy thriller and the crime story and the adventure story and the supernatural tale and the science fiction, however excellently written, must reside, sent to their rooms, as it were, for the misdemeanor of being enjoyable in what is considered a meretricious way.”

Margaret Atwood

Lesson 2) Inspiration

“So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”

Matilda, Roald Dahl

To be a better writer you must read.  Not only will this expose you to new vocabulary and different styles of writing, reading the great work of other writers will also inspire you.  It will make you realize that writing is hard work and that you shouldn’t settle for writing just any old novel.  It is good to keep your reading list varied – especially if you are unsure of what genre of book you wish to write, because it will help you decide what type of story excites you and what doesn’t, and how that will influence your own personal style.

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” – Jack London

You can get inspiration from anything, anywhere and at any time. It could be a newspaper article that really grabs you with its story or a conversation with someone extraordinary. Always be open to new ideas, but beyond that you must make sure that you are able willing to put your own slant on them to create an original story which can sustain a novel.

If you are really stuck for inspiration, try one of these to jumpstart your ideas:

Classical music. Listen to some classical music – preferably live.  Close your eyes and allow your imagination to mold the music into shapes and ideas. After each piece, take out a notebook and jot down everything that came into your mind. This may be a fragmented list of colors, shapes and creatures, or your mind may have followed the journey of the composition and given you the sense of a story. Writing and music are siblings in art, after all, so this is the obvious first stop on your inspiration quest.

Change of scenery. Visit somewhere new. This can be a local neighborhood you’ve never spent any time in, or a country you’ve always wanted to see. When you stimulate your mind with new surroundings, you open yourself up to inspiration all around.

Exercise. Take a long walk (or even jog!) by yourself. The endorphins released by your exercise will cheer you up if you are in a particularly uninspired mood, and time spent along with your thoughts is important for any budding writer.

Talk! Start a conversation with a stranger. Everyone has a story to tell, and pretty much everyone loves to talk about themselves. Strike up a conversation with absolutely anyone – as long as you know nothing about them. Gradually ask them about themselves until you get a sense of their lifestyle, background and character. Jot down a few notes (not in front of them, obviously) and see if a new character begins to form.

New novelists. Go to a library and read material completely new to you, from a section you’ve never ventured into.  Changing things up can jolt the brain into action.

Observe. Go to a park, sit on a bench, and people watch.  See how they meet and greet each other, see how they act in conversations, see how they relax or exercise.  Who takes their lunch there? Who walks their dog there?  What are their lives like outside of the park? Build stories up in your mind about these people, it will get your imagination whirring.

– Articles & Real Life Events.  Read newspapers and magazines, whether in print or online – they can be a fantastic reservoir of stories, acting as a daily round-up of all that is interesting in the world.  Worth noting, if you directly use real-life figures in your story, then permission should be sought. However, articles may form the basis of an idea without using the details or events from the article.

– Youtube & Social Media – Social media allows a wider than ever glimpse into the variety of life around us. Where once we might need to travel the globe to interact with such a diverse array of people and cultures, much of the world is now at our fingertips and an afternoon spent video-hopping on Youtube can generate dozens of worlds, stories and characters for a novel.

– Personal experiences – The added advantage of using your own real life experiences comes in familiarity with the emotional experiences, and the richness of detail you might possess if you’ve operated in an idiosyncratic world.

The downside of turning to personal experiences is that writer’s often find it difficult to separate themselves from their experiences – to view the dramatic potential of the story in objective terms, to further dramatise the basic events so that they are engaging enough to the reader, to cut real life characters out, or to find the negative traits in family members and friends. This can severely impact on the quality of the manuscript and choke the creativity out of the project – and can also lead to personal fall-outs with friends, family and colleagues.

Direct use of personal experiences can be fruitful so long as proximity to the truth does not hold the project back.

– Pure imagination – sit back, relax, maybe have a nap and dream – ideas can be plucked from the ether without source material (though your experiences will likely feed into this process at some stage). Put yourself in the best mental positioning for creative thinking – do you respond best to quiet strolls in the woods, jotting ideas whilst watching the football, or blasting your ear-drums with loud music?

“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea forever.” – Will Self

STAYING INSPIRED

When you’re hit with a moment of inspiration, you will know all about it. The air will fizz with sudden potential and the world around you will fade away as your mind jumps between the infinite possibilities of timelines and characters and story arcs and conversations. For many writers, this is the best part of the process – but unfortunately, it is not sustainable.  If you want to do justice to your great ideas and unique characters, you need to find a way to stay inspired.

Writers’ groups or online forums can be inspiring for some writers and keep you motivated once you’ve got going.  Others find this sort of gathering unbearable, but it can give you an invaluable chance to run ideas by people who are objective and will approach solutions to possible difficulties you are having with the experience of writing themselves.  There is not much point showing your writing to your mum / sister / best mate / dog to read – they will all say they love it and you’ll rarely get constructive feedback.

Writing groups have been around since the time of Socrates (he used to work alongside Plato and Xenophon, comparing notes and discussing new ideas). Perhaps the most famous example of a successful writing group is the Bloomsbury Set. In 1920s London, the leafy neighborhood of Bloomsbury was at the center of a literary revolution, led by the likes of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, E.M. Forster and John Maynard Keynes. These literary luminaries would swap ideas and read each other’s work, encouraging and criticizing each other in equal measure over long dinner parties and in personal correspondence. Famously, they also had affairs and dalliances with each other over the years, but this is not usually a prerequisite for a successful writing group.

The support and advice offered by a group of your peers can be invaluable for a lonely writer, but of course the meetings aren’t all about you – you must also listen to the views on the writing of other members.  You may feel this is a waste of your time, but often hearing these discussions that are unconnected to your work can also be of use.  Pitfalls experienced by others can still be learned from.  And a monthly catch up with a group can give you a solid deadline as well, which motivates you to turn up next time with fresh chapters to discuss and more questions to ask.

At many points you are going to lose the momentum or not feel inspired to write. This can be because you are tired, worn down by the day to day stresses of your life, worried your idea isn’t actually good enough, or just doubting that you have what it takes to be a writer. The best thing that you can do in these moments is to write.  Get back into it in any way possible, because the longer you leave it, the harder it will be to pick up the story thread again.

“I write a little bit, almost every day, and if it results in two or three or (on a good day) four good paragraphs, I consider myself a lucky man. Never try to be the hare. All hail the tortoise.” – Malcolm Gladwell

As the bestselling author, Malcolm Gladwell, says: don’t be afraid to be a tortoise when you sit down to write – take your time, stick with it and you will get there in the end.

Often you need to go back to your original material / whatever inspired you to get a boost, or return to your plan to remind you what to focus on.  If you have stalled because you have lost your way or dug yourself into a plot hole, you just need to revisit your first key plot points and rewrite your plan or introduce a new character / different skill / alternative workplace to help you out of the sticky situation.

We will revisit how to overcome stumbling blocks later, but for now remember, this is your world that you created out of nothing but your imagination – if you can create one plotline, you can create another one. If you can write one page, you can write another. Celebrate the good days, and make sure you have a professional support network in place to get you through the bad days and keep your motivation up.

Lesson 1) Getting Organized

“The actual writing time is a lot shorter than the thinking time.”– Harlan Coben

We’ve all heard the saying “fail to prepare and you prepare to fail”. Well, it is especially true when it comes to novel writing.  What you read in this first module may seem obvious, and you may even be tempted to skip past it – but this advice forms the foundation of your writing process and holds the key to whether or not you will achieve your goals.

Taking the time to go through these early steps is vital when it comes to writing a thorough, well-thought-out story.  If you avoid the preparation you will only add time to the later stages of the process – rewriting your pages and rectifying all the mistakes and plot holes you created by NOT preparing!

Having said that, be wary of spending too much time getting yourself ready to start writing…there is a fine line between preparation and procrastination…

TIME MANAGEMENT

We all have busy lives and we can all come up with creative excuses not to write, but if you are serious about getting a book written and published you have to work out how many hours  you are going to dedicate to writing (no matter what), set yourself targets (and stick to them), and really manage your time.

“He who every morning plans the transactions of that day and follows that plan carries a thread that will guide him through the labyrinth of the most busy life.”
Victor Hugo

First, you need to decide what’s realistic, or you’ll be fretting about your targets more than your plot, but as a guide we would suggest four hours a week – split however you like.  That’s half an hour a day, with a day off, each week.  Pretty do-able really.  Writing regularly (preferably daily) – rather than building up to one big session a fortnight –keeps your brain mulling over the story, tweaking the characters, observing things around you that give you inspiration.  Essentially, it keeps you creative.

Some writers think that they should work towards a set word count each day (and we will look at alternative writing methods later).  A micro industry has sprung up to capitalize on word count anxiety. Writing is supposed to be a pleasant experience which helps you to learn and grow and harness your best ideas – it is not supposed to be an elaborate exercise in self-flagellation.

It’s also worth identifying a ‘writing spot’. This could be the local coffee shop, your kitchen table, that nook in the library beside your favorite book, or even underneath your duvet.  When you go to that place you know you are going to work and this will help you to get psychologically geared up for the writing session.

Many new writers think it would be fun to write a novel and that it’s just letting the creative juices flow that makes the magic happen, but the successful writers are the ones who routinely commit to what can be a challenging task, and not giving up when it gets testing.  Bestselling author James Patterson has his routine nailed:

“I pretty much write seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. I’ll get up around 5:30, put my house in order, write a little bit, maybe an outline for that day. Then I’ll go out around 7, frequently walk a golf course for an hour by myself. Then I’ll come back and write until, oh, 11 or 12.” – James Patterson

So, “turn up” to write like you would regularly attend college, or work, or your gym class – on time and ready to apply yourself and make an effort!

Whatever works for you, just run with it. But there is one crucial part of the preparation process which no one can ignore. Wherever you are, make a plan for how you are going to back up your precious work.

There are so many easy ways to do this now – use Google Drive, iCloud, Dropbox, or simply email your day’s work to yourself each time.  No-one wants their blood, sweat and tears wasted and a novel lost due to a broken computer, or a thief, or leaving your laptop on the bus by mistake. Sync your work across all your devices if possible, and download a notepad app on your smartphone so you can jot down ideas on the go and save them in the cloud for later.

SHOPPING LIST:

Now you have decided where and when you are going to write, you need to check you have all your tools to do so.

Here’s a list of items you will need, or may find useful to try out as you progress through the planning stages:

Pens / pencils – stock up!  We all know how pens can go walk about, and you always need to have one with you – wherever you are – for when inspiration hits, so you need plenty.

Notebook – we are not suggesting you hand write you whole novel, but you will definitely need at least one notebook, but probably more, for the critical ideas phase. We will be asking you to brainstorm and try out all kinds of ways to kick start your imagination and it is a good idea to have all these bursts of creativity in one place.  You should also carry your notebook at all times, so you can scribble down people you are drawn to, things you hear that trigger an idea, smells that conjure up great nostalgia.  A notebook is a good buddy for your laptop because it’s on paper that you can doodle sketches of what your characters might look like, or a map of their neighborhood in a way you can’t using software.

Post-It notes (in two different colors) – When designing your characters you can create a special storyboard for them – or a timeline – where you draw a line on a piece of paper and stick Post-It notes along it with important snippets of information on them.  These will represent key moments, events, decisions of the character’s journey, my aunt uses this technique in her planning phase. You will be able to see clearly what is missing or repetitive and adjust the timeline accordingly.  More on this later…

– Story boarding software This is by no means a must-have purchase, but it’s certainly a useful tool.  If you are not familiar with the term ‘storyboard’ it is simply ordering pictures or notes or scenes in a sequence to help a writer visualize a story, moving the components around to play with the order until a winning combination is found.  Many publishers use storyboards to check a book’s structure and flow.  Writers use them to brainstorm a plot in the planning stage and / or keep an overview along the way.

Cork board and Index cards – Of course you can create your own storyboard with these items, and you may prefer to physically move your ideas around the board as you mull over the organization of your ideas.