Saturday 11 February 2023

Writing Tips: Fiction

I've just read a "writing tips" site and it was all about motivation. Go for a run! Get out into nature! Go to the gym!

It also gave some tricks to get yourself writing. "You only need to write three sentences a day!" "Take a blank piece of paper and write the word 'the'!" Or even: "Take a blank piece of paper and cover it with squiggles!" Don't we all use keyboards these days?

The above scenarios seem to be addressed to someone who has not a thought in their head. They want to "write" but don't know what. There was nothing, not a word, about the nitty gritty of writing: avoiding clichés, not mixing metaphors, writing readable sentences

So here's how I wrote my four novels: Which Way Now?, Which Way To...?, We Three and The Fourth Door. (They have young central characters and are a mix of realism and fantasy. They take place from the late 60s to the early 80s.)

I created a file, and threw into it any notes that were relevant. I knew how I wanted the first story to open: with a girl who's just started at a new school, opening a new exercise book and writing about her life instead of Henry VIII. Books one, two and three are her diary. Book four has a different central character, a young man. He has persuaded his flatmates that he is writing a magical-realist novel, but instead tells the story – which is a magical-realist novel. I know, because I was the one writing it.

I carried on throwing notes into the file. I thought up a cast of characters and started creating incidents and scenes. I knew how the story was going to end. I wrote the odd scene as they occurred to me. I worked out motivations. I decided how the characters connected up.

I put the notes in order. Now I had a 30-page synopsis. I suggest you don't start writing the text until you have one of these.

I started writing. I wrote a chapter (1,500-2,000 words) a day. At the end of each chapter, I made a few notes about what would happen in tomorrow's chapter.

Eventually, I had a first draft. I shelved it for a while, then reread it. I rewrote and polished. I realised that in the third book, I had the incidents in the wrong order. WHY was Fabia so upset that she walked out of the pizzeria? Moving the incident to later in the narrative gave her a motive.

Eventually I considered different titles and checked to see if someone else had used my favourite.

There were some scenes I included because I liked them. I just wanted two of the characters to play Scrabble in a tower room while listening to Chopin.

Because all the narrative was "written" by the characters, I didn't have to wonder about an authorial voice. And there was no godlike viewpoint – the characters only knew what they could know. Unless they saw it in a crystal ball. I know, that sounds like cheating.

Every time I finished one of the books, I didn't really know what was going to happen next, or if there'd be another story. But then my imagination got to work and... see above.

Mentoring would-be writers is an industry. Don't take the advice too seriously. And don't discuss your plot with anybody before you write it. Do make sure that nobody else has written your story, if you can.

It helps to choose a genre, and then read a lot of books in that genre. You'll get some ideas about style and structure, and also find out which ideas have been used (or over-used) already. I confess I didn't do this! I tell stories elliptically – they just come out like that. I mean the reader never knows where the story is leading.

Technical knowledge of grammar and style, analysis of structure and genre, are useful. But on the other hand there’s no point trying to bolt together a novel as if you were assembling a kit of parts. You need to care about your characters, and enjoy spending time in the world you have created.

If you want to know about the nuts and bolts of writing, read my other Writing Tips posts. My book A Short Guide to Writing Well gives basic help. And here's a post on writing your memoirs, finding an agent, and possibly getting published.

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