Month: February 2016

So you’re writing a novel. Where do you start?

So you’re writing a novel. Where do you start?

admin-ajax 2People generally ask how one attempts to write a whole novel. Sure, it’s one word, followed by another, but which words? My professional experience taught me one thing about the writing process. There are two types of people when it comes to writing. Those who are terrified and intimidated by the blank page, and those who embrace the blank page.

To get off the starting blocks, do not be phased by that blank page or the blinking cursor on your screen. With new technology it’s so easy to change the first word on that blank page. So keep that in mind for starters. Change that first word ten times. It doesn’t matter. Just write it.

When I decided the creative life was for me, I read and read as much as I could. I’d watch podcasts by Paulo Cohello or listen to interviews with Stephen King. The one piece of advice that was repeated over and over again was simple. ‘Just keep writing, every single day’. How hard can it be to do something you love, every single day? That advice, combined with my ambition, my enthusiasm and some divine-inspired zone writing (you know the kind when you write like a maniac, the words come too fast for you to keep up, you just write – and when you finish you look at it and go – wow did I really just write that?). Yes I was hoping for many of those moments to write that book.

It turns out, there are many ways to write a novel. There are hundreds of articles out there on the best way to write a novel. Alas, divine-inspired writing zones don’t generally last the duration of the whole book. They are fleeting burst of a few lines that you may end up having to kill later on anyway.

Let me add to the myriad of articles out there on how to write a novel. Let me qualify that, I can’t tell you how, I can only share what I’ve learned for myself thus far. Perhaps a more accurate question is how do you write a book worthy of publishing. Hopefully that will be a post for another time. Meanwhile, back here in the heady days of the idea, the concept of writing a novel…

It may seem like an obvious thing to say, but you need to know the story you want to tell. I say this, purely because in my younger years I wrote poetry. Sometimes that poetry wrote itself. I never knew what was going to be channelled through my pen onto the page. I would often write until 2.00am or 3.00am in the morning, go to sleep, then get up the next morning and be amazed at the words I had coupled together. Writing a novel doesn’t seem to write itself. I’ve tried believe me – just sitting there waiting for the words to come. So, it’s best to have a vague idea of the story you wish to tell, or an idea regarding the message you are trying to communicate.

Once I have the stirrings of a book idea in my mind, I dedicate some time – not long perhaps a week – to the brainstorming phase. Throughout my years as a copywriter working on go-to-market campaigns, this was the crucial time when the team got together to kick the project off. ‘No idea is a bad idea’ during this phase. The brainstorming process allows you to work out elements of your story that you hadn’t even thought about – until now! As you progress and begin to increase your word count, you will find brainstorming to be an extremely useful technique to work out complexities or challenges that may otherwise halt your good work. After some solid brainstorming you are ready to develop your character, setting and plot outlines.

Character profiles/sketches can be so much fun to work with. Again it’s a case of brainstorming and writing down anything that comes to you. Let your imagination run wild. You may find a certain person that you know comes to mind as this character takes shape on the page in front of you. It’s surprising how shallow and one dimensional your characters can come across to the reader if you as the writer don’t really know your characters. Ensure you have given thought to aspects of their personality such as their conflicts and motivations, their looks, their temperament, little verbal ticks they may have and so on. I have created a mini questionnaire for myself when it comes to creating my characters. Completing it forces me to really identify who my characters are and how they relate to each other and the story itself. I’ll create an example of the type of questions you should ask yourself when creating these people who populate your book’s world and post to this forum in the coming weeks.

Once you have identified your characters, even very loosely, you can move on to your setting outline. The setting of your book may or may not be hugely important to the story – but you do need to consider setting. What year do your characters live in? Is it in the past or the future or present day? Which country do they live in? Is it a particular time of year? Does your character have a favourite place or a feared place? If it helps, take a look around you right now. What things do you observe about your own setting? Are there trees outside? How do you feel about the view from your window? This will help kick start the type of things you need to note about your character’s setting. Again, feel free to brainstorm and have fun with it.

By now, your plot outline should be percolating in your mind. You have the foundations in your characters and setting so now it’s time to weave in the story. I personally find planning and writing chapter outlines is a really useful way to identify very early on where the gaps are in your plot. If you’ve gone from A to C but not quite sure what B is yet, that’s fine – at least you’ve identified that you need to think about that part. There are lots of useful techniques on how to build your storyline which I’ll explain in a later post.

To get you started right now, however, think story goal. As I mentioned at the start of the article, it helps to understand what message you want to communicate or what story you are bursting to tell. This is is the central theme. Once you have established this, consider subplots which serve a function outside the realm of the main plot. Sub plots provide the opportunity to change the scene, tone or emotion at any given point in the story. Perhaps your character has an illness, or perhaps they are in crippling debt, but whatever the subplot is it should add something in terms of layering to your story and character. There are many points I could make about plot, but one important element that I would be remiss to leave out is, ensure your plot has some sort of tension. You need tension to keep your readers involved. I always think, if I’m bored reading back my writing, then my readers will be twice as board. Find the tension!

Once you have given due thought and attention to the points outlined above, it’s a good idea to consolidate everything with a summary – or chapter-by-chapter outline. In essence, your chapter outline details the opening scene of your book and moves forward scene by scene through the story until the end. From here you will identify gaps in the story line but there is no need to be overly concerned at this stage. For now it is good to have identified the strengths and weaknesses.

If you have completed all of this you will have the beginnings of a draft novel. This is a very simplistic view and only designed to get you thinking but hopefully it should help. Depending on the nature of your writing you may have to consider additional elements such as research which you will continually have to add to as your work progresses.

Finally I would like to end on some advice that I started with. Don’t underestimate the importance of writing every single day. With structure and goals written down this should be more achievable. Of course we all get off days where we write a few pages, only to shred them theatrically days later. It is far better to do this than not have anything to shred. For me, it’s about continuity. If I don’t write every day, I forget where I am in the character’s mind or the plot. I have to re-read all my writing from the start to jog my memory. Apart from anything else this becomes boring, and a huge waste of time. So keep writing every day – and enjoy!

News

News

News

It seems already that we have lost so many great talents in 2016 and it’s only just the end of February now. This month we said goodbye to three writers who will leave their mark on generations of readers to come.

Umberto Eco

January 5th 1932 – February 19th 2016
Milan – aged 84
Italian author of ‘The Name of the Rose

Harper Lee

April 28th 1926 – February 19th 2016
Monroeville, Alabama – aged 89
Authored the classic novel ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’

Margaret Forster

May 28th 1938 – February 8th 2016
London, England – aged 77
English novelist who wrote ‘Georgy Girl’

Coping with writer’s block

Coping with writer’s block

eviemcrae

Many years ago I wrote a poem about how it feels to sit in front of the blank page hoping to meet with the muse. Sometimes when the words don’t come you fear they may never come again. Thankfully there are also those magical times when the words are as impatient to be jotted down as a dog straining at the leash.

Writer’s block is feared and dreaded by many writers, but I have found some fun ways to nudge the creative engines back into life.

There are literally hundreds of little techniques I can share with you – but let’s start with this one. Play along with the ‘Write about what you know’ rule.

Anything and everything is worth writing about if the writer finds something engaging about the subject. Try these writing exercises based on first-hand observation:

I’ll start with my favourite one first as I rarely have to go beyond this one to get me going.

  1. Study a painting or a photograph and write a story about the subject, whether it’s a person, a place, or a thing, or a combination of two or all three.
  2. Take a look at titles of books you have on your bookshelf. Create a story based on one or more titles or one or the words that catch your eye in a title.
  3. Research historical figures on Wikipedia or in some other reference resource. Write about a fictional episode in their life — perhaps a chance meeting with another famous person (before or after they became famous) — or assign some invented secret to their life and write about it.
  4. Visit a historical location — a building, a site, a city — and write a factual account of its history or create a story in which it features, or one inspired by it. Or do the same for any structure or location, even if it’s brand new.
  5. Go to a public place and watch people (without, of course, making yourself obvious). Create backstories based on their appearance, their habits, and their communication styles. If you are a people watcher by nature you probably already subconsciously do this – you just haven’t committed it to paper yet.
  6. Visit a zoo or an aquarium, or even a pet store or a dog run at a park, and study the animals. Develop human characters based on their characteristics and interactions, and write about these people you’ve created.

If none of these inspire you here is something else to try. Give yourself one minute only for these exercises. You are going to write the first thing that comes into your head – even if they are just random words – those random words could be the trigger to something else that will have you writing until your ink runs dry!

Time yourself – you will be amazed that you want to keep going beyond the minute.

Start your one-minute story with

“I don’t know when …”

“I know …”

“I wanted to see …”

“I love …”

“I don’t remember …”

“If I could paint…”

Once you have completed one or more (it’s up to you) go back and read through what you have written. Is there anything in there that has form or the foundations of being something new?

Soon you’ll be saying “Writer’s block …pah … I never get writer’s block!”

Until next time.

Evie x

 

Please God – not another synopsis

Please God – not another synopsis

eviemcrae.comWell it’s been an interesting week here at the desk.

JK Rowling (Twitter Queen) relayed a public service announcement about the Lucy Cavendish Prize. “A great opportunity for unpublished female writers resident in UK and Ireland,” she says. I decided, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Right? I’m an unpublished female writer, and at this point in time I’m living in the UK. My book is finished and I’m ready to roll.

eviemcrae.com

I read through the criteria for entry and was shocked to discover that a 10-page synopsis was permissible along with the usual first 50 pages of your novel.

To put this into perspective for you, I have read everything you can possibly read under the sun and on the internet about the perfect Synopsis. I thought I had studied my craft and got it down to a fine art.

But here’s the thing.  I managed the impossible. I distilled my 110,000 word novel down to 4 pages. Until I read, ‘Actually, if you can get your synopsis down to 2 pages that would be great. Thanks awfully.’ An image of the camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle came to mind at that point. But I did it. Then another agent said, ‘We require a 1-page synopsis or we don’t even look at you.’ OK well I guess I can do that. Do you see where I am going? The most challenging one I have had to write so far is the 300 words synopsis. In the name of all that is holy – how the hell do you distil countless layers, sub-plots, twists, fork in the road moments – oh and name 5 characters- into 300 words? Quite frankly I don’t know for sure, but I tried.

Fast forward a few months and here, in front of my eyes, the apparent luxury of 10 pages!!

Except it wasn’t a luxury was it? I pondered whether just to send my carefully crafted 4-pager, or 1-pager, but then I thought well if you’ve got 10 pages you may as well use it.

I’m here to tell you it’s much harder than it sounds.

Initially, I took the most exciting plot elements from each of the chapters and created some copy. But when I read it back it was SO BORING… this happened, then that happened, and then something else happened…Yawn. I was boring myself so I knew I had no chance holding the attention of the judges. I tried a few other approaches but nothing felt right.

So I realised I had to go back to basics. Forget the countless pages I had written in the past and begin with a fresh sheet of paper.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, try to keep these 3 key questions to the forefront of your mind:

  • Whose story is it? (i.e, who is your protagonist?)
  • What do they want and what stops them achieving it? (i.e, what is their conflict?)
  • How do they get it?

From here you can review and revise. Is your voice active? Is your pace dynamic? Does the writing style of your synopsis mirror the writing style in the novel?

It took me a good week to write a Synopsis I was happy with, and even now, I’m not sure the judges for the Lucy Cavendish Prize really want to read 10 full pages before launching into the novel, but now it’s a just a case of ‘wait and see.

I’ll be sure and get back to you in future posts on how to write a Synopsis. Perhaps I can spare you the countless hours I’ve put into the subject – unless you’re a bit of a sadist on that front.

Well – the entry is in. Wish me luck. Until next time

Evie x