As a self-proclaimed fan of ‘how to write’ books, there can’t be many writing techniques I haven’t either read about or used myself. There are some writers who turn their nose up at the very notion that you can be ‘taught’ to be a writer, they think storytelling is a skill you either possess, or you don’t. Whilst I agree that being a keen reader can give you an intrinsic sense of story, being aware of different writing techniques can help you shape and hone the vaguest, most amorphous of ideas into something distinctly novel-shaped.
I began my career writing short stories and learnt a lot about the craft from an online short story bootcamp that I was a member of. Every fortnight we’d deliver a short story (titled but anonymous) and we’d score the stories on the quality of the following: opening, characters, dialogue, plot, theme, seduction (how seduced we were by the story), language, pace and ending. The scores for my own stories were pretty atrocious initially but, after serving my apprenticeship, they began to improve. So much so that not only were my stories picked up for publication by various online and print short story anthologies but they began to win competitions too. By studying the very best short story writers and learning about the craft I’d upped my game. Over the course of two years I’d transformed from an enthusiastic, if slightly clueless, short writer to a competent one.
When I sat down to write my first novel I felt rudderless. I knew a novel had to possess the same elements as a short story – a strong opening, believable characters, great pace etc – but a book felt so long in comparison to a story. How could I stretch a story from two thousand words to eighty or a hundred thousand without it sagging in the middle? How did I incorporate subplots? And how on earth did I manage the pace of a story of that length? I turned to the Internet for help but it was 2007 and there weren’t nearly as many useful resources to be found as there are these days (YouTube was still in its infancy). I did find some information about The Hero’s Journey, however. Could that help me structure Heaven Can Wait, the supernatural romantic comedy I wanted to write? It turned out it could. My character was dead (she died the night before her wedding) and refused to go to heaven. St Peter (her mentor) told her if she wanted to become a ghost and remain with her fiancé she’d have to become a ‘wannabe ghost’ and find love for a complete stranger in twenty-one days. I had my quest.
The Hero’s Journey was incredibly useful for plotting that story but it wasn’t a good fit for my next rom com (Home for Christmas) or my first psychological thriller (The Accident) so I decided to use the three act structure instead. The Hero’s Journey had been relatively straight forward but the three act structure was a much bigger learning curve. Some of it was fine – I knew what the inciting incident was and what the act 1, act 2 and act 3 climaxes were. It was the rest that was difficult. I had to think about the obstacles I put in the way of my character and ensure that they became progressively harder to overcome. For my fourth novel (The Lie) I decided to give pantsing (aka making it up as you go along) a go. That was…a mistake. Although I managed to write 100,000 words in 100 days (it was an online writers’ group challenge) the first draft was a complete mess. I rewrote it. And rewrote it. And rewrote it again. And when I delivered it to my editor she confirmed what I suspected. It was still a complete mess. It took me a further three months to fix it – 20,000 words cut and a new 40,000 words added.
I returned to the three act structure for my fifth novel (The Missing) but, for the sixth (The Escape) I decided to give the four act structure a go. I’m a big film fan and I’d noticed a proliferation of books offering screenwriting tips and hints to authors. In case you don’t know, the four act structure is basically the three act structure but with the second act split into two and each of the four acts is split into two sequences. What it means is that, instead of there being three major climaxes in a book there are now eight and that means the pace of the book is upped and you are almost guaranteed to avoid ‘a soggy middle’. I also experimented with outlining for The Missing and The Escape. I’d watched a James Patterson masterclass where he said that outlining a novel helped speed up the first draft. In some ways it did – when you know exactly what happens next you spend less time staring into space wondering what to write – but the downside was it took away some of the magic of writing, those moments where a character does something you didn’t expect or the plot takes an interesting turn.
And that leads me neatly to my seventh and eighth books. The Treatment, my first young adult book, and The Fear were both loosely plotted using the four act structure but, because of the time pressure of writing two books in one year, I didn’t have time to write an outline. In fact, neither book was more than a couple of pages of bullet points before I started the first draft. And both times panic rose in my stomach as I opened a blank Word document; I had only the vaguest of road maps to lead me to ‘The End’ and four months to write The Fear (three months to write The Treatment). But both books turned out to be amongst the most enjoyable I’d ever written. I had the freedom to follow my character’s whims and a structure in place to ensure they didn’t completely veer off course. Finally, after eight books, I think I’ve found the writing technique that works best for me. Now to write book nine…
P.S. If you’re interested in seeing which writing books have helped me the most over the course of my writing career I’ve got a full list on my blog.
(c) C.L. Taylor
About The Fear:
Sometimes your first love won’t let you go…
When Lou Wandsworth ran away to France with her teacher Mike Hughes, she thought he was the love of her life. But Mike wasn’t what he seemed and he left her life in pieces.
Now 32, Lou discovers that he is involved with teenager Chloe Meadows. Determined to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself, she returns home to confront him for the damage he’s caused.
But Mike is a predator of the worst kind, and as Lou tries to bring him to justice, it’s clear that she could once again become his prey…
The million copy Sunday Times bestseller returns with a gripping psychological thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat.
‘Claustrophobic and compelling’ KARIN SLAUGHTER
‘A rollercoaster with multiple twists’ DAILY MAIL
’A million dollar new story from a million selling author.’ SARAH PINBOROUGH
Order your copy online here.