Mary Malone lives in Cork and is the author of four books including the best selling Love is the Reason. Here she explains how she starts each writing journey:
Writing fiction is a little like taking a long journey to a place you’ve never been before: you know your starting point, have a fair idea of your final destination but in between remains a mystery. Part of the adventure is negotiating twists and turns and deciding which direction to take at every crossroads. You may be reluctant to stop and ask for directions or – God forbid – have to reverse and detour! However, to arrive at the final destination, this is often a necessary evil.
Each of my novels has taken me on an exciting journey that I couldn’t possibly have planned as I started out.· And if the story takes me by surprise, there’s every chance it will surprise my readers too. I’m delighted to have the opportunity on www.writing.ie to share some of the tips I’ve learned along my fiction routes. I have no doubt that you too will find your way to THE END!
What I’ve briefly described is my winding way of writing a novel. Every author follows their own path, some planned with ‘Satellite Navigation’ and others (like me) make it up as they go along – literally!
WHERE DO IDEAS COME FROM?
Stephen King’s ‘the boys in the basement’ theory suggests that most writing is done in the subconscious by unseen helpers. From experience, I’ve come to believe this. I have allowed my imagination the freedom to develop the story and have given the characters in my novel free reign wherever possible. This method isn’t always fruitful but it generally provides a rough canvas for something better to come.
Stephen King also states that inspiration is only a posh word for ideas. A good idea isn’t the be all and end all, of course, but like a sculptor’s lump of clay, it’s something to work with. On its own it looks nothing, but with a lot of hard work and careful moulding, it has masterpiece potential.
But where are ideas found? In truth, everywhere.
Has your attention ever been sparked by a snippet of overheard conversation? As you walk away wondering what happens next, ask yourself what if? Interaction between people, a vacant house, a car crash, a person living alone, a shrill scream…any situation can be turned into a story by asking the following questions:who, what, why, when, where and how. Turn the ordinary into the extraordinary and make something happen to your idea. Paste the following comment on the wall over your desk – In every story, something HAS to happen – otherwise the reader will lose interest and cast your novel aside.
The idea for my first novel, Love Match, was born on the side of a soccer pitch. Week after week, I stood chatting to other soccer mums as we watched our sons compete. After the game, we went our separate ways …until the next training session or match. Driving out of the club gate one day, a germ of an idea began to scratch inside my head. What if three soccer mums from extremely different backgrounds allowed their friendship to extend outside of the soccer pitch? How would their lives interact? What if their sons were competing against each other for a coveted place on the team? Would their friendship survive? To find out the answer to these questions, you really will have to read Love Match, but what I will tell you is that the idea scratching inside my head that day grew to over 400 pages and a best seller!
GENRE – WHAT TYPE OF STORY? WHERE IT WILL FIT IN THE MARKET? WHAT WILL GIVE IT THE BEST OPPORTUNITY OF BEING NOTICED BY A PUBLISHER?
Very briefly – because I don’t want to interfere with or disturb your creative flow by pushing square pegs into round holes – I feel obliged to mention the business side of writing, the dastardly publishing world. It’s not something to be afraid of but it is something to prepare for. Don’t ever lose sight of the fact that Literary Agents and Publishers are in the business of making profit. Your novel will be one of their multiple products and to market and sell it successfully, they will have to inform bookshops where exactly it fits into their large variety of stock. In other words, it has to fit into a niche and appeal to a particular market. A general rule of thumb for debut novelists is to check out the bookshelves in the local bookshop and decide what slot suits their work. This slot is known as ‘genre’, e.g. popular fiction, romance, thriller, suspense, paranormal etc. Choosing a genre was easy for me, I wanted to be on the same shelf as the authors I’d been reading for years. Take the time to choose yours. Figure out where your novel will sit most comfortably and above all, for a novel to succeed in the market, it must STAND OUT.
STILL INTERESTED? A FEW TIPS TO HELP YOU GET STARTED…
Getting started can often be the most difficult part of any piece of writing. Whether it’s an email, a letter, report, short story or a novel, getting the first few lines on the page is often the most difficult. With a blank page in front of you, there’s nothing to improve. A page filled with words, however, can be edited, revised, polished and rewritten. There aren’t any magic formulas to follow – simply sit down, open your page and write. Most importantly, keep writing and don’t stop.
Writing is all about rewriting. Agent Jonathon Williams kindly shared this valuable nugget of information with me at the beginning of my writing career. Now, when I sit at my laptop, I realise over and over how right he is. On the subject of invaluable pieces of advice I’ve received, bestselling author, Sarah Webb, supplied me with another diamond – bum glue! Stick your bum to the chair, start writing and keep writing.
RESEARCH…HOW MUCH DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?
Research is another area that authors approach differently. Whether it’s drawing on personal experience or spending weeks and months trawling through a historic period or geographical location or learning all there is to know about a medical condition, an author owes it to their readers to get their facts as accurate as possible. When researching my current novel, I needed to get the background on a lot of technical and forensic information. The internet was a terrific help but it didn’t quite meet my requirements as it lacked the human touch. As luck had it, I was at an Inkwell Writer’s seminar in Dublin and met not one but two experts in forensic science. I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven! Needless to say, I made a point of chatting to them and exchanging contact details. Both authors – Niamh O’Connor and Sandra Mara – were only too happy to offer several solutions to my characters’ dilemmas. My editor was extremely impressed with my expert DNA knowledge! And while I had pages of emails and information from the experts, the detail used in my novel was minimal – but one thing I was sure of, it was as accurate as I could make it.
Research, like ideas, comes in many different shapes and forms. Decide what’s required for your novel and use whatever resources necessary to get your story right. Be careful not to fall into the trap of spending so much time researching and reading about your chosen subject that you never actually write your novel!
Author, Alex Barclay, travels to the US and spends days with NYPD and other state officials to get right inside the world she’s writing about. I never quite had the courage to ask whether her publishers financially support her extensive research.
One important point regarding research: don’t let research slow you down. If you’re finding it difficult to find the exact information required, it’s okay to move on with your novel and then return to fill in the gaps once you’ve completed your research. Very often you will gather a lot more information than you will never use in your story, but acquiring a broad knowledge of your subject matter will ultimately help your plot to be more authentic and it will help you post publication when you’re interviewed about your book.