I first come up with a backdrop for the story. I usually try to find one that will allow me to bring in characters of different ages and backgrounds. For example:
- Too Little, Too Late – restaurant
- Shaken & Stirred – conference management company
- A Cut Above – cosmetic surgery clinic
- Forever FM – radio station
- Red Letter Day – 2nd hand fashion boutique
- Changing Places – estate agent
- The Betrayal of Grace Mulcahy – interior designer
- A Summer Breeze – a theatre
Then I come up with a small cast of characters – 6 at the most. The characters will be two dimensional and flat at this stage but I find it helps as the book progresses to have given each of them a CV. Each character is given a look, a birthday, I decide what they like to eat, drink and what their per hates or bad habits are. I’ll be almost halfway through the book before I really get to know these characters but doing their CVs helps me to be reasonably consistent. Now I should stress that these characters will change as the story develops and I will usually have to revise my descriptions of them as they assert themselves.
The next thing I come up with is a scenario. Yes, that’s right, a scenario as opposed to a plot. In other words I give these characters a situation and then sit back and see how each of them will react to it.
In Too Little, Too Late, my protagonist gets the opportunity to buy the restaurant from her intimidating boss but the increase in her responsibilities starts to take a toll on her relationship with her boyfriend.
In Shaken & Stirred, the chief executive of a conference management company has a heart attack and as a result his wife has to take over the running of the company, another character is promoted and a new employee is hired.
So it’s from these situations that the book develops. Though I usually do a rough plan for my books, I have never actually followed one! As the characters establish themselves, they take over and I just follow them. My husband laughs at the number of times I emerge from my office saying ‘I didn’t see that coming!’
I am not alone in this. It is the same experience with most authors and a sign that the plot is going to work. This idea that authors work to a fixed plan to produce a commercial success is a fallacy. If it were that easy, everyone would do it.
It takes me the guts of a year to produce a book. 4 to 5 months to get the basic story on paper and another couple of months to re-write before I let anyone see it. Then it goes to my agent, my editors and my mother and with their input it takes another couple of months to edit and fine tune.
Though I do believe writing is a talent and not something that can be learnt, it is of course possible and necessary to learn techniques that turn a rough, raw piece into a polished and gripping novel.
Here are for me, some of the basic things you need to remember:
The best way to learn about the craft of writing is to read and write at every opportunity. Reading, good books and bad, will teach you a lot and don’t attempt to write in a genre unless you have read it extensively and understand it.
What do I write about?
My advice here would be to write about something that you’re really interested in. You will be comfortable writing about something you know and enthusiastic because its something you care about and that enthusiasm will carry you a long way. Don’t get hung up on detail, there will be plenty of time to do that later.
What I mean is don’t try and write in a voice that you think will work better, or that you think will be more commercially viable. Its YOUR voice that will make this book different and special and readers can spot a fake a mile off. Similarly, don’t try and write to a formula that you think the audience want– it will be stilted and the reader will see through it.
Show don’t tell
This is one of the first things you will learn on any writing course. There is nothing worse than an author telling you all the background of a story rather than letting the reader learn it through how the characters interact and react. Obviously there will be times when you have to tell but finding the most subtle way to do it is all important.
The amount of research you do will depend on the type of book you’re writing but regardless, its paramount to get your facts right. Having said that I would add a word of caution; remember the story comes first and any background information should be exactly that, background. The internet is an excellent resource that saves the author a lot of time and leg-work but don’t forget the sources closer to home. Use family, neighbours and friends – they will provide you with good, accurate information with a personal twist. For example, in my book The Betrayal of Grace Mulcahy one of my characters works in a Montessori school. I asked the girls who work in my son’s school to complete a questionnaire for me and their help was invaluable. If I’m ever asking anyone about their job, I always ask for their anecdotes and personal comments too – I’ve got some of my most useful snippets that way!
Plan the timeline
Figure out from the start what time period your book will cover – is it Spring when the book opens? Are there going to be flash backs? Do ages and timeline correspond? It has been known for some poor female characters to go through a two year pregnancy!
Character names/Place names
Be careful with names sounding too similar – a Maggie and Mary or a Pat and Paul in one book can get confusing. It’s something I usually address when the book is almost finished and in every book I’ve written so far, I’ve changed some of the names of people or places.
Who’s telling the story?
If you decide to write in the first person remember that you will only ever be able to give one viewpoint. If you write in the third person, it’s best to only change narrator with a change of chapter. Changing viewpoints from one paragraph to the next is both confusing and distracting. The reader shouldn’t have to waste time trying to figure out who’s talking.
Keep it simple
If you want to write popular fiction then always remember that the story must come first. It’s nice to have some descriptive passages and colourful prose but your reader will start to flick if you go on too much. Keep your words small, your sentences short and your dialogue natural and your story will roll along at a pace that will have your reader on the edge of his or her seat! Stephen King would have you steer clear of adverbs at all costs but I think that’s probably asking too much. Suffice to say, careful and limited use is advisable. You don’t want too much of ‘she said, bitterly’; ‘he smiled nervously’; ‘Mary sighed, wearily.’ If you’re doing a good job then it should be clear that she was bitter, he was nervous and Mary was weary! Back to the ‘show don’t tell’ argument.
Once you start writing don’t get hung up on the wording of a paragraph or a page – there will be plenty of time for that later – its called the editing process.