Contents


Getting started

This is the website of The Writers’ Guide, offering essential advice for the creative writer.

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Getting started

In this chapter we’ll look at:

Planning a storyline
Dramatic concept
Unfolding the plot
Outlining
Writing quickly
Getting down to it
Establishing a routine
Budgeting your hours
Leaving something for next day
How much should you aim for?

Planning a storyline

Going on a long journey is much easier when you’ve got a map. Some writers can make up a story as they go along (both Interview With a Vampire and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy were written off the cuff) but most find it essential to come up with a rough story outline beforehand. It’s always easier to write if you’re heading towards an ending you’ve already worked out.

Dramatic concept

Some novelists talk about the dramatic concept of a story (similar to the idea of high concept described in Screenplays). If you have a strong dramatic concept you should be able to condense the basic plot into one short sentence. The following are the dramatic concepts behind well-known novels. Do you recognise them?

In the company of a wizard and a band of dwarfish adventurers a timid hero sets off to overcome a dragon.

Fearing the destruction of their warren a group of rabbits face terrible dangers on their journey to find a new home.

A group of shipwrecked schoolboys struggle to survive without adults on a deserted island.

All of the above sound as if they’d be interesting and exciting stories — and they are. If you can condense your plot into one short sentence you might have the makings of a good story; if not, perhaps you ought to think again.

The twenty second rule

Could you get across your story in twenty seconds? Traditionally this was the window of opportunity a publisher’s sales rep had to convince a bookstore buyer a new novel was worth the shelf space. Today we might call this the elevator pitch.

Unfolding the plot

Once you’ve decided on your basic story prepare a scene-by-scene plan showing how the plot unfolds. What happens in each scene to move the story along? What action has to take place? What information has to be revealed? This sounds a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’ve worked out the basics of the plot you’ll find that many scenes appear automatically. For example, if your story is about a teenage scientist who discovers a miracle hair-restorer then sooner or later you’re going to have a scene (or scenes) set in a laboratory. Which characters appear in the laboratory scenes and what are their roles? Is there a scene where your scientist tries to sell his invention? Where would that take place, in a boardroom? Who’s making the deal? You’ll find that your plan soon develops into a series of essential must-have scenes with linking action gluing them together (these must-have scenes are usually active while the linking scenes are passive, see Scenes for details).

When unfolding your story don’t start off with too much detail. First rough-out the whole plot very simply from beginning to end, then go through it over and over again, adding more refinements each time and looking for ways to make improvements.

Outlining

One way of laying out a story is to write down key events on index cards. You pin these cards to a wall in chronological order and move them about, tear them up, and write new ones as the story develops.

This process is often known as outlining and many software packages aimed at the creative writer have an outlining function, some even mimic the index card method using the computer screen as a virtual corkboard. If you have a Macintosh the simplest way of outlining digitally is to create cards using the Stickies application that came with your system software. There are also mind-mapping software packages that can be used for outlining, these include MindNode for the Macintosh, XMind and FreeMind for Macintosh or PC and Popplet and iBrainstorm for the iPad, all of which are available in free versions. See also Tools of the trade.

Writing quickly

Broadly speaking there are two kinds of writers: oil painters and watercolourists (bear with me). An oil painter slaps paint on the canvass and if they don’t like what they’ve done they scrape it off and start again. The watercolourist can’t do this, every brushstroke has to be applied with care; if they make a mistake they start from scratch. In the same way some writers do all their thinking before they commit to paper (watercolourists) while others (oil painters) bash out the words as fast as possible and refine them later.

Your own temperament and talent will dictate which method you prefer, but there are advantages to being an oil painter. Few finished stories turn out exactly as the writer imagined and as you work through your plot you’ll find you change your mind about key aspects: decide on different locations, add or drop characters and scenes. Since it’s likely that many elements of your story will change there’s little point in spending hours, days or weeks agonising over the fine details in your first draft if you might have to go back and re-write it all.

If you’re working as a watercolourist and finding it hard going — join the dark side. Try to knock out a set number of words each day. Don’t be too creative with the dialogue and description, just get down what you have to say to move the story along. When you’ve finished your story go back and start the fine-tuning. Some people are better at editing their work than writing it.

Getting down to it

Having problems getting started? Don’t worry, it’s the same for most writers. Victor Hugo (author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserbales) had a terrible time getting down to work. Sometimes it got so bad he’d strip naked and have a servant lock him in a room with pen and paper. Unable to do anything else Victor would be forced to write until the servant came to let him out a few hours later. Sadly few writers can afford to hire someone to imprison them and hide their clothes.

Establishing a routine

The best way to make yourself write is to establish a regular routine; make it something that has to be done (like cleaning your teeth). Put aside 15 or 20 minutes each day for writing. There’s no excuse you can make to get out of a measly 15 minutes and once the routine becomes set it will become easier to add on time.

Don’t break the chain

The comedian Jerry Seinfeld used to keep a yearly wall-chart calendar pinned up in his office. Each day that he wrote something he would put a big cross through that day on the chart. He found it satisfying to cross off days like this and was encouraged to keep going and not leave a single day unmarked — not to break the chain of crosses marching across the weeks and months.

Budgeting your hours

There’s no such thing as ‘spare time’, no-one spends any part of their day doing absolutely nothing, so finding the time to write will mean dropping other things. Look at how you spend your day and decide which activities you’ll put aside in favour of writing. Perhaps there are television shows you’ve got into the habit of watching every evening after work. Are they really that good? If you drop an hour of television every day you’ll have seven by the end of the week — virtually a whole working day devoted to writing.

If you need inspiration look at the website of the historical novelist Paul Doherty (http://www.paulcdoherty.com/index.html). Doherty has a full-time job as the head-teacher of a large school and has still found the time to write over 100 novels.

Leaving something for next time

To help kick-start your writing leave yourself a job for the next day; something easy like the spell-checking of a chapter you’ve just completed, or a simple exercise such as writing down five likes and dislikes of one of your supporting characters. Setting yourself simple, achievable goals is one way of luring yourself to your desk and easing into a writing session.

How much should you aim for?

Some writers set themselves a daily word quota, others a page count or a specific task (such as nailing that scene where Pegleg McClintoc finally kills the giant squid with the nutcracker). Choose a target that suits your circumstances, but whatever goal you set yourself make sure you stick to it.

What constitutes a good day’s work will vary from person to person. It’s said that James Joyce was delighted to turn out three good sentences in a day; Ernest Hemingway had a daily goal of 500 words; while Stephen King has an invariable target of ten pages a day, rain or shine.


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