This is how it works for me. It may be very different for everyone else. I’ve never been published so I don’t speak from any position of authority. All I know is that I always wanted to write a novel and now I’m over halfway to doing it. From a position a while back when I had ideas and no drive, I can now see the first finish line (for there are many on the way to seeing the book actually in print). As such, I can tell you what has made this possible; what has turned me from someone who wants to write to someone who writes. I can also tell you how I go about it, what I avoid, what I make sure of and a few other things. I’ve got six tips for anyone who is thinking of starting a story.
1. Know the story from beginning to end – the middle can change as you go
You have to know where your characters are going to end up and why. As I’ve written, some people’s fates have been decided, others have not. Some have been changed by the evolving middle and by how I feel about them but ultimately, I’m not going to be surprised at the end. I want the reader to be but I can’t afford to be. A magician knows how his tricks work. When I started making notes in my big jotter book about The Crossing, I mapped out the entire story from beginning to end, one chapter at a time. Granted, things have changed, but the skeleton of the story has remained where it is. As a result, I have never encountered writer’s block (that was probably a very unwise thing to say at this point).
2. Do research
At various times during writing The Crossing, I’ve come to scenes and thought – I have absolutely no idea how this works. The whole opening Act is played out in a Primary School and I’ve been working in one for the past 13 years so that is easy enough. I know what it feels like to try and move quickly through gorse. When, however, I wrote the flight simulator scene, I had to slow down considerably. The first problem was that I was not sure about the controls of a plane. The second problem was that I wanted to create a realistic experience and needed an area of the world that I could describe. Even if no-one reading the book knows anything about the Persian Gulf, I have to expect that someone will. I don’t want holes picked in things or the illusion being shattered by people stopping and thinking: that doesn’t make sense or that doesn’t go there. You know, like that bit in Thor: The Dark World where he gets on a Tube train at Charing Cross and is told that he is three stops from Greenwich. It shocks you out of the story and lets you see backstage where you shouldn’t look. Granted only someone who knew London would see the error but that person exists and the experience for them is ruined. So, I picked a US airbase outside of Kuwait City, looked at pictures of it on Google Maps and looked at the surrounding area. I figured out what you’d be able to see from the cockpit of the plane as you flew North up the Gulf. It made it seem more real to me and hopefully the same will be true for the reader. It’s happening now as I’m writing their transit into space. I need to know what it feels like to become weightless for the first time. The Internet is a vast resource for things like this. It’s not something I can experience for myself, but I can find the reminiscences of astronauts to rely on. Most of my characters are from places I have visited: Austin, Texas for example. That way, when I write backstory, I can add a bit of real life detail that gives it some authenticity. People always say “write what you know”, and if you don’t know, make sure you find out.
3. Be committed
I always went on about writing but never did any. I’d find reasons not to: I didn’t have enough time (oh, the time I had!), I needed to think more about the ideas (??!!??), I had too much work to do (I didn’t). Any excuse was enough. To be fair, I’m not sure I was in the right place. As soon as I had an idea with enough legs, I went with it and it’s still going strong now. Before, I would start out on things and get a chapter or two in then stop. I started a book about a reality TV show with teachers once but I never had a full idea about where I was going with it. I didn’t have the ending in mind and it just fizzled out. Correction: I allowed it to fizzle out. Once you’re fully committed to the story, it just seems to come out of you. After a week of not writing anything, I sit down and I don’t find it difficult to start again. I just look over the last couple of paragraphs and dive in to the world again. It’s like the next episode of a story. I love this quote: “I only write when I’m inspired, so I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.” I have my time on Saturdays to write and I never seems to have a problem getting into it. I’m excited about the time I have and want to make the most of it. I got myself a little portable keyboard that I can use with my phone too, so I can potentially write anywhere. One thing I have found is that I don’t too particularly well writing in the evening. In the morning it seems to come very easily but evenings it can be a bit of a struggle, especially if I’ve had a busy day. You just have to recognise this and accept it though, and have different expectations for different situations. After all, every word I add gets me closer to the end result.
4. Set targets
Every week, when I sit down to do an extended session, I set myself a target. Usually, it’s about 1000 words per hour. This gives me something to aim for which is within what I can achieve. There’s a feeling of satisfaction when you beat your target. It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t quite stretching you enough. I wanted to do 1800 words and I did 2000. It’s just a little head fake to keep me feeling good about the process.
5. Have perspective and a good support network
Writing isn’t the only thing going on for me. I’m trying my best at it but also trying to be a great husband and dad and be great at my job too. I’m very lucky in that I have a very supportive wife who recognises how important this project is to me and gives me the encouragement and space to make it happen. Without her support, it wouldn’t be where it is. Also, its been so useful to have an test audience for me to read my stuff to. I’ll lose them soon and that will be a blow as only they and my wife know the whole story so far. I’ve not joined a writing group although I know it’s probably a good idea.
6. Let go and stop worrying about perfection
When I look back over some of the stuff I’ve written, I’m always finding things that I think I can change or make better. The difference between this project and other things I’ve done is that I’m not letting myself get hung up on it. I know now that it’s a job for the second draft. When I’m finished the story, the next job is going back and looking for things to improve.