Definitely for love! Although there are writers who are overnight successes, most, like me, have to go through months or years of rejection before making it (and some, like me, again after they make it!). Personally I couldn’t imagine doing anything else – I have always loved books and reading, and I started writing when I was a stay-at-home-mum with three pre-school children and quickly realised that I enjoyed the process of creating a book even more than reading what others had written.
When I first started writing I sat down on the day that the idea to write a book came to me and just started to type. Nowadays I spend much more time in preparation before actually starting to write a book. For first time writers, I think just getting stuck in is a good idea – to get past the ‘thinking about writing a book’ to the actual doing it can be a major hurdle, and to learn by doing is not a bad idea. However, as you grow in your craft, I think there is a lot of value in planning.
Things to consider when planning a novel
In the same way that a composer writing a symphony has to consider the interaction between all the sections of the orchestra and the individual instruments, a writer planning a novel has to consider several factors that will come together to make the whole:
In very simple terms most plots are based on a character with a goal and the problems they face achieving it. Examples:
· The character is a young man, his goal is winning the heart of a young woman, the problem is that she likes someone else.
· The character is a detective, his goal is to find the murderer, the problem is that everyone is lying to him.
· The character is a girl, her goal is to star in the school play, the problem is that she’s too shy to audition. Etc.
Coming up with ideas that I like enough to use is often the hardest part of writing a book for me. For The Forbidden Room, the plot was inspired by a news story I saw about a family with a sick child, and by me wondering ‘what if…‘ What if the parents were scientists? What if they could cure their child by doing something illegal or ethically wrong – how far would they go…?
I sometimes get ideas from books that I read. I might like a character or a situation in a book and wonder ‘what if’. What if that character was a girl instead of a boy? What if she was blind instead of deaf? What if her dream was to be an ice-skater but her mother was too overprotective? Etc. So I might start with one thing, and end up with something quite different. You might get ideas from things that happen in your own life, or in the life of someone you know or you may want to write about an historic event that particularly interests you etc.
Generally readers like books where everything wraps up nicely at the end and the bad guys get their comeuppance and the good guys get their reward, even though that’s not how things happen in real life!
Books are more interesting if they have more than one storyline. If the main story get too intense it can give a bit of light relief to return to an alternate plot for a while. Maybe following one of the subsidiary characters, or the main character’s interactions with a different group of people. The sub plots should be relevant to the main plot and may play an important role at the books conclusion. For example, in a murder mystery a sub plot could follow a character who seemed to be a good guy but who turned out to be the murderer. The sub plot could be told in an interesting way, eg through letters or an old diary etc.
Books generally have one or two main characters, and a cast of secondary characters. The main character should be someone who the reader can identify with – someone who is good but not perfect, and maybe has to overcome some difficulty which will make the reader sympathetic to them, eg a disability or a difficult family etc. The reader should also be able to see how the main character changes (hopefully for the better) as they go through the book and learn from their experiences ie their ‘journey‘. (It’s difficult to cast the main character as the villain as the reader has to like them enough to care what happens to them.) If there are a lot of characters then it can help to caricature or exaggerate something about each of them to help the reader to remember who’s who. For example someone may stutter, or have a favourite word or phrase that they use a lot, like one character might start every sentence with the word ‘yeah’ Although this can get annoying if you overdo it!
When I am planning a book, I will make ‘mind map‘ diagrams for each of the characters (as well as the plot and sometimes the setting as well) to help me to make them more well rounded people.
The book’s setting can be as important as the main characters. Setting includes place and time i.e. is the book based in the past, or the present, or the future? Is it based in the real world or a fantasy world, is it in a school or a hotel or a small village, big city? etc.
The setting can give real character to the story – eg a spooky horror set in an old mansion, or a thriller set in a futuristic world. You might want to set a book in a place where you’ve visited and found very interesting or beautiful, or a place that you know very well, or if you invent a fictional place then you have more freedom to make the setting work around your plot.
1st person – i.e. I was only fifteen when I found my grandmother’s old diary… Books written in the first person can help the reader to connect with the main character and see things from their point of view, but they can be very limiting to the writer as you can only include what the main character witnesses and how they interpret it.
2nd person – i.e. You were only fifteen when you found your grandmother’s old diary… It’s pretty rare for books to be written in the second person, (except choose your own adventure type books). It’s quite a difficult way to write, but could be an interesting challenge. The reader feels drawn in but powerless as they become the character in the book.
3rd person – i.e. She was only fifteen when she found her grandmother’s old diary. This is the most common narrative mode for novels and gives the most scope for including more characters.
The narrator may know everyone’s thoughts or they may be limited to the main character. They may be reliable and factual, or if the narrator is a character what they say may be subjective (ie their point of view, and not necessarily true).
Points of view. A well structured book can tell a story in a much more interesting way than one that just plods through the plot. For example, telling the story from two points of view in alternate chapters can be more interesting than just sticking to one point of view.
Starting the book in the middle of the action (in media res) is a commonly used but effective tool for grabbing the reader’s attention. For example, my second book The Trap, begins with the main character, Luke, running for his life in the pitch dark underground caves thousands of miles away from his home. Luke then tells the story, through flashbacks, of how he got there, and then the end of the book tells what happens next.
Jumbled timeline. A story told by a person (or several people) remembering events from their life can jump around through time and build up a picture that doesn’t become clear until the end – this can build up suspense and give a satisfying feeling of everything falling into place once all the pieces of the story have been told.
I.e. Romance, adventure, murder mystery, historical fiction etc. As a writer I don’t like to pigeon hole my books into a specific genre, but sadly if you want to get published, it’s more about business than art and publishers and bookshops like to be able to slot books into a genre so they know which market to target etc (and where to put them in the shop!) If you choose a genre before you start writing it should be reflected in the style of writing eg a gothic horror would describe the same place a lot differently than a chick-lit romance when setting the scene for their story.
Avoid clichés or overused metaphors eg a blanket of snow, or the gnarled fingers of the trees etc. Interesting and unusual metaphors are great, but even they can take away from the pace and the storytelling if overdone.
Read your writing aloud to see if it sounds good. Is the pace right? Eg short snappy sentences for a fast tense moment, or slower longer sentences for a thoughtful moment etc. Do your words have a nice rhythm or are they tongue twisters? Even if you’re not writing poetry your words should still sound beautiful and convey the mood you’re trying to create when read aloud. Do you overuse a certain word or phrase? If so, try to put in alternate words instead.
Show rather than tell – if your character is feeling irritable and impatient, don’t say, ‘Luke was feeling irritable and impatient,’ instead have him drum his fingers, or roll his eyes and say something cutting.
Play the reader. The reader doesn’t always take in everything that they read, so if you want to throw in a subtle clue that doesn’t register until later, don’t draw too much attention to it, eg
Luke was late for archery so he ran through the woods. Something caught his eye – an old box. It was probably nothing, but he stopped and picked it up anyway before running on. He couldn’t wait to show Matt how good he was getting at shooting arrows.
But if you’re making a point you really want the reader to get straight away, have it repeated a couple of times, eg:
Luke was running through the woods but he stopped when he saw a small wooden box hidden at the base of the tree. As he knelt to pick up the box, he felt a chill that made him shake and his fingers fumbled, almost dropping it. By the time he’d got hold of the box and lifted it up, Matt had caught up with him. He stopped and asked him, ‘what have you got there?’
‘Oh, it’s just some old box, probably rubbish,’ Luke said, but somehow he thought it was more than just rubbish, somehow he thought the box was something very important indeed.
It’s good to throw in some red herrings or false clues, even if your book is not a mystery to keep the reader guessing (and interested) so they keep reading. Eg A man sees the woman he loves with another man and thinks she loves him, but actually he was just arranging for her to give his daughter piano lessons.
This is throwing in subtle hints about what is coming later in the book, for example, a character may notice in passing that their camp counsellor keeps a hunting knife and then later in the book that same hunting knife is used as a weapon against them. Or a character may tell another that they love the story of sleeping beauty, and then later then end up in a coma etc. Foreshadowing can use actual prophesies eg in the Harry Potter books there is a prophesy about Harry and Voldemort, that neither can live while the other survives, foreshadowing the fact that one at least of them must die by the end of the books. Foreshadowing helps to make the story feel more believable and whole, and less like the writer was just making it up as they went along.
When to write.
Writing a novel takes discipline. I think it’s important to set aside time (every day if possible) to do some writing. How much time depends on your other commitments, but it’s important to keep going even on days when you don’t feel like it. If you really don’t feel like writing you could always write a poem about how much you don’t feel like writing!
Submitting writing to agents and/or publishers.
It’s always been difficult for new writers to find a publisher, and now more so than ever. Publishing was previously seen as recession proof, but sadly this recession had hit hard and many publishers are downsizing. There’s light at the end of the tunnel though, and things will undoubtedly pick up – just in time for you new writers to finish your great works! There’s lots of information on the internet about publishers and agents and submission requirements, as well as in The Writers and Artists annual Yearbook. It’s important to do your homework and only submit to groups that handle your type of writing – there’s no point sending a novel to a publisher that only produces science textbooks etc. Usually you need to send a synopsis (a brief outline of the plot of your book) as well as one or more sample chapters. Make sure what you send showcases your best writing and is well presented.
Presenting work for submission.
Generally the requirements are that the document you send are typed with double spacing and large margins. That you use headers and footers one each page with your name, the title of the work and the page number. That you use consistent punctuation and formatting eg single quotes for speech, indents for new paragraphs etc. Obviously you should check that your spelling and grammar are up to scratch. It helps to get one or two people to proof read it for you – it’s amazing how many times I can read over a piece of work and still miss typos!