Writing 101: Before you can write, you need to have an idea. That much we know. Your idea – your starting point – can be anything: a character, a theme, a journey, something you saw while walking the dog, something your dad said, whatever, but eventually you will need a rough idea of how that idea translates into an actual beginning-middle-and-end story.
Here are some interesting starting and end points:
- A remake of the Flash Gordon series > an obsession with Joseph Campbell’s A Hero With A Thousand Faces > a story about an orphaned farm boy who fights in the rebellion against an evil empire > Star Wars by George Lucas
- My grandma suffered dementia and she didn’t know where one of her friends was > as she became more ill I had a lot of questions about what was going on inside her head > the story of a murder mystery as told by an Alzheimer’s sufferer > Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
- A collection of short stories and essays about racial injustice > enthusiastic agent leads author from one draft to the next > story about a young girl learning about racism when her father defends a black man falsely accused of rape > To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have children so thought I’d explore it through writing > the story of a boy who grows up with a cold, ambivalent mother > We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Now, have a quick listen to the fantastic writer brain of Catriona Ward, author of Rawblood, who has a thing to say about getting started on a brand new novel:
Here’s your exercise:
Take your idea (“I want to write something about terrorism”, “I saw a woman chasing her dog and her heel broke and her keys fell down a drain”, “Something about the crushing ennui I feel every time I read the news headlines and realise we’re heading for the End of Times”) and write it down. Take the words out of your head and put them on a page – notebook or digital, whatever you prefer. You might be further along than the idea stage. You might have already had a go at your draft or be really far into it or have already written several manuscripts. It doesn’t matter. Right now we’re here in Beginnings-ville. Your idea could look something like this:
- I want to write something about casual sexism
- There’s this character who thinks he’s really cool but is actually a total embarrassment
- When people finish reading my story, I want them to feel sorrow, but also a deep kind of hope
- I can’t stop thinking about a story with the title: Recycling Jesus
- It’s a story about a young woman who falls in love with a man who says he will never love her back. She moves on and gets married and has children and is happy, but the man realises she is the only woman he could ever be with. Telling her would destroy her life. Not telling her will destroy his.
- Five university students take a lot of drugs, laugh a lot, have some dramas
Make sure you do actually write your idea down. Don’t just think about it and say to yourself ‘it’s fiiine, no need to write that one sentence down.’ Because one sentence becomes two becomes three becomes a novel. I repeat: WRITE THE MOTHERFLIPPER DOWN.
Now you’re going to stare out the window*** for half an hour and think about it. Or ponder the finer points of it while doing the washing up. Or consider the shape of it while you’re hanging out the never ending laundry pile of doom. This is a time for metaphysical wafting – what shape is your story? What’s the weight of it? The feel of it? Is it scratch and sniff? Will it break if you drop it? Does it say ni?
Now you’re going to write down where you think the story begins, and where you think the story ends.
While writing these two points down, be aware that by the end of the process of planning your story, these are likely to be entirely different. Remember the Rule of Suckery, that is: it will probably suck at this point. Knowing this gives you FREEDOM. Freedom to write anything you like, because you can always change it later.
Here’s some examples of where your story could start and end:
- Start: dudebro catcalls hot girls. End: dudebro learns not to be a douche.
- Start: a couple in love. End: one or both is dead.
- Start: young, idealistic person thinks they can change the word. End: The world remains largely unchanged. Idealistic person now cynical.
couple throuple of notes on staring out the window:
Approximately 80% of all writing is made up of staring out the window, or its equivalent. This time is vital.
Allow for this. It’s cool. It’s necessary. You’re not expected to spew a tale of great wonder onto the page without thinking about it first. A large amount of Blank Page Panic is caused simply by not having allowed yourself enough time to think. Think think think. Think.
But do not think too much. Pondering the great questions of life is fun, but a book only gets written by writing. Remember our increasingly overused motto: Do The Work. It is at this juncture that you risk becoming a scarf-wearing, latte-sipping, inspirational-meme-bot. The difference between someone who talks about being a novelist and someone who is a novelist is, you guessed it, the latter has actually written a novel. So we will think for a bit, but we will also DO.
So now we have DONE. You should have the following:
- A crap idea, hastily jotted down, waiting to be polished right up
- A start and an end point, written in a panic because you think they’re probably not right and you’re a bit scared of getting it wrong.
WELL DONE YOU. Let us continue, without further A-DO (see what I did there?), and start putting some people in our very sketchy, loose new world. Click onward to blog number three in our novel planning series >>