Writers vary in the amount of planning they do before starting to write. Some use software systems such as Snowflake or Scrivener to guide them. Others plunge straight in. Both systems have their good and bad points, so it comes down to personal preferences.
When you’re first grabbed by an idea, plan as much or as little as you like but don’t get bogged down in too much detail when it comes to working on your first draft. Fiddling with tiny details makes the challenge of writing a whole book seem much harder than it actually is.
As long as you’ve done your groundwork on characters and conflicts, try charging straight through your story, writing only the dialogue. Scribble away as fast as you can, getting down on paper or screen all the juiciest exchanges you’ve been dreaming up. Start the beginning, and work right through to the end. You’re not looking to write the whole 60,000 words or whatever at this stage. You’ll probably change a million things about your manuscript before you’re satisfied with your final draft, but right now you’re concentrating on the basics.
What you want at this stage is a sure-fire way to boost your writerly self-esteem. This first, dirty draft will capture all the edge of the seat stuff – the interplay of character and conflicts that first attracted you to your idea.
Once you’ve got the basic scaffolding of your story in place, you can go back at your leisure and create a second, cleaner draft. Refine your work with more description, lots of character development and some crackling conflict. Polish your story until it’s a perfect read!
In the first six blog posts in the You Can Write! series, we’ve discovered how to make a start on that writing project you’ve had in mind for such a long time. To catch up on any episodes you might have missed, clicked here, then scroll forward through the arrows at the bottom of the first post, or use the images at the top of the blog.
Don’t panic of your writing hits a dry patch. Visit your own particular well of inspiration, even if it’s only snatching a nap. Take a walk. Read a book—although it’s a good idea to choose something outside of the genre you’re working with. The brain has a squirrel-like tendency to hoard things. You don’t want to subconsciously incorporate something from somebody else’s work.
Odd though it sounds, sometimes you can achieve more by trying less. There will be times (if you’re a fan of Red Dwarf, or The Simpsons) when you’ll be tempted to write “I am A Fish” or “S***w Flanders” multiple times rather than face making up the several hundreds, or even thousands, of different words that make up your daily tally. Fine. Go ahead. Write any old thing you like, but try and make it constructive. If you’re writing a book, try a session of journaling instead. If you’re having trouble with fiction, try drafting a non-fiction article about your writing experience. This worked for me, and resulted in me getting the contract to write Struggle and Suffrage In Bristol! Sometimes the simple act of getting a few words down in front of you frees your mind to create a lot more.
If it doesn’t, you’ll still have broken your duck. You won’t be faced with a blank page when you return for your next writing session. You’ll find it a lot easier to whip a page of random jottings into shape than it would be to open up a whole new blank page and start again from cold. Remember Scarlett O’Hara’s maxim that tomorrow is another (and probably better) day–and she was living in a war-zone.
One cliche every list of writing tips includes is ‘write what you know’. It’s a cliché, because it works. Everybody on this earth is an expert in something, and that’s their own life experiences. It’s a rich seam to mine, so get digging.
Instead of stressing about creating something that’s 100% fiction, go back over your own memories and see what inspiration you can find. That doesn’t mean you should regurgitate your life story, and nothing else. Did Shakespeare murder his wife over a pocket-handkerchief, as Othello did? No. Did Thomas Hardy hang children from clothes hooks? No, but both writers used their own experiences of human nature, desire, jealousy, shame and misery to colour their fiction.
During this series, we’ve covered the inspiration and the talents you’ll need to create the book you want to write, along with its genre. Today’s blog covers one of those small details that seems insignificant until you make the change from reader to writer— but it’s actually a very important part of building a good scaffolding for your story.
Have you ever been catapulted right out of a story by the thought why on earth would anybody be calledthatin real life? A jolt like that shows how much care and attention authors should put into naming their characters.
Make sure the names you choose are a good fit with the tone you want to set. There’s nothing to stop you calling your drop-dead gorgeous World War One flying ace Betram Wilberforce, although anyone who has read the books of P G Wodehouse might have difficulty imagining the nation being saved by a chap named after Bertie Wooster.
The name Elizabeth probably holds the record for the number of variations on a theme. Each one has a unique feel, and shows the difference in tone the choice of a name can create. Queens Elizabeth I and II are very different women, but using the name in full evokes a suitably formal image. The transition from untouchable icon Elizabeth Taylor to much-married celebrity Liz Taylor is shorthand for a complete change in the public mindset. The star system shielded queens of Hollywood glamour until it became better publicity for them to be “more like us”. Glamorous Elizabeth became the chummier Liz when her many marriages were being dissected under the media microscope.
Smart and sensible Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was known within her family circle as the less formal Lizzy, and Eliza. She shared this second name with the equally forthright Miss Doolittle from Shaw’s Pygmalion, which later became My Fair Lady.
Gentle, kind, self-sacrificing Beth March in Little Women creates a completely different image. Betty Turpin was the down-to-earth inventor of the famous hotpot served in Coronation Street‘s Rovers Return. And who could forget pneumatic Barbara Windsor in Carry On Henry, telling a leering Sid James that her mum said she should always be a good Bet! Bet was also the name of a second barmaid at the Rovers Return, but no one would expect the leopard-print-and-lippy-wearing Bet Lynch to be a genius in the kitchen.
Some names, like William and Emma, have stayed wildly popular for a millennium. You couldn’t guess in what year a character with either of those names was born, although I’m guessing any future heroines called Stormi or North will have their years of birth set in stone.
A good way to choose names for your characters is to buy a book of baby names and trawl through it, or search internet lists for the most popular name in the year your hero or heroine was born.
The idea I’m developing for my next novel features a heroine who has been bullied all her life, but decides the time is right to make a stand. She’s called Tabitha Carter, and she hates her name. Her mother was christened Samantha, after the witch in the 1960s TV comedy series Bewitched. In due course, Mrs Samantha Carter copied the name her celebrity alter-ego gave to her magical daughter—Tabitha.
If sharing a name with a fictional witch’s child wasn’t bad enough, Tabitha Carter’s mother insists on shortening her name to ‘Tabby’. After years of politely asking her mother not to do it, when Tabitha finally snaps her mother says:
Make up your mind! Five minutes ago you didn’t want me to call you Tabitha. When I pander to you, you don’t like that either.
Once you’ve chosen a name that feels like a good fit for your character, put it into an online search engine to make sure there are no notorious criminals or famous eccentrics who share it—unless you plan on making your character either a notorious criminal or a famous eccentric, of course.
That’s not to say you can’t turn convention on its head to brilliant effect, but the contrast between name and popular image has to be enormous if it is to work well. In 1984, written just after the Second World War, George Orwell’s character Winston Smith doesn’t share any of war-time Prime Minster Churchill’s heroic qualities.
Who knows? The world might be ready and waiting for you to create a bloodthirsty anti-heroine called Violet-Elizabeth, who skins little boys alive, and could give Margaret Thatcher’s memory a run for its money. Do you fancy giving it a try?