- You have to go to work.
- Create a polished product
- Know your market
Every writer is asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Writers create people and worlds in a way that hints of magic, making things seemingly real that didn’t exist before. This mystery intrigues readers, who enjoy the final result but wonder how it came about.I suspect every writer has his or her own pathway to creation. One of the best explanations I ever read, and the one that comes closest to what happens to me, was described by C.S. Forster (author of the Horatio Hornblower novels) in his autobiography Long Before Forty. He said various random ideas would come to him, some stronger than others. He would let them rest — he compared it to sinking a log into water and then pulling it up later to see if moss was growing on it. If there was, it was a viable idea. A writer has many ideas but only a few take root and grow. For every one of my eight novels, I must have had ten other tentative novels that didn’t ‘grow.’ Readers, editors, and friends often make suggestions; those are treated to the ‘log submersion’ test; sometimes these bear fruit and sometimes not. My Nero novel came about from a casual question at dinner: “Have you ever thought about the emperor Nero?” My Henry VIII novel came from a trip I made to Hampton Court, where I was struck with the realization that everyone knew about Anne Boleyn but few knew about his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. My Helen of Troy novel came about because I wanted to see what it would be like to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Ideas and inspirations can come from all quarters; they come best when I am not actively searching for them. Ray Bradbury said all writers should write a thousand words a day. That seems a little extreme to me — that’s about five pages. But I do think the better advice is ‘keep the pilot light lit.’ You should write something on your project every day just to sustain it in your mind, to keep it alive. Email and Facebook don’t count. If you really want to be superstitious about it, make sure to write at least a paragraph on your work on New Year’s Day because the folklore is that whatever you do on New Year’s Day you will continue to do all year long. Conversely, whatever you don’t do, you won’t do all year long. It helps to keep a log of when you wrote and how much you wrote; otherwise you forget and in planning a new project, you tend to overestimate the amount you actually can do at a reasonable pace. I can normally do about twenty-five pages a week. That’s one hundred pages a month. Others, of course, can write more or less. Drafts — ah, drafts! That’s such an individual choice. Some people write best what they write first, and subsequent drafts get paler and paler and dwindle away in power. Other people write sprawling first drafts that have to be corralled and pounded into shape. The only rule is, please know which category you are in! Ideally some time should elapse before you start editing your work. Let it sit — this is sometimes called ‘the icebox method.’ Then you can read it in a more detached manner. Some people — like me — have a hard time editing their own work. I see it from the beginning as if it is a fixed thing rather than still in progress. (Along the same line, I have trouble visualizing the furniture in a room in any other arrangement.) If you have this problem, enlist the help of a friend whose reading tastes are like yours. The first feedback I get tends to make me nervous, but apparently even Stephen King suffers from this, as he awaits his wife’s first read-through. It is the first time anyone has seen our ‘darling’ besides us, and of course to us she is beautiful, but what if she isn’t to anyone else? This is as good a time as any for me to say I have heard the advice ‘read through your manuscript and every time you see a phrase that is fine and lovely, strike it through.’ That seems silly to me — why shouldn’t it be fine and lovely? You are not writing a newspaper, but a work of art. Would you follow the advice to open your closet and take your most flattering clothes out, leaving only the dull ones? Finally, the most useful advice I can give is to develop the ability to sit still and see a project through, and to ruthlessly avoid the distractions that can derail the project. It is hard — it feels like entering a monastery sometimes, but in the end you will thank yourself. Check out Margaret’s books here:
When I was young, I loved looking at ancient astrological maps that seemed more like celestial bestiaries than effective means of navigation. The skies were teeming with terrifying ancient creatures ranging from giant scorpions, to centaurs, to beasts whose names have been long forgotten. Each born from man’s attempt to make sense of the breathtaking chaos of light that revealed itself on the darkest nights. Most cultures developed long elaborate stories that buried their heroes and demons in the stars, all to make some sense of the world around them.
If you’ve ever stared up at a night sky, clear of clouds or city lights, you can’t help but architect your own existential explanations just to cope with the shimmering abyss. It’s estimated that each year, 100 billion stars are born and die in the observable universe. That’s 247 million a day! Yet, even in this age of Google Maps, stars continue to serve as a fundamental way to understand our place.
Stars have safely guided explorers across the hungry depths of alien oceans for centuries. But how? It all started by jotting down what we saw, one star at a time until it began to make sense. We found patterns, and identified relationships. From centaurs to quasars, each generation refined their knowledge and understanding to better help contextualize the stars as they related to us.
Writing can feel very much like setting out on a journey into the unknown. But rather than stars, we’re reliant on the glittering constellation of ideas scattered across the vast darkness of our minds. Buried somewhere up there are parts of all the stories we will ever tell. It’s important that we figure out a way to makes sense of our thoughts, and it starts with cataloging them, one thought at a time.
Be it for the next story, or the last, journaling can serve as a form of mental cartography. Your journal can be a mental atlas, which can be referenced as you set sail or when you get lost at sea. Like stars, thoughts can be used as waypoints. Stories are simply sequences of curated thoughts, which are plotted out to guide your audience safely through your tale. Without them, there are only dark shoreless oceans.
The beauty of keeping some kind of journal is that it can live in a vacuum. It simply serves as a repository for ideas, waiting to be used. Some are hesitant to journal because they’re only aware of long-form journaling, which can seem time consuming. True, but the process of drawing your ideas out by hand can be an incredibly effective practice to capture and refine your thoughts.
If you’re not convinced it’s worth the effort, short-form journaling is a perfect alternative – or addition to – long-form journaling. In both cases, the point is to cultivate a map of your thoughts and insights. Isn’t there an app for that? Sure, but writing your ideas out by hand will make them seem far more tangible and real. This practice also allows you to capture ideas in all their many forms. A nascent idea could begin as an image or a shape.
Notebooks have stood the test of time as the ultimate traps for capturing thoughts, no matter how exotic. Over time, they become maps. Like stars, ideas without maps, no matter how bright, remain meaningless. And, like stars, ideas fade. There really is nothing more frustrating than losing a brilliant thought before you had the chance to find its purpose. Each thought has the promise of functioning as your north star, so be sure you keep track of it.Photo by Hope House Press – Leather Diary Studio on Unsplash
Give the same plot to ten different writers and you will get ten very different stories. No two will sound alike. Why? Because every author brings a unique voice to the craft of writing. Voice is everything when it comes to telling a story.It isn’t clever plot twists or deep character insights or detailed descriptions that draw a reader back again and again to a particular writer — it’s the writer’s voice. Just to make things even more complicated, the truth is that no two people respond to a writer’s voice in exactly the same way. Some readers will never be compelled by your voice. With luck, others will fall in love with it. Voice is hard to define because it’s a mix of so many things — your core values, your world view, your personality, your sense of optimism or cynicism or despair or anger or bitterness or hope — all those things are bound up in your storytelling voice. And then there’s the craft aspect. You can write successfully for your entire career without giving a moment’s thought to your voice. But just as knowing and understanding your core story can be extremely useful at various points in your career, so, too, is having a clear sense of your voice. If you comprehend its strengths and weaknesses, you will be able to figure out how to sharpen it and make it more powerful. How do you identify your writing voice? Here’s a simple exercise: Write a scene from start to finish. It should be a scene that is infused with the emotions, themes, or conflicts that compel you as a writer. It is helpful to think of scenes as short stories. They have a beginning that engages the reader, a middle in which emotional and often physical action takes place, and an endpoint that either resolves the narrative or provides a cliffhanger that leads into the next scene. Give your scene to a couple of people to read. These should be people you trust. Make it clear that you do not want a writing critique. You are not interested in their opinion of your characters or your plot. You want one response, and one only, to the following question: “What is your emotional takeaway from that scene?” Did you make your reader’s pulse kick up? Did you arouse curiosity? Anger? Sympathy? Did you scare your reader? Did you make that reader want to know what happens next? Your goal is to identify the single strongest emotion that the reader experienced while reading your scene. That response will help you analyze the strengths and weaknesses of your voice. The worst possible reaction from a reader is no emotional reaction at all. There is nothing that will kill a writing career faster than storytelling that bores the reader. Put the most engaging elements of your voice on display in the very first sentence of your book. Readers will not give you a few pages or a couple of chapters to get the story going. You must draw the reader into your world from the very first sentence, and you do that with your voice. Listen to your writing voice. It will tell you what kinds of stories you will write with the most power. Once you have figured out your voice, do everything you can to strengthen it and make it more compelling. Voice is your superpower. Discover it. Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash
This year, with the deadline for my second novel in sight, plotter’s block descended. Plotter’s block is different from writer’s block. Writer’s block, as I see it, is when you have a story but the words aren’t flowing or behaving. Plotter’s block is when you’re itching to write, perhaps you’re already writing — except you have no story. Nothing to reel your readers in. All you have is a jumble of settings, characters, conflicts, scenes. Nothing, in short, that is actually going to hold that blurb. The tricky thing is that actively searching for ideas can feel contrived, and paralyzing. So there’s definitely a case for putting everything on hold, while your subconscious chews things over. But if you’re as impatient as I am, you’ll want to help your subconscious out in the meantime. These, then, are the three places I look for stories (without telling myself I’m looking).Read the local news Unlike the global or national news, local papers are mines of small-scale human-interest stories. And these stories, the family feuds, the individual tragedies, the community uprisings and the everyday heroes, are exactly the material a novelist needs. It worked for me, anyway. The plot I’ve ended up with for my second novel is based on a story in my local rag about ‘Patient X’ — a mysterious man who had been lying unconscious and unidentified in hospital, for thirty days. The paper’s focus was on the man: Who was he, and how could someone go un-missed ‘in one of the most connected cities in the world’? My focus is going to be on the patient’s neighbors, who find him, call him an ambulance, and are then brought together by the puzzle he presents. Conversations with strangers Everyone has something for your novel, if you let them talk. Case in point: after I’d found Patient X, I met someone at a wedding who told me about a strange man in her very bourgeois street in West London. His house, which he has apparently lived in since birth, looks derelict with boarded up windows. He barely speaks to anyone (although you can faintly hear him playing the violin through those window boards). But every morning he goes to the local tube station, collects a load of free papers, and delivers one to every house on the street. Immediately I thought of Patient X, and what great details these would be for the local ‘loner’ — possibly even details the plot could twist or hinge on. Then there was the man I sat beside on a plane who told me how his mother, sick of making packed lunches every morning, hit on batch-freezing industrial quantities of sandwiches every few months instead. He and his siblings would then get these frozen sandwiches — usually only half defrosted — in their lunchboxes. Admittedly it didn’t spark a whole novel, but something in its muted, suburban madness really appealed to me. And unlike a friend or relative, a stranger is unlikely to find out you plundered their life. If they do, you’ve obviously written a bestseller. Existing stories If you’re really stuck, it’s worth considering any myths, parables, or fairy tales that caught your imagination as a child. I’ve always loved the story of The Prodigal Son — I like the way its themes of sibling rivalry and unconditional parental love are so enduring, and the fact that everyone behaves badly or rashly at some point. I used it to structure my first novel Seven Days of Us, because I knew I wanted to write a family story about one rebellious sister and one who was very attached to her parents. The key to making this method feel fresh and inspiring, I think, is to reverse one aspect of the existing story. In my case, the ‘errant’ sibling was off doing good deeds, rather than squandering her inheritance, while the stay-at-home sibling was very frivolous. I don’t see any shame in this tactic — apparently there are only about seven stories in the world anyway, so it’s no wonder we all get plotter’s block from time to time. Good luck. Plotter’s Block / Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash