Writing Workshop: Week One – How to Start Writing – from the initial idea through to writing a draft
The first evening in our Four-Part Writing Workshop saw twenty-three people of all ages and at different stages in their writing gathered in Blackwell’s coffee shop. From biography to thriller, every interest was covered as we settled down to learn about the four stages involved in writing and getting published.
The first evening focused on the beginning: How to Start Writing – from the initial idea through to writing a draft – possibly the most daunting of the stages. For any aspiring author a blank piece of paper or the harsh light of the empty screen can be overwhelming. To help us figure out where to start was guest speaker and successful children’s author, MG Harris.
Although acknowledging the fact that the entire experience of the writing process is extremely subjective, and each writer has their own methods, Harris outlined some eternal truths, firstly: it’s not as straightforward as we dream. We would all love to sit down and pour out our magnum opus in daily, orderly, time slots with a fully functioning social life on the go; however the reality of writing can often end up being more akin to mentally wrestling with a magnificent octopus as you grapple with a narrative that won’t go your way – even if it is yours.
Secondly, be honest with yourself – you’re probably not as good as you think you are. The positive side of this harsh reality is that writing is a learning process and you will get better! The sooner you realise that you’re not the inheritor of Austen, Dickens or Hemmingway, the better you can be your own unique voice, which is what publishers and readers want and also answers the questions ‘what makes your book worth reading?’ and ‘where do you fit in a bookshop?’
Thirdly, know your audience and get feedback. Decide whether your writing is commercial or literary. When someone reads over your work, bear in mind the negative points raised – it’s constructive criticism directly from a reader. Does what they say fit with the style and development you intended? It may make sense in your mind as you write it, but others don’t have access to your workings. If you’re told your writing is too tortuous/melodramatic etc, take it on board even if it hurts: remember to suffer for your art.
The second part of Harris’s talk looked at the all-important Plotting & Planning, which proved to be the decisive topic of the evening. Some people said they always had a plan, whether a general overview of the plot arc or an intricate scene by scene account (perhaps more necessary to the twists and turns of a Thriller). However, many others preferred to write without exact planning and liked to see what happened. An eye-catching beginning is always important and the denouement is constantly held in mind. But what happens in the middle? It’s easy to fall into the ‘Misery of the Middle’ as the plot may drag. Here is where planning is helpful, as plotting precautions can save your writing from falling flat in the middle, and preventing your reader giving in before reaching the final part.
After a break in which members could share their thoughts with other writers along with a glass of wine and nibbles, it was back to the second half of the evening – the panel discussion. Featuring Cherry Mosteshar of The Oxford Editors and Ilaria Meliconi from Hersilia Press, as well as authors MG Harris and Dennis Hamley, this was an occasion to put forward questions and hear the different opinions and discussion from those in various roles in the industry.
Topics discussed included how to describe your work in query letters and the importance of this in shaping the initial response from a publisher. The general consensus among the panel was that you need to confidently and concisely present your work, and what makes it special. Outline your potential in the market simply, without sounding egotistical, revealing that you would preferably have a film made, or even worse – describing yourself as ‘the next JK Rowling / Dan Brown / Jonathan Franzen’. Your selling point is that you are different. You are your own voice, and Rowling et al were all their own selves, not copies of others.
Research publishing houses. It’s no good submitting historical fiction to somewhere that deals primarily with academic non-fiction and tailor your query to the correct person. Individualising your pitches shows your professionalism and also makes it more likely for you to receive a response.
Another general agreement on the panel was that writers-in-training really need to know – and show – the basic rules of narrative structure before taking the leap into more abstract narratives. You also need to understand how suitable this approach is for your intended readership.
Questions ranged from enquiring how long is the ideal chapter to the usefulness of writing Fanfiction and pastiche. All of the queries and answers were extremely helpful and we could have continued indefinitely. However, like every good book, it had to come to an end. The sequel will be on the subject of completing your manuscript and what to do next, which will take place the following week.
It won’t always be fun – writing is work and requires dedication and self-discipline. But here are some tips to help the aspiring writer on their literary way:
One tip was that it always helps to read writing guides – but not too many! The point is to write as well as read, and as there are so many guides that you could easily never get round to putting their advice into practice, so just find a few that help.
Add some ‘cookies’ to your work. These are the little phrases and sentences that really make a book stand out from the crowd and must be contained in the first few pages if a publisher is to read past the second page. Think of all those opening sentences and paragraphs from the classics – ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ and ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. These are cookies.
Understand your characters and use dialogue as it’s used in real life, for example not many people use the two words ‘it is’, rather than ‘it’s’ when speaking. It’s a small point that immediately brings the reader out of the book and appears wooden and stilted. If you have a sentence, metaphor or analogy that you’re particularly proud of coming up with, it’s also probably best to get rid of it.
Something else to avoid is overused tropes and clichéd descriptions – they’re easy enough to spot, but even easier to accidentally fall into writing. Remember to KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid – and to not use purple prose or pretentiousness when their perfectly acceptable every day varieties will do the job much more effectively (‘end’ vs ‘denouement’, perhaps?)
We have all been there, doing anything other that what we ought to be doing. In terms of modern day procrastination, working on a computer has given us the best and worst of distractions: the Internet. Avoid at all costs wasting time on social networking sites. Facebook and Twitter are fun, but they’ll only impair your productivity and nobody wants to read status updates about what you’re not doing every thirty minutes. Twitter and blogs are great to use and very useful in self-promotion – but are only so when you have finished your book. There are some very helpful online authors forums that are worth visiting, as being in touch with fellow writers is a good way of keeping up to date with the community as well as picking up tips. Have a search and choose one or two favourites at which to stop. Given the solitary nature of the work, it’s also nice to know that there are others out there!