Five things you have to know before you start writing are:

  • your plot
  • your characters
  • your genre
  • your voice
  • your limits!
Maybe this is going to happen in your story?

1. Know your plot – I’m as guilty as anyone here for having only a vague idea of how things are going to turn out when I sit down at my computer and start to type. I make use of mindmapping these days to help me devise an interesting plot and keep me on track. It’s likely that your story may start to take its own direction once you’ve begun. Think about this. If that’s OK, and you can replot successfully, then go with it, but if the change of direction is only going to derail you in the long term, then be firm and get back to your blueprint.

2. Know your characters – not necessarily all of them, as who knows what minor ones are going to appear along the way. But you must have a concrete idea of what your main characters are like – their names, ages, shoe sizes, favourite colours and foods, senses of humour. I’m not kidding. And you have to know how they’re going to react to what you’re about to throw at them as the plot unwinds. The more you know about each character, the easier it will be to write about them.

3. Know your genre – what sort of book is it going to be? Steamy sex romp? Genteel historical drama? Fast-moving spy thriller? Children’s non-fiction? The type of book is central to all the other facets here. It will determine the sort of characters that will appear, what the plot is going to be, the vocabulary, the voice you will use. You can mix and match genres to some extent – for example, a romantic interlude in a hard-hitting cops and robbers story won’t come amiss – but there has to be one overriding one that will become the soul of your writing.

4. Know your voice – first person or third person? First person is more fun to write and it’s easy to construct a personality for the book to work through. But its limitations are that this person can only know so much of what’s going on around him or her. And if you use first person, is it you with your personality, or are you going to be stepping in someone else’s shoes? The third person gives you an all-seeing eye, allows you to swap between characters easily, but the disadvantages are, in my opinion, that it can easily become passive, and definitely convoluted when describing action involving two characters of the same sex. ‘His’, ‘her’, ‘him’ and ‘she’ become confusing, and the only way around that is to use clumsy over-explanatory sentences.

5. Know your limits! You know your energy levels, your time available, your likes and dislikes, your strong points and weaknesses. Work within those and you’re much more likely to be successful. Don’t set your sights on writing a ten-book historical saga when your preferred medium is the short story. You can’t organise your way out of a paper bag? Maybe best not sketch out that complicated, internationally-ranging, high-tech thriller.

You know what you can do. Now do it!

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