When people ask me for writing tips, I always remember the remark of the agent who turned down my first novel. ‘Is there any hope?’ I asked. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘at least you’ve finished a book. Most people want to have written a book, but far fewer actually want to put in the work.’ It wasn’t much to go on – but I went on. So my top two writing tips are these:
- If you want to do it then just – do it.
- Never take ‘no’ for an answer.
But how to begin? Where to find a story? Well, you need to be on constant radar-alert, open to possibilities. Once I sat opposite a really shabby man in a tube. He looked as though he didn’t have a brass farthing to his name, and yet in his threadbare arms he carried a brilliant bunch of really expensive orchids. Why? How? What was the deal? I was so intrigued I made up a story to answer those questions.
But what if there isn’t anyone interesting sitting opposite you in the tube? It happens. You still have to keep on looking and listening, of course. Most writers I know are really nosey. This helps. But if nothing presents itself you can create something out of nothing with this one magical phrase: what if. This, in my opinion, is the most important tool in a writer’s toolkit. I’ll tell you how my first book for children – Feather Boy – came into being. There I was wandering hopelessly by the sea (I live in Brighton and often walk if I want to think, but that day – no cigar) when I came across a huge derelict house. It was boarded up, except round the back where the wire mesh was pulled off. I went in. This is called trepass and it’s against the law. All two thousand of the Victorian tiles in the hallway had been sledge hammered. Paper was ripped off the walls, fireplaces gouged out, loos smashed. I went up the stairs, with my back to wall, so no one could come at me from behind. Brighton, you see, is big on drug addicts and hypodermics needles. There was the sound of running water and my heart thumping. I got to the top floor. I was terrified. There was one shut door. I went through it. Inside that room was – absolutely nothing. Except some duck wallpaper and a broken window. I was enraged – I couldn’t have gone through all that fear for nothing! Then the ‘what ifs’ started: what if there is something in this room, only I can’t see it right now? What if something happened in this room many years ago which still has reverberations down the years? Twenty-four hours later most of the plot of Feather Boy had arrived.
You don’t have to go into a derelict building (in fact, it’s rather sensible not to) to start the ‘what ifs’. You can just start them. What if I had wings? Or what if everyone in the world had wings – but I didn’t? You see, as soon as you choose somewhere to begin, other things have to follow, take shape because of decisions you’ve already made.
Right, so you’ve finally started. Now you’ve got to pay some attention to the story. Boy with wings lives in very happy family with lovely parents and great friends. Interesting? No. Obviously not. But what if we rough up boy a bit? What if we damage his wings or kidnap his parents? We like him a bit more already because, you see, most great stories are about not the happy ending but the journey towards it, the bit where our hero or heroine overcomes terrible odds and shows us what they are made of. The journey of Robert, the main character in Feather Boy, is about how he stops being the class prune and demonstrates how courageous and extraordinary he is.
So now the story has started to take shape in your head, and you have to write it down. Really write. Put words on a page. One after another. Ha. Not tell us someone is angry but slam their fist on the table so we KNOW they’re angry. This is called Show not Tell. It’s important because it helps the reader get under the skin of the character. And yes, there’s a lot of other stuff you have to pay attention to as well. Like re-writing. I try to write 1000 words a day. The following morning I take a red pen to about half of them. Cut, edit, refine. But you can’t get to that bit until you start.
So – start.
And good luck!