One of the best writing tips I’ve ever been given, and one I’ve lived by, is: if you think you’ve got a story start writing it. And don’t tell everybody about this great idea for a story that you just know is going to be a hit. If you talk about your story to friends and family, what’s the point in writing it?
All this might sound like obvious advice but many times I’ve had students tell me chapter and verse of this blockbuster they’re going to knock out over their annual holiday.
‘I’m going off to a remote cottage where there’s no internet and I’m just going to write,’ they’ll tell me. And this remote cottage is either on a beach or up a mountain or deep in the bush on a game reserve. Wherever it is, self-isolation to concentrate on writing is the order of the day.
Except when they return, these writers either haven’t written a word or so few words that the output of the entire holiday didn’t even amount to a short story.
So if a remote refuge isn’t a help, how do you convert that great idea into a story?
Well, the first thing I do is work out who is in the story. I remember at the end of my second book, not having the faintest idea what I’d write next.
And then it just so happened that I was in the Czech Republic on a holiday at the end of a winter. Snow lay all about. I was driving past a wood when a young boy stepped out from the trees and stood watching me pass. That image: the dark wood, the snowed field, the watching boy was the start of a story. I had no idea of the rest of the story but the image was enough.
I started writing in my notebook that evening. I imagined where the boy had come from, where he was going to. Why he was alone. Who was he? And with those questions a story formed into a book that was eventually called Horseman.
Questions, questions, questions
Here’s the first of the writing tips: start with a picture of the scene in your mind and then ask at least seven questions about that scene:
- Where is this taking place?
- What does it look like?
- Who is involved?
- What do they look like?
- What are their names?
- Why are they there?
- Where are they going?
And the questions should continue all through the writing. What’s going to happen next? That’s the most important question of them all. Whether you are writing a novel or a memoir you need to keep the reader glued to the pages. They’ve got to keep asking that question: What’s going to happen next?