Hi Mark, thanks for chatting to us today. I’ve been thinking about themes and motifs in my writing. When starting out on a story, do you think more about plot elements or images?
I think it’s good to establish a few lines of plot, but you won’t know how important these will be until you’ve finished your complete draft. You’ll always have to go back in later versions to emphasise or downplay certain elements too. Also, watch out for trying to do too much at the beginning. There’s always a temptation to offload a lot of backstory to get the reader up to speed, so you can concentrate on moving the story along.
Does this depend on what genre you’re writing? For example, I’ve heard that in a mystery, you should have a dead body crop up early on.
To a certain extent yes, but you might want to change some of the elements around, depending on how the story goes. Mysteries and thrillers are always very tightly plotted, but you need to leave yourself enough wiggle room to let the ideas develop as you write. Otherwise, it can feel like filling in the gaps, and you can lose a lot of the joy from the writing process.
For short stories, I would want to know everything about the story before I start writing. I usually start by looking at the end-point and the message I want the reader to take away, and then build the story around this, much like how you remember a joke: you think of the punch line first, and work back from that. For the long form, I know about two chapters ahead what’s going to happen. The rest is quite vague so I can let the characters and the story do some of the work for me. I only knew the ending of my current novel when I was about halfway through.
I’m quite new to creative writing, and am nowhere near having a finished piece. Do you have any tips for complete novices, and would you say structured learning is the best way to hone one’s writing skills?
Structured learning can be very useful because it helps to refine your ideas. The one thing you can’t really teach someone is how to have an idea. The rest of it – the mechanics and techniques that are usually buried in the prose, the actual craft of writing – are things you can learn. All this on top of practice, of course. The more practice, the better.
How did you end up as a writer?
I came to it as a career quite late, I suppose. I was a graphic designer for many years beforehand. I’d always written a lot – it just took me a while to work out what to do with it! I think having the graphic design background helped, as it’s essentially just another way of communicating creatively with people. I found it surprising how many skills were transferable, especially when it came down to the editing process.
Do you think it’s more challenging today to get people’s attention, due to all the distractions from technology? With platforms such as Twitter, I expect you have to be much more crisp in your storytelling.
Yes, definitely. We’re bombarded with lots of mini-narratives all the time, so the readers can become a bit jaded, and this is why I think short stories are so relevant at the moment. You do need to be crisp – and Twitter’s a great way to hone that skill – but there’s also pleasure in the languid, immersive storytelling that comes with a good novel.
There has actually been a sort of multimedia novel – well, a hypertext novel at least. It’s by Geoff Ryman, called 253. It’s interesting because it completely alters the traditional way you move through a narrative.
If I recall correctly, you’re currently working on a novel. Do you have any tips for sustaining pace in a longer piece of fiction?
It can be a bit daunting. I think one of the most important things is to really be in love with your initial idea. You need a certain amount of energy and enthusiasm to carry you through that number of words, and the constant redrafting. When you come back to something for the umpteenth time, and you’re getting sick of seeing it, you need to remember why it was that you started working on it in the first place.
Do you research as you go, or do you have separate research and writing phases?
I don’t do much research in the first draft. I find it can get in the way of the story and the pace, and I find it a bit stifling. There’s also a tendency to try and cram everything in when it might not be absolutely relevant. The second draft is when the heavy research comes in for me – all the fact checking and the little details that add authenticity.
Finding inspiration is a very individual thing, but have you got any tips on how to get the creative juices flowing?
For me, it’s ‘read, read, read’. I’d also say ‘think, think, think’, too. Most of my ideas come when I let my mind wander, usually when I’m doing something automatic like driving, housework, or when I’m in the shower. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to ‘come up with an idea’. Daydream, drift off, mull over things – it generally takes you to some unexpected places.
Thanks for all your questions, and I hope my answers are of some use to you!