Hi Mark. I know you’re almost finished with your first book – congratulations, by the way! Have you got any advice on how to start writing a novel? For instance, whether you prefer to outline the plot before writing or if you’re more of a “write to find out what’s going to happen” type.
It can vary a lot between writers, especially in terms of structure. I think you need a certain amount of flexibility – certainly with the first draft – otherwise you can lose a lot of the joy, and it can feel like just filling in the gaps. I always knew what was going to happen in my novel about three chapters ahead, and I had a vague idea of the ending. I only figured out exactly how to finish it when I was about halfway through. It has to feel surprising and somehow inevitable, and that can only really come when you’ve got a fair bit down on paper.
Many people’s biggest problem is structure. One thing that often crops up in our online writing workshops is how people often ramble in an attempt to avoid having to reach a satisfactory climax. Do you have any tips for staying succinct and on-track?
I find that the second draft is where the structure really comes to the fore. I always say to get the first draft down in a kind of torrent, leave it alone for a while, and then work back into it. Then you have more distance and can see if something’s working structurally or not. I think that’s the approach most writers tend to take. Critiquing and feedback is also vital – you need others to tell you what’s working and what isn’t as it’s hard to judge that effectively when you’re so involved in the work.
Look at the structure as a kind of guide. Always consider what message you want the reader to take away from your story. The resolution is what matters – how you get to that point is up to you, as long as it works. My work is always about some message I want to deliver and I build a story around that. I would certainly advise getting a first draft written and working it out from there.
Be brutal – ‘kill your darlings’ – and remember, writing is rewriting. Also, you’re writing for an audience, not yourself, so you need to be aware of where the reader is in your story too.
On your website you mention your love of George Orwell’s writing several times. Do your favourite writers influence your work?
That’s inevitable. I take lots of different things from lots of different writers. What I love about Orwell is his tone; it’s as if he’s speaking directly to you. As long as you’re not consciously copying someone’s style, there’s no problem in being influenced or inspired by anyone. Where you draw your inspiration will usually sit there in your subconscious, waiting for the right moment to emerge.
I read that it’s a good idea to create characters to bring out different sides of your protagonist. Do you do this in your writing?
Yes. A lot of characters are exaggerations of certain elements of the protagonist‘s – and also the writer’s – personality. They say ‘write what you know’, and I take this to mean write the emotional truth of what you know.
Do your characters do things you don’t expect them to?
Yes, and that’s when you know they’re really working. They almost take on a life of their own rather than fitting into the plot. There are, however, times when I’ve written something and thought ‘nope, he wouldn’t do that. That’s out of character’. Characters can be allowed to act unexpectedly, but the reader needs to understand why they’ve behaved in such a way.
Has any of your work been semi-autobiographical?
To some extent, yes. I think most fiction is, although you might amalgamate character traits of several different people or merge settings. It can be difficult to achieve the level of detachment you need when you’re writing about real events, though.
In our online class one thing that frequently comes up is past vs. present tense. Do you often write in present tense?
Present tense is quite popular at the moment and seems to be the default for lots of American fiction. There’s an urgency to it that can be really effective, but it’s difficult to maintain if it doesn’t feel natural to you. I have written in the present tense, but I tend to use past. Again, it’s really about what’s comfortable for you, and what best suits the needs of the story.
Considering point of view makes a difference, too. Writing in the first person can help you ‘become’ the character, which, if it comes easily to you, can help you understand the story better. Also, when writing in the third person, people often find themselves slipping between omniscient and limited. If you intentionally switch point of view, you must bear in mind that it has to add something to the story. It can’t just be a device for delivering information to the reader.
If you’re writing in limited third person, does that exclude the ability to write about what’s going on in other characters’ lives?
It can do. You can change distance to a certain extent, but it’s almost like the first person in the respect that the narrator only knows what the main character does. You are able to detail the main character’s experience of other characters’ lives, though, and this can often lead to interesting situations where something may have been misinterpreted by the protagonist. Ensure you write this sort of thing clearly to make sure it doesn’t seem like you – the author – has become confused about your own plot.
Is there a wrong or right way to tackle time transitions in novels?
There isn’t really a set of rules, just do whatever works really. Be careful of zipping around in time too much, though, especially near the start of a novel, as the reader needs to be fully grounded in the world you’re creating before you take them away to another time and place.
Have you got any tips on creating suspense or achieving that ‘page-turner’ quality?
Well, that depends on what you’re writing! Emotional connection is key. You need to make sure your reader is invested in your characters and cares about what happens to them. The best way to achieve this is to get the reader to identify and sympathise with them. Challenge your characters – try putting them in difficult situations to test their mettle. Also, make sure the reader is active and contributing to the story. They can’t just be passive observers – not for long pieces of fiction, anyway.
To sum up, the most important thing is just to keep writing – and enjoy it!