Just Do It 4 – location, location, location

The terrestrial planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth...
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Welcome to the fourth and final post in this series on novel
writing for beginners. So, where were we? We’d overcome fear and
procrastination. We’d got to know some likely characters. We’d developed a
story idea into a plot. Now we need to consider setting.

And there are a few things to consider when deciding when
and where to situate the story. Obviously if it’s a historical novel, then
when, and most likely where, will be implicit in your story content. And the
same will be true, at least to some extent, with any type of genre fiction.
Science fiction is likely to be away from planet Earth, crime novels will involve
a police station and so on.

However, even with genre, there will still be decisions that
you have to make. Is your Victorian thriller set in the homes of the
aristocracy, the middle classes or amongst the poor on the streets? Is your
tale of the Roman occupation told from the emperor’s court or the subjugated

With contemporary fiction, the choice of setting is wide. Is
the story centred around a family home, village, city, workplace, or in the
midst of a ritual such as a wedding or a funeral?

Sometimes the setting is almost a character in its own
right. It may dominate and determine the plot. It may evolve and change as the
story develops. For example, if your story is one about survival on a remote
mountain top, vast desert, or alien planet, the nature of the environment that
the characters are in is crucial to the events and outcomes.

Once you have decided on your setting you need to bring it
to life. It’s exciting – there might be houses to furnish, landscapes to form
and plant, cities and worlds to create from scratch. Then again you might set
it somewhere real and just tweak the details.

Whatever you do, make the setting consistent and coherent. I
draw floor-plans of the houses in my novels – so that I don’t inadvertently
move the kitchen from the back to the front of the house, or shift a staircase
from one side of the building to the other. Similarly with fictional villages
and towns – drawing a map is a good idea. Think about what the characters see
when they look out of the window, walk down the street, enter their workplace,
fly their spaceship, approach the battlefield, sit in their kitchen…

Make sure the setting is believable and has integrity. Even
when, or rather, especially when, creating a non-Earthly world. Even if a
planet or parallel world is completely manufactured by you, it should still
obey its own integral rules of physics.

Give enough detail – using all the senses – so that the
reader can begin to inhabit the world of your book. But don’t put in long
chunks of bulk description. Feed in the details as you would with character
traits. ‘Show don’t tell’ is just as applicable with setting. There’s also no
need to repeat these details. Once your reader knows that the main character
has a cream leather sofa, don’t go on about it. Trust your reader to remember.
Also, trust your reader to fill in the gaps – as you would do with the
characters’ physical appearance. Good writers give just enough detail to set
the reader on their own imaginary path. Just think how annoying it can be when
a book you love is dramatised for television, and the characters’ physical
appearances and the look of their homes and villages are dictated by the
casting director and the set designer.

So creating your novel’s setting should be fun, but keep it authentic
and credible. Give enough of a map that the reader can find their way in and
orientate themselves, but leave them enough room to explore and make sense of
your created world for themselves.

And that just about wraps up this ‘Just Do It’ series. The
intention was to get those of you who are aspiring writers to take the plunge
and become actual writers and to give first timers some basic tips on the
foundations of novel writing. There are further aspects such as use and quality
of tone, atmosphere and style and the all-important voice which are also
necessary to novel writing. But let’s keep these for another time, further down
the line.

For now get the characters, plot and setting assembled and
set off. Go on, just do it!

Want to write a novel – Just Do It (3). Hatch that plot.

mindmap [RE]Design
Image by Denkbeeldhouwer via Flickr

So here’s part 3 in my series of posts for beginner writers…


Right, where were we? We’d got started on the novel –
overcome the self-doubt and procrastination. We’d fallen in love with our
characters and breathed life into them.

So what now? What are you going to have these characters do?
What is going to happen to them? How will you introduce them to your readers? What
will their journey be?

First of all – the thing about plotting is that there is no
one correct way to do it. It’s like cooking – everyone has their own take on
methods – even where the ingredients and the outcome are similar. My mother and
my mother-in-law were both superb bakers – meringues to die for – but they used
two quite different procedures to create them. One baked them in an oven – the
French way – and the other plopped the beaten egg whites into boiling water –
the Italian way. And that’s how it is with plotting – you do what works for
you. Below are just three of the ways – you might only ever use one of them, or
you may change method depending on the novel, or you may mix and match – or you
may do none of them in any conscious way and simply write, improvising as you
go. But if cooking without a recipe scares you, you may find what follows

First up – you might like a linear layout when planning – one
scene heading, followed by the next, and the next and so on. This will work
well if you already have a clear idea of how your story is to develop. You
might follow the heading with notes on the action within the scene. It will all
run down the page – in portrait layout – beginning, middle and end all sorted.

Or you may do the above – but with only a definite start and
end point already planned – and fill in the scenes in between as you think it
all through.

However, it may be that you don’t have scenes as such. It
could be that you have fragments – an assortment of images – of experiences and
occurrences for your characters. Perhaps then you can storyboard. That is write
and/or draw out these images on cards. Then lay them out, swap them round, see
where the gaps are, do cards to fill the gaps. As you ponder the gaps you will
probably find you begin to ask yourself, and answer, all the why questions
about your plot, about what is driving it. You must be able to answer the
question as to why a particular scene is there.
If you can’t, then discard it. It’s superfluous. You’ll also start to
resolve the ‘how’ questions as you move from card to card. Perhaps new
characters and ideas will emerge as you work. Perhaps a timeline or natural
order may start to emerge.  You may well
see a sort of clustering, or coming together,  of scenes at certain points – these will
provide your ‘jumpcuts’ and chapter breaks – and you may well discard some
in-between scenes altogether.

And then there’s a third way. That is the mind-map, spider
diagram or cluster plotting method. Here think landscape rather than portrait.
Take a sheet of A4, or even, A3 paper and write your novel’s working title in
the middle and draw a box or cloud shape around what you’ve written. Now do
several short lines coming off this central box or blob. At the end of these
lines write, or indeed, draw the key scenes, images or events you already have
in your head. Draw a box around each of these. Then see if you can extend any
of these scene/event boxes with blobs of their own. You can continue branching
off as much as you like. It should become obvious which are the meatier scenes,
which ones are sparking off possible subplots. The more substantial plot blobs
or boxes will be the ones you’ll probably allocate most words to. You may well
also see how the scenes should link up and perhaps begin to see an order of
events. And as with the other methods you will probably find scenes that are so
insubstantial they can be dropped altogether.

Whatever plotting method you use you will need to peg your
scenes to a story arc. Your plot must serve as a roadmap for the characters’
actions. It must bring your characters together at just the right moment. You
need to decide on your opening scene, on where your telling will begin. The
plot will almost certainly begin long before your story does. You will weave in
any relevant pre-details as you tell the story. Your start point should be
where the characters’ backstories become nowstories. So looking at your plan –
linear, storyboard or mind-map, you will need to move those scenes around –
number them, arrow them, or change their order in the pile.

It doesn’t matter if you open your story at the end and tell
it as flashback or if you begin at the middle and flashback and move forward –
or if you simply drive forward. However there is a classic set of ingredients
that the story arc should probably contain and that is:

1.Stasis – once upon a time

2.Trigger – the unpredictable event

3.Quest – the protagonist(s) begins to seek

4.Surprise – discovers the unexpected

5.Critical choice – difficult decision

6.Climax – the consequence of 5

7.Reversal – change of status

8.Resolution – acceptance of new state.

But the most important thing of all about the plotting stage
is to just go for it. Don’t pause or censor or edit – that will come when you
have all your scenes before you. Enjoy this very creative phase of pre-writing
– rule nothing in or out.

Have Fun!

N.B. There is an excellent post and youtube video on cluster
plotting at http://johannaharness.com/2010/10/21/clusterplotting.
If you’re a writer who uses twitter, you will almost certainly have heard of
Johanna. She is the person behind the #amwriting hashtag and won last year’s
inaugural Chris Al-Aswad prize awarded by Eight Cuts.

Just Do It 2 – starting to write character

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Just Do It…


This is the second in
a short series of posts designed to help people just starting out as writers of
fiction. I don’t claim to be an expert professional but just want to share my
take on the process as a sort of expert novice.

So, you’ve started. You’ve overcome the procrastination and
excuses and you’ve begun to write. You have an idea for a story and are ready
to write a piece of fiction. All you need to do now is to come up with
convincing and engaging characters, a coherent plot, an interesting setting and
an appropriate tone and mood – and, of course, you’ll require a suitable
narrative voice.

In this post I’m going to take a look at the character
element of storywriting.

While it’s true that
some genres such as spy thrillers are more plot than character driven, it’s my
belief that all novels are enhanced by having well drawn characters. In the
crime writing genre, Kate Atkinson’s Jackson
, Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Susan
Hill’s Simon Serailler,  are as much a part of the readers’ enjoyment
as the whodunit plots.

It’s likely that you’ll have more than one character in your
novel. You’ll have a main character, or characters, and probably a supporting
cast as well. There’s a sort of ‘classic’ cast list for novels consisting of the
hero, or main character, and the anti-hero, who is often another main character
and  plays off against the hero, (but not
necessarily in a detrimental or villainous
way). Then there is the  hero’s
helper, who offers love and support, the hero’s champion ,who offers practical
help, the wise elder, who offers knowledge and insight and the joker (who
provides some light relief).

These roles shouldn’t be viewed as having a rigid
demarcation. I offer them as a guideline only. Good authors keep the boundaries
fluid and sometimes assign roles against archetype or stereotype. For example
it might be a child character that has most of the wisdom and insight. You
certainly don’t have to have all the characters on the list and one character
can fill several roles.

But whoever you decide to include, it’s important to get to
know your main character(s) – more than that, you must get inside their heads.
I’ve even heard the process described as falling in love with your character(s).
That doesn’t mean they have to be loveable or even particularly likeable but
there must be chemistry between author and character. If you, as the writer,
aren’t fascinated by your characters, you can’t expect your readers to engage
with them either. The nearest analogy I can come up with to describe the
author/character relationship is that of a method actor with their role. While
you write you are that character, you
experience their emotions and their actions.

So it will be helpful for you to know as much as possible
about your character(s). You should compile a biography for them which includes
age, looks, job (and job-related skills), nationality, family background,
politics, personal qualities/faults, tics such as speech patterns and so on. Give
them a house (what do they see when they wake up in the morning/from the
kitchen window and so on), a journey to work and/or to the shops etc. This list
isn’t exhaustive and you should add on any other category relevant to your

Going through this ‘interview’ process with a character will
allow you to build their backstory and this will lend credibility and
authenticity to their motivation and behaviour. You won’t necessarily include
all the backstory and every little biographical detail, but it’s important to
have them worked out in your own mind.

And finally the main character(s) needs to change during the
course of the novel. They must move from being stuck to unstuck, or from
lacking something – an emotion, a relationship, an understanding, a solution –
to gaining it. You are going to take your character(s) on their unique journey.

The map for the journey will be the basis of the plot. And
in the next ‘Just Do It’ post, I’ll offer some tips on plotting.