Category Archives: Writing tips

Writing a Book: Research

We’re up to the part five of the Writing a Book series. And this month’s post is on … research. 
 
I love doing research. It’s an excuse to buy multicoloured highlighters, nice Post-it notes, a sweet notebook and visit the library, or else grab a cup of tea and disappear down the rabbit warren of Google. The danger is that I will get lost in the research and never actually write the book. I realised halfway through writing my first novel that I was using “research” as an excuse to procrastinate.
 

Close that door!

Stephen King says in his book On Writing: ‘Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.’ This is how I now approach research in my novels. I write a complete first draft before going off to research anything in detail. My first drafts tend to be rough, full of notes and half-finished scenes (and sometimes sentences!). However, it’s only once I have this sprawling mess that I can begin to look for key themes and areas that I want to understand better and so learn more about the book I’m writing. I’m definitely someone who doesn’t know what I want to write until I’ve written it down. This can be time-consuming, but I’ve learned that it’s just the way I work and not to get (too!) frustrated by it.
 
I had to do a lot of research for both my novels. My first book, Captive, is a political thriller for teens about the kidnap of the prime minister’s daughter. That meant I had to get to grips with so much: what is day-to-day life like at Downing Street? What would the PM’s private apartment look like? What would it be like to live there? How much security would the PM’s family have? How much freedom would the PM’s daughter have? etc. etc. At the same time as this, I was also investigating kidnapping protocol. The aim was to make the setting and details of the book as authentic as possible. I did sometimes worry about my Google searches as I looked up ‘interior of Downing Street’ and ‘level of security around the PM’ at the same time!
 
I read a lot of articles and books, including parliamentary memoirs, to better understand this world. I also endlessly quizzed friends in the army and the police force.
 

Going with the flow

With my second book, In Your Light, I had a very different experience. This time the research ended up really directing the novel in a way I hadn’t expected. This book is dual narrative, one part follows the story of Seven and her life in a closed community, or cult. The second section is about Lil, a girl whose sister ran away from home eight months earlier.
 
However, when I started looking into the subject of missing teenagers, Lil’s story just took over in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I realised that I wanted to focus more on her desperate and painful search for her sister. As such, it felt important to better understand the complex issues surrounding teenage runaways.
 
The charity Missing People was kind enough to answer my questions. This amazing organisation specialises in reuniting missing children and adults with their families. It does this by working with the police to run publicity campaigns on social media, in the press, on digital boards and through its links with hostels and homeless shelters up and down the country. It also runs a free and confidential 24-hour helpline for families and missing people. The support the charity offers is unique and invaluable, and I was inspired by them. So much so that I ended up doing some volunteering for them.
 
Everyone’s experience of a loved one going missing is unique. However, I hope my book goes some small way to shining a spotlight on this important and incredibly emotive issue. If you want to read more this topic, or if you are thinking of running away, or know someone who has, you’ll find excellent help and support at www.missingpeople.org.uk.


 
 
Five tips for researching a book

  1. Write a complete draft first – This can be very rough, but it’s advisable to have the basics of the story and characters so that your research has some focus, even if, like me, you end up rewriting the whole thing because of what you learned
  2. Be organised – File, date, record everything properly, so you can find it again easily. I wish I had been better at doing this for Captive! Pulling everything together for the final draft was a bit of a nightmare. Having learned from that experience, I now keep much more organised records in Evernote.
  3. Find somebody who knows more than you and ask them loads of questions – I am naturally reserved and always worry about imposing myself on others, so this was initially quite hard for me. However, I’ve found that when I do pluck up the courage to ask, people are incredibly happy to answer my questions. On the whole, people love sharing their knowledge and interests with you.
  4. Don’t get too bogged down in research – You’re writing fiction not a history book. You don’t want your research to show. It should drape over the story, making the world and the characters feel more realistic.
  5. Be open to the research – You may find that your book takes a completely different direction.

 
 
(This piece originally appeared on the fab My Book Corner last October.)

Five tips for creating character

  1. Be an observer  look at the people around you and study their behaviour. Analyse their actions: what are they doing, why? Is it genuine or are they trying to hide something about themselves? What is their greatest weakness? Their greatest strength?
  2. Spend time with your character  think about them in circumstances other than the scenes in your novel. How do they eat breakfast? How do they take their coffee? What do they do when they are stressed / happy / angry?
  3. Fill in a questionnaire for your character  you can download some great ones from the Internet or else create your own. It should include details about physical appearance but also and perhaps more importantly about them as a person: things like their favourite memory, their greatest fear, their biggest secret, their typical day etc.
  4. Don’t panic if the character doesn’t arrive fully formed. As with all other parts of writing, it’s about layering. Each draft you write should hone not only your plot but also your character as you get to know them better.
  5. Have fun! You’re making a person! Enjoy it. Make your characters vivid and real.

Writing a Book: the first draft

We’re up to the part four of the Writing a Book series. And this month’s post is on … writing the first draft. 

 

Rule number 1: don’t stop!

My first rule for writing first drafts is to keep going. My second rule is to ignore the evil imp of self-doubt that tells me what I am doing is pointless and rubbish. My third rule is to write a minimum of three hundred words a day. That might not seem like a lot, but it soon builds up. It’s a little over 2,000 a week and 10,500 words a month. Some people, of course, write much faster than this. Three hundred is just a figure that works for me. It’s not as daunting as 500 or 1000 (which seem massive hurdles!) and even on a bad day I can get the words written in 40 minutes. This is good as I have to fit writing around a full-time job.

 

Everything can be fixed later

The important thing to remember about first drafts is that they are just that: first. Everything can be fixed later. Sentences can be finessed, themes sharpened and characters developed. But you can’t do any of those things if you don’t have a basis to work from. Katherine Rundell (author of Rooftoppers) says, ‘You can make bad words better. You can’t make no words better.’ This is worth remembering.

For me, the first draft is about finding out about my story and my characters. In that sense, it is both exciting and also painful. Some days I will write and write and write as the ideas and words just flow. Other days it feels like someone has cut the cord between my brain and my fingers. I can’t remember any words at all, let alone any I actually need.

‘Shovelling sand’

When I’m writing a first draft, there is also always the fear that I’ll come unstuck. I’ll write myself into a hole, or else find that the idea wasn’t as compelling as I thought it was. The upshot of this, though, is that sometimes by just writing and not letting myself think too much, I find an even better story lurking inside my subconscious. I try to remember that I am just exploring things and trying out ideas. As author Shannon Hale says, ‘I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.’

Five tips for writing a first draft

  1. Keep going no matter what.
  2. The 30-50k-word mark can feel painful. You’re around the middle of the book and it feels like you’ve been writing for ever, but you still have SO MUCH MORE TO DO. Push past it.
  3. This is just a first draft. You are an explorer at this point. You can fix everything later.
  4. Resist the temptation to share your work too early. The first draft is an opportunity for you to be creative and to just let your subconscious to work things out. You don’t want too many different voices confusing things.
  5. Turn off your inner critic. There’s plenty of time for it to return and be put to good use at editing stage.

Writing a Book: Character

Part three of the Writing a Book series. And this month’s post is on … character.
 
Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes, Elizabeth Bennet, Hermione Granger, Lyra Silvertongue… We can all name our favourite characters from books, those ones that really jump off the page and into our hearts. Creating compelling characters is at the very heart of novel writing and undoubtedly one of the hardest aspects. At its most basic level you are asking what it is to be a human. And then you are trying to take all the inconsistencies, the complexities and emotions of that human and show them in 90,000 words over 300 or so pages. Not an easy task!
 

Spend time with your character

With this in mind, don’t expect to get it right first time. The chances are your idea for a novel will come in a lump: a bit of plot, a hint of an ending, a sense of a theme and a notion of character. Each aspect will need honing, both separately and in relation to the others. Character should be no different. Writers spend a long time getting to know their characters: rounding out their personalities, giving them hobbies, discovering their hopes, fears, deepest desires, meeting their friends and crafting their back stories. It’s important that you know your characters well, but don’t panic if this doesn’t come first time. You’ll see them develop with each draft you write, in the same way that you’ll (hopefully!) see you plot tighten, your pace speed up and your themes become clearer.
 

Look at real people

But where do you begin? You can start by looking at real people, at your family, people at school, people you work with, or you pass in the street or sit opposite on the bus. How do they interact with the world? How do they walk, eat, drink etc.? What are their social quirks? Are they nervous in crowds, or at home there? Do they seem happy, joyful, or angry or sad or bitter? How do they express these emotions? Do they stick to the corners of rooms in parties or are they the life and soul? What are they hiding? Do you get the sense that the life-and-soul person is actually making up for timidity and insecurity? What does this say about them? What “type” of person are they?
 
Understanding how real people work and being interested in them seems a good basis for going on to create realistic and intriguing characters. Note that I don’t say likeable here. Not all characters need to be likeable. In fact, some of the most compelling ones aren’t. They are the anti-heroes, the ones the reader is drawn to almost despite themselves, or the ones who are tragically flawed, whose vulnerability shines off them. Think Blanche DuBois, or Mr Ripley, or Holden Caulfield. Remember that it is your characters’ humanity – their failings, their weaknesses, their vulnerabilities, their struggles – that will suck a reader in. Beware making your character too “perfect”.
 

Myers Briggs

The Myers Briggs test can be a great way to begin to immerse yourself in the way people think. It can help you to catagorise your character a bit and make you think about them in new ways. For example, are they extroverted or introverted? Do they get energy from people or do they need to withdraw and be on their own every now and then? Do they like to take risks or do they prefer everything to be set out clearly from the start? All of these things will affect your plot, of course, and you need to be consistent in your representation. A shy girl is unlikely to start dancing on a table at party – or perhaps she does and the question would be why? Is she drunk? Is she trying to prove something to herself or to others? Has someone pressured her into it? How does she feel afterwards? Enlightened? Mortified?
 
You also need to think about how your character evolves across the novel. How do you want them to change? What have they learned? Have they achieved their wants and desires, and if not, why not? How does that make them feel? How does that affect the outcome of the novel?
 
This is a bit of a whistle-stop tour through character, especially as it is one of the hardest parts of writing a novel. The important thing to remember is not to panic if it takes a while to develop your character. And as always get tips from other writers. What do you love / hate about their characters? How have they achieved rounded characters? And practice! As with every other aspect of writing, creating great characters takes time. The more you do the better you’ll get! I’m definitely learning all the time too.

 
 

Five tips for creating character

  1. Be an observer  look at the people around you and study their behaviour. Analyse their actions: what are they doing, why? Is it genuine or are they trying to hide something about themselves? What is their greatest weakness? Their greatest strength?
  2. Spend time with your character  think about them in circumstances other than the scenes in your novel. How do they eat breakfast? How do they take their coffee? What do they do when they are stressed / happy / angry?
  3. Fill in a questionnaire for your character  you can download some great ones from the Internet or else create your own. It should include details about physical appearance but also and perhaps more importantly about them as a person: things like their favourite memory, their greatest fear, their biggest secret, their typical day etc.
  4. Don’t panic if the character doesn’t arrive fully formed. As with all other parts of writing, it’s about layering. Each draft you write should hone not only your plot but also your character as you get to know them better.
  5. Have fun! You’re making a person! Enjoy it. Make your characters vivid and real.