Writing Lessons 3

Right, this is the third piece on my short run of ideas about getting started as a writer. If you haven’t looked, please go and check the first two items from this week.

So how did you get on with trying out different scenes to throw your guy into?

I’m going to give you some basic ideas now about the first stage of developing a story. This isn’t rocket science, it’s just a way to try to get your mind working more creatively. 

The real problem most people have with writing is, that they have no idea how to develop a basic idea. All too often I have people who come to me and say that they have this brilliant opening scene, but just cannot move on from it. I used to get that, back when I was starting out.

My own history is, that I was a computer salesman, and moderately happy with it. Which means I loved the money, the cameraderie, and the holidays, but really didn’t like only ever having three months’ job security. Because in those days, if a salesman didn’t hit his monthly target in a three month period, he or she was out. It was that cutthroat. And then companies kept folding and owing me money.

So in my spare time I started writing. It was for relaxation, I told myself – but in reality it was a pretty desperate search for a new career, something away from computer sales. So over the space of a couple of years I started several books. I would travel to Devon with a typewriter and bash away at thirty or forty pages, or sit in the dining room and stare into space. Once I managed to get to five chapters in total, and my wife was quite infuriated, because she always wanted to see how the books would develop. She loved the characters and what I was doing to them (poor devils). 

But the simple fact was, every time I ran out of steam. I had a high pressure job that involved working late and getting into work early. In the evenings I had no more energy to write. After all, if you go to work and you are putting yourself into a customer’s point of view and mindset, trying to see what will motivate him/her, what they want from a system, and how you can help them to achieve what they want from a system, about the last thing you want to do at nine o’clock when you get home, is sit down and try to think yourself into the head of someone else, and imagine what is motivating them. It isn’t easy.

None of those early attempts survive, as far as I know. They’ve gone to the great recycling bin in the sky.

But what I would say is, it’s irrelevant. None of them was worth the effort. They were training sessions. They taught me how to plot, how to develop characters, and how to write with my own voice. When I sat down to write my first book as a professional writer (I had lost my last job and decided today was the day), it flowed so easily, I was astonished.

There were two factors, I think, that made that happen.

One was I had spent so much time with projects that just weren’t quite right for me, and when I found one that was, it was obvious. The fact it was a doddle proved that it was perfect for me.

The second factor was the simple aspect of concentration.

People underestimate the lack of time they have to imagine. 

If you are a normal human being (you lucky devil), you have lots to do. Every day. You get up, probably slightly late, and hurry to get showered and dressed; you hurry your breakfast; you commute; you work; every break is a coffee chat around the water fountain or coffee  machine about work or colleagues’ families; you have lunch at your desk all too often, trying to clear up the things left over from the morning; then it’s the afternoon; you stop and commute again; you get home – time for supper and festering in front of the TV.

When I stopped working with computers, we couldn’t afford a TV licence. So the TV went. I had no commute, unless you count walking downstairs. We had no children, so I had no school run or after school clubs. 

In fact I could concentrate, seven days a week, for some fourteen to fifteen hours a day. It made the writing a breeze.

Not everyone can do that, though. So how can you try to bump-start your imagination?

You have a character. Get a sheet of paper and do as I suggested in Writing Lessons 2 yesterday. Remember X and all the questions about him? Put your character in the middle of the page, and then imagine you are somewhere with him (I’m working to the character I set down yesterday). Imagine yourself in his body, looking at the world through his eyes. Imagine what might happen to him. Something exciting, something that will make other people sit up and want to take notice. Mine is in a car park outside a local supermarket.

Perhaps he sees a crash, or a fight, or a kid running into a road, and he saves the child, or he holds the mother back so she doesn’t get killed as well. Put these down in simple, short lines around the central character. Write as many ideas down as you possibly can. What are the implications of this? Maybe the mother turns and hits him, or she turns and hides her face in his shoulder, or … What?

There are lots of software packages to do this job. You can buy them for your computer, phone, tablet or computer – but in all honesty, why bother? You can write straight to a sheet of paper. It’s quick, it’s easy, and you don’t have to spend anything or learn a series of new keystrokes. 

When I used to get stuck with a plot, I used to write down these pointers on sheets of paper from old A4 drafts. I would tear each into about 8 strips, write the ideas on them, and stick them on my wall with blu-tac. Then I’d change the order and play with the ideas until I had a basic concept or flow. 

In fact, as I wrote my books in the 90s, this was how I kept track. Exciting scenes (written in red), scenes from one character’s point of view, or another’s (picking different colours for each), and a short synopsis of what happened in the scene. It made editing a lot easier from hard copy, because I could see roughly where the scenes fitted together. It also meant I could occasionally pull scenes completely when they just didn’t work, or move them around. 

However, for now, try to imagine the various things you could do to your character. Will he/she be a killer, a witness, a victim? Will the police arrive, will someone be kidnapped? Or is it going to be a romcom, with your main character drinking at a coffee shop, perhaps idly daydreaming about a man she likes the look of, and then he walks over to ask directions somewhere, and she accidentally spills her coffee over her lap?

It’s your story. Start to think about what it will be.

However, don’t forget what I said about my early attempts. If you find that nothing inspires you, don’t panic. The waste paper bin is nice and close. Use it. Invent a new character, write out his/her nature on a new sheet of paper, and put them into a different location. See what ideas that sparks for you. Don’t let yourself get bogged down in detail. You’re trying to kick start your imagination with a scene so that you can develop the broad sweep of a story. 

As before, do please leave comments here or contact me on Twitter at @MichaelJecks if you want any help.

Best of luck!

One Response to “Writing Lessons 3”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    The third in the series…


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