Primary links

Writing Tips

People often ask me for writing tips. I am happy to share the following, knowing that a thousand people could use the same tips and come up with a thousand completely different stories. Each of us is unique and our own experience and range of interests means our story will be like nobody else's.

TIP I: WHO? To create a character who really interests YOU, try combining aspects of your favourite fictional character with a real person. You will come up with a new and fascinating character, and one who interests you. To make Flavia, I combined Nancy Drew, a fictional detective, with myself as I would like to have been as a child. To make Jonathan, I combined Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my son Simon, who is a bit of a pessimist.

TIP II: WHERE? To create a setting I sometimes put on a piece of music: jazz, classical, trance... Where does the music make me think of? A mountaintop? City? Beach? Underwater? Outer space? My bedroom? What time of day does the music suggest? What is the weather like? Is anybody in the scene? What are they doing? Now describe the scene and the people in it by writing for five minutes without letting your hand stop!! If necessary write 'I can't think what to write. I can't think what to write. etc' When I listened to a sad piece of music in 2002, I suddenly 'saw' a very sad scene from the end of my 13th book, The Slave-girl from Jerusalem.

littleanatomyofstory.jpgTIP III: WHAT? Plot is what happens in your story.
For a long time I wrote stories but they didn't have very good plots. Then I listened to John Truby's brilliant course on plot structure for screenwriters. It taught me the seven points or 'beats' every story should hit. If you want to write great plots, buy Truby's Great Screenwriting course.

Here are seven plot beats, the most essential of Truby's twenty-two steps. Almost every story ever written or recited has these seven beats. I have taken my examples from the first chapter of my first book, The Thieves of Ostia. You can read the whole first chapter HERE.

1. PROBLEM Your hero has a problem her or she needs to fix. (e.g. Flavia's father has lost his signet ring.)

2. DESIRE Your main character wants something which she feels will help her solve her problem. (e.g. Flavia wants to find her father's ring.)

3. OPPONENT This is someone who wants the same thing as your main character, or who wants something which will bring them into direct conflict with your main character. This person is not necessarily a BAD guy. (e.g. the magpie from The Thieves of Ostia is not evil; he just likes shiny things!)

4. THE PLAN Your main character comes up with a plan of how to get what they want. (e.g. Flavia decides to leave her silver chain as 'bait' for the magpie.) In longer books, this plan doesn't work right away so the main character keeps trying. There is often a section where the main character undergoes 'training' of some sort or collects helpers and allies.

5. THE BATTLE This is where your main character battles with the opponent. It doesn't have to be a physical fight, it can be an argument or other form of confrontation. (e.g. Flavia follows the magpie outside the town walls. If the magpie reaches his nest without her finding it, then he wins. If Flavia discovers the location of the magpie's nest, then she wins.) In crime and mystery stories, the main plan is usually the opponent's: how to commit the crime. The hero's plan is then to find out the opponent's plan.

6. KNOWLEDGE In the course of this battle the main character gets some important information - often about HERSELF and her deeper need - as she struggles to achieve her goal. (e.g. Flavia discovers she was right: her father's ring is in the magpie's nest.)

7. NEW LEVEL After the battle and the knowledge, the main character is on a higher or lower level. Put very simply, they are either happier or sadder than they were at the beginning. (e.g. Flavia is happy that she found her father's ring... but she doesn't have much time to enjoy her new level because she suddenly has a new PROBLEM, and the sequence starts all over again!)

These seven steps make up almost every scene as well as the overall PLOT of a book. They are the skeleton or structure of the story. They are basic enough to keep you on track while allowing space for lots of your own ideas and creativity. Try reading some of my short stories, in Trimalchio's Feast, and see if you can find those seven steps. You might also like to read an interview with my by my editor Jon at the back of the Trimalchio's Feast. In it, he asks me how I write mystery stories.

TIP IIII: Add depth and texture. I always use ideas and themes from the Greek myths. It's OK to steal from Greek myths. Ovid and Homer can't sue. Also, the Greek myths are very profound and will give depth to your stories.

TIP V: Self-edit. When you've finished writing your story, READ IT OUT LOUD. This is one of the best ways I know of self-editing. I always read my books out loud at least once before I submit them to my editor.

MY BIGGEST TIP: Train yourself to write by writing every day - even for only ten minutes. Make it as regular as brushing your teeth. Write even if the only thing you can grind out is: 'I can't think what to write. I can't think what to write.' Don't give up. If you stop for a few weeks just start again.

There are thousands of writers out there. Don't let that discourage you; it means YOU CAN BE ONE, TOO!

Good luck and vale!

P.S. Learn to type HERE.
P.P.S. Check out my page called HOW TO GET PUBLISHED for more tips.
P.P.P.S. Please oh please, don't ask me to read what you've written. I'm way too busy and am not really allowed to look at other people's writing. If you want a professional opinion then contact The Writers' Workshop or a similar advice service. Thanks! smiley