When I sent out my first e-mail inviting people to send me their Big Question about writing, I promised I would pass on those questions, with my answers, to the Writing Groups for them to share with their members, because I was sure that many of those issues would be common to many. I’m doing that now, with this e-mail.
In fact I received very many Big Questions, and I’ve selected just some, rather than send out an e-mail with them all that would run to many pages. I’ve removed the names of the people who sent me their questions, and I’ve also edited my answers down (in one case my long answer ran to 2 pages!)
Q: Finding the ‘simple story’ in an idea. At the moment, I have characters and an idea but no story. The fact that I cannot find the ‘story’ for my novel idea is holding up my writing.
A: Many years ago (when I was primarily a scriptwriter who occasionally wrote books – rather than now, when I’m mainly an author who occasionally writes scripts) I was working with two other writers as a team of three, putting together the third series of a fantasy-drama series for CBBCTV called “The Ghost Hunter”. The first two series had done well, got to Number 1 in the charts, been sold all over the world, etc, so, as we knew this was going to be the final series, we were determined to go out in a blaze of glory and come up with something wonderful that would knock the audiences socks off. Accordingly, we came up with a story in which the main characters travelled through 3 time zones: the Victorian past, the present, and 20 years into the future. The independent production company who were making the show, Zenith, sent off our story document to the then Head of Drama at CBBC. She responded with a brief message to them saying: “Tell Jim I said: what’s it about?” (The reason she singled me out was because I’d worked with her before when I was writing for Disney and she was my Executive Producer at Disney; and she and I had a good artistic understanding.)
“We don’t know what she means,” said the producers. I re-read our document, and said: “I do. We’ve been so eager to make something with all the bells and whistles and fantastic things happening, and the mind-blowing time-travel stuff, that we’ve forgotten to make sure we had a core story at the heart of it.”
I then remembered one of the first lessons I learned whenever I was creating a new series (and this applies whether you’re talking about a book, a film or a TV or radio series -and I’ve created 15 series for BBC and ITV): Sum up what it’s about in 10 words or less.
For example: Dr Zhivago: A love story at the time of the Russian Revolution.
What you need to do is look at all the material you’ve got, the different strands, the different characters, and select the one story and the one (or two) main characters that matter most to YOU. Then put that story down in the simplest way possible – that is your CORE story. Even if there are different stories you like, be ruthless and choose ONE.
All the other characters and themes and ideas you have, you can include, but they are sub-themes or sub-plots, or cameo characters to give the story light and shade – but never lose sight of your CORE story – the ONE story that is at the heart of it. You may find you chuck out other stuff that interferes with that main story. That’s fine – you can always use discarded stuff later, nothing ever goes to waste.
Q: My question is about originality in theme and setting. We are often told as amateur writers we have to be original and avoid overusing common themes or plot styles. However, the publishing industry seems to counter this with the types of books published. For example, the number of esoteric detective stories that appeared after The Da Vinci Code and the current trend for dystopian YA books.
Therefore it raises the following questions for me
- As a writer, is it best to stick to a theme and genre you enjoy or try to branch out into something more original if you desire recognition?
- Is it better to tell a good story in a familiar setting than try to be original for original’s sake and fail to entertain the reader
- How are these common themes and settings thought of when the manuscript hits the agents desk?
A: I completely understand and sympathise with your dilemma here. During my 40+ years a scriptwriter, often when I met a TV executive to talk about new ideas for a TV series, they would say to me “we need something original”. I would duly come up with an idea that was very original and hadn’t been done before, and they would then say (worriedly) “We’re not sure if the audience will get this”.
And so it was back to a new way of the same old thing: mostly what are called “docs and cops” (medical drama series or detective series). And it’s the same with books. As you may have seen on my website: I have written across many genres (crime, war action, sci-fi, social history, etc.) For my money, you can combine Questions 1 & 2 of your questions:
Is it best to stick to a theme and genre you enjoy or try to branch out into something more original if you desire recognition? Is it better to tell a good story in a familiar setting than try to be original for original’s sake and fail to entertain the reader
To write something that will be saleable, and which you enjoy writing, do both: take a theme and genre you enjoy; and do your research to find out which areas are selling most, and so are in most demand by Commissioning Editors (historical, or contemporary, detective, romance, action adventure); and work your particular story into the most popular form that people are looking for.
eg: If the genre you like writing is crime, and publishers are after medieval history, then set your detective story in medieval times. Do your research to make sure it’s historically accurate, though – readers of historical fiction are very knowledgeable.
Remember, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt (except with literary critics) it breeds a series with people returning to the characters and series you have created. The biggest selling novelist in the 20th century: Agatha Christie – hated and despised by the critics, bought by the millions.
In short: a good story can be in an original setting, but with events that are familiar to the reader so they can enjoy it. The best fantasy and sci-fi (Terry Pratchett, for example) may be exploring original ways of seeing, but it does it using characters and situations we are all familiar with.
Q: Pace. I always rush through a story line. How can I slow myself down without feeling like I’m padding out a scene. I find it difficult to balance the advice of ‘start a scene as late as you can, end it as soon as you can.’
A: There are two issues here:
One is: ‘start a scene as late as you can, end it as soon as you can.’
This is what I was told by my producers when I was writing for a TV soap, and it makes sense because it keeps an audience hooked.
However, when you also say “How can I slow myself down without feeling like I’m padding out a scene” – this is a different issue, and one that I emphasise with completely.
For many years I continued to be guilty of the same thing – rushing stuff off as soon as it was written – even once I was a full-time writer with more time to spare. So, I fear, like you, it’s the way I am. Some of are slow (James Joyce used to manage about 5 words a day!), some of us rush – you and I are rushers.
However, I have learnt that when developing a new idea, time has to be taken as follows:
1) Write out the basic idea, the characters, the stories, etc.
Then, instead of rushing that off, put it aside for at least 2 days – longer if possible. If there is no deadline associated with it, then you have the luxury of leaving it aside for a week or more.
2) Then come back to it. Re-read it. Spot the flaws in it. Spot where it’s weak. Where it can be improved. Where new characters and sub-plots being introduced will improve the idea.
Re-write it, adding in those new characters and sub-plots and themes.
And then, instead of sending it off, force yourself to put it away again for another 48 hours – or a week, or however long you can force yourself to.
3) Then, take it out and look at it again. As before: Re-read it. Spot the flaws in it. Spot where it’s weak. Where it can be improved. Maybe you might find some of the newer characters and themes don’t work after all, so take them out. Maybe some of the original characters and themes need changing or reworking.
Once again – and by now I know you’ll be champing at the bit, as I was – force yourself to put it away again for another 48 hours – or a week, or however long you can force yourself to. Then:
4) Take a final look at it. Is it ready to be sent off? Or does it need a final tweak?
Bear in mind that even if you send it off, it will still be open to changes. No book is finished until the final proofs are printed; no script is finished until the final edit of the studio day.
Q: My biggest problem seems to be keeping the momentum going. Having written around twenty scenes (16000 – 1700 words or so) I seem to get ‘stuck’. I am one of those writers who doesn’t get on with mapping out the plot and the storyline in detail (I’ve tried it and I find it too limiting to my imagination).
A: As someone who has written in both the short form (sketches, short stories) and the long form (screenplays, novels, etc), I’m afraid you’re not going to like my answer, at least at first, but I hope you’ll see that it’s tempered. You say: “I am one of those writers who doesn’t get on with mapping out the plot and the storyline in detail (I’ve tried it and I find it too limiting to my imagination)”; but if you are going to write in the long form, and do it successfully (i.e. sell your work) that’s what you have to do. But it can be done without limiting your imagination, as I’ll explain later.
Although in the “old days” (when I first started writing 40 years ago) you could come up with an idea and just let it happen and hopefully reach a conclusion, in today’s world, the contract with any mainstream publishers and production companies for any work commissioned by them will include the following clause:
1) A detailed outline will be delivered by (date). (In the scriptwriting world, this is also called a Step Treatment). (So you must have that detailed outline agreed with your commissioning editor before you start work on the main draft.
The contract usually goes on:
2) First draft to be delivered by (date).
3) Final draft to be delivered by (date).
Yes, there may be smaller presses who won’t insist on this, but the commercial ones will. There’s a very simple reason for this: money. They are investing money in you as a writer, and they want to know that what they are paying for will be delivered, barring accidents. So they need to know that your novel or script has a beginning, a middle and an ending. Of these, the ending is the most important, because so many writers get so far with a novel or a script, and then can’t write a strong ending to it. In which case, all the effort that’s gone into it has been a waste, because it will be never be published or made.
However (and this is my important proviso on this to give you heart), you don’t have to stick rigidly to your outline. Once you start writing, I’ve always found that the story and the characters develop a life of their own. NOTHING IS WRITTEN IN STONE. Everything can change as the idea develops. Why the outline is important is because it tells the publisher, or producer, and – most importantly – you as a writer, that whatever happens you can finish this work, and it will be good. The chances are that as your imagination lets it develop and change, it will be even better. But if you are going to write in the long form, you (and the people you want to sell it to) need to have a detailed outline. In this way, writing a detailed outline won’t inhibit your imagination, it should actually let it flourish.
I have had many more Big Questions I’ve had to leave out, because many were quite specific to the writer and a particular piece of work. However, I hope this gives you a flavour of the kind of feedback (but longer and more detailed) you will expect from me about your own work, if you decide to try one of my Writing Courses.
Once again, I thank everyone who sent me questions, and who passed my initial e-mail on to their members, and hope you will check out my courses – click here
With best wishes