I've been writing non-fiction articles, blog posts and marketing materials for clients for a number of years now and I've got my process for that down pretty neatly:
I'm being slightly flippant here, of course, but I've always found it easy to work to a brief: you tell me exactly what you want and when you want it by and I'll deliver it on time, to your specifications.
Writing fiction, however, is another matter. It's what I've always wanted to do but there were times in the past, sitting down in front of a blank notebook page or a glaringly word-free Word document, when it was hard to believe that I'd ever actually read a book, let alone written any text before: so empty was my mind of plots, characters or dialogue.
The more I tried to write something - anything - the harder it became. I would often manage a sizzling opening paragraph but would be concentrating so hard on making every sentence perfect that I would run out of a steam after the first couple of lines. Yes, my vibrant new character was raring to go...but where exactly was she off to?
I began to despair that I would ever finish anything and for many years I shut up my writing pads and pens in that cupboard we all have: you know, the one labelled: 'I'll definitely use this in the future.' (Yes, that's right, the one you'll never take anything out of again.)
Thankfully for the literary world (joke), all that has changed. In 2016 I was lucky enough to meet somebody who introduced me to her 'shut up and write' group: a small meeting, every Friday morning, of like-minded writers who just need space to do nothing else but write. We say hello and exchange 'how have you been?'s, then plug in our headphones and do nothing but tap our keyboards, uninterrupted, for the next two hours. Bliss. (Oh, we drink coffee and eat the occasional pastry too.)
My first time there I realised that I had nothing to write about. No half-finished novels, short stories or even a poem lurking around that I could work on so I googled 'writing prompts', picked the first one that sounded interesting and went for it. No worrying about whether it was rubbish or not (it was), I just typed whatever happened to float through my brain at that moment and, gradually, with practice, it got easier and easier to write hundreds of words in one sitting.
(In an ideal world this next paragraph would begin with 'And now I'm a prize-winning author!' Notice that it doesn't.)
Like anything else, writing good fiction needs to be worked at. I've got a long way to go but the writing club has helped me bulldoze down the barrier to a wealth of ideas simply by giving me an opportunity to regularly write. I don't stress about how good my first drafts are any more either as I know I can go back and rewrite them later. US novelist Lous L'Amour had it right:
I now endeavour to write every day, even if it's just for 15 minutes and it's made such a difference. I've still got so much to learn about the fiction writing process but I thought I'd share four tips that have worked well for me so far. There will be many more to follow!
Writing Fiction: getting started
1) WRITE, WRITE, WRITE, WRITE, WRITE!
Write regularly, even if you don't have anything to write about. Use writing prompts to kickstart your imagination or write about something you can see, somewhere you've been or something you want to do.
Set a timer (fifteen minute blasts work well for me if I'm having an imagination freeze) and do nothing but write during that time - it doesn't matter if it's any good (but I bet you'll find a lot of it will be!). It's amazing what your brain will come up with once you've set it free!
2) LEAVE EDITING UNTIL LATER
As I've discovered, trying to make things perfect as you go stifles creativity. Get those ideas down on paper or screen any way you can: ignore typos or things that don't necessarily make sense. There's plenty of time to go back and edit later.
3) READ YOUR WRITING OUT LOUD
I often find that something I've written down, that sounds a particular way in my head, sounds completely different when I read it aloud. The intonation or rhythm might be different and sometimes a word just doesn't fit in when being spoken. Get somebody else to read it out loud too - they might find a way of saying it that you hadn't accounted for at all! (This is obviously doubly important if you're writing dialogue - it has to sound like something somebody would actually say...)
4) USE MINDMAPPING
I'm currently working on a short story for a competition. It had started life as 300 words written in response to a prompt I found and it was interesting enough for me to consider it for expansion. I had a couple of good characters and a location I was pleased with but no real idea where it could go. One of my lovely writing group associates suggested using mindmapping as a visual organisation tool to open up new pathways and it worked!
Start off with your central character, idea, plotline or anything else you want to work on in a balloon in the centre of a page. Draw lines coming off it, with other balloon at the ends of the them. In those balloons add any other connected details you have or that you think off as you're drawing.
So, if you're trying to develop a character called 'Sarah' put her name in the main balloon. Draw more balloons for aspects of her personality, such as 'loves the colour green', 'goes swimming every Wednesday' or 'rides a bicycle to work'. (With the last one you might then draw more lines and balloons from that one to discover more about her work...see how your mindmap will grow?) Use as many balloons and lines as you need - use things like 'Best friends with?' if you're not sure of something - you can come back to that when the inspiration strikes you later. I use different colours for each character or theme - that seems to help me link everything together coherently.
Again, don't think too hard about what you're writing in your bubbles or whether all your thoughts will make a feasible story: let your imagination have fun at this stage. A whole storyline came to me while I was doing this - one that I had no idea I knew at the beginning of the process!
The four tips above have really helped me unleash my inner writer: I find myself itching to sit down and write at every spare moment. I'm really looking forward to sharpening up my story for the competition: I have no expectation of winning but just finally finishing something and submitting it will be a real milestone for me!
I'm going to carry on learning and improving as I continue on my fiction writing journey - check back here for more tips in future posts. And if you have any writing advice yourself then please get in touch and share it with me!