Thinking like a writer

Extract from: The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris

Your big gift as a writer is creativity - images bubbling from your unconscious to become the jottings you store in your notebook. Your big weapon is tenacity; the will to keep going. Many thousands of manuscripts are landing in publishers' slush piles each year; the odds of breaking out are staggering. As a writer, your only chance of success will come on the page, and you relish the opportunity to use your words.

You don't need a huge vocabulary; just use the one you have with energy, efficiency, and honesty. Let your voice come through. You do need drive, determination, and a sense of humour about your work. Find folly in yourself. Expose yourself to readers. Let them in.

Most of all, you need to stay open to ideas, insights, form, technique, rhythm - new ways of looking at writing. One way to stay open is to bring a character onto your stage and experiment. You sketch her first. You give her a past and some dreams and a place to live and a wardrobe that fits her lifestyle. As she comes on stage, you take notes. She lights a cigarette. What brand is it? Light falls across the glass-topped table to illuminate a film of dust. Is she the housekeeper? Where does the light come from? When she stands up, leaving her chair, where is she going? You won't know until you write it. For a writer, writing is the best test. Immerse yourself in the writer's life. The real writer's life; the writing.

Warming up

... Establish a writing routine to avoid slacking off. Get each writing session going by warming up. Do mind-maps, clusters, lists. Stretch your writing muscles to clear the cobwebs. Open the mind's eye. Getting into a routine makes your weekends productive. Waiting for inspiration will cost you a lifetime of wasted writing time. Start with warm-ups:

  • Make connections. Start anywhere: a person, a place, a sacred object. Write a word in the middle of a blank page. Now draw a line out from it. A person connects to death, love, money. A place connects to want, wanderlust, peace. An object connects to a person, a theme, a destiny. While these connections stretch your mind, let them build. Write quickly. Don't judge. You're trying to reach your unconscious. Don't censor.
  • Get organised. Set goals. This book gives you a course of study; expand it. Tailor your writing sessions. List your character's favourite foods. List the scenes you find most difficult. List your favourite names. Use lists to ask and answer questions. Lists are catalogues of supplies; words are your tools.
  • Writing practice. Writing practice moves you from your dark, distant cave to the road. Set the timer, put pen to paper, let go. Allow yourself to misspell words. Don't mess with punctuation. Just keep the hand moving. Writing practice is what happens before you tell a story. Use this time to search a character's back story, the details of setting, the points on your story arc. Writing practice allows you to experiment, go crazy.
  • Writing with friends. Writing with other writers brightens the dark passage ahead. Creative energy permeates your soul, surrounds your being. Groups of writers meet everywhere: coffee shops, bookshops, libraries. Get together to bounce ideas around. Join a group to share your heartache. Writing is a lonely pursuit, and sharing your passions can relax the tensions. Some groups write and then read aloud; other groups exchange pages for critique. Groups can offer any structure you like. Communicate your needs, and other writers will stimulate your mind.
  • Reading aloud. Writers are artists. The medium is language. Hearing brilliant language read aloud, capturing style bliss, releases endorphins in your brain. Take your time, read from your favourite books. Allow the language to flow from you. As you read, find your writing centre. Hear the words. Enjoy the images.


Extract from: Writing - a user's manual by David Hewson

Today most popular fiction comes with a label attached. Crime, young adult, thriller, mystery, history, chick-lit, science fiction, fantasy, romance. These interbreed so we also have chick-lit mysteries and historical crime. Then there are sub-genres such as noir, steampunk, gothic, hard-boiled, legal, police procedural, speculative and alternative history. Some of these terms have geographical limitations. American readers are always surprised to learn that the word 'mystery' means precious little to their counterparts in the UK. The US term 'cozy' - used for a crime novel that avoids nastiness such as overt violence, sex, and bad language while still managing to kill people somewhere along the way - is equally foreign to most readers outside America, though the kind of book it describes is universally popular.

Rail against the rise of the genres as much as you like, but you would be foolish to ignore it. One way or another your book will probably be defined as belonging to one of these categories, even if only tentatively. Accept that fact and start to understand how best to use it.