Category Archives: The Writing Process

Johnny Depp portrayed many of the typical writer stereotypes in The Secret Window

Dispelling Writer Sterotypes

Any job/profession/vocation has its own lore and stereotypes attached to it. Artists have paint in their hair, car mechanics are all men, scientists wear glasses, scientists are often mad. Writers are no exception, but I’m afraid I’m hear to dispel some of the most popular writer stereotypes out there.

We Eschew Technology

The first writer stereotype is that we’re antediluvian and eccentric, preferring to write everything with a beautiful fountain pen on scraps of paper that litter our homes and our pockets. But there’s plenty of us who are quite happy with a word processor and a smartphone. Fountain pens leak and scraps of paper go missing. And with writers flocking to networks like Twitter, I sometimes wonder how this stereotype is still alive.

We’re Loveably Untidy and Unkempt

Ah, those scraps of paper again. We leave them everywhere. Along with our socks and keys and other important things. Our minds are so busy, you see, we can’t remember things like our wallets or shaving or combing our hair. But we’re so terribly cute when we do it.

Nonsense. Yes, there’s plenty of us absent-minded writers (I’m one of them), but there’s nothing charming or loveable about it. We’re a complete pain in the rear and our loved ones are forever having to put up with our mess.

We Read Everything

Not necessarily. I know some writers who don’t range much further from their favourite genre or even their favourite authors. Some read nothing but non-fiction, and some barely read at all.

Having said that, I wish this writer stereotype was true. A polymathic reader usually makes a better writer, or I think they do anyway. That’s why I always read the cereal box.

We’ve Read Everything

Ah, the look of confusion and even judgement when a writer hasn’t read that book you’re talking about. And that look goes into overdrive if that book is a “classic”. But hey, there’s only so many hours in the day. We can’t read everything and, to be honest, sometimes we want to do other things. Sleeping, eating, being with our friends and family or, hey, writing our own books!

We Know the Spelling and Definition of Every Word

Some of us are terrible spellers and rely on spellchecks, beta readers and editors. Plenty of us are good with words. But we don’t know them all. So try not to be surprised when we don’t turn out to be walking dictionaries and thesauruses. Thesauri. Whatever.

We’re Always Broke

If I had a penny for every film, book and short story that depicts the penniless writer I could put paid to this writer stereotype all by myself. Most of us have day jobs. We write when we can, between earning a living and paying for things.

Ideas are the Hard Part

Ideas are easy. Sentient chipmunks in space. A man’s ashes are scattered in a park and his consciousness transfers into the plants. A woman gets away with the perfect murder but becomes depressed because she wants recognition for it. See, I just thought of those as I was writing (I think the chipmunks are my favourite).

Everyone’s got ideas. But the writing is the hard part. Turning an idea into a plot, crafting good prose, creating believable characters that the reader will love/hate/worry about/root for/etc. That’s not easy. Not at all. Which leads me to:

We Write in a Bright, Hot Flash of Inspiration

Sure, sometimes we feel like we’re tapping into something beautiful and pure and the words seem to flow from our fingertips like we’re recording dictation from the God of Prose herself. But most of the time? It’s hard work. Every writer you know has been through something like this.

Tom walked into the room

Hmm, I have a sudden and violent dislike of the name ‘Tom’.

Tom Andrew walked into the room

No, wait, it should be a woman

Tom Andrew Andrea walked into the room

Too bland. We need more insight into the character.

Trying her best to hide her nerves, Tom Andrew Andrea walked sauntered into the room

You know, I think I like Tom after all…

Trying her his best to hide her his nerves, Tom Andrew Andrea Tom walked sauntered into the room

I hate it all and I suck as a writer.

Trying her his best to hide her his nerves, Tom Andrew Andrea Tom walked sauntered into the room

And you know what? Writing is more often like this than we care to admit.

There are plenty of other writer stereotypes, but these are my favourites. What are yours? Let me know in the comments!

How to Develop Ideas

How to Develop Ideas

I’ve previously made the claim that asking writers how they come up with ideas isn’t the best question, that having ideas is easy. But once you’ve had some, what then? How do you develop ideas?

It’s a bit like opening the fridge and realising you forgot to do the shopping. You’ve got a few disparate ingredients and you need to make dinner. You’ve got an egg, an onion, a couple of mushrooms and a tiny lump of cheese. You can take the innards of the egg, trim the mould off the cheese, beat them together and make an omelette. And you take the same approach when you develop ideas into a story.

I asked people for a few random ideas to get me started (and to prove how easy it was), and here’s what I got:

I wish Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Travellers Wife author) and Steven Moffat (current Dr Who series writer) should get together and make Clare the Dr’s next companion!

I wonder what it’s like to live on a cloud and throw cloud bombs on to the humans?

Wouldn’t it be cool if it rained chocolate sometimes?

What if aliens are here, known to the government, disguised as humans to study us, or here as interstellar immigrants?

Can we develop those ideas into a story? I hope so, otherwise this post will make me look a bit silly.

First things first: we don’t own the rights to Doctor Who or The Time Traveler’s Wife so we’re going to create our own versions. (Writers do this all the time; George Lucas created Star Wars as his own version of Flash Gordon, for example). So we’re writing about a time traveller and a companion.

The key to developing ideas is asking questions about them. So why would Clare make a good companion for Doctor Who?

For those who haven’t read The Time Traveller’s Wife, Clare is the titular wife. Her husband, Henry, sometimes bounces around his own timeline. But it’s not something he can control. Why would that make Clare a good companion? Well, she knows about time travel already. Does she know more than our time traveller? Maybe she’s trying to help her husband, find answers or a cure for his own random travelling?

What about those aliens? Why are they studying us? What if what’s happening to her husband is their fault? They’ve invented time travel and they’re testing it on humans, like we test products on mice and dogs etc.

So already we’ve got a basic idea: a woman is looking for answers as to why her husband keeps disappearing into his own history. And she meets a time traveller. A time traveller who lives in clouds. (That’s why it gets foggy sometimes; it’s the time traveller sending the clouds to the ground so he can get off.) The aliens could be the antagonists; the story would be about trying to stop them.

What about that chocolate rain? Well, you could mess with the clouds to cause it to rain chocolate. Maybe the aliens seed the clouds with something to stop the time traveller interfering? That might cause it to rain chocolate (or something else; chocolate would be appropriate for a children’s book, but if we want to write this for adults we’d have to change that).

That’s a story idea. It’s not the story; we’re not there yet. There’s still plenty of questions to ask. Who is the time traveller? Why does he live in clouds? Where have the aliens come from? How does the woman meet the time traveller? And we need more ideas, too, and we need to develop those ideas into the story as it grows. But that is, in essence, how it’s done. That’s a peek behind the curtain.

So how would you develop this story? Leave a comment and let me know where you’d like to see it go.

Everyone has ideas, not just writers. Image courtesy Alan Cleaver (Flickr)

How to Have Ideas

“How do you come up with your ideas?” If there’s one question that every writer gets asked, it’s that one. And I find it rather flattering, because it suggests you’ve performed a feat that others wish to emulate. But here’s a dirty little secret: everyone has story ideas, all the time.

I’ve heard a lot of writers saying their ideas come from inspiration or a muse or some other external force. Ideas can’t be coaxed, they say, and not everyone has the ability to have good ideas. That’s a load of manure.

Ideas come from your brain. You don’t have to sit at a special writing altar and pray to divine forces. You just have to stimulate your mind. Doesn’t matter what with. Read the back of the cereal box, play a game, doodle on the back of your hand. And when you have an idea, you write it down. Doesn’t matter how good it is. Making a bad idea good and a good idea great comes later.

And the ideas themselves? Perhaps you think you don’t have them in the first place. But if you’ve ever finished any of these sentences, you’ve had ideas:

I wish the creator(s) of (a book/film/TV show) had/hadn’t…

Wouldn’t it be cool if…?

What if…?

I wonder what it’s like to…?

They should totally…

Boom. You just had some story ideas.

This isn’t a glib answer. This really is how the process starts. Using The Fey Man as an example, I would have answered as follows:

I wish Tolkien had included fairies in Lord of the Rings.

Wouldn’t it be cool if dragons could remember the future?

What if the differences between elfs, dwarfs and men are a product of magically-driven evolution?

I wonder what it’s like to spend seven years as a captive, but be released into a world where a hundred years had passed?

But you’ll have noticed by now that these ideas don’t equal a novel, or even a short story. You’re absolutely right. one idea doesn’t make a novel. These initial ideas need development. Sometimes said development will change, sideline, or even usurp the original idea. But that’s all part of the process.

I was going to use The Fey Man as an example, but I think it’d be more fun with some audience participation. So please leave a comment completing those sentences. I’ll pick one comment, and run through how those ideas could be developed into a story. So go as nuts as you like! The wackier the answers, the more fun (and the greater the challenge) it will be!

An image of a stained glass window, showing an elf, fading to a sketch; deleting characters is part of writing novels like The Fey Man

An Open Letter to Arvel, A Deleted Character

Dear Arvel,

No doubt you’re wondering why you don’t exist (insomuch as any fictional character can be said to exist). After all, you were a character in The Fey Man for many years before I wiped you from the page. Only me, and a handful of beta readers who found your name in a dialogue tag I missed, know you were ever there. And what did you do to deserve this fate? Not very much at all.

Don’t mistake me, Arvel, this wasn’t personal. I actually quite liked you. As the youngest of the Eastern elfs you had a naive air to you that humanised the elfs a little. You also didn’t really know why Neirin had brought you on his quest, and your ignorant trust in your master was quite sweet. But, initially, you had only one purpose: to die.

That meant you had nothing else to do, and I forgot you for pages at a time. So I gave you more to do. Being made a sailor by trade gave you a bigger role in Neirin’s plans and made you vital to his quest. But events in The Fey Man meant you never got to demonstrate that role. So, again, I forgot about you. Nice as you were, you were relegated to hanging around in the background.

I want you to know it wasn’t an easy decision to cut you from the novel. Because I liked you as a person, I kept convincing myself that you served a purpose. I thought you added depth to the world of The Fey Man, a further dimension to the story. I thought if I could just get one thing right, find one small tweak, that it would solve the problem of you.

But ultimately I knew you added only ambience, like mood lighting. I don’t mean to be harsh, Arvel, but you were dead weight. You were dragging the novel down, another character for the reader to remember with no reason for being there. You had to go.

Being a writer is a strange occupation; who else mourns a person who never existed? Sometimes I wonder if you might come back in some way. But I think you’ve developed too much of your own baggage. And I’m afraid your best qualities were given to other characters. Brega inherited your familial shame from the poor death of an ancestor. Judge Hullworth inherited some of your naivety. And someone else died (sorry, Arvel, even you’ll have to read The Fey Man to find out who).

So I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with almost existing, Arvel. At least your sacrifice made The Fey Man a better novel so, for that, you will always have my gratitude.

Yours,

James

Want to read the novel that Arvel was deleted from? Download your free copy of The Fey Man today!

My Writing Process

This week I’m taking part in the My Writing Process blog hop, which was recommended to me by Dave Sivers. I interviewed Dave about his crime fantasy novels here, but he also writes crime novels too. He wrote about his writing process last week, so be sure to check out Dave’s blog.

So this hop consists of four questions about my work:

1) What am I working on?

Most writers have a number of different projects on the go, so I’ve always got a few short stories and a dozen novel ideas I’m tinkering with. However my main project is an epic fantasy. The story had its genesis in the Ballad of Thomas Rymour, a Scottish folktale of a man who is spirited away to the realm of Faerie. I imagined Tom would develop a sort of Stockholm Syndrome so he would want to go back once he was forced to leave Faerie.

So I’m writing an epic fantasy in which the world is embroiled in a war between elfs and men, where dragons are enslaved and turned into weapons of mass destruction, and all Thomas Rymour wants to do is get back to his beloved Queen of Faerie. Obviously it’s not going to be easy for him.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Legends and myths often play a large role in epic fantasy, but I wanted folklore and fairy tales to influence mine. It gives the world a different flavour, as the rhythm of folklore is very different to that of mythology.

The fay themselves are different, too. I wanted to do something new with them, so their personalities are tied into the time of year. For one half they are light and fey, for the other they are dark and dangerous. A fay in summer will play a harmless prank and laugh. The same fay in winter might maim you and react the same way.

3) Why do I write what I do?

That’s a tough question. I suppose a lot of it comes from reading other books and thinking “but what about this?” So what does Thomas Rymour do and feel after he leaves Faerie? What if the “good” fay and the “bad” fay are different sides of the same coin? What would really happen when a messiah came back to us? I sit and decide what I think the answers to those questions are and then I write down what I think would happen.

4) How does my writing process work?

The process itself doesn’t begin with writing. It begins years before with random thoughts and ideas that conglomerate into a “what-if?” question that interests me. That question usually prompts more thoughts, which turn into ideas and probably some research.

But the process of writing is pretty straightforward. Each morning I sit down for an hour before work and pick up where I left off yesterday. That’s it. I don’t revise or rewrite unless I feel it’s crucial; I just write the next thousand or so words. Sometimes if the hour doesn’t go well I’ll write in snatches throughout the day. But, if I’m lucky, the hour produced some good work and I’m free to spend my time thinking about the next hour or about future projects.

I find the routine helpful; as time has gone on it needs less time to change gears and be ready to write. Doing it first thing also means that, no matter what the rest of the day is like, my writing is in the bag. It also can’t be affected by the detritus of the day!

Anyway you’ve probably heard enough from me. Time to hand over. I’m passing the hop to two fantastic authors: Ginny Lurcock and M. Latimer-Ridley!

Ginny Lurcock lives in New Hampshire with her husband whom she adores, her daughter whom she also adores, and their cat who she likes alright. Her father and his two cats also inhabit the space.

*shifty*

When not writing, she enjoys playing games (of the board and video variety) or reading to the point of obsession (she’s not an addict, she can quit whenever she wants), watching intelligent television, mindless television, sports, movies and listening to music.

Basically, she likes all the things.

And somehow, she still manages to find the time to be bored.

You can check out Ginny’s blog next week to read about her writing process. Check out Bad Blood in the meantime. It’s excellent.

Latimer (Karen) and Ridley (Rachel) are two eccentric best friends with far too many obsessions and a frightening addiction to tea. When they aren’t reading stories filled with magic, passion and adventure, they’re writing them. A writing duo for the last nine years, they’ve always dreamed of sharing their imaginary worlds and quirky characters with others.

While they live in Ireland, they would love to spend their lives travelling the world. But for now, they can be found happily wandering the internet.

Check out M. Latimer-Ridley’s blog next week to see their take on this blog hop.

In the meantime, tell me how your writing process works or about your WIP in the comments below!

Writing Lessons from Joss Whedon

With the frankly wild and unexpected success of The Avengers, Joss Whedon has never been held in such high esteem (not even when he was helming Buffy). But he’s long been the king of the geeks and I swore fealty a long time ago. He’s one of the few TV writers that I will always follow, and therefore worth paying attention to. So here’s what I think writers can learn from Joss Whedon.

Kill the one they love

One of Joss’ staples and yet it works every time. Loveable supporting character are never long for the world. And it’s always supporting characters, perhaps because they’re easier to love; it’s more permissible to have a two-dimensional, all-good supporting character. But killing this character off ups the stakes and increases the tension; if the writer could kill that awesome character, they could kill anyone!

Make dialogue a strength

Whedon’s true trademark is zippy dialogue, usually with plenty of banter but also laden with character and exposition without being dry. Dialogue is by far easier to read on the page and it’s more natural for people to talk about what’s going on than have pages of deep, info-dumping thoughts. Remember, too, what the characters don’t say; that can speak volumes.

It’s easy to get dialogue wrong, so listen to other people’s conversations and take notes (try to be discreet or you may lose some friends).

Challenge yourself

After hearing for the umpteenth time how much someone liked his dialogue, Whedon wrote an episode of Buffy where everyone loses their voice. After making his name in supernatural dramas Buffy and Angel he made the sci-fi space western Firefly. It’s easy to stick to what you know and what people love. But stretching yourself keeps your work from becoming staid and repetitive; two words no-one wants to see in their reviews!

What to know if I learnt these lessons? Find out by downloading The Fey Man for free!

5 Things To Do When The First Draft Is Finished

I’m just one or two short chapters from the end of the first draft. After seven months and 150,000 words I honestly wondered if this moment would ever come. But the end is in sight. So what now?

1. Celebrate

That’s right, I’m going to crack open a beer, sit back and congratulate myself. Hey, I just wrote a 150,000 word novel! That’s a hell of an achievement and I’m going to enjoy.

2. Ignore it

This step confuses everyone. The first draft is not the finished product. There are some substantial rewrites to perform, lots of editing and polishing. But it’s always easier to criticise someone else’s work. Ignoring it for a few months will help me forget enough of it that it will seem like someone else’s work.

3. Revisit some short stories

Until recently the market for short stories was practically non-existent. But self-publishing circumvents the need for a market and goes straight to the reader. So I’m going to pull out my old short stories and see if any of them are any good. You have been warned.

4. Write the next novel

What, you didn’t think I was a one trick pony, did you? No, while I’m waiting for my eyes to get all fresh and critical, I’ll be writing the next novel. This one is going to have fewer fairies and dragons and more vampires. (Disclaimer: none of them will glitter, shimmer, shine or sparkle.)

5. Cut up the first draft

Once enough time has elapsed I’m going to return to the first draft, read it through and then decimate it. The first draft ate everything in sight, but it’ll be packed off to the gym to work through a Rocky montage and emerge as the lean, taut second draft. Fewer adverbs, fewer tangents and fewer characters; I’ve already found two that won’t be making it and no-one else is safe.

What about you? What do you do when your first draft is complete?

Writing Lessons from George Lucas

Last week I mentioned the three last-minute books I bought before I embarked on No More Books 2012. But now I have a confession to make: I was lying.

There was one other book.

That book was Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays.

A friend of mine called this purchase the geekiest thing he had ever heard. And he’s a huge geek himself. But I don’t care. I love stuff like this, the behind-the-scenes of the writing. It’s a chance to see how other writers work, a chance to examine how they do things and to learn from them.

To prove it, here’s three things I’ve learnt from the geekiest purchase ever.

Steal From Other Stories If Need Be

“I have a bad feeling about this”, a line which ended up in every Star Wars film, was originally in the script for Indiana Jones. But Lucas felt it would work better in Star Wars, so he took it out of Indiana Jones’ mouth and placed it in Luke Skywalker’s. If you’ve an idea that would work great in one project but you originally envisaged it in another, don’t protect one and hurt both. You need to make this current project as strong as it can be.

Remove Characters With Nothing To Do

In earlier drafts, Lucas didn’t kill Obi-Wan. But he found he was making no contribution to the film after the escape from the Death Star. Alec Guinness was going to be very expensive set dressing. So he killed him off.

If a character is a good one, killing them off should feel like a loss. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a loss to the story. Sometimes it’s a gain.

Don’t Be Precious; Change Whatever You Need to Make It Work

Lucas’ first treatment was radically different to the final film. About the only things that remain from treatment to screen are an empire, a rebellion, a force and a few names. Luke Skywalker was Annikin Starkiller. Obi-wan was after a Kiber crystal. Darth Vader was a bit part.

No writer should be afraid of the red pen, even if it causes the end result to be almost unrecognisable from the first plot outline. If it’s making things better, it can only be a good thing.

(Bonus Lesson: If you’re tempted to create a Jar Jar Binks? Don’t.)

Find out if I learned these lessons by downloading a free copy of my debut novel, The Fey Man!

Which Comes First: World-Building or Plot?

I was speaking to a friend the other day who was unhappy about the way his plot outline was coming. He said his ideas were scattered, disorganised, too many elements that perhaps didn’t belong. His solution? To build the world first.


He’s very excited by this decision and who can blame him? World-building is a mammoth but brilliant task. The laws and the etiquette, the myths and the legends, the hierarchies and the cutlery; they all need to be invented and woven together into a cohesive and believable whole. But it raised a question: should world-building come before the plot or the other way around?


A world doesn’t require a plot. It’s easy to invent a land where sheep are viewed as deities and fail to provide a story about it. And the world can then help birth your plot. If the people worship sheep, what happens to someone who cooks a lamb casserole?


A plot requires a world. Sheep worshippers, for instance, requires a world with grass, a cool climate and sheep. However plot also informs world. If you want to tell the sheep worshipping story, you’ll need to provide your inhabitants with alternatives to woolly jumpers.


I always thought the chicken and egg question was straightforward (it’s obviously the egg). And I find this question just as easy: plot comes first. I can build a world based on this sheep fetish I seem to have, but what if that doesn’t gel with the story I want to tell? If I want to write a romance, this world is pretty useless. But if I want to tell a religious persecution story, I can then build a world to match.


But maybe I’m a minority. What’s your preference? Plot first? Or world-building?


(Image credit: Scaffolding, Burnlaw (Oliver Dixon) / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Writing Lessons from Da Vinci

Having been to the National Gallery’s Da Vinci exhibit, one of the things that struck me is the number of works he left unfinished. St Jerome in the Wilderness. The Adoration of the Magi. The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist. They weren’t interrupted by illness or death; they were abandoned.

Da Vinci is often used as an example of the polymath, someone who has a number of different, often unrelated skills. As a child, he would show impatience, wanting to move into another field of learning rather than focus on the task at hand. At first I thought this might explain his incomplete works; a lack of focus.

I spend a lot of time searching for information about writing and publishing. I always have. And the advice being given has changed a lot. It used to be “write”. Now it’s “write, network, build a platform, be a brand”. Writers are now required to be polymaths: writers, marketers and sales people in one.

You probably expect me to launch into something about my deciding not to divide my attention, that it’s more important to focus on my writing than try to be a writer cum marketer cum networking guru. But you’d be wrong.

A lack of focus may have not have helped Da Vinci, but being a polymath didn’t mean that he failed to finish works. It meant those he did finish were all the better. Yes, they started with paint, but then folded in Maths and anatomy and engineering. There’s no point in a platform with no book, yes, but the reverse is equally true. Trying to combine many different skills into one endeavour is not only fun but, I think, a recipe for success if it’s tempered with focus.

It’s debatable whether a jack of all trades is a master of none. But it’s certainly true that he can knock up a good painting while designing an ornithopter.