I would imagine if you ask half a dozen writers about how they get their ideas and how they go about putting them down on paper you would get a half a dozen different answers. For me, it changes from project to project. On the whole though, there are certain definites to my writing regime and process.
I try to be disciplined about my writing as that’s the only way it works for me. I write every weekday morning without fail from 7 a.m. until 8.30 a.m., and sometimes later when I’ve got caught up in a scene and forgotten the time. Fortunately I have a very supportive boss – at least he hasn’t sacked me yet! In these one and a half hours I re-read and edit the work I wrote the previous day to get me back into the flow and then I aim for a count of between 700 and 1000 words. If I manage more, I’m happy. If I write less than 700 – well, let’s not go there. Meeting the daily word count keeps me focused and if I wasn’t so strict on myself I would probably flounder and not get anything finished.
Then there’s the plot – to plan or not to plan? One of the questions I would like to ask all my favourite authors is “do you plan or not?” I did ask the lovely Charlaine Harris at World Fantasy Con 2013 and she laughed and said no – “what would be the fun in that?” I understand the late, great James Herbert was of the same opinion; he liked to be surprised by where his stories took him.
There are, however, a lot of people who say you can’t write coherently without planning and that there’ll be holes in the plot or inconsistencies. So far, I’ve not really had that problem, in fact I’ve sometimes gone in a direction that I hadn’t consciously thought of at the beginning, but found that when I’m reading the draft through, I’ve included clues I was unaware of. Spooky or what?
I usually start a new project with just a whimsy of an idea – a line or two maybe – and then I just write and see what happens. I have tried planning in the past, but I’m afraid my pesky characters usually don’t want to do what I tell them. And why should they? After all it is their story. Saying that, I did read one non-fiction book whose author thought that writers who say their characters take over the storyline were clearly insane. I thought oh dear, I’m obviously due to be carted off in the fairly imminent future.
That gentleman’s rather outlandish opinion aside, when I was first starting out I read all the usual ‘how to write your first novel’ books, and most of the advice was very good, but then one day it occurred to me that I was spending all this time (and money) on trying to learn how to write when actually I should be just getting on and doing it. There is no better way to learn than to have a go.
So, once I have my idea, I start thinking about the central character, the point of view and setting. I tend to write mostly in the first person; I think it’s because I like getting down and dirty with my main character. Of course it could also be that I have a secret desire to be a superhero and the closest I’m ever going to get to this ambition is through my characters.
Then comes the best bit, turning the central character into someone I really care about, because if I don’t care about him or her who else will? While I’m writing I become my character. I act out scenes in my head and my character’s reactions to other people or events as they unfold.
The same goes for the other central characters. There’s obviously a villain, but how bad is he? He should have some good qualities or at least an understandable reason as to why he is the way he is to make him realistic. Same goes for the leading lady or best friend (if there is one). If they’re too good and sweet the reader will be grasping for the sick bag and hoping bad things will happen to them. Not good. I want my readers to cry with the hero when his girlfriend, best friend, pet dog or hamster dies.
Once I’ve finished the first draft I try to leave it for at least a month before I look at it again. I then go through it making changes. I took a short story course some years ago and learned a lot that helps with my full length manuscripts. Having to work to a maximum word count is great practice for editing and I’ve found that I’m being a lot less precious about murdering my darlings to make my writing less ‘saggy’. Sometimes something reads really well, but then I realise that it may be good writing, but it doesn’t move the story forward. So it has to go. Of course, having a great editor makes all the difference. Mine has no conscience at all when killing off my carefully crafted phrases as she can see far more objectively than me when a word, sentence or paragraph is superfluous.
So that’s how I do it. It may not work for everyone, but it’s my way.
Sue Tingey‘s Marked is out now, published in the UK by Jo Fletcher Books. The sequel, Cursed is due out in February 2016. For more on Tingey’s writing and novels, be sure to follow her on Twitter and Goodreads.