A question I get asked a lot is where does my inspiration for writing come from? How do I think up the characters and plots for my stories?
A lot of would-be writers, and even some people who are already writing, struggle with the concept of just how to create a story. The truthful and simple answer is I don’t know either! There you go. Shortest blog ever...
Ok, ok, let me try to explain then.
I guess there are two key facets I see. One is in having the actual ideas, the other is in weaving those ideas into a killer plot. So let’s start with the ideas.
The age-old saying is that everyone has a book in them. I don’t know whether I agree but certainly for me writing seems to be a very natural process. Although I only took up writing originally as a bet I made with my wife (yes, it’s true!), I’ve fallen in love with the craft over the last few years. When I think about it, I realise now that I’ve always had the ideas for writing, sloshing around in my jumbled head, I just didn’t know it. I’ve definitely got an over-active mind, that’s for sure. My attention span is that of a newt which means I find it hard to concentrate on a lot of things. Without warning and completely subconsciously my brain often wanders off into cloud cuckoo land. It happens to me all the time. I can be having a conversation with someone and the next minute, whilst they’re still talking to me, I’ll be off writing a shopping list in my head, or thinking through what to eat for tea that night, or, more recently, what kind of horrible death I should inflict upon the bad guy in my latest novel. It’s nothing personal against the people whom I’m with at the time, it’s unfortunately just the way my mind has always been. Me being like that definitely does lend itself well to writing, I realise - finally I can actually harness my random thoughts to good use!
But I think everyone, to some extent, daydreams in the way I’ve described. Maybe not to the extent that I seem to, but we’ve all come away from an argument and within minutes thought of the killer retort that we should have said, right? Same with business meetings or job interviews or whatever. We play out scenes in our heads as to how things could have gone in the ideal world. The shower, or ‘hypothetical argument simulator’ as it’s more commonly known, is a particularly useful place for doing this I find. And really that’s all I do when I’m coming up with ideas for stories; I think of a scene and I play it in my head. It could be something that’s happened to me or something that happened to someone else, or an idea I got from watching a movie or reading a book where a particular character or plot-line went in a different direction to where I would have taken it. The inspiration can really come from anything but I play those scenes in my head, imagining the characters and the settings and the conversations taking place, and also the emotions of the people involved. All of the key elements of my stories start in this way. And remember, I'm not actualy a black ops special agent in real life and I've never killed anyone (honestly), so don't let the fact that you're an accountant or a dentist or a greengrocer or whatever deter you from writing - it's fiction, just make it up!
So that’s the ideas. But when do I start writing these scenes out and how do you go from a few individual ideas to a complex, twisting thriller plot? I’m sure every writer has a different method. Some will write everything out the minute a single idea comes to them, even if it’s 4am in the morning (which happens a lot to me!). I prefer to let the ideas stew a bit longer, cementing them in my head and, perhaps most importantly, starting to flesh the individual scenes out and putting them together into some semblance of a plot. That isn’t to say that when I first start typing out a new draft I have a fully formed plot - far from it in fact. Another hindrance to many people taking up novel writing, and something I’ve heard a lot of people who write short stories say, is that they find the prospect of writing a full-length novel daunting. They just can’t grasp all of the ins and outs of a plot in their head in one go. That’s absolutely fine, I say. I don’t imagine there are many people who can do that - I certainly can’t. Don’t feel that you can’t start writing a novel with just a couple of ideas. There’s a great quote by the legendary Stephen King: “When asked, “How do you write?” I invariably answer, “one word at a time””. It’s a tongue-in-cheek comment (I think), but really I believe it’s very sound advice too. The key to writing is simply to get started. Go with an idea, any idea and see where it takes you.
For my first published novel, Dance with the Enemy, everything began from just one scene in my head; the kidnapping at the start of the book. I don't remember now why I first thought of that, I just knew I wanted something hard-hitting and action-packed. When I first drafted those chapters I had little idea about where the story was going. I’m not even sure I had a clear picture of Carl Logan, my protagonist, in my head at that point. But I got that scene down onto the page and, low and behold, further ideas started to come to me left, right and centre as to where the story could go. Actually, if I remember rightly, it was the twist at the end of the book that came to me next and I then slowly started to craft the story around it, filling in all the gaps from beginning to end. It might sound like a haphazard approach to writing a novel but it’s an approach that seems to work for me. And actually, by breaking the story down into manageable chunks, it takes away that daunting prospect of trying to think of an entire plot in one go.
Never forget, though, that drafting is just drafting. In my mind, the pure purpose of drafting is to get the basic elements of the story down from the start to the end. Drafting is the mechanism I use to craft the plot in the first place. It’s in the editing stages that I really put the meat onto the bones of the story. As another famous writing quotes goes: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.” I’m not quite sure I agree with that. I’d like to think my first drafts show some promise! But it’s another helpful reminder to writers and would-be writers: Just get that first draft down. Worry about everything else after. The story will only get better the more times you edit that draft.
Does everyone have a book in them? Maybe. Maybe not. But you'll never know if you don’t try.