William Goldman’s, 'Nobody knows anything,' quote is about screenwriting, but it could equally apply to writing fiction.
I started writing my 15-million-selling CHERUB series, based on a hunch when I was an unpublished author who knew nothing about the publishing industry. Ten years later, I used all the knowledge and expertise I’d gained to create Rock War. And it flopped…
These tips aren’t the keys to success. They’re just my thoughts on some of the things I see young writers struggling with.
The tips are divided into three sections and the fact that the planning section is the longest shows how important I think it is!
1. If you get stuck for ideas, steal them...
I’m not encouraging you to copy someone else’s book word-for-word, or base a story on the exact plot of your favorite TV show.
However, ideas are the most difficult part of creating a story. There’s no such thing as a totally original idea. Most of my books were inspired by things I read in a newspaper, or saw in a movie, book, or TV documentary.
Don’t get hung up over whether your idea is totally original. The important thing is not where your idea comes from, but how well you execute the idea once you’ve got it.
2. Plan before you start writing.
When I start working on a new book I’ll spend 6-10 weeks doing research and trying to turn my initial idea into the outline of a story. I’ll then spend another couple of weeks making a detailed chapter plan that tells me everything that happens.
I’ve heard other writers describing their books as a journey and that they just start writing and see where the characters take them. I think people who do this are a bunch of dumb hippies.
At best you end up with a plot that’s not as well worked as it could be, at worst you get stuck and can’t finish the book. Your publisher cancels your contract and you end up living in a cardboard box in that alleyway between the kebab shop and the dry cleaners.
3. Give your story an even pace.
When I first started writing I used to read the stories fans sent me (sadly I get sent so many now that I don't have time…). These stories would often spend half of the opening page describing a blade of grass, and then the second half of the page would cover a thirty-year war and the destruction of the entire universe.
Try and avoid doing that!
4. Write out a chapter-by-chapter synopsis for one of your favorite books
(a.k.a.‘How come all my stories are too short?’).
I was fourteen when I first started trying to write novels, but I could never come up with anything longer than about fifty pages. There’s a huge difference in scale between a 70,000 word novel and the 1,000 word story you might be asked to write at school.
I got around this by opening up one of my favorite books, studying the plot and writing down exactly what happened in each chapter. This really helps you to understand plot twists and how good writers build characters and pace their stories.
5. Make every word count.
Spy author John LeCarre said, 'Writing is like painting pictures with words.’ It sounded a bit poncy when I first heard it, but it’s true.
If a man gets in a car, you don’t need to say: ‘The man got in the car. He buckled his seat belt and turned the key. Then he pulled up the door and started the engine.’
Nobody cares about every detail. Only use enough words to create an impression of what’s going on. You could just say ‘The man got in the car and drove off.'
Better still, pick up on one detail that creates a strong image like, ‘The driver’s waxed jacket squeaked as he buckled his seat belt.’
6. A good story has tension between characters on the same side, not just between goodies and baddies.
In my CHERUB books, Lauren and James are siblings who love each other, but also tease and get on each other’s nerves. James isn’t entirely comfortable with Kyle’s sexuality. Kerry and Bruce have a long standing rivalry. Lauren hates Jake Parker.
Imagine how boring CHERUB books would be if all the characters got along fine.
7. Think about different ways to explain complicated stuff.
There’s nothing wrong with complex plots, but if you reveal all the details in one go your story will be about as exciting as a maths textbook.
Try and think of the most interesting way for the plot to unravel. You can put the ending at the start, or use a flashback, or you can have an action sequence but only reveal what’s going on after everyone is dead.
You’ll also learn more about this if you break down and study the structure of a favorite book, like I suggested in tip four.
8. Villains are more fun.
If you plan on writing serious literary fiction you can probably ignore this tip, but having crazy and interesting villains always gives a story extra spark.
9. Bigger isn’t always better.
I occasionally enjoy going to the movies and watching some crazy over the top action movie where flying saucers blow up Big Ben. However, books are very different to films and it’s better to concentrate on creating good characters and having an interesting plot where you can’t guess what will happen next.
10. Ask people for an honest opinion of your work and be prepared to make changes.
When you were six, your mum probably told you that every piece of work you did was great, then pinned it on the fridge. But if you’re serious about improving your writing, you need find an honest critic.
It can be brutal when you spend ages working on something and someone rips it apart, but finding a person who gives good feedback can really improve your writing.
I get heaps of questions from people who’ve already written books and want to try getting it published.
It’s a complicated issue and I’m not an expert, but there are tons of good resources made by industry insiders who know a lot more about this stuff than I do. I’d start by watching some of the popular Getting Published videos on YouTube.