Developing that initial idea (pt. 3 – World)

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Developing that Initial Idea

So far in this record-breaking series (most hate mail generated; least shits given; and the erroneous and unexplainable best series of blogs about apple tart), we have discussed how to turn your ideas for a story into a fully developed novel and how to insert character ideas into a story.

Now comes the final part. How to turn an idea for a world into a story.

World

I have, in the past, had many many ideas for many different worlds. And, to clarify, by worlds I do not mean other planets or even fantasy worlds.

I have come up with many different versions of the world we sit on. Some with minor changes, some with major.

The problem? When a world comes to you, there is no guarantee a suitable story will arrive to slot right into it.

For example. I once had an idea for a world in which property ownership equated to having a share in the country and how it was run. Only the very elite could afford property and the rest lived in squalor.

Yet, despite this world, which I believed was strong, I could not find a story to fit within it.

I gave up, but you shouldn’t. Remember your worlds, if they excite you. If you love them, they will continue to build naturally in your head. From there you may one day find the perfect story to go with them.

And if you don’t love them? If building upon them feels like hard work? Chuck them. Writing is hard. It’s a pain in the arse. Editing is awful at times and the marketing (writing blogs like this one) is a real time drain.

The creation, and the first draft. That’s supposed to be exciting. Wonderful. So good it stops you drinking heavily for a few days.

If the fun bits aren’t fun… stop right away. Do something else.

it isn’t worth it.

Conclusion Ideas come in all shapes and sizes and this series has looked at them through three broad categories. But, in each case, I guess the advice is the same.

When an idea comes to you. If a story within it is not immediately apparent, play around with it, build on it, see where it takes you. Let it sit in the back of your mind while you do other things and allow it to grow naturally.

Do not stress about it. Do not let the fun drop.

Just like with gambling. When the fun stops. Stop.

After all, we’re never going to be published, so we might as well enjoy the crap we’re churning out.

Developing that initial idea (pt. 2 – Character)

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Developing that Initial Idea
Since the first blog in this series dropped, I’ve been getting a lot of mail through the letterbox from ardent fans, begging me never to write again.

Surprising though this is (how do they know where I live?) It’s just the motivation I need to keep going. After all, it was my mother’s pleading that I never pick up a pen again after my first short story that made me determined to be a writer.

So this week, we’re going to talk about character… and how to take the initial idea and turn it into a novel.

I described getting an idea for a story as a “gem” in part one because it is the easiest element to work with. However, getting an idea for a character is by far the most enjoyable way to start off.

Characters are everything. They are what carry any novel, film, comic, or whatever. You can have an intricate, marvellous plot but, without engaging characters, no one is going to give a shit.

A great character can almost stand on his own, but he does need a story. Unless you are planning to hand out character sheets and be done with it. That can be a problem. Sometimes it can be tough to find a story that suits the character, or which fits perfectly.

This is particularly challenging with brilliant characters. Ones you are obsessed with. A few characters are living up in my head I’ve never been able to do anything with, because there isn’t a story good enough to justify their deployment, and I don’t want them wasted.

It wouldn’t be fair.

Consider great villains. They’re a one and done deal (usually), so you don’t want them to be wasted on a bad story and other characters that don’t match up. A lot of the time, this is what leads to great character ideas being left on the shelf.

But you can take steps towards starting the story forming process. For example, think about what type of character you have. Are they the main character? A wise sage? A love interest? You need to decide the part they need to play so you can build a story around them.

I tend to come up with antagonists because I find them the most interesting. From here I’ll assess what they want to achieve. Once I have that I can start building a character that opposes them, that wants to stop them.

This can work the other way too, and having the antagonist or protagonist first puts you in a great position. Take the first, flip them to find the second, and decide what the main conflict will be. Once you’ve done this, you have the central premise of your novel, without having to do much thinking about a story at all.

From there, you just need to build, turn it into a solid plan, and start writing.

As with story though, don’t stress too much about it if it just isn’t working. Some characters will seem brilliant at first, but won’t fit into any story. And while you should always try your best to make it work, you won’t be doing yourself any favours by forcing a square peg into a round hole.

Sometimes, you have to drop your babies entirely, and just go with something that makes sense.

R.I.P. all those great characters that never made it…

Developing that initial idea (pt. 1 – Story)

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Developing that Initial Idea
Ideas come at writers in different forms. A new character will hit you harder than the boyfriend of that cute blonde you’re checking out. A storyline will appear faster than that rash after your last night out. A new world will spread around you like the blood of that hooker you murdered “by accident”.

I’ve had thousands of ideas over the years, each fitting into one of the above categories. So let’s look at them one by one, and how you can build your novel/ series/ erotic comic book around them.

First up…

Story

Getting an idea for a story out of nowhere is a bit of gem. People will tell you character drives story and those people are right, but you still need a story. In much the same way people drive cars, but what use is that if you don’t have one? I find it’s often hard to know what characters you need without the story in mind.

Still, it can be difficult to progress. You might have an idea for one scene, and your job is to expand this in each direction. Did you think up an ending? Well, how the bloody hell did you get there? A beginning? Where do you go from here? Or somewhere in the middle… Christ, now you have to go backwards and forwards.

Initial story ideas take thought but don’t let them mess you around. Play with them in your mind, write a few things down if it helps, test the story idea. Where does it begin, where does it end? This doesn’t have to be in any great detail, but you need to know if this story idea has strength enough to carry over an entire novel or even a short story.

Test that bitch and, if it keeps growing, if it makes sense, act on it. Drop characters into it, decide they’re shit, throw them away, and start again. Build your world around it. If the story works, this won’t be too difficult.

And, if it doesn’t stand the test? If it won’t grow? If you get frustrated trying to put characters that make any sense into it? If that world won’t thrive?

Throw that fucker away!

Stories are like attractive flirts in a bar. If they’re hot enough, you’ll be desperate for the relationship to go places. The trouble is, sometimes it won’t, and you can spend years chasing down something that is never going to work until you end up so frustrated you turn into a violent alcoholic.

I know I’ve been there.

Don’t let this be you. Take the story, let it excite you. Try to flesh it out, but if it doesn’t work, don’t let it kill you because another idea will come and, sooner or later, it’ll be a winner.

Just gotta be patient.

Next up… Character

3 ways a professional writer is more than just a writer

Calling a professional writer a writer is like calling an MP a liar. Sure, lying is a big part of what they do, and their ability to lie well is probably the reason they’re an MP in the first place. But there’s a lot more to being an MP than just lying, like making terrible decisions, evading taxes, and spending the tax payers money on prostitutes.

Writing is only one part of being a professional writer. That’s why, if you’re trying to go down the writer route, you need to stop thinking of yourself as a writer and start thinking of yourself as a business where you’re the boss, the management, the staff, and the outsourced cleaners. You do it all, without help. And it is hard.

Still want to give it a try? Here are the key departments you’ll be running.

(Note: This article is mainly aimed at those who want to self-publish. Those looking to go the more traditional route, please see 2006, when publishing houses were still relevant.)

Sales & Marketing
So you wrote a 70,000-word novel. Congratulations, you’ve completed the easy bit. Now try writing 140 characters one or two times a day to promote yourself on Twitter. Not so easy.

Yourself? Yes, unless you’re planning to go all Harper Lee on us – writing one book, waiting fifty years until it has reached legendary status in the literary world, then releasing another one – it’s yourself you need to be promoting, not your books.

Writing an endless stream of Tweets, posts and blogs that essentially all just say “Read book X because it’s the shit” will interest no one, and get you as many books sales as family members you have – who love you (none). Write about things that will interest your audience, write often, and write as yourself. If people like you, they’ll be much more likely to buy your books.

Intensely unlikeable? Consider an alter-ego (like I did), at least until you’re rich and famous.

Distribution
Technically, this is the easy bit but worry not; you can still get it wrong. With self-publishing, it’s far harder to get your books in the big stores, but that’s okay because they recently invented something called the internet.

Sites like Amazon (Kindle Direct Publishing) make it incredibly easy to turn your manuscript into an eBook, and it doesn’t need to cost you a penny because they take a cut of each book. You’ll even take home a generous proportion of any sales, far more than you’d get from a traditional publisher.

Be careful though. With the rise of self-publishing came the rise of money grabbing dickheads who will abuse your love of your book to get rich quick. NEVER go for a self-publisher that wants money up front for X quantity of books. It isn’t necessary. Want your books as hard copies? Go with Createspace (also Amazon) and you can without paying for any number of books.

Finance
If you get lucky like me, no one will ever want your books, but sometimes bad things happen. Your book may take off (especially if you have followed steps one and two and are actively promoting your book and distributing it online rather than from a cardboard box in your back garden.)

If a book does take off, you are suddenly going to have an extra income, and extra income means tax forms and giving money to the dreaded Government. Of course you can always not pay tax on these extra earnings, but if you do take this route, there’ll be no complaining when you fuck up the bottom of your car on a pot hole the Government couldn’t afford to fill because of your tax evasion.

Got it?

Conclusion
Writing is fun, but because you’re not allowed to make money from something that’s fun, the world’s gone and heaped all sorts of other crap on professional writers, and a lot of people fall down stepping up from writing to working.

But, if you want to be a professional author, and quit your job dusting at the library and getting shouted at by Maggie for taking a sneak peak at the new Stephen King during work hours (guilty) then it’s time to open up Author Incorporated, and get businessing.

Should I plan my novel?

The question asked and answered a billion times. Everyone has thrown in their three pence on this, telling you what to do. You don’t need any more advice. Luckily, that’s not what I’m about.

I don’t care about you; I’m here to talk about me.

The Then:  Thrill of the Plan

In my two decades of writing, I have always loved chucking together a plan. In the past, I used to plan out whole series from start to end. Not all books but TV shows, too. I’d write a synopsis for each episode over what would have been years and years of TV.

I even, and I can only admit this because Mark Ayre is not (spoiler alert) my real name, wrote the synopsis for ten years of a soap. Worse, I had long lists of characters; who was currently in the soap, who left, who came back. I kept track of everyone’s ages, marital status, children, etc. etc. It went to about 100 pages in the end and ran weekly, so I wrote about 500 episodes.

Sad, right?

But whatever, I love doing it. I get a thrill from making up stories that aren’t sullied or ruined by, you know, actually writing them. Because there is a pure joy in the creative process until writing and editing come alone to batter it to death.

The Problem with Planning

So planning is great, but there’s always a downside. My new novel, for example, Poor Choices, is outstanding. (Read the free sample if you haven’t, subtle plug). But by the time I reach edit 6, two years in, and I’ve read each chapter at least 20 times, it doesn’t even read like a book anymore. It’s like homework, and that’s no fun.

So my problem with planning was that it brought forward the unenjoyment. As any writer will tell you finishing a first draft can be bloody difficult. And, with editing to follow, you want that entry point to be as easy as possible.

My personal opinion is that you’re best off getting through it as fast as possible. Getting it down. Getting it done. Even working full time, I’ll lay down 5,000 words a day on a weekday and twice that on a Sunday (I don’t work Saturday’s alright? Leave off). I aim to get any first draft done in four weeks and often complete it in half that.

The problem is, planning stagnates this process. A real beauty of a first draft is having a general idea and flying through it. You sit down, you type, and you let the words flow. It’s exciting, and it drags you along with it because you aren’t sure how it’s going to go.

Can the finished product be a mess?

Fuck yes.

Is that a bad thing?

*shrugs*

The Reverse

It can be. I guess it would be okay if you were a full-time writer, but there is a significant time commitment to fixing first drafts. That’s any first draft, but it goes double or triple for the unplanned ones. So while you may sacrifice the thrill of that first draft, you’ll save yourself some time at the business end.

With Poor Choices, I tried to plan in a few different ways, with no luck. In the end, it went off on a tangent from my index cards anyway, and that’s another thing. Sometimes you will plan, and you’ll sit down to write, and the story will grab you and drag you away. You’ll kick and scream and try to pull back to the plan, but it won’t let you. That’s the way writing works. That’s part of what’s great about it, and also part of what sucks. With Poor Choices, I went a mile away from my plans, and it was crap anyway. I had to rewrite the whole thing pretty much from scratch.

That takes time. Time I could have saved with a more efficient plan. Perhaps.

The Now: The Sensible approach

So, what side have I come down on? The side of I want to give planning a try so long as I’m working full time. My latest project has several threads to draw together, and I want a proper, reliable roadmap to follow as I go into it. Will I stick to it religiously? No chance. But I think it will give me a stronger first draft to work with, and save me a hell of a lot of time in the long run.

The Rub

In the end, planning isn’t my favourite way to write. It slows down the first draft and takes away some of the thrill of it. But, balancing a full-time job and writing, it’s certainly the most practical way to do it.

And hey, maybe this will work out so well I’ll want to plan everything from now on.

I’ll let you know.

3 steps to making a success of writers groups

Having been banned from at least three writers groups, I know a lot about their value. Today I would like to discuss how you can use (/ exploit) them to further your career.

But you’re thinking: “Mark, why would I join a writers group? Writing is a solitary art and, if the rest of the writing world is like me, they’ll all be awful humans I wouldn’t want to meet.”

Well, you’re right about one thing, writers are all like you. Awful. And chances are you won’t like a single one of them – I know I don’t.

But humour me a moment, and check out my three steps to making writers groups work for you.

I think I’m going to change your mind.

Step one: quell that loneliness

Let’s face it, your friends are sick of you. Your parents disowned you after you forced them to read that last piece of crap you called a novel. And you split with your girlfriend when she described your typewriter as “ridiculously inefficient”.

Luckily, there are fellow suffers who understand your plight. They’re called “Writers” or “The Enemy” and, while they can’t provide long term comfort (we’ll get to that), They can momentarily fill the gap in your heart left by all the people you used to know.

So find a group. Pray on the loneliness of its members to get some conversation and a bit of that sex stuff (without paying, for once). Then, when you’re getting sick of being surrounded by so many writers (usually between ten and twenty minutes), move on to step two…

Step two: steal ideas

We all know ideas are hard to come by, and yours are getting shitter by the day.

Fear not though, because many heads are better than one.

Once you’ve finished sleeping with your fellow writers, it’s time to try something radical. Listening to them. This will be boring, and at times you will want to fall asleep or hurt someone, but persevere. Sooner of later they’ll start talking about their latest ideas, and you’ll take notes.

Now, next break in the conversation, make an excuse and leave. Or just run. Go home and start writing. Take the ideas, improve them if you have the skill (which you probably don’t if you’re resorting to thievery). Churn out books on the back of these fantastic brain gems and never stress about devising an interesting plot again. That is grunt work, and you are above that.

And if they accuse you of plagiarism?

Not an issue, because you’re ready to move on to step three.

Step three: take out the competition

Do you know how many people are trying to become a writer? A study in 2014 by the Writy Institute found it to be around 8 billion, and that number has risen by at least 4,000% each year since.

That’s a lot of competition, and odds are most of them will be much better than you.

So what are you to do? Keep improving until you’re good enough to play with the big boys. Not a chance. Do you know how many authors can live off their writer’s earnings alone? Seven (and J.K. Rowling is two of them)

You don’t have to be a mathematician to know those odds aren’t good.

That’s where you turn to your writers’ group.

You’ve come in, shagged them, stolen from them, and they’re probably pretty pissed off with you right now. So make it up to them with cookies and coffee, because everyone loves cookies and coffee.

Then sit back, smile on your face and a dancing joy in your heart as they drop around you, unable to jot down another word.

If it’s not clear, you poisoned the coffee and cookies.

You killer.

And once that’s done?

Repeat… again, and again, and again. Until you and I are the only writers left.

And once we reach that point, you’d better watch your back.