Kate Thompson shares ten writing tips to take you from first page to final draft.
Despite writing four novels I still feel like a newcomer, particularly in the genre in which I write – saga – with prolific authors like Annie Murray and Margaret Dickinson. Margaret published her 25th novel this year, so when I look at remarkable writers like that, I realise I still have a long way to go before I can call myself experienced – which leads on to my first tip.
1 – Make friends with writers
Being part of a community of writers is a vital tool to learning. I look at the careers of writers I admire to try to understand the key to their longevity. Read blogs and interviews with writers you like, note down their tips, connect with them on Twitter and Facebook; look at the way they interact with their readers on social media.
2 – Research, research, research
Whatever era or setting you choose to place your characters in, devour all the sources of information you can find, whether it’s books, films, plays, first-hand testimonies, archives, newspapers of the time or oral recordings (wonderful to hear the nuance of language). It doesn’t matter if only two lines of research from a morning spent in an archive make the final cut, it still informs your overall knowledge, and I often find research is a great catalyst for inventing characters.
3 – Bum glue
For at least the first half of the book, my characters are strangers to me. It’s like making awkward small talk at a party. After speaking with many other writers (see point one) I have discovered that for many, this is entirely normal, so stick with it. Eventually the magic and flow will come and until it does, persist. Another writer friend visualises painting bum glue on his posterior to get him stuck to his seat! Lots of writers swear by Pacemaker, an app which keeps you on track. I set myself targets by chapter, ie a fortnight per chapter. When the flow kicks in and your characters come alive, this is a glorious moment. Then I often find my characters take on a life of their own and do things that are unexpected to me, which leads me to my next point.
4 – Flexibility
Some writers prefer a rigid structure, and they like to know what is going to happen before they start. Others just have a rough outline. I’m somewhere in between. I start out with a timeline, a cast of characters and a feeling for the narrative arc, but I think it’s important to have the flexibility to be able to change course, bring in new characters, downplay others or simply delete vast swathes if it’s not working. Writing means working within a disciplined structure in order to achieve your deadline, but allowing the organic and fluid nature of creativity to flow.
5 – Word library
I keep a word library on my computer, of words which I love, which interest and intrigue me, or old-fashioned phrases or things I’ve overheard at the bus stop. It all goes into my word library for future use.
6 – Mood board
Before I start a new book, I compile a mood board on a big cork board next to my desk. For instance, my new book is set in the Bryant & May match factory in Bow, so I had a 1939 street map of Bow, photos of the match girls spilling out of the factory at the end of their shift, photos of old match boxes… Anything that inspires me gets pinned on it. It’s a great way to visualise your book’s setting, especially when you’re not feeling particularly inspired.
7 – Touch, taste, feel
Jilly Cooper said recently on Desert Island Discs that she employs all the senses when writing. If you’re struggling with a scene, try to weave in the smell, taste, the sound and the touch of something to really help bring the scene alive. Sarah Waters is a wonderfully visceral writer whose use of all the senses means she has her readers walking right with her down a stinking cobbled back alley in 19th century London.
8 – Be aware of your shortcomings
Mine is a tendency to be over-descriptive, with too many adjectives, and my stories can be slow to start, so I write reminders of this on Post It notes on my computer.
9 – Characterisation
In saga, we often have a strong woman as the central character, whom the reader can empathise with from the first page. All readers can reach into their past and recall a strong woman, be that a nan or auntie, and to be able to connect them with a woman of real strength is a wonderful incentive to keep picking up your book. If it helps, write down a brief biography of your character before their story starts, so you have a really rounded sense of who they are.
10 – Social media
Love it or hate it, it’s here to stay and it’s essential that authors connect with it and use it to their advantage. I treat my author Facebook page like a community. Post regularly, interact, be curious, ask questions and post giveaways, news, events, links to videos, favourite photos or anniversaries. The other day, I came across a wonderful photo of a group of apron-clad matriarchs gossiping on the doorstep. ‘What are they talking about?’ I asked. The feedback to that question was amazing, with people laughing and imagining the most creative and witty stories. Facebook especially gives you access to the mind of your reader and an insight to what makes them tick, as well as their hopes, fears and loves. Market researchers used to pay thousands for those kinds of insights.