Writing Tips by Colette Caddle
Here are some ideas that I hope may be of help to the budding authors out there! Check in from time to time, I will update it if I have any fresh tips for you.
I must stress, this is based on my own personal style and experience and by no means the only way of doing things. For example, many writers pick up ideas listening in on conversations at the dentists or in a café but I must be hanging out in the wrong places because that hasn’t happened me yet!
All my stories have come out of my head but no doubt they have all been influenced by events in my life or the world around me; after all, there is no such thing as a totally new story.
How I work
I first come up with a backdrop for the story. I usually try to find one that will allow me to bring in characters of different ages and backgrounds. For example:
- Too Little, Too Late - restaurant
- Shaken & Stirred - conference management company
- A Cut Above - cosmetic surgery clinic
- Forever FM - radio station
- Red Letter Day - 2nd hand fashion boutique
- Changing Places - estate agent
- The Betrayal of Grace Mulcahy - interior designer
Then I come up with a small cast of characters – 6 at the most. The characters will be two dimensional and flat at this stage but I find it helps as the book progresses to have given each of them a CV. Each character is given a look, a birthday, I decide what they like to eat, drink and what their per hates or bad habits are. I’ll be almost halfway through the book before I really get to know these characters but doing their CVs helps me to be reasonably consistent. Now I should stress that these characters will change as the story develops and I will usually have to revise my descriptions of them as they assert themselves.
The next thing I come up with is a scenario. Yes, that’s right, a scenario as opposed to a plot. In other words I give these characters a situation and then sit back and see how each of them will react to it.
In Too Little, Too Late, my protagonist gets the opportunity to buy the restaurant from her intimidating boss but the increase in her responsibilities starts to take a toll on her relationship with her boyfriend.
In Shaken & Stirred, the chief executive of a conference management company has a heart attack and as a result his wife has to take over the running of the company, another character is promoted and a new employee is hired.
So it’s from these situations that the book develops. Though I usually do a rough plan for my books, I HAVE NEVER YET ACTUALLY FOLLOWED ONE.
As the characters establish themselves, they take over and I just follow. My husband laughs at the number of times I emerge from my office saying ‘I didn’t see that coming!’
I am not alone in this. It is the same experience with most authors and a sign that the plot is going to work. This idea that authors work to a fixed plan to produce a commercial success is a fallacy. If it were that easy, everyone would do it.
It takes me the guts of a year to produce a book. 4 to 5 months to get the basic story on paper and another couple of months to re-write before I let anyone see it. Then it goes to my agent, my editors and my mother and with their input it takes another couple of months to edit and fine tune.
Though I do believe writing is a talent and not something that can be learnt, it is of course possible and necessary to learn techniques that turn a rough, raw piece into a polished and gripping novel.
Here are for me, some of the basic things you need to remember:
If I had a Euro for every time someone says to me ‘I’d love to write but I just don’t have the time’, I would be able to retire! Its an excuse, folks, there’s always time. Even when you’re sitting in traffic or outside the school waiting for the kids, you could be scribbling away. Some of our most successful authors were still in full employment when they started writing. Yes, its hard, but you don’t get nothing for nothing. Be under no illusions, writing is a job like any other but if it’s the right career for you, it will be a labour of love.
The best way to learn about the craft of writing is to read and write at every opportunity. Reading, good books and bad, will teach you a lot and don’t attempt to write in a genre unless you have read it extensively and understand it.
What do I write about?
My advice here would be to write about something that you’re really interested in. You will be comfortable writing about something you know and enthusiastic because its something you care about and that enthusiasm will carry you a long way. Don’t get hung up on detail, there will be plenty of time to do that later.
This is the bit you don’t want to hear! Being your own boss is a mixed blessing. You have to learn to be disciplined, set yourself targets and more important, stick to them otherwise that dream of being an author will remain just that. I find setting myself a target of 2,000 words a day works well. Usually it spurs me on and I get a kick out of exceeding the target!
What I mean is don’t try and write in a voice that you think will work better, or that you think will be more commercially viable. Its YOUR voice that will make this book different and special and readers can spot a fake a mile off. Similarly, don’t try and write to a formula that you think the audience want– it will be stilted and the reader will see through it.
Show don’t tell
This is one of the first things you will learn on any writing course. There is nothing worse than an author telling you all the background of a story rather than letting the reader learn it through how the characters interact and react. Obviously there will be times when you have to Tell but finding the most subtle way to do it is all important.
The amount of research you do will depend on the type of book you’re writing but regardless, its paramount to get your facts right. Having said that I would add a word of caution; remember the story comes first and any background information should be exactly that, background. The internet is an excellent resource that saves the author a lot of time and leg-work but don’t forget the sources closer to home. Use family, neighbours and friends – they will provide you with good, accurate information with a personal twist. For example, in my book The Betrayal of Grace Mulcahy one of my characters works in a Montessori school. I asked the girls who work in my son’s school to complete a questionnaire for me and their help was invaluable. If I’m ever asking anyone about their job, I always ask for their anecdotes and personal comments too – I’ve got some of my most useful snippets that way!
Don’t write about real people!
It simply won’t work in fiction.
Plan the timeline
Figure out from the start what time period your book will cover – is it Spring when the book opens? Are there going to be flash backs? Do ages and timeline correspond? It has been known for some poor female characters to go through a two year pregnancy!
Character names/Place names
Be careful with names sounding too similar – a Maggie and Mary or a Pat and Paul in one book can get confusing. It’s something I usually address when the book is almost finished and in every book I’ve written so far, I’ve changed some of the names of people or places.
Who’s telling the story?
If you decide to write in the first person remember that you will only ever be able to give one viewpoint. If you write in the third person, it’s best to only change narrator with a change of chapter. Changing viewpoints from one paragraph to the next is both confusing and distracting. The reader shouldn’t have to waste time trying to figure out who’s talking.
Once you start writing don’t get hung up on the wording of a paragraph or a page – there will be plenty of time for that later – its called the editing process.
Keep it simple
If you want to write popular fiction then always remember that the story must come first. It’s nice to have some descriptive passages and colourful prose but your reader will start to flick if you go on too much. Keep your words small, your sentences short and your dialogue natural and your story will roll along at a pace that will have your reader on the edge of his or her seat! Stephen King would have you steer clear of adverbs at all costs but I think that’s probably asking too much. Suffice to say, careful and limited use is advisable. You don’t want too much of ‘she said, bitterly’; ‘he smiled nervously’; ‘Mary sighed, wearily.’ If you’re doing a good job then it should be clear that she was bitter, he was nervous and Mary was weary! Back to the ‘show don’t tell’ argument.
If you are seriously considering writing as a career, I highly recommend Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing’ as a sound investment. He doesn’t pull any punches and you will have a very good idea by the end of it whether or not this is the career for you. I pass on all my books – and I buy a lot – but no one gets my dog-eared copy of this great book. I first discovered it when I was in the middle of writing book three and going through a dry spell. My then editor was also Mr King’s editor and she recommended this book. Not only did it motivate me to go on and finish that book, but I dip into it whenever I’m in a lull or lacking motivation and when I put it down, there’s always a smile on my face.
Writing a book should be as enjoyable as reading one, if not more so. Remember if you find it hard going or boring, so will the reader.
Finding an agent should be your first step on the road to getting published. Look for someone who promotes the kind of book you’re writing, send your book to the agent of an author you admire or whose style is similar to your own. I don’t think you should waste time and money sending a whole manuscript to numerous agents and publishers. They only need to read a few pages to decide whether or not you have what they are looking for. Send a few chapters, a synopsis of what the book is about and a profile of the main characters. Also, tell them a little about yourself.
If you do manage to get taken on by an agent it doesn’t necessarily mean overnight success. They must then take it to publishers they think might be interested and depending on the market place and a number of other factors (including luck!) you may or may not get a deal.
Also, sadly, only a small percentage of authors get the large advances you read about in the newspapers. At the moment, it’s a tough market and there are more books out there than there is shelf space.
On the up side, I do believe a good book will always come through. Joanne Harris of Chocolat fame had written several excellent books in relative obscurity. Then her novel, Chocolat was made into a movie and she was catapulted to fame. Now all of her books are bestsellers and she’s receiving the accolades she so richly deserves.
I hope these notes have encouraged you rather than disillusioned you and you’re reaching for a pen and paper or your laptop right now! Whatever you do, whatever you write, do it for your own entertainment, enjoy yourself and there’s a good chance you’ll come up with something that others will enjoy too. Good luck!
P.S. If you have any comments or will simply like to contact me on any aspect of these tips, simply click here and complete my feedback form. Thanks