It was Stephen King in his memoir On Writing, who told us in so many words that when it comes to writing, practice makes perfect. Never were truer words spoken (or written down) in the exhaustive pantheon of how-to books aimed at would-be writers. And it’s true – it takes practice to become an accomplished author, lots and lots of practice. Of course, we can’t all aspire to write as fluently or as prolifically as Mr King, but any fledgeling writer would do well to heed his words. With that in mind, let’s examine some of the more pertinent aspects of becoming a successful writer.
Decide on a Topic
Here’s an old adage: write what you know. As hackneyed as this might appear on first reading, it’s a good starting point, and quite useful when taking Mr King’s advice to heart and writing very, very often. Literature is littered with writers that drew on their own experience. Think Jack Kerouac’s genre-defining On the Road, or Hunter S. Thompson’s anarchic, drug-fuelled Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Both works inspired by the author’s own personal journey. So whether you’re a bona fide history buff, a whizz on the computer or you enjoy the occasional flutter on the horses, the more you know about your subject, the easier it is to write about. For instance, writers working for Oddschecker focus on horse racing tips, while those who enjoy music can come up with their own album reviews, even if they don’t have a specific publication that commissioned them.
Choose a Point of View
With some notable exceptions, stories are usually told in one of two ways: first person or third person. By writing in the first person an author assumes the identity of his or her protagonist – the “I” viewpoint – allowing the reader to get into the mind, the heart and the soul of the main character. Using the first person you’re able to generate an immediate bond between reader and narrator, giving your reader a glimpse into your protagonist’s deepest secrets and darkest desires.
But there are downsides to first-person writing. For one, it may limit the reader’s insight into your other characters’ thoughts and feelings, making the action feel stilted as scenes play out solely through the eyes of your protagonist. No such problems with our next viewpoint. In the third person narrative, the writer is omnipotent, flitting between characters, scenes and plotlines at will. This is great for building tension and developing character as we, the reader, are allowed to delve into the deepest recesses of each character’s heart and mind. Crime writers often use this for dramatic effect by giving us a brief glimpse into the perpetrator’s twisted world. Never more so than in Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, in which Clarice’s clean-cut FBI agent is beautifully juxtaposed with Buffalo Bill’s depraved killer. But be wary. It’s easy to fall into the trap of over-complicating your story, introducing too many characters and sub-plots and serving only to frustrate and confuse your audience. Be sure to keep your plot tight and your characters three dimensional.
Create Your Characters
Who is your protagonist? What are his or her motivations, their hopes and fears? You’ll need to answer all these questions and more when creating and developing your characters. More importantly, your readers will have to care. New writers often make the mistake of thinking the plot is the most important component when sitting down to write a novel or short story; but characters make books. If yours are insipid, one-dimensional creations, even with the most fascinating story, the most shocking plot twist, your reader will put down your book faster than a hot coal. Characters need to jump off the page, they need to live and breathe; they need a purpose, a challenge, and a past. Experienced writers will infuse their characters with a complex, often dark backstory – a literary device that drives the plot while lending true emotional depth. In Ian Rankin’s first Inspector Rebus novel, Knots & Crosses, it’s the downtrodden detective’s tenuous connection to the perpetrator, revealed through a series of intimate flashbacks, in which we gain such keen insight into his character.
Choose a Setting
The best writers are able to imbue their settings with such depth and meaning that they often become characters in their own right. What would Raymond Chandler’s hard drinking, hard-bitten gumshoe be without the brooding, seamy world of downtown LA, or John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas without its lurid titular city? Readers need to feel the rain on their face and the wind in their hair, to walk down the same streets and alleyways as your protagonist. Here, again, familiarity is your friend. Even the greats often look to their home turf to portray the necessary colour and realism – Stephen King and his home state of Maine, Emily Bronte and the turbulent, wind-swept moors of West Yorkshire.
Deliver Your Dialogue
No novel is complete without sharp, incisive dialogue. Dialogue can make or break a novel, and even some of the best have been guilty of phoning it in. Thomas Hardy, for one, was often criticised for his characters’ rather predictable, prosaic discourse. Good dialogue should drive the plot forward, providing a window into your character’s soul, while adding to the overall tone and feel of your story. Dialogue is crucial for character development too – what your characters say, what others say about them, is the very foundation of a strong, relatable character. There’s a certain kinetic undercurrent to any good dialogue; in real life, people don’t speak in a vacuum, and if you want your characters to be believable you need to reflect this. Dialogue should feel natural and fluid, so try to avoid common pitfalls, such as obvious commentaries for the purposes of the plot. A reader needs to discover the story, immerse themselves in the characters; not be brow beaten by endless stilted monologues. If your story doesn’t function without constant call-backs and lengthy explanations, you need to simplify the plot.
Above all, you need to enjoy yourself. Writing, in its purest form, should be a pleasurable experience. Whether you’re a published author or a part-time hobbyist chipping away at your very first short story, you should get as much joy out of putting your pen to paper as the millions of us around the world do cracking open the latest bestseller. And who knows, if you take Stephen King’s advice and practice, practice, practice, maybe it’ll be your memoir inspiring the next generation of would-be authors.