Welcome to the book blog of writer and creative writing tutor, Diane Paul.

Thanks to the publishers and kind PR people who send me books and releases about their clients' books for review. Press releases and review copies of fiction and non-fiction are always welcome. (No sci-fi, fantasy or erotica please.)

Due to the barrage of requests from self-published authors for reviews, I'm unable to deal with them all, although I'm sometimes drawn to non-fiction for the subject matter. And because I love print books, the smell, the touch of the paper and the sight of the words, I don't have an electronic reader or review e-books.

E-mail to: bookblogforbookworms@keywordeditorial.com for the postal address.

My writing website: http://www.keywordeditorial.com/

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

How do writers develop their stories

Author Cath Staincliffe guest blogs

I've been experimenting recently with different ways of developing stories. I've always recommended  my writing students to work in a structured way - knowing their endings before they begin, developing storylines; writing character biographies and knowing more about them than they know about themselves; writing step outlines, so they know what is going to happen in each chapter. That way, a novel should almost write itself. As a non-fiction author, I always spend more time on the research and expert interviews, so that I know my subject well. Then the writing is quick and easy.

Not everyone works this way and some authors find it too laborious. They're eager for the words to pour out of their heads and for the characters to make it all happen. This can often lead to a hiatus halfway through and is the reason why many manuscripts lie half-finished in a drawer. But I decided to give it a whirl one day. I'd had an idea and some characters but I wasn't happy with it. So I sat down at the computer and let my fingers do the walking. Imagine my surprise when a cast of new characters poured onto the page and moved the plot into a different direction altogether. I had such fun watching it happen, especially as it turned into a comedy and made me laugh. I have reached the expected hiatus but with time, I should be able to get beyond that, as I'm curious to see what happens in the end.

Cath Staincliffe's method

I still think some structure is needed at the start but I decided to ask a successful writer how she develops her story ideas and characters. Author and scriptwriter, Cath Staincliffe is my guest blogger this week. Cath's first book, 'Looking for Trouble' (1994) launched the start of her career as a crime writer and since then she has written many more crime novels and won several awards. She also writes scripts, like ITV's successful 'Blue Murder' series starring Caroline Quentin and the radio 'Legacy' drama series. And she's written three books based on the 'Scott & Bailey' TV series and is a founder member of Murder Squad, 'a virtual collective of northern crime writers. In a move from crime, Cath's stand-alone novels tackle various social issues, like adoption and growing up in the 1960s.

Cath's latest book, 'Half the World Away' has just been launched. It's about student Lori, on a gap year in China, who disappears, leaving her distraught parents to search for her in a country in which they're unfamiliar with the language and customs. So, how does she begin her writing process?

Author and scriptwriter Cath Staincliffe

Idea: the What If?

It begins with the initial idea, often in the form of a question:

  • what if someone asked you to help them end their life?
  • what’s it like to testify as a witness to a murder?
  • what do you do if someone is attacked on a bus?
  • how do you cope if a member of your family kills a child in a road accident?
  • can you ever forgive a murderer?
  • what if your child goes missing abroad?
These are all situations I hope never to find myself in, prospects that frighten me and I’m fascinated by what it might be like to live through that sort of nightmare.


My next step is to decide who the people are, whose story is it? Some stories will have a number of different narrative voices, others are just told from one point of view. I find it almost impossible to go any further until the characters feel real and I know their names, what they do for a living, what they look like, how they think, what their vices are, and their flaws, their secrets and dreams, how they talk. Quite often I will write biographies in note form for them, working out key dates and life events. I have to know what’s moulded them, what life has thrown at them so far to make them who they are today. Sometimes I have done mood boards too, looking at colours and physical elements and visual symbols to further differentiate characters.


Why names are important

Names are a perennial problem, they have to fit my image of the person but I try not to pick names I’ve used before and 22 books in, that’s getting tricky. I also have to avoid giving people the same initial letters or names with similar vowel patterns as that can be confusing for the reader. I’m living with a group of characters for up to a year while I’m writing and often find myself thinking about them even when I’m not actually working, thinking about what will happen to them next and how they’ll respond. It’s important to me to be as authentic and realistic as possible in the way the story unfolds. As a reader it doesn’t matter how twisty-turny or clever a plot is, if I don’t care about the characters (I don’t have to like them but I do have to have a keen interest in them) then it leaves me cold.


So once I have discovered my characters I can begin to explore that initial question. As for planning the story, I’m not someone who finds it easy to follow any of those systems that give you guidelines to structure your book. For example the whole ‘three-act story arc’ is beyond me, my brain doesn’t function like that. Or if it does then it’s instinctive and not consciously applied. I work more organically. At the outset I have a general idea of where the story will end up (I need to follow the question through to its natural conclusion, consider all the repercussions) and I’ll be aware of key staging posts in getting there e.g. an arrest, a trial. But other developments, new ideas and material I hadn’t thought of before, tend to come with the writing and the interaction of the characters.

That sometimes causes problems when I reach a point and don’t know what happens next. Then I sit down and list all the possibilities I can think of and one (the one that makes my skin tingle) will usually get me back on track. I don’t always write in chronological order but will write separate sections and then fit them together. That involves the use of a lot of post-it notes and flip chart paper. The fiction I write aims to tell a good story above anything else and so the fundamental rules of story-telling have to be met – there has to be resolution, a clear ending, an answer or answers to the question posed at the beginning. And for me it is always an adventure.


You can read more about Cath's work on her website: www.cathstaincliffe.co.uk
Twitter: @CathStaincliffe

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