Once you have an idea about what you want to write, try to find a shortcut into your chosen subject or theme. Think of it as a portal into the imagination. It can be a picture, music, photographs or written research – anything that will serve as a mental prompt.
When writing about Neleni, a character in my novel The Devil Dancers, I used to wear a particular perfume, the sort of thing that I imagined a woman in the 1950s would wear.
When it came to describing Sri Lankan food, I would open our store-cupboard and take a deep breath, inhaling the smell of all the fragrant spices that are used in that particular cuisine.
Before you start writing, it’s worth considering how you are going to retrace your steps when editing. This is particularly important if, like me, you rely on a lot of historical information to build up the background to your stories. It’s so easy when writing notes to paraphrase from a text-book then unintentionally to transfer that to your manuscript. If you do not leave a trail of references, cross-checking during editing will take much longer.
If you are relying on factual information to create a setting for a story, remind yourself that you are writing fiction, not a text book. You need to convey a feeling and a flavour of your chosen subject, not reams of fact. Remember: your most important resource is your imagination.
Here are some exercises and suggestions to start you off:
1) Describe a scene relating to your chosen subject in one paragraph (no more than 5 sentences). Short descriptive passages inserted into your story at relevant places are far more effective than long chunks of text which can slow down the pace of your narrative.
2) Get to know your characters. Write their CV. Who are they? Where do they come from? Where are they going? How do they interact with their surroundings and the other characters? What are their unique features? What do they think and why? What are their likes/dislikes? Like someone applying for a job, your characters have to convince you that they are worthy of a place in your story.
3) What is the plot? Work out a rough narrative arc, that is, a beginning, middle and end. How will the setting and characters help to give your story momentum and credibility?Don’t rely on pure narrative. Use the characters to tell the story and make them interact through dialogue. Make them tell the story.
4) Don’t worry if you cannot work out every detail in advance. Gaps and inconsistencies can be worked out at a later date. Just get something down and see where it leads you. You’ll be surprised how your story develops as you start writing.
5) Use your senses. Work in subtle details of how something – or someone – looks, smells, sounds. Don’t put all the detail in at once. Weave small elements into your story to give it texture.
6) To hone your skills, why not enter a competition. This will give you a theme and a deadline to guide your writing. Keep an eye open for local competitions run through literary festivals and writing groups. Writing Magazine also carries a lot of information about forthcoming competitions around the UK. You should also check out the Mslexia website and the BBC Writers’ Room.
Next: Writing Tips 3 – Editing