Written by Julie Mayhew

Arts

How to write a book: part two

Loads of us want to write a book and yet so few of us ever get it done. We’ve asked the excellent author Julie Mayhew for some tips. In this second instalment, she talks the importance of having a plan.

desk with manual typewriter
“Do you plan your story before you begin, or just dive in and start writing? This is the most frequently asked question at author Q&As.

Sorry, I lie. The most frequent question, especially when A-list names are on the panel, isn’t usually a question at all. An audience member will grab the microphone and launch into a five-minute monologue about their life/loves/cats/health/500-page thesis on toenail clippings, and then possibly tag a non-question on the end.

But I digress. Which proves I should perhaps embrace planning a little more myself.

There is no right or wrong answer to the planning question, no matter your genre. I have met crime writers who pin meticulous, colour-coded chapter plans above their desks, and I have also met those who like to wing it, to keep the story fresh. They are as surprised as you are when it comes to whodunnit.

To work out your best approach, I ask you to consider how you like to holiday. If I were to book you an all-inclusive trip – flights, transfers and meals sorted, planned excursions organised for every day – would you rejoice? Or would you rather hear, “Hey, here are some cheap one-way flights to Guatemala! Just freestyle it from there”?

I sit somewhere in the middle – in both travel and writing. I don’t want to be trapped on a coach day-in-day-out, jostling for space among the selfie-sticks, but similarly I don’t want to sleep rough at La Aurora International Airport.

My method is to sketch out the key plot points I want to hit before I start, while accepting that I’m very happy to go off-map if I spy something more interesting along the way.

“Yes, your book is an action-packed zombie apocalypse set within the hierarchy of your local Women’s Institute, but is it, at its core, a story about loyalty versus individualism, or the suffocation of gender roles?”

A good exercise before you sit down to write is to sum up your story in one sentence. The ‘elevator pitch’, if you want to get all Hollywood about it. This is much, much harder than it sounds. Even after I’d finished my first novel Red Ink, and even after it was published, I found myself mumbling at press events about how it was sort of about grief, maybe family myth too, kind of.

The one-sentence plot for my latest novel, Mother Tongue?

When 18-year-old Dasha Ivanova loses her little sister in a terrorist attack she goes on a desperate search for a new life, believing everything will be all right once she gets to Moscow.

That only took me three hours. High-five me, guys,

Your one-sentence plot can be extremely clarifying and useful to return to when you lose sense of where you’re heading at the halfway mark. Even more clarifying is to write down a second sentence explaining what the story is about.

Yes, it’s an action-packed zombie apocalypse set within the hierarchy of your local Women’s Institute, but is it, at its core, a story about loyalty versus individualism, or the suffocation of gender roles? Is it a neatly formed metaphor enabling you to discuss your conflicting feelings about homemade jam?

Knowing what your story is really about gives it solid foundations. It stops it feeling light or limp. It avoids a soggy bottom. When you hit that moment – and we all surely do – when you look up bleary-eyed from your monitor to ask, “What the fuck am I trying to say?” – that sentence is your response.

To keep yourself powering through your book, I would also suggest posing yourself a question to answer. Think back to essays at school (‘Henry VIII was a bit of a dick. Discuss.’) and mould your own essay question that relates to the story you’re telling. For Mother Tongue I asked myself, if you leave a difficult home, do you leave your problems there or do they travel with you? A question keeps you hungry for angles to explore.

You are under no obligation to provide a definitive answer at the end of your book. If you’re used to writing business reports, online reviews or journalistic articles, you will feel a compulsion to give the reader everything – the what/who/when/where/how and the suitable emotions to feel in response, all neatly tied up with a ribbon.

Resist. If you do all the work for the reader, they sit back and switch off. Leave well-calculated gaps where they can insert themselves into the story. This is, of course, is something you can never entirely plan for – the way a reader chooses to respond. That part is always a one-way ticket to Guatemala. But it’s interesting, I promise you.

Julie is the author of three novels – Red Ink, The Big Lie and Mother Tongue, out this month.
Read part one of her advice
here.

@JulieMayhew

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Written by Julie Mayhew

Julie Mayhew writes radio dramas about love and novels devoid of romance, most recently Nazi alt-history The Big Lie.