When setting out to write something you should always start with a theme, in my view. Pick something you care about. Better still, pick something other people will care about too. You may still be fixating on why Mable, your childhood crush, threw you into the friend zone and this may be the most important thing in your world but will anyone else care? Maybe they will, if you open up the subject and make it about more than just you. Having a theme gives a spine to your writing and allows you check-in with your plot as you go along – to see if it is consistent with the ideas you are trying to develop. For example, if you write a chapter about how Mable loved to walk her dog, ask yourself what relevance this has to your theme – to the thing you care about.
Draw a schematic of your plot. Write out a list of your characters. Do this on the first page of the foolscap you are using for rough notes AND put it on page one of your manuscript (where it can’t be lost but can be changed). Include a general overview of your initial idea and why it links in with your theme. Break down your outline into ideas for chapters then break these ideas into component parts which will become paragraphs. I write a first draft straight through. I don’t over think, I just keep writing until I run out of time or energy. I keep going until I literally, lose the plot. This is the most enjoyable part of the process for me, because you can let yourself go crazy. You’re going to tidy everything up later. You’re going to go back to your schematic and get yourself back on track. Or, better still, you’re going to find new tracks.
Most of the time I spend writing, I spend re-writing. Checking for simple things like the length of sentences and chapters. Check punctuation, then re-check. Commas, colons, full-stops etc, can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Compare: I want you to be like my friend, to, I want you; to be like my friend, and, I want you to be, like, my friend. Dump words like ‘very’ and ‘that’ wherever possible. Limit your adjectives and try to banish adverbs altogether. Try not to add anything to ‘said’. If Mable said something, then she said it. She didn’t utter, mutter or stutter and if she did, it doesn’t really matter – it’s what she said we care about. If she said it earnestly, cruelly or dismissively it’s more effective if we can get this across in a different part of the sentence or paragraph. Levelling her eyes at me, in that cruel way of hers, she said. ‘What are you doing on my balcony?’ Italics. Use them when referring to a brand name or sparingly when emphasising a word. ‘Why are you so cruel, Mable?’ Indentations. You may be a one or a two tab person, that’s your right. But be Consistent.
Check timelines – how could Mable have eloped to Africa when she was doing her Junior Cert the last time we heard from her? Treat each paragraph like a small movie scene. Does it stack up against the scenes immediately before and after? It’s fine if Mable leaps from novitiate to raging alcoholic, but how did we get there? Again, be consistent. If Mable never curses in Chapter 7 but is swearing like a sailor in Chapter 8, she loses plausibility as a character. Unless, of course, you have given her reason for the transformation.
Point of view if handled incorrectly can be disorientating for a reader and can lead them to be confused and therefore lose interest. How do we know whose point of view we’re reading? By seeing the action first from that character’s ‘point of view’. There was a loud crash and when he peeped out from under the covers, Mable was glaring at him from the doorway of her bedroom. She was clutching a cleaver. ‘You better not be naked under there,’ she said.
Characters are important. Great plots and themes are anodyne without great characters. Think of someone you know or knew who interests you and take bits of their personality/behaviour for your characters. Take a little from here and there; composite. Get under your characters skin until you know them better than you know real people. The stronger your relationship with your character, the more consistent and realistic your portrayal will be. Use other characters to describe your characters (think Nick Caraway on Gatsby). Use idiosyncrasies. Use human weakness or strength as their motivation. Create conflict by pitting their desires against their morality (think Hamlet). Be compassionate. Compassion turns good writing great.
When I finish a first draft I go back to the start of the book and write a one or two sentence synopsis of each chapter. I ask myself if the thing makes sense and if I have been true to my theme. Usually, I will change things around, getting rid of some bits, adding in others. When this is finished, I go back over each chapter, paragraph by paragraph. I read once off the screen and make corrections. I read again aloud, taping myself, play back and make more corrections. Finally, I print and re-read, making further adjustments with a red pen. Anything I don’t love; I get rid of. Anything doesn’t make sense has to be changed to make sense or go. After all of that, I leave it alone for a couple of weeks and work on something else. I’ll re-read then, make adjustments and send to a professional reader for their opinion. Painful though it can be, if you care about your work, you’ll welcome an experienced and objective opinion. Don’t send it to a personal connection; they’ll only tell you it’s great.
Writing is enough to drive you insane. Think of all the alcoholic writers, think of all the suicides. Think of JD Salinger and Philip Roth living for years in isolation. James Joyce was castigated and died in poverty. Oscar Wilde was crucified. Most writers are just ignored and unrecognised, arguably worse than any of the above. But if you love doing it, writing is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling activities you can engage with. You’re always learning, discovering new things, about your subjects and about yourself. Writing is a craft as well as an art. It needs to be learned. Go to a class. Watch Youtube videos. Buy books. Do it, not because you want the recognition or financial rewards, do it because you want to get better. Because you have something to say that you care about.
(c) Owen Dwyer
Owen is a prize-winning short story writer and fiction author. Aside from Number Games, he wrote the Agitator, a novel written in the first person of a repentant psycho-killer, which was published in 2003.