Welcome to week two of Write That Book. This week we will talk a little more about ‘genre’ and also ideas and where they come from.
If you missed week one (and I’d recommend reading it before you go any further – you can find it on this blog), we talked about motivation, making the time to write, and ‘genre’, or the kind of book you’d like to write, for example: romance, romantic comedy, family/relationship drama, historical fiction, saga, crime, thriller, science fiction or fantasy. These are pretty broad genres and within each one there can be many sub-genres, like paranormal romance (Twilight). This course is useful for anyone who would like to write a book, but is most especially suited to those who are interested in writing popular fiction. I have published ten popular fiction novels, the latest being The Shoestring Club (out on 1st February in Ireland, UK in September), as well as many children’s books, so it’s a genre I know well.
While you are thinking about book ideas this week (more on that in a second), I would also advise you to get reading the best novels in your chosen genre, the award winners, the ‘word of mouth’ books your friends and family recommend, and the bestsellers. This may sound like a contradiction - but most great writers are also great readers. And where better to discover what works and what doesn’t work than between the covers of your favourite books? Stephen King says in his excellent book On Writing: ‘If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write’.
While reading, pay attention to the types of characters, the dialogue, the use of descriptive passages (if any), the length of the book, the style of writing. Is it written in the past or present tense? Is it first person (I woke up), or third person (Sarah woke up)? Let the books that you read inspire you but don’t try to imitate them in your own work unless you are writing fan fiction (fiction directly influenced by a particular writer, not for publication and mostly posted online on special fan sites). It is most important to be original and to have an original writing voice. It is your own unique writing voice, like your own speaking voice, that will make your book stand out from the crowd. More about voice later in the course.
Ideas and Inspiration
‘Where do you get your ideas?’ This is the most common question that writers are asked. It’s a difficult one to answer, as ideas come from all sorts of places: from magazines and newspapers; in shops and on buses; from people chatting; from travelling; from trying to imagine what would have happened if you had made a different choice in your life; from books; from plays and films; from dreams and daydreams. Ideas are all around you, just waiting to be soaked up. The core idea for a book could stem from something that has happened to you or to someone that you know. Many of my books are based on personal experiences, changed to fit the plot and suit the characters. I’d suggest that you start to keep a writing notebook right now and to jot down ideas as they pop into your head. Carry it with you at all times, you never know when inspiration might strike!
To give you an example of a practical way of finding inspiration I picked up Saturday’s Irish Times Magazine and here are some ideas I gleaned from its pages – these are settings/ideas/characters that might suit a romantic comedy: 1/ A girl who runs a vintage clothes store and what happens on her buying trips – inspired by an article on a shop in Kilkenny called Shutterbug (brilliant name!). In fact, my latest book, The Shoestring Club is set in a similar shop. 2/ The life of a young Irish fashion designer and fashion illustrator – great piece on rising stars of the Irish fashion world in the magazine. Some fascinating people with most interesting jobs. And we’ll be dealing with creating big, interesting characters next week. 3/ There is also a piece about two young Irish women who are working for a gourmet food store in New York – now a story using that bakcground would be brilliant, what a setting!
I also love finding unusual names in magazines and newspapers – in the same magazine there is a model called Danielle Winckworth – what a fantastic surname to borrow for a character. More on naming next week too – naming characters is so important.
It’s vital that you chose something that you are passionate about and find fascinating to write about. Your subject must consume you. If it doesn’t, if it’s something that you decided to write about because it sounded like the kind of thing readers/agents/publishers might like, stop right there, the reader will quickly sense this and move on.
It is a bit of a cliché, but it’s often best - when starting out - to write about what you know - that way you’ll be more confident about your subject. Or to focus on something you’ve always wanted to find out more about. For example I know a little about ballet and I wanted to include a young Irish ballerina in my next teen book (Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze, out in September), so I interviewed two ex-dancers, read lots of books on ballet and ballerinas, watched Romeo and Juliet several times on DVD (the ballet my character was starring in), and travelled to Budapest to attend the ballet there, as the book is partly set in Budapest – ie I did my homework!
Even if you think you know a subject well, research is vital to make your book realistic and authentic. Read all you can about your chosen subject eg ballet. Take out library books and study them and make notes. Scour newspapers and magazines for interesting articles and keep them in a research folder. Use the internet. Research is particularly important for historical novels and your local library will prove invaluable. I’ve always found talking to someone who does the job I want to write about is the most useful research tool of all, and all kinds of people have happily given me their time – zoo keepers, female politicians, Olympic sailors. Most people love talking about their job (especially if it’s a particularly interesting one). They can provide the tiny details that will make your book authentic and ‘real’.
You will probably find that you use a small fraction of your research in the actual book, but it will give you the confidence to create your book’s world and its characters. Think of it as an iceberg - only the tip shows but without the mass beneath it would sink. Hemingway once said: If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.
So you’ve chosen your genre and you have an idea, what next? Now select your setting. This could be somewhere familiar to you, Dublin, London or Cork for example. Or it could be a fictional town or village - you decide. People do love reading about unusual and slightly different places. I love travel and I often put my trip locations in books – Budapest, Paris, Miami. Writers such as Marian Keyes and Claudia Carroll have chosen to set some of their books in glamorous worlds: LA and a movie set in Ireland respectively. In my books I have used lots of different settings that interest me - a kite maker’s loft, an art gallery, a wildlife park, and a children’s bookshop to name a few. If you can’t visit the place where you want to set your book, interview someone who has, read travel books and watch travel videos or programmes.
So your homework this week is this: select your genre, find an idea for your book (making sure it’s something that you are passionate about and fascinated by – and starting your research on the subject if needs be), and fix on a setting. Plus throughout the course, continue to read as many of the best books in your chosen genre as you can.
Next week we will talk about the most important (and fun) element of all, the characters.
Yours in writing,