In my work I have been fortunate to have conversations with famous people who have made their money from stories, including:
- Bob Gale (scriptwriter of Back to the Future);
- Lee Child (16 million Jack Reacher Novels sold);
- John Sullivan (TV comedy writer of Only Fools and Horses; Just Good friends; Citizen Smith…);
- Mark Williams (Actor in The Harry Potter films; Shakespeare in Love; 101 Dalmations...);
- Willy Russell (Theatre supremo and writer of Educating Rita; Blood Brothers; Shirley Valentine…)
to name but a few. So, from the insights from these fine gentlemen, from my own experiences getting published and writing The Story Book, my work as a story consultant, from working on films and from undertaking my PhD in Story Theory, here are my top ten tips for writers.
1) If you want to be a writer, read a thousand books.
2) Write every day. Make it a priority, build it into your schedule and discipline yourself to it. Yes, being a writer is glamorous to talk about and a romantic place for dreamers, but the ones who make it work very hard, are professional and productive. Ask yourself: could you write 500 words a day? One side of A4? Yes? Good. If you do that, you'll have 90,000 words in 30 weeks, leaving 22 weeks - that's five months! - for editing and polishing, and you'll have a finished book in a year (and that's with Sunday's off!). Start today. One side of A4. Go.
3) Don't try to learn 'how to write'. No course or method or rule book or guru can tell you how to write. There's only one person who can tell your story your way, and that's you. Those who make it have self-confidence in writing what THEY think is great. Yes, learn about STORY - where story power comes from, how they work, why they exist, how they resonate, what factors are present in all great stories - then use that understanding to take responsibility and write your story YOUR way.
4) Yes, understand story structure, but structure is NOT a starting point for story development, so don't let it drive you. Let your creative brilliance run wild and free and write from the heart in creating your story; then later, use your understanding of structure in problem-solving and optimizing your story.
5) Most of all, understand SUBTEXT. And understand the creative behaviours that embed subtext. Subtext is the substance of story. If you have no subtext you have no story. The more subtext there is, the higher a story is rated by the audience. Fact.
6) Stories are about character behaviours. Don't think about 'plot' and 'character' as separate things. What a character does when he takes action will define his true character, and what a character does when he takes action will also provide the action. Character behaviours meld plot and character into a single entity (story). Get this right, and your story-telling will be tight, cohesive and greater than the sum of its parts.
7) All the greatest stories show us a character learning and changing and growing through the experiences of the story events (or failing to learn and grow, but the lessons are still evident to us as readers/viewer). Try to ensure that at least one character is offered the opportunity to climb the ladder of life. You will find that this is actually your real story, and this is what resonates with your readers and elevates your story.
8) True character comes only from putting your players under pressure to make difficult decisions. For a mountaineer to climb a mountain might be a huge challenge, but he'd be delighted to do it, so the conflict is not meaningful and therefore the story is not meaningful. For a mountaineer to climb a mountain to save a stranded friend... risking his own life to do so whilst his children are begging him not to go and his wife says she’ll leave if he does... that is a story. Sit your characters on the horns of a dilemma wrapped in a choice of evils and sandwiched between rocks and hard places and your readers will be gripped...
9) It's really important to learn to handle rejection (there WILL be rejection...) otherwise you will never send anything off. I know many, many writers who develop their stories... then develop and develop some more... because they are so scared of the Judgment Day that comes the moment they admit it’s finished. There's no easy way. You have to grasp the nettle and get on with it or give up now. Put your ego to one side (the vast majority of rejections are nothing to do with your ability or the literary merit of your story); dig deep, be strong, and put it out there. When I asked John Sullivan for his advice for aspiring writers he gave me this series of steps that should define a writer’s life:
A) Write the best stuff you can.
B) Send it off.
C) Go to A.
It ain't rocket science! But you do need to be brave, or else you won't get anywhere. As soon as your material is good enough, you WILL be recognised... and you WILL get a deal! And I promise you - once you’ve had 10 rejections, the 11th doesn’t hurt so bad!
Very best of luck with your work. Oh, before I go, I forgot number 10! Just one more tip we could all benefit from...
11) Get off the internet and go do some writing!