A lot of people say to me, “I want to be a writer.” (And, generally, I look at them and I think, Really? Have you ever even read a book?) But I don’t say aloud that I think they’re deluded and have totally the wrong reasons for wanting to become a writer. I’m far too polite for that. So instead, I’ll say, “Okay.”
They tend to expect more than that, though, so they’ll ask, “So how do I become a writer?”
This has always struck me as a little bit of a stupid question. What are they expecting – for me to take them through some midnight initiation rite involving the blood of innocent characters being offered as a sacrifice to the great gods of publishing? I’ll say, “Well, you need to write books.”
“But I don’t have any ideas.”
Guys. If you have no ideas, why do you want to be a writer? I started writing because I had stories I wanted to tell. I started writing because I read books and I thought, “I love the idea of
elves fairies dragons wizards caterpillars like this, I want a go at writing them.” So I wrote about them. And you know what? It was pretty terrible, so I put aside the caterpillars and read some more books to work out how they made it work, and then I wrote more.
But I don’t know, maybe you’ve got a character instead of a plot, or a plot but no characters, or a whole bunch of beautiful phrases that you can’t knit together and you’re looking for something to act as that missing element.
Personally, I wouldn’t advise taking that last one as a starting point. If you want disconnected but beautiful sentences that can be interpreted hundreds of ways, become a poet. But get a real job as well because you’ll be skint for the rest of your life.
(Oh yeah, and that’s another thing. You want to become a writer? Expect to have no money. I told my friends I had a short story published and now they keep asking me if they can borrow money. First of all, as far as I know I’ve earned less than a fiver so far. Second of all, I am COMPLETELY BROKE. I am unable to pay my library fee of 30p at the moment. STOP ASKING ME FOR MONEY.)
Right, so you want to write a novel. Now let me tell you this. The story you want to tell already exists. Someone wrote it already, and it’s in bookshops and in the library because there are only so many plots in the world.
That doesn’t matter.
I cheat when I write novels. I base them on Celtic mythology. And okay, I’m not retelling stories plot-wise, but I steal characters (the Dagda) or little elements of mythology that work for me (alternate worlds occupying the same part of space but separated by some invisible divider thingymajig) and it makes my life easier. I’m currently working on something that borrows elements from Norse Mythology (and am fighting the urge to include eight-legged horses of dubious origins).
You know, this is ALLOWED. People write novels all the time that are based on mythology, on fairy tales, on Bible stories.
Bible stories are great starting points, by the way! I’ve been listening to the soundtrack to the Prince of Egypt at the moment (remember that film? You probably watched it when you were a kid/ when your children were young) and there’s a song called The Plagues which includes these lyrics:
Into your dreams, into your sleep
Until you break, until you yield
Your character wants a decent threat? SEND ALL OF THE PLAGUES. Until they break. Until they yield. THAT is how you bully characters into doing what you want. That is what your antag should do to your protag or vice versa.
You want somebody to realise their entire life is a lie? THEY’RE ADOPTED. This ALWAYS works.
It happens in the story of Moses. He thought he was Egyptian, but nope, he’s an Israelite and he’s watched his people be slaves all the time.
It happens in the movie Thor. Loki thought he was a god but nope, he’s a Frost Giant and he’s been brought up to hate his own people. (True story: the gif you see here is saved on my computer as ‘Oh sh** I’m a frost giant!’) It happens in so many books and films and you know, it always hurts.
Why? Because the one thing your characters can trust is who they are and when they don’t have that, it’s TOTAL CRISIS time.
Okay, so you’ve got a few plot twists now. You’ve got threats and heartbreak, but you want crazy beasties to liven things up a bit. Your characters need to get somewhere, so you need a form of transport that’s a bit unusual.
MYTHOLOGY, DUDE. Or the Bible, alternatively. I mean, Revelation’s got some interesting stuff and no one’s going to notice if you steal the seven headed dragon because they’re too worried about the woman giving birth in the sky and whatnot. But mythology’s got loads of it – creatures that are half this and half that, or weird things you can’t even begin to explain.
Also, eight-legged horses of dubious origins.
Now you’re stuck for names. Again, go to mythology. I named my character Aifa after a warrior princess from Celtic mythology, because she’s a princess who fights people and she’s a fairy and it doesn’t get more Celtic mythology than that. She’s not that warrior princess, but I like to think she was named after her. Even though she might be older than her. I’m not sure how old she is now. I lose track. (1000? 3000? 10,000? 23?)
My character Cormac turns out to have the same name and a similar story to a dude called Cormac Connlonges. I discovered this particular Cormac while drafting the sixth draft of Watching. I had no idea that their banishment and whatever was so similar, but hey, I can pretend I did, right? I’m highbrow and I link to lesser known characters in Celtic mythology, guys.
You can steal elements from all these things and muddle them up (mythology with the Bible! Okay you might want to watch how you go there, could be risky/offensive. Don’t mix Sleipnir’s story with Jesus’s. Just don’t). It’s okay. You can do that.
We do it all the time.
So you want to be a writer, but you’ve got no plot. That’s okay. Read mythology. There are plenty there that you can steal.
And that is my piece of advice for today. I apologise for the overuse of parentheses, capital letters, and exclamation marks.