Christopher Wakling has taught creative writing courses for Curtis Brown Creative since 2011. It’s fair to say, then, that he knows a thing or two about the subject – and has more than a few writing tips up his sleeve.
We asked Chris to supply a few tips on the writing process. Here he offers advice on beginnings, character and story…
Get to the point.
It’s sad but true: nobody cares about your story before it has begun, and if you take too long starting, they’ll never care.
So start fast. Think like the reader. Ask ‘Who is this I’m reading about?’ and ‘Why should I care?’
Save descriptions of the weather for later.
Every edict comes with its exceptions, of course: Steinbeck did alright starting The Grapes of Wrath like this: ‘To the red country and part of the grey country of Oklahoma the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.’ But see what he was doing? Lack of rain created the Dust Bowl, which is fundamental to his story. He started at the beginning, fast.
But not as fast as EB White, who began Charlotte’s Web with the corking first line: ‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ Voice, action, a question. It’s all there!
Without compelling characters, stories are stillborn.
Heap in all the pyrotechnical jeopardy you like, and readers still won’t give a toss, not unless they also care about the characters – be they soldiers, lovers or goblins – in play.
The writer can’t know these people too well. It’s a given that you have to know more about your characters than you tell the reader. The old image of the iceberg, the submerged mass of information beneath the surface of the story, which gives weight to the characters visible on the page, holds true.
You need to know where the characters were before the story began and where they’re heading after it ends. Their fears, regrets, hopes, loves and hates. Their taste in music, their thoughts on religion. The kind of underwear they favour. Whether they have ever been ill. The balance in their current account.
Sit down and write yourself a list of a hundred or so things you think you should know about your protagonists, then answer them, and you’ll be part way there.
‘Tell me a story.’
If a child has ever asked you that question, you’ll understand the brain-ache it can induce.
Stories are hard. Coming up with one is to impose order on chaos.
We tell stories to make sense of experience, because life does not come in neat parcels. It’s a messy affair. Stories don’t have to be cut and dried – readers will brook a degree of open-endedness – but what you write does need a sense of causality and of completion, otherwise it’s just anecdotes, musings, or a sequence of events.
What do your characters want? Will they get it? Who stands in their way? How will they get round them? How will they change?
These sorts of questions help kick start a story.
They apply more obviously to some tales than others. Lord of the Rings, for example, as opposed to The Corrections. But look closely at even the most literary work and the same sorts of questions – and answers – are deeply embedded at the story level.
We want to know whether or not the Lamberts are going to get back together for Christmas, and because Franzen’s writing is scintillating we’re happy to wait 600 pages to find out. But we still want an answer. Just as we want to know whether Frodo will ever get shot of that ring.