The Nike Imperative

The question I most get asked is, “Where do you get your ideas from?” In second place is, “How do you do it? I could never write a book.”

There’s a saying that everyone has a book inside them. I agree with this. But not everyone has the right combination of motivation, enthusiasm, inspiration and skill with their native language that is needed to get it out on to paper (or silicon).

I think this is where those questions come from: the desire of everyone to tell the story they have inside them. Everyone wants to write their story, but not everyone feels they can.

This is where I can help. Today I’m going to deal with those two questions. Hopefully you will be inspired to give it a go.

Before I do, however, I just want to throw this snippet in up-front: Nothing is set in stone. Everything you write can be changed, and usually must be changed before it gets to a readable form.

Ask any writer which is the most important aspect of writing, and there’s a good chance he or she will say, “Editing.” Everyone has to edit. Directors spend countless hours in the editing room, often altering the entire structure and feel of their film in the process.

I like this analogy. I think of my first draft like the first shoot. I’m getting scenes down, playing around with ideas, writing whatever I want. This stage is not pretty. I write scenes that are clunky, the dialogue is often awful, and the pace is all over the place. Sometimes I write words that don’t even exist. When I have finished my first draft comes the pleasure of moulding it into something beautiful.

So if you feel daunted by the prospect of writing a book, don’t be. You plan, you draft, you edit, and what comes out is a combination of all three. The people who fail leave out the first and the third parts, and hang everything on the draft. Don’t.

Question 1: Where do your ideas come from?

This is a tricky one. I won’t answer at length, as it is such a personal thing. My ideas usually come in the form of concepts or scenes: the boy running through Piccadilly Circus, pursued by an unseen enemy; the orphaned rich girl with dark hair arriving at her cousins’ flat in South London; the boy pulling back the leaves to reveal a corpse.

These ‘seeds’ are pregnant with the possibility of a story. I take them, and start to ask questions:

  • Who is this person?
  • Why are they here?
  • What do they want?
  • What will happen next?

From these questions comes the story.

Sometimes I see something, an image or a place, which I’d like to write about. I’ve always wanted to set a chase along the train line between Blackfriars and St. Pancras. I like the look of King’s Cross Underground station, especially at night when it’s deserted. Malham Cove in Yorkshire is a beautiful setting for something.

I’ll use any excuse to set a story somewhere I like the look of.

Ultimately, it’s personal. Tolkien wrote, “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit,” and from that snippet (and his background in European mythology and epics) he crafted an amazing story. Plenty of men came back from the First and Second World Wars to craft haunting tales of the fragility of human existence. Some people write about their mundane lives and the humanity shines out (as with James Herriott and ‘Call the Midwife’).

My advice is: write what you know, and go from there.

Question 2: How do you do it?

Question 1 required a very short answer. Question 2 could run to hundreds of pages.

You may have picked up some of my methods — planning, preparation, quick drafting then rigorous editing — but there is so much more involved in writing a story that it would be impossible to detail them all here.

If you want a few tips, then here they are. They are a mish-mash of things I’ve read and things people have told me and things I’ve learned myself. If you recognise one of my tips from somewhere, I can only say it’s because it’s a good tip and bears repeating:

1. Love the language. I can’t stress this enough. Get to know your language again. If you can, study how it’s formed. Get books like Strunk and White’s ‘Elements of Style’. Surprise yourself with what you forgot about English. Re-learn the basics, and you will have a good foundation from which to play around.

2. Read. As much as you can, as often as you can. When you start to write you will find yourself copying others’ styles. This is ok. Hopefully they are good writers, and you are learning from the best. Start to notice where the prose doesn’t flow, or what you dislike. Learn what you like. Steal.

3. Write short sentences. Don’t over-flower your prose. The best books have short but punchy sentences. Long sentences Re used for effect, not as a matter of course.

4. Avoid adjectives and adverbs. They are useful, but only if used sparingly. ‘Darted’ is better than ‘walked quickly’; ‘slammed’ is better than ‘closed loudly’. Everyone knows grass is green and the sky is blue: only mention detail if it is important, or different from what you would expect.

5. You have five senses. For some reason most people who struggle with writing have forgotten they have a nose. I hardly see descriptions of smell. Think about all five senses, and try to use them. Sparingly. Your prose will come alive.

6. ‘Said’ is fine. There is nothing wrong with ‘said’. The same cannot be said for ‘declaimed’, ‘expostulated’, ‘urged’, ‘questioned’, ‘pronounced’, and the million and one other ways writers try to avoid using ‘said’. But ‘said’ is fine. Only use another word if you really mean it, otherwise you are just drawing attention to yourself. If you spend an hour thinking of the perfect alternative to ‘said’, you have just wasted an hour.

7. Write. Yes, it’s obvious. But you’d be surprised how many people forget this one. I went through a period where I was afraid to write because I thought it was hideous rubbish, and afraid to read because I thought I was going to be influenced into another writers’ style. Both may have been true, but it is worth remembering my Golden Rule at this point: Nothing is set in stone. If it’s rubbish, change it. If it’s another writer’s style, change it. If it doesn’t work, change it. If you don’t like it, change it.

8. Stick to the plan. I know I said this a couple of days ago, but it bears repeating. If you plan, you get to write the whole book without really writing it. You can see what’s going to go wrong, and which characters have nothing to do. I tend to plan in detail for the first third, less detail for the second, and hardly any for the third, to allow for changes along the way. But knowing the rough end point will free you up to explore along the way.

9. Don’t get hung up on your environment. I write everywhere and anywhere. I’m writing this in a classroom full of rowdy teenagers. I write on the bus, on the tube, in coffee-shops, in canteens, in waiting-rooms and just about anywhere else where I can grab five minutes. If you are looking for the perfect writing environment (Swiss skiing lodge, beach house, Tibetan retreat) you will only find disappointment. Distractions happen everywhere. About the only place I can’t write is at home with my wife and daughter, because it’s the only place where I can’t ignore what’s happening around me!

10. Writer’s block does not exist. Sorry, but it’s true. If the words won’t come, yes it feels bad, but if you bash something down and ignore the quality at least you can go back and change it afterwards. If you sit and mope you have nothing to improve upon. Don’t do it.

That’s about all for today. If anyone has any particular questions, pleas post them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.

Take care, and happy writing.

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