writers, good and bad, who are inveterate plotters, laying out their story-lines
brick by brick before they cement them together with words. Agatha Christie,
for example, famously plotted every element of her novels before she wrote a
word of the manuscript. William Faulkner, the Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote
story plans on his office wall. I've seen J K Rowling's complicated plot charts
(hand-written grids aligning time, plot and prophecies in numbered scenes like
a director’s shot list) and other writers' examples of mind maps and story
I have to
confess I've never done any of that in preparation for writing a novel. Although
I might write copious notes during my research for a book, they tend to be
about the world of the story; they
are hardly ever about the story itself, the plot.
The one highly structured thing I do as I'm going along is to write a time line
just to ensure I don't bump the victim off on Friday only to have the body
discovered the previous Wednesday.
I used to worry
about my lack of a story plan, especially on the rare occasion I'd browse books
or websites that offer advice and claim to improve our chances of being
published. They always seem to emphasise how important it is to have a clear
plot summary from start to finish before we get down to the serious business of
writing, not to mention detailed profiles of all our important characters.
Oh, but it's
all so tedious, and a large part of my reason for writing is to entertain
myself. And the truth is I don't want to know from the start how the story ends
or even much about what happens along the way. If I already know, where's the thrill
in writing about it? I'm both the author and the first reader of my book. My
drive to write the next chapter comes from wanting to find out what happens
next. I hope my future readers will feel the same.
worrying when I noticed other writers whom I respect make do without detailed
story plans. E L Doctorow, the author of Ragtime,
said: 'Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as
your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' The best-selling
author Stephen King wrote a whole book On
Writing that resonates with me on every page. He says, 'I won't try to
convince you that I've never plotted, any more than I'd try to convince you
that I've never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible.'
about his preference for putting his characters in some sort of predicament,
then watching to see how they work themselves free. His job isn't to help them work their way free or to
manipulate them to safety but to watch what happens and write it down. That's
how I set about my work too. In my fictional worlds my principal character will
typically be involved in some form of escape
or some form of search, often
both. Escape and search can offer a multitude of possibilities. They lead me
and my characters on ventures that are neither pre-planned nor random but unfold
before us with varying degrees of difficulty, a network of tracks that is somehow
already present but hidden by foliage that has, in metaphorical terms, to be
hewn and navigated. Slowly we pick our way through. I've heard this called creative pattern recognition.
Stephen King again, he likens writing to an archaeological dig. We come across
something - Hmm, that looks interesting -
and start to dig around it. Yes, there is
something interesting there, let's find out more. Only with very careful graft
using our writing tools can we get the whole thing out from somewhere deep
beneath the surface. It's a delicate, often slow process because we want to
keep our discovery as intact as possible. As in palaeontology some of the
pieces may need to be rearranged, others restored, but eventually our find will
be revealed in its entirety.
reminds me of something I read about the artist Michelangelo. When he was about
to start a new sculpture he would stand in front of the shapeless stone staring
into the rock until he felt he could
see an image of the statue inside. All he then had to do was to chip away, chip
away until the statue revealed itself. 'I saw the angel in the marble and
carved until I set him free,' he wrote in his notebook.
For myself the chipping away at my text is directed by
trying to answer a series of What if questions
that emerge. What if? A very useful
question for writers in search of story. The first What if, of course, kick-starts the action - people who write about
creative writing call this the inciting
The writer’s What if moment can be sparked randomly
from real life. I recently heard the crime writer Val McDermid describing just
such a moment that sparked off the idea for her best-seller The Distant Echo. She was having coffee
with a friend who told how her son, a medical student, was walking back with
his friends from a night out when they came across another bunch of lads giving
a good kicking to a youth on the ground. Being good middle class lads, they
chased the bad guys away and, being medical students, they turned back to give
the bloodied lad on the ground some assistance. Just then the police turned up.
Luckily the victim was conscious and was able to explain to the police that
these young guys had saved him.
McDermid heard the story, immediately it became for her a What if moment. What if the
youth on the ground was not conscious when the police turned up to find a bunch
of drunken lads around him with blood on their hands? What if he were dead? Right there, Val had her inciting incident
and the idea for her next novel.
inciting event occurs much of one’s novel or story is devoted to the search the event impels. Or is it escape? Along the way a sub-plot slowly
develops, seemingly separate at first, but eventually there is a kind of
merging so that all become parts of the whole. There must be no manipulation
about this on the part of the writer - it has to be done step by step because
for the reader every step must seem inevitable.
We are in effect
on a journey in company with our characters, just as our readers will
eventually be. We may think we know your characters at the outset, but we
don't. They will let us know more fully who they are as we move along together,
just as real friends do on a long trip. Often they will take us to places we
didn't know we were going, including a brothel in my novel 11:59 which is somewhere I'd like to assure you I've never been.
whom we might imagine are just incidental, with just a walk-on part, turn out
to be fundamental to the course of the story. One of the great story-tellers
JRR Tolkien confessed that he was in despair for a while during the writing of The Lord of the Rings. About a third of
the way through The Fellowship of the
Ring some ruffian named Strider confronts the hobbits in an inn. Tolkien
had no idea who he was, where the book was going at this point, or what to
write next. Turns out Strider is actually Aragorn, the uncrowned king of all
the forces of good, who emerges as one of the principal characters in the book
and whose restoration to rule is one of the main engines of the plot.
psychological mystery As Close As You Are
To Me I found myself writing about a Big Issue seller with a stubble and a
cowboy hat who calls himself Cody. He muscles his way into becoming a key
character without as much as a by-your-leave. In 11:59 the anti-hero DJ Marc Niven has a sort of super-fan, Oliver,
a lad with learning difficulties who lives with his mother. I had no thought,
when I introduced him, of making Ollie perhaps the most important character
aside from Marc and one that readers always tell me is their favourite. He just
turned out that way.
The story in a
novel is all-important - it's what keeps the reader engaged - but I believe an
over-emphasis on plot when composing can lead writers to neglect their characters
or make them simply one-dimensional conduits for the plot. If instead we allow
the characters to lead the action, or rather allow both to develop in tandem,
we should end up with more rounded characters and a fuller, more credible
story. After all, that's how life is:
we are not divided neatly into the bad guys and the good guys; we all think of
ourselves as principal characters; we are not puppets in someone else's script.
Indeed there is,
at least in my creed, no over-arching story in life, only those stories that we
make through our own complexities, emotions, muddles, errors of judgement,
insights and occasional acts of courage and selfless heroism. Whether in real
life or in fiction, you could say that the stories are already there inside of
us. We all have our ways of getting them out.
A shorter version of this article by David Williams appeared under the title 'The Angel in the Marble' in the magazine of The Society of Authors 'The Author' Spring 2016.
The current Winter issue of The Author (magazine of the Society of Authors) carries an article of mine under the heading Where Do You Get Your Ideas? The article is a slightly abridged version of one I originally titled If I Only Had Time. I thought you might like to see the full version of the article so I have included it below.
If I only had time
patient saying to a doctor at the end of a consultation, 'I could have been a doctor you know, I've often thought about that,
but somehow I never got round to it. I've never really had the time to do it.'
Unlikely, yet substitute one profession for another - writer for doctor - and
you'll find it happens a lot, or it does in my experience.
apparently, is the only essential requirement for writing a book. Oh, and
ideas, but they're no real obstacle. 'I've got a headful. The life I've had... The
stories I could tell... If I only had the time to put them down I could have a
best-seller. You should come round sometime, I'll give you plenty of ideas for
your next book. You can pay me commission.'
perfected the strained smile on hearing these words - I'm sure every writer has
- and I've learned the futility of counter-argument, though I'm often tempted
to quote the late journalist and author Gene Fowler: 'Writing is easy. All you
do is stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your
I guess for
most people most professions - doctor, lawyer, banker - are a mystery, but
writing is something we all do to a certain extent, if only to update our
status on Facebook. And of course we've all done creative writing - the faded
pages of the school exercise books still stacked somewhere in the loft are
testament to a talent shown from an early age - so there's no mystery to it,
and no anatomy to learn, or jurisprudence, or how to make sense of a balance
sheet. Plus, you can read a book in a couple of days so how hard can it be to
My urge to
rage is sometimes strong: a sublimation of my inner demand to be given due
credit for all the time (yes), ingenuity, craftsmanship and sheer bloody hard
work (bordering on agony) that I've put into producing a book. I want to take
the hapless reader through every page, every line, to deconstruct and
forensically analyse, disinter the learning beneath, reveal the artist at work
(how he plays with tone, colour, variation; how brilliantly he achieves balance
and synthesis from thesis and antithesis); to hold my jewel to the light and
have my reader marvel at its distilled beauty. Sorry, am I gripping your arm
real reason I do talks is not to sell my books (another oft-crushed hope) but
to offer myself up for such examination, to lay myself open to questions that
might begin: 'I was intrigued by the way you revealed motive without needing to
express it directly in the words and thoughts of the lead characters - could
you say more about how you achieved such a feat?' Unfortunately questions like
that never occur. 'Where do you write?' 'How do you find a publisher?'
Questions like that occur. And during the post-talk tea ritual, as I wait in
shy expectation behind the pile of books that always turns out to be too optimistically
high, people sidle up to tell me of their own frustrated literary ambitions. My
excruciating chart-topper is the WI stalwart who said in all seriousness: 'I
have a fantastic idea for a novel; all I'm missing is the words. Do you do
anticipating sympathetic tuts and nods from fellow writers, but as we close in
our group hug maybe we are turning our backs on an essential truth, that the
only real difference between us and the literary wannabes is that we actually
have a book or two with our names on the cover. So what? What do any of us have
a right to expect beyond a cursory nod of acknowledgement for the production of
a new work, the equivalent of a pat on the head for the boy who has done his
homework. Less perhaps, for at least the boy was given the homework by someone
who demanded it. Whoever asked us to sit down at a desk and open a vein to
write copiously in our own blood? Why should we complain about how difficult it
is to write a book when many might prefer we found it impossible.
ever been a banner headline that announced The
world needs a new book? Of course not; there are millions on offer already,
far more than the world could ever hope to read. In fact what my experience
shows is that there may be more people out there with the vague ambition to
write a book than those with any desire to read one. Or maybe they just don't
have the time.
No. I can't
let the cynic in me close this argument. I must reach for a reason, a
justification for all those hours spent on squeezing out the words and shaping
something meaningful from them. Maybe I shouldn't dismiss as unimportant the
simple fact that so many others have thought about writing a book for
themselves but have never done it. Their
very number suggests there is a perceived status to being anauthor even if it's
somewhat below being a professional footballer or appearing on The X Factor,
among other favourites of the wishful thinker. And I should comfort myself with
the notion that if people did not spend half their time wallowing in daydreams
they might actually get around to producing something. So I'll continue smiling
as I listen to another would-be-should-be-could-have-been, I'll even nod my
head in a show of empathy while, in my mind only, I will say to my new friend: Keep dreaming the dream, but for pity's sake don't pick up the pen. We have
quite enough competition as it is.
When I do talks and readings I set out to entertain the audience. They also amuse me on many occasions; here are just a few examples from the last couple of months.
I received an invitation from a Rotary Club to speak at their lunchtime meeting. We all enjoyed a good traditional lunch of roast beef and yorkshire pudding followed by custard and crumble washed down by some diners with generous glasses of red wine. After a smattering of Rotary business I was welcomed and stood for my talk. I noticed, within thirty seconds of starting, that one senior Rotarian near the front was fast asleep with his mouth open, snoring gently. I pressed on regardless and enjoyed a good response from members, evidenced by a lively Q & A directly after my talk and a round of applause that awoke the sleeping Rotarian. He was immediately called upon by the President to deliver the vote of thanks which he did with alacrity, a grateful smile and fulsome praise for my excellent presentation. One of the best he'd heard, apparently.
I never presume that people want their books signed, always wait to be asked. One very enthusiastic lady asked me to write a message in the one she'd bought. 'Of course,' and I turned to the flyleaf with my pen poised, mentally composing something suitable for the occasion. She beat me to it, and started to dictate: 'Please write Happy birthday, my darling Gemma'. I wrote this down faithfully. 'Er, OK, you want me to sign this?' 'Yes, put Love from Grandma xxx' I added the line to her direction. 'Now do you want me to sign?' 'No, that'll be fine, thank you,' and she went off happily with her book.
On a regular basis I have members of the audience coming up to me after talks to tell me that they too could have been a writer, but they never had the time to put pen to paper. My all-time excruciating favourite occurred recently after a talk to the WI. A woman in her eighties rushed up to the front to collar me. 'Do you do ghost-writing?' she asked in all seriousness. 'I've got some fantastic ideas for a novel. All I'm missing is the words.'
As a follow-up to my last on briefing the artist and reviewing the cover image in progress, here is the completed though low-res version of the front cover for 'As Close As You Are To Me'.
I'm very pleased with how the artist Peter Fussey has handled the brief. Particularly I like the treatment of the girl's hair (Alex, the lead character who observes the girl, notes especially the way the wind slightly lifts her fine, blonde hair to reveal her Maltese Cross earring), the water (always difficult to achieve in illustration - this looks fab in hi-res), and the slight scruffiness of the grass and paving, so typical of a city park. Peter has also answered my concerns about the title text possibly obscuring the image by providing a light, open font that remains clear for the reader without masking the image in any way.
Not much left for the publisher to do now. We are on track for a publication launch date of 6th November. Hope you'll bear me in mind when visiting your favourite local or on-line bookshop.
One of the most exciting phases in the production of a new book is your first glimpse of the cover art, especially when your publisher uses the services of such a talent as Peter Fussey, who also created my covers for11:59and Mr Stephenson's Regret.
Coming up with a brief for the artist can be tricky because the idea is not merely to create an attractive cover but to produce an image that will say something about the story inside and send some subtle sensory signals about the book as a whole. It's especially tricky for a psychological mystery, which the novel is, because you don't want inadvertently to provide a 'spoiler' with the choice of image, though you do hope to tease the reader's interest.
For this one I felt we should produce a telling image from the first scene in the novel, which is where the inciting incident lies. The central character Alex is in a city park, in a state of abstraction. He is brought to a sort of stunned consciousness by the appearance of his daughter walking alone through the park. Why the surprise? Ruth has been dead for over a year.
Here is the brief I gave to the artist:
I suggest the cover artwork refers to the first
scene in the book, where Alex sees 'Ruth' in the park, though the viewpoint I'm
proposing takes us closer to the girl than he would have been from his position
on the park.
An unseasonably warm early October day in the park.
We see in the foreground, as if we were just about able to reach out and touch
her, the head-and-shoulders back view of a young girl of 19-20 walking through
the park. We can tell she is attractive ('Swedish-looking'; think a young
Agnetha from ABBA) but we can see little of her face beyond a cheekbone and her
ear beneath her wispy blonde hair, lifted slightly by the breeze. She is
wearing a silver Maltese Cross earring with rounded edges on the cross-pieces
and a couple of short silver links, just enough for the earring to dangle
slightly. (No need to make the earring too obvious as long as it's there.) She
is wearing a simple green coat and we may just be able to see that she is carrying
a shouldered handbag with a single strap. She has a simple but elegant
affluence about her.
I'm not sure how much of the park we may be able to
see in the background, but if possible it would be good to see the suggestion
of a fountain in the distance (think Trafalgar Square fountain but very much scaled
down to city park size). In the story the girl runs her fingers through the
waters of the fountain as she passes, so the surface level would be at a height
for her to do that comfortably.
If it's difficult for perspective reasons to get
the fountain into the background I'm not too concerned - much more interested
in getting the girl right; she is very much the focus of the picture, and we
need to feel the presence of the unseen observer.
Peter concentrated first on the girl, and a few days ago sent me this sketch:
I was very pleased with it - very close to my mental image of 'Ruth'. The only concern I had for a while is that we see Ruth from the rear left. In my text the girl appears from the left of where Alex is sitting in the park, and just as she enters his peripheral vision makes a turn to her left and walks away from him. Following the logic of the text we should be seeing the girl from behind her right shoulder. Peter offered to 'flip' the image but as I reconsidered I realised it is better to have the image turned 'into' the cover rather than facing out of it. As it happens, I was checking the publisher's proof at this time. My solution? A minor redraft to have the girl entering from the right of Alex in he park. Some of you may consider me very anal retentive to insist the cover image follows the logic of the narrative exactly, and of course I am aware that 99% of readers would never notice this detail, but it would bother me forever.
Peter has now almost finalised the image and has sent me this near-complete version to check
I really like this and hope the readers will too. Peter told me he planned to add some people around the fountain but I have asked him not to - I'm sure that would distract from our subject; as I said in my brief I really want the girl to be the focus of the composition.
The only concern I have now is where the title and author name will go. My previous Wild Wolf novels have had my name running over the top of the image and the title running across the bottom. That worked for the previous covers but I think we may need some extension of scenery here so that the name does not obscure the head of the girl. I've raised this with the artist and I'm sure he'll come up with a good solution.
So the proofs have been checked and the cover almost done. 'As Close As You Are To Me' is scheduled for publication by the end of October. We may be a week or so out but it will certainly be in the shops in good time for Christmas. I hope you have it on your list.
come not back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, the neglected
Seize opportunity by the beard, for it
is bald behind.
Between saying and doing many a pair
of shoes is worn out.
If you want
a thing done, go. If not, send. The shortest answer is doing.
Thinking well is wise; planning well,
wiser; but doing well is wisest and best of all.
A journey of a thousand miles starts
in front of your feet.
The beginning is the half of every
Using the proverbs
The old management truism
has it that you must 'walk the walk' not just 'talk the talk'. A cliché, but it's
individual or an organization may be brimming with ideas, may be ambitious for
success, but will never become truly effective unless properly organised for
action. The world (as demonstrated by the international breadth of the sources
above) is full of 'would haves', 'could haves' that go no further because of a
failure to act, to act first, or to be organized for the opportunities that
emerge from the creative process.
Use these eight proverbs from around
the world to underline memorably how important it is to act as well as talk
about what you are going to do.
From artists to sports stars to world
leaders some of the most successful people in history have been labelled at an
early stage as failures or no-hopers; here are just a few of them.
Fred Astaire made a
screen test for MGM in 1933. The memo from the testing director to the studio
read: 'Can’t act. Can’t
sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.' After he made it in movies the
Hollywood star kept that memo over the fireplace in his plush Beverly Hills
home. Lucille Ball was told by the head tutor of the
John Murray Anderson Drama School, where she started studying in 1927: 'Try any other profession.' The Beatles were turned down for a recording
contract by Decca Records in 1962, weeks before their first hit with EMI's
Parlophone. Decca's evaluation: 'We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars
are on their way out... The Beatles have no future in show business.' Michael Caine heard his headmaster confidently predict: 'You
will be a labourer all your life.' Winston Churchill was
rebellious by nature and had a poor academic record, attracting censure and
punishment at three different independent schools that he attended. He also had
to overcome a speech impediment. Nevertheless he became Britain's most
celebrated Prime Minister whose stirring public speeches galvanised the war
effort. One of his most famous included the words: 'Never give in, never give in, never,
never, never, never - in nothing, great or small, large or petty - never give
in except to convictions of honour and good sense.' Charles Darwin earned the disapproval of his father
when he gave up his medical career. He told his son: 'You care for nothing but
shooting, dogs and rat catching.' In his autobiography, Darwin wrote: 'I was
considered by all my masters, and my father, a very ordinary boy, rather below
the common standard of intellect.' Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor
because he 'lacked imagination and had no good ideas.' Many of his early
business ventures failed and he was bankrupted more than once. His proposal for
a theme park (Disneyland) was rejected by the city of Anaheim on the grounds
that it would only attract riffraff. Albert Einsteindid not talk until the age of four and
could not read until he was seven. His parents considered him 'sub-normal' and
he was described by a teacher as 'mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever
in foolish dreams.' He was expelled from school and refused admittance to the
Zurich Polytechnic School. He made up later for his slow start. Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting during his
life - this was to the sister of one of his friends, for which she paid only
400 francs. Despite his commercial failure he completed over 800 paintings,
many of which are now regarded as the most valuable in the world of art, worth
many millions. Abraham Lincoln was several times unemployed in his
early working life and failed as both a businessman and a lawyer before he
turned to politics. He was defeated in his first attempt for the legislature,
defeated in his first attempt to be nominated for Congress, defeated in his
application to be Commissioner of the General Land Office, defeated in the
senatorial election of 1854, defeated in his efforts for the vice-presidency in
1856, and defeated in the senatorial election of 1858. He did, however, become
the sixteenth President of the USA and is one of the four great statesmen
commemorated by having their faces carved from rock at Mount Rushmore. Louis Pasteuras an undergraduate student was
regarded as mediocre at best, ranking fifteenth out of twenty-two students in
chemistry. Elvis Presley was fired after only one performance
at the Grand Old Opry. The venue manager Jim Denny told Elvis: 'You ain’t going
nowhere, son. You ought to go back to driving a truck.' Babe Ruth became baseball's most famous player
for his home run record, but for years he also held the record for strikeouts.
He hit 714 home runs and struck out 1,330 times in his career. Babe was
philosophical about this: 'Every strikeout brings me closer to the next home
run,' he said. Stan Smith was rejected as a ball boy for a
Davis Cup tennis match because he was 'too awkward and clumsy'. He went on to
win Wimbledon and the US Open as well as eight Davis Cup Finals. Frank Winfield Woolworth was not permitted to serve customers
when he worked in a dry goods store because, his boss said: 'he didn’t have
Using the stories
Advice from others
can be crucial in forging a career, but negative opinion can be destructive.
Fortunately what all of the people above demonstrated in abundance was a
self-belief together with a determination to progress along their chosen path.
Use these examples both as a reminder
that 'expert opinion' should not always be taken at face value and, more
importantly, that success rarely comes easy but opportunities are available
where talent and focused dedication unite.
More extracts to come, but if you can't wait or you want them all in one published collection you can download the book to your Kindle or Nook.
certainly have been no surprise if the poor English boy Charlie Chaplin, who
grew up to be the great silent movie actor and producer, had instead become in
real life the little tramp he portrayed many times on screen. His childhood was
desperately poor. Charlie's mother was eventually committed to an asylum and
Charlie himself was twice sent to the workhouse before the age of nine. Yet
throughout this time of hardship he was sustained by a dream.
'You have to believe in yourself, that's the secret.
Even when I was in the orphanage, when I was roaming the street trying to find
enough to eat, even then I thought of myself as the greatest actor in the
world. I had to feel the exuberance that comes from utter confidence in
yourself. Without it, you go down to defeat.'
Chaplin, actor, filmmaker, writer (1889-1977)
Using the story
Charlie Chaplin's is
the archetypal rags-to-riches story and the actor is a role model of triumph
over adversity. His is an example of determination fuelled by a personal vision
and the self-confidence to reach his long-term goal.
Use this story to show how a clear
vision can be as important to individuals as to organizations. Dreams can be a
motivational force, a springboard to successful action, even when the odds seem
The Child Within You
50 Stories & Snippets author David Williams and his wife
Paula were collecting their thoughts after a lively training workshop which
involved adults making models and collages as they envisioned the future. A
couple of cleaners came into the room to tidy up. Surveying the scene they
innocently asked, 'Have you been running a nursery class in here today?'
a distressing contrast there is between the radiant intelligence of the child
and the feeble mentality of the average adult.'
Freud, Austrian founder of psychoanalysis (1856-1939)
child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.'
Picasso, Spanish painter (1881-1973)
Using the story
A dynamic organization
will be constantly searching for imaginative approaches, different encounters
and new ways of thinking.
environment keeps us fresh and imaginative. It encourages metaphoric thinking,
stimulates all the senses, values fun and humour, tolerates (even embraces)
risk-taking and avoids the stultifying influence of 'business as usual' habits
and practice. Sometimes it helps to think
like a child.
Use this story and accompanying
quotations to show how we sometimes need to throw off the assumptions of our
adulthood to find fresh ideas. You may like to precede or follow up the story
with a participative exercise in creativity such as the one briefly described
More extracts to come, but if you can't wait or you want them all in one published collection you can download the book to your Kindle or Nook.