Stories. I love to read them and, even more so, I love to write them. Nothing makes me happier than spending a rainy afternoon curled up on the sofa with a notebook and pen, sipping a cup of tea and imagining a magical new world. The late Sir Terry Pratchett once said: “Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself.” And, I think he was right.
Although I make my living as a journalist, I haven’t yet found the courage to share my creative writing with the world. For me, it’s something really personal and private. I mostly write for my own enjoyment (much to my mum’s disappointment – she’s still waiting for me to pen a bestseller). I first realised that I loved writing as a teenager, filling up notebook after notebook with my scribbled story ideas, half-written books, potential character names and plotlines. Sometimes, I would share chapters with my sisters, finishing with cliff-hangers to leave them in suspense. As I’ve got older, it’s something that has grown with me, providing me with the perfect post-work hobby and a great deal of fun.
A lot of people are nervous about writing because they’re worried what others will think of their work. But the thing is, it doesn’t matter – when you write, you just need to write for yourself. Don’t panic and think how others would judge the character you’ve created, or your sentence structure – if you write with only yourself in mind, you’ll enjoy the process a lot more, and you’ll likely find that you can be more creative. If you do want to share your writing with others when you’re ready, writing for yourself is the perfect way to hone your skills first – you can have hours of fun dreaming up and then changing your plots, without anyone seeing them until they’re fully formed. It’s your time, so enjoy it.
For me, the best thing about writing is its accessibility – all you need is paper and a pen. You don’t have to have planned a writing session or booked a class in advance, you can just sit down wherever you are, whenever you have a few minutes, and start. Once you get into your writing, you might find it useful to carry a notebook with you everywhere. JK Rowling scrawled the plot of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on a paper napkin, because she was on a long train journey and had no paper. You never know where you’ll be when inspiration strikes, so it’s good to be prepared!
It can be difficult to find time for writing when you lead a busy life, but if you make it a habit then it will become easier. If you don’t have time to write often, then you can still think about your ideas while you are doing other things – staring out of a train window, walking to work or making a cup of tea can all provide a moment to let your thoughts wander. I’ve always found that it helps to have a beautiful notebook to write in – these days I have quite a collection. Some of them are so nice that I almost don’t want to write in them, but it’s become a part of my writing ritual.
Where you choose to write is up to you, and you’ll find that every writer has their own favourite place. It could be on a park bench, in a comfy chair in the corner, or during 10 stolen minutes while you wait to pick up your children from school. I’ve always been envious of Roald Dahl, who had his own writing hut in his garden where he could work without distractions. Once you’ve found your spot, get comfortable, make sure you have snacks and drinks at hand and start to write.
Even if you’re normally a creative person, there can be days when you just don’t know how to begin. The blank page becomes intimidating, and you can’t bring yourself to start writing. An important part of finding inspiration for writing, or any creative hobby for that matter, is observation and taking an interest in the world around you. Your ideas can come from anywhere – an overheard conversation, an intriguing piece of graffiti, an interesting stranger. It can come from a painting you’ve seen, a place you’ve visited, or a childhood memory. Once you start actively looking for story ideas, you’ll begin to see the world with fresh eyes. But if you’re still feeling unsure, you can try out our writing prompt cards – simply pick one at random and have a go!
Even if you don’t want to share your writing with others, don’t underestimate the benefit of talking about your ideas with other people. While studying creative writing at uni, I was often surprised by the insights other students had, or the way they approached the same writing task from a completely different angle. This can really help you if you feel as though you’ve run out of steam.
My sister, Lisa, is my favourite collaborator. She’s an academic by day, but she also enjoys writing for her own enjoyment. We’ve spent many fun afternoons together bouncing ideas off each other, that range from the serious to the seriously bizarre. It’s always time filled with laughter and creativity – and a chance to forget everyday worries. A writing class, too, can offer a whole room full of potential partners in crime (fiction), and everyone will be in the same boat.
Once you’ve found your mojo, unearthed inspiration and planned your premise, all that’s left is to get started. And this is the simple part – just begin writing. It doesn’t need to be good; after all, this is just the first draft, right? No one else is going to see this – unless you want them to. As the writer John Steinbeck said: “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.”
How to write a convincing character
Try these simple steps to help bring your characters to life:
The first step to writing a convincing character is to get to know them. Start by deciding on their basic stats – age, hair colour, birthday.
Start to picture your character in your mind. Imagine them walking through the door in a café or a shop – how do they walk? Do they stride in, or do they have a limp? How do people react to them? What are they wearing? It’s little mannerisms that start to make them convincing.
Think about how your character speaks – what does their accent tell you about their background? Do they use slang or dialect? Are they formal or informal? When you observe people, make a note of any phrases or expressions that might work for your character.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing a stereotype, so challenge your character as you write your story. Is the biker really aggressive, or is this just an identity he assumes at the weekend? Is the single elderly lady really lonely? Is the teenager surly or does he just have a lot on his mind?
Don’t try to shoehorn your character into a certain role just to fit the plot you have in mind – it might not work for them and you might find that they start to take on a life of their own. After all, they are going to be reacting to what’s going on around them. Think about how others will view their actions too – are they likely to be affected by it? Will they be happy or sad? Your protagonist doesn’t exist in a bubble, so don’t let them escape the consequences of their actions.
Every character has a past. You can give them memories, regrets, ambitions and fears – all of which will shape their decisions, even if they’re not explicitly referred to in your story.
If you want to dive straight in, then National Novel Writing Month – AKA Nanowrimo – is for you. Each year, thousands of people take up the challenge and attempt to write a novel of 50,000 words in November. The rules are that you can plan your book in advance, but you’re not allowed to write a word until 1 November (so no cheating!).
Not ready to write a whole novel? Start small with some flash fiction. Entries to this international competition are limited to just 300 words, so you’ll be able to hone your writing skills with some short story writing.
Start Writing Fiction is a free 8-week course run by the Open University. Established writers, including Louis de Berniere and Alex Garland, share their insights into the writing process. You can also review the work of other writers – and receive feedback on your own.
Here are a few great books to help kick-start your writing obsession: On Writing by Stephen King (Turtleback, £10.99) – a masterclass in storytelling from this prolific author; 642 Things to Write About by San Francisco Writers (Chronicle, £8.99) – packed with prompts to fire up your imagination; and The Creative Writing Handbook by John Singleton and Mary Luckhurst (Macmillan, £24.99) – a comprehensive guide to style and approach.