The Wordsmith’s Apprentice takes us through a few more of the processes to consider whilst writing novels and tells us what it was like channelling his inner serial character killer or inner George R.R Martin rather…

Lots of people think the most important element of the writing a successful novel is having a once in a lifetime idea. If that were the case then a writer like James Patterson wouldn’t have the Guinness world record for the most New York Times Best Sellers. The idea is only 5% of a novel, the other percentages being 15% luck and timing and 80% perseverance and training. This is not to say that ideas are not worth thinking through, a poor idea written well can become a best seller, a brilliant idea written poorly won’t make it from the publisher’s desk.

When thinking of ideas it is important to be original. That doesn’t mean come up with an epic tale of an octopus named Larry who is caught in a love triangle with a slipper and a horse. Being original is about drawing on your influences and trying to cobble together a story that you really want to tell, something you’ll want other people to read. The novel that I wrote over the last year I feel will be too generic for publishing. It draws on my influences, but it has nothing that causes it to stand out against the overabundance of YA fantasy novels. I look back on it and see it as a dreary travel log in a generic fantasy setting. It is a pitfall during a first novel of trying to include everything and the kitchen sink, in fantasy terms it means including dragons, dark lords, wizards, and unicorns. The one I’m currently writing feels like a story I want to tell, but not because it’s a better idea, it’s because I have that bit more experience than when I started writing. Another thing to remember when it comes to ideas is that genres come in cycles. In the early nineties, there was a rash of epic fantasy books published, things like Game of Thrones. However, epic fantasy novels fell out of fashion in the noughties before resurging in the last recession. It is possible to track the highs and lows of genres and plan when you will write your epic fantasy novel or your zombie vampire romance story.

Crafting plots can be difficult and I can only speak from the point of view of the fantasy genre. There are two types of authors when it comes to crafting your fantasy plot and world; there are gardeners and architects. Most writers will take a little from both, some are more from one than the other. A Gardener cultivates their world and characters. They will let the story and characters grow and develop as they write. An Architect will meticulously plan and carefully constructs their world. This can get out of hand, for example you can spend months developing the history, architecture, drainage system, religion, culture, and class system of a single city, at which point you’ll realise you have five more cities to. As I said, most people will draw from both types. In my first novel, I was more of a gardener than an architect. I found that it can be nice to let the characters develop in a natural way rather than forcing them to fit a set of rules. In the novel I’m currently writing I spent December and much of January developing the world before I started writing. The result of this is that my wall is covered from floor to ceiling with A4 pages covered in chicken scrawl about weather patterns, magic systems, and character histories, but it has also made me feel much more comfortable in my writing as I have a clearly defined direction.

There is a lot I could say about the intricacies of creating characters, but odds are I would be wrong as it can be complicated and contradictory. So instead I’ll just give a few pointers from my experience. If you’re using multiple points of view be extremely careful that they have their own voice. There is nothing more confusing than a book in which all characters sound the same. There are a number of ways this can be done, the most obvious of which is giving them a colloquial speaking pattern. I also feel like I should talk about character killing. Some writers find it very easy to kill their characters, we’re looking at you Mister Martin, but other writers find it immensely difficult to kill a character that they really love. The question you need to ask yourself when it comes to killing a character is will it help or hurt the piece as a whole? You may love the character, but the audience may hate them, I’m also not saying cave into the popular vote, it’s your work and you do what you want with it. What I am saying is, listen to the readers of early drafts. If one person says they don’t like a character, don’t change anything, if three or more say it, identify the problem and fix it. The last thing I’ll say this week ties the character death and the plot together. A number of years ago it was horrifying and shocking to kill off the protagonist at the end of the book. I advise against it for two reasons, firstly you can’t write a sequel, secondly and more importantly, it isn’t the big shock as it used to be. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, it just means if you do, makes sure the reader really loves the character before you rip them away. Next time I will discuss the difficulties of acquiring a publisher and an agent.


The Wordsmith’s Apprentice.