• Joanna Campbell

How to begin to write a story? A good starting point is to find a setting which captures your imagination. Once this location has completely occupied your mind, your characters will appear. They might already be there. This sounds fanciful, but look at your favourite books and see how many memorable characters are rooted deeply in—and influenced by—their environment.

I’m thinking about the rain-soaked caravan site in Summerwater by Sarah Moss, the bleak late-winter moor in Andrew Michael Hurley’s Starve Acre, the imposing mountains and changing seasons of Idaho by Emily Ruskovich. In all these novels, the actions, mood changes, conflicts and emotions of the characters are linked to the landscape.

Sometimes the setting can reveal the theme and atmosphere of the story too. Here is an example from the opening of One Horse Town, one of the first short stories I wrote years ago:

‘One horse don't mean that nothing ever happens here. The crops are parched and the dust blows in your eyes enough to make you cry just walking. But things do happen. People disappear.

There ain't many places to hide. It's just a flat space with a few tired homes and a splintered school building in the mountain's shadow. The sun can't shine there. It has a cactus garden we tend ourselves and the granmas come and help us with trying to grow corn in a triangle at the end of the yard. That's where a thin stripe of light appears for a short time each day.

If you visited this massive region, if you walked right into the heart of this little inhabited bit of it nestled in the mountain's feet like a dead mouse lying at the paws of a tiger, you would put your head on one side and look at it fond-like. It's not sweet here, though.’

I can’t explain how this setting came to mind. Maybe I had stumbled across a picture of an isolated town in a mountainous area. But once the image was there, the characters followed. You can see from these early paragraphs that the narrator—along with the story she is about to tell—is tethered to her world. And this world is going to play a vital part in the story. The tiger/mouse image suggests violence will be a feature, but the main theme this setting begins to reveal is the sense of being trapped and dominated.

In my novel, Instructions for the Working Day, the setting is a forgotten, crumbling village in isolated marshland. It is still guarded by a watchtower, a Cold War relic. This location provides a menacing atmosphere and constant tension. In stark contrast, the main characters also visit Berlin. Since this brings them into a brighter environment, I had to ensure the unsettling undercurrent of danger followed them there. Fortunately, it wasn't as difficult as I had feared. I discovered that when characters are intrinsically part of their normal surroundings, any new setting adapts to suit them and their story.

So when you want to start writing a short story or a novel, find a setting which speaks to you. Somewhere in there, your characters are waiting.

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  • Joanna Campbell

After finishing the final draft of the novel in its entirety, I left it alone for as long as patience would allow (not very long), then spent a few days re-reading and contemplating the opening chapters only.

I wanted to check that the main characters arrived early enough and that their missions were either already in motion, or about to begin. These missions needed to be clear, but not too spelled-out, in order to retain plenty of intrigue.

Although it is tempting to use the first couple of chapters to set the scene, maybe establish the characters in detail, introduce the minor players or delve into backstory, it is important not to tiptoe around the edges of the ‘action’.

A few years ago, during early drafts of my first novel, I made the mistake of skulking: a vital road trip—the core of the story—didn’t actually begin until a third of the way through. My characters spent the first few chapters on a ‘dummy run’ to a much closer destination before returning to get ready for the ‘real thing’. In the misguided belief that I was keeping the reader in excited suspense, I was holding up the action and skirting around the heart of the book, rather than making it beat.

Fear of running aground can make it daunting to set sail. To stay safe, it is tempting to prevaricate by filling in fine details, adding descriptions and introducing strands which won't connect to the main plot until later. To avoid this, it can be helpful to make a plan.

My plan for Instructions for the Working Day took time, but made the writing process more straightforward and enjoyable. By the time I had finished the plan, I understood my characters and why they had a story to tell.

I also knew how each chapter would work, scene by scene, which gave me confidence and, as a result, the ability to concentrate. This meant I could make progress every time I sat down to write. Not only that, but I could look forward to writing and not fear it.

These plans were not straitjackets. As with any plan, a degree of flexibility was required. An outline can collapse once the narrative is underway and the characters are developing by themselves. They might discover a more scenic route which takes you, the writer, to unfamiliar places. If this turns out to be a mistake, you could revert to your original plan. Or you could change course again and discover the new ‘right’ way ahead. But having the plan gives you a reference point, a safe haven. And when you return to it, this time you will have your characters with you. They are now a force to be reckoned with and instrumental in reconsidering the route.

Whether you work from a loose plan, a tight plan, or no plan at all, it is still useful to re-read your novel’s opening and check that you haven’t lingered too long in the harbour. Let your characters set sail.

A final tip: it was helpful to view the two documents—‘Plan’ and ‘Actual Novel’—side by side on my screen. There was something encouraging about the Plan being right there. I struck through each scene after I’d written it, which felt insanely rewarding and gave a sense of progress.

[Ship drawing from tutorial by Circle Line Art School]

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  • Joanna Campbell

After the third draft, I left my novel alone for as long as I could bear. It was only about a month, but even that was a help. As time passes, the clearer your vision becomes and you feel detached enough to consider your final draft with a more critical eye.

I read this draft at snail’s pace, alert for any opportunity to make even the smallest improvement. I allowed myself a maximum of five pages a day, so I was never in danger of galloping through. It was tempting to speed up whenever I reached scenes I remembered being happy with, but in fact it was those sections which needed a closer look.

Sometimes, as a result of alterations made during previous drafts for the sake of clarity and continuity, you might find the occasional scene—however neat and precise—has fallen a little flat.

Here is an invented example of a scene which might seem fine, but in the polishing process has lost some emotional resonance:

‘Graham walks through the marsh, around the reed clumps edged with liquifying traces of snow, carelessly kicking an old can. When he reaches the harbour and the dredging beds, he remembers Dad taking him and Chrissie to the beach last summer.

Chrissie picked up some oyster shells and Dad said maybe the Romans had left them behind, because there was an ancient palace nearby. That convinced her she’d find all their buried treasure if she dug deep enough.

They couldn’t make her stop. Dad wished he’d never mentioned the bloody Romans. She filled her bucket with more oyster shells while the sun roasted their shoulders.

“They might not all be ancient, those shells,” Dad said, gathering up their towels. “Tourists will have left them, I expect.”

She ignored him. Even when the sky clouded over, the sand was still flying.

“You’ll not get deep enough with that,” Dad said in the end, prising the little plastic spade out of her hands. “You won’t find any real treasure. Not in a lifetime of digging.”

Graham kicks the can far out to sea. His best shoes and new black trousers are soaked through. They might dry out in time, if he walks slowly along the coast road to the church.’

I don’t feel Graham’s emotions deeply enough in this version, neither in the present day narrative, nor in his memories of the previous summer. So I added more detail to connect the past and present and suggest a deeper sense of loss:

‘Water flies up from Graham’s feet as he darts through the marsh, kicking a muddy aerosol can, dodging clumps of reeds. The sea has not crept up this far. Even at high tide, the marsh weakens the force of the waves slapping the sea walls and the sun has dissolved the last of the snow to trails of shattered frosting.

He passes a curlew feasting on mud snails. He skirts the deeper pools with their soft dash of fish and skim of heron wings, chasing the aerosol can all the way to the harbour and the old dredging beds where oysters are packed tight in the silt.

Last summer, Chrissie found oyster shells near the site of an ancient palace and their dad told her a family of Romans had sucked them empty two thousand years ago. After that, they couldn’t get her to come home. She thought she would find silver snake bands and laurel leaf crowns, bronze buckles baked into the sand.

By the evening, Dad’s shoulders were shining red. She was golden. Her bucket was jammed with the craggy old shells.

“Probably only your first two or three are actually Roman,” Dad said, touching his tender bald spot. “Day-trippers probably left the rest.”

He pointed out the day’s litter: a Tiger Tots packet, a Cresta bottle, a broken straw hat.

“No one lives long enough to dig deep enough to find real treasure,” he told her.

And with the unshakeable confidence of her seven and a half years, she said, “I will.”

Graham boots the can hard. Before he catches up with it, he drops to his knees, needing to unearth an unbroken shell, the kind Chrissie would want to take home, if she were with him now. He remembers her losing a perfect little crab-cast and how he searched for it, under every pebble, every scrap of seaweed, all the assorted rubbish.

Later, when the can has floated beyond the shallows and the waves are already nudging it out to sea, he is still crawling on the shore, peering between stones for something whole and intact, his dark trousers soaked and his black tie trailing.’

I think the second version is better, but could keep making revisions and never be sure. Editing is never really finished. You could pick up your ms a thousand times and find something to change, something to tinker with, something you used to love, but which now makes you wince (or vice versa). There is no optimal number of drafts you should write. No minimum, no maximum. Some authors write only one, others write thirty. It’s up to you. It may be different for every book you write. It’s a personal choice. Trust your own judgement.

The best advice I can give is never say, ‘That’ll do.’ It won’t be enough. You aren’t really satisfied. If you can bear to, put your draft away again and let time help you to see where improvements can be made. You will know when your novel is as perfect as you can make it.

On a different note, here is a tip which my husband discovered recently. I hope you find it as valuable as I do. I used to believe that when I copied something with Control C in Windows, it was immediately lost once I’d copied something else. However, if you use the Windows key with V, a clipboard appears with a chronological list of EVERYTHING you have copied. You can just scroll down and find the one you want.

Forgive me if you know about this already – but if not, you will be elated!

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