I have been thinking a lot about time travel lately. This isn’t surprising, given that I’ve just written a book in which the characters can visit their younger selves -- and their ancestors -- in the form of ghosts. What would you do, if you could do that? And what would I say if I got the chance to haunt myself at the beginning of my efforts to write fiction? Apart from ‘boo!’ that is.
I remember that beginning quite clearly -- it was the start of 2005, a year and a half after I’d moved to France. I was house-sitting alone for a couple of weeks, trying to meet an illustration deadline and walking someone else’s dog. On those daily tramps through the woods, I came to realise that not only did I have a whole novel-sized story rattling around in my head, I was also no longer afraid to try writing it down.
Now that I am on the point of seeing my first book reach print (not the book mentioned above, naturally), I can look back over the whole experience and draw some conclusions. So, as a time-travelling ghost, what writing/crafting/story-telling tips would I give my younger self when I appear before him in the woods? Before my younger self passes out from shock, I think I could get across at least five:
1 – Storytelling trumps everything.
…especially when you are writing for a young readership. And I mean everything. It’s more important than historical (or contemporary) accuracy, more important than the things you worry you should be writing about, and certainly more important than the demands of your ego. People NEED good stories. Just be grateful for the chance to supply them.
2 – Don’t aspire to be a great writer, aspire to be a great story-teller.
…and don’t call it ‘writing’, call it ‘work’. Above all, don’t aspire to be a writor (with an ‘o’). Writors (with an ‘o’) are poncy people who ‘commune with their muse’ and complain about wine. Instead, go into the ring bare knuckled, and don’t come out till your book is lying face-down in the blood and sawdust. That’s the work. Now you can drink the wine.
3 – ‘Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie’
Okay, I stole this one from Stephen King, but my younger self doesn’t know that. It's time he did. Let’s hope he’s taking notes.
4 – Plan ahead.
…even if it doesn’t come naturally. You don’t have to stick to the plan, just give yourself a clear sense of what you’re aiming for. Trying to make up a complicated plot as you go is a bit like brick-laying in the dark. You wouldn’t build a house that way, so why do it to build a world?
5 – Listen to criticism. Also, BOO!