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Jo-Anne Richards

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The secrets behind the practice of good writing: If you want for nothing – it’s the end of your story

30 November.JPGIn life people speak about “wanting for nothing” as though it’s a good thing.

Actually, in life and in stories, it’s not a good thing at all. It means, basically, that we’re ready for death. Sure, many of us should strive to make do with less, in material terms. We should want fewer “things”.

But we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t long for success, to produce something exceptional, perhaps for spiritual enlightenment.

As far as characters are concerned, there’s no such thing as wanting for nothing. Wanting things, longing for things, gives your character energy and intensity. It is essential to story.

Kurt Vonnegut said that every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

Their larger desires set up the basis for a story. When they want nothing and aren’t prepared to fight for anything, clearly you can close the book and go to bed.

But their smaller desire for, say, a glass of water, sets up tension on every page, and provides your characters with agency. Their smaller desires provide complexity.

No reader is that interested in following the travails of a passive character to whom things just happen. We have little patience with them. And, if they start out passive, they’d better gain some agency before too much time has elapsed.

In life, we tend not to find people compelling if there’s nothing at all they’re looking forward to. Why should we put up with it in a character.


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My 2016 blogs will continue to try to uncover the secrets behind the practice of good writing.

Please join the discussion and if you have discovered something that has made a great difference to some aspect of your writing, please send it to me. I’ll share it on the blog and we can discuss it.

Each blog will deal with a secret that may have occurred to me through reading or mentoring other people’s work. Or they may  be lessons hard learnt through five of my own books. Many will be applicable to fiction and non-fiction, while some might refer to one or the other.  When you tackle a piece of writing, you always have a vision of the perfect work it will be. As you write, you become increasingly aware of how it falls short of the perfection you wish for it. Writing (and rewriting) is the process of trying to bring it as close as you possibly can to that vision. Here, I will try to share those little gems which should bring all our writing one step closer to the perfect piece of writing – one blog at a time. Some might tackle the process of writing or how to keep writing, while some will look at language, characterisation or story. Some might be more general, while others will be very specific. But each will be a piece of advice that I believe in and that I hope will help make us all into better writers.


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