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Jo-Anne Richards

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The secrets behind the practice of good writing: Go back to the beginning

07 December.JPGI rewrote the beginning of my last book about four more times than I edited the whole book (which was a lot).

I wanted the book to build up more gradually than, say, a thriller would. I wanted the start to develop a strong sense of my characters and their world. What I ended up with, though, was not gradual at all, but plain dreary.

I had become used to it. I was too fond of my own characters to notice. I forgot something absolutely basic – the start of a book must certainly introduce us to the characters in the world, but that’s not nearly enough. It has to draw us in. And that means tension and great dollops of literary conflict.

This doesn’t mean that my character has to be fighting someone. Literary conflict has a different meaning from conflict in real life. Basically, it means she must be facing something profound. Something has disturbed the balance of her life (otherwise there’s no story).

We’re often so in love with our own characters, we think readers will fall just as much in love  – at first sight. Sorry. A beginning must set up our first dates with them. Beyond creating the opportunity for us just to see them, our first meetings with them must fascinate, tease and intrigue us. We must find them attractive enough to follow through their story, and their lives must contain enough tension to force us to read on – even if this tension is entirely internal.

And here’s another thing I learnt and which, I believe, is a common discovery. I was feeling my way into a character who was quite different from me. In the first few chapters, I was still finding her voice. Further into the book, I embodied her more fully. Somehow I had to take the voice she developed during the course of the story, and allow that to infuse the beginning too.

I didn’t just rework the beginning. I scrapped it. I didn’t want its imperfect voice to creep into the new chapters, as it might if I simply fiddled with it. Once I had climbed inside her and taken on her tone and humour, I was able to embark on a completely new beginning.

As every journalist knows, you should probably spend as much time on your lead as you do on the rest of your piece.


Click here for our 2017 dates

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.


Click here to read this week’s Monday Motivation: Make ‘em hungry for more


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