Called “Agatha Christie for people who inhale” by the Times of London, Paul Charles has had several stories in EQMM, including “The Eleventh Commandment,” an impossible-crime story that leads our current issue (March/April 2020). The tale features Detective Inspector Christy Kennedy, who also stars in eleven novels (see Departing Shadows). In this post the Northern Irish author discusses a source of dread for many writers: the blank page. We think some will find that empty space a little less daunting after reading what Paul has to say. —Janet Hutchings
I remember early in my writing career I had a few very enjoyable conversations with Colin Dexter. He was a major inspiration to me and when I’d bump into him at various events and, in one instance, during an interview I conducted with him for Shots—a U.K. crime magazine—he was always very gracious with his time, humour, encouragement, and advice.
He explained that he could never understand the blank-page or the blank-screen syndrome.
His point was: It is always better to make a start rather than holding out for the best opening line ever written.
So, as the above title claims, jumping off a diving board is much easier than you might first think. Of course, you need to know how to swim and how to hold your breath. Well, maybe you also might have to add a little bit of courage to that mix.
It’s the same with jumping into writing your story, long or short.
As Colin Dexter suggested, there’s no point sitting around waiting for inspiration, or even divine intervention for that matter.
Here is a good way to start. Put two people in a room together. You’ll never have met them before, but you can, by their dress sense and their air, imagine what they are like. Think what the two people might say to each other.
For instance, imagine you’re actually in a room with these two people. It can be anywhere, as long as you can overhear them, without them knowing you can hear them. It’s important to keep yourself out of the story.
One of them might say something like:
“The first man who drove nails into his horse’s hooves in order to shoe the horse was probably considered cruel.”
The other person might reply:
“So, you’re suggesting what was once considered to be cruel, can no longer be considered cruel?”
Now, the first person might be a murderer who is trying to justify his deed. The second person might be a detective, trying to coax the murderer to offer up a full confession.
Equally they could be two people who’ve just enjoyed too liquid a lunch and they are now on the sherry.
But the important thing is they will have started a conversation. As they start to engage each other, they will imply something. The reply might reveal something else again and gradually you’ll develop the texture of the conversation. Maybe only one of them will talk. What does that say about the talker and, equally, what do we learn about the silent one?
The first thing you write might not be great. The reality is the less great it is, the easier the next step will be. So yes, it might not be great, it might even be total rubbish, but at least you will have made your start. The start will be your jumping off the diving board moment. Once you’re prepared to “jump” into your story it will be like diving into the pool of your imagination. The instant you’ve left your diving board, four things are guaranteed: 1) you can’t turn around midair and return to the haven of the diving board; 2) you’re going to get your hair wet; 3) your life will never be the same again and 4) you will have made a start.
At the very least, with your start, you will have something.
You will have something, no matter how vague or sketchy, you can go back to. Look at adding a word here, taking out a sentence there. Sadly, it will always seem like you are taking out more than you are putting in. But day by day, week by week, maybe even month by month, your paragraph will become better and lead you on to the next paragraph and on and on.
Never set out to write a 350-page book. Never even set out to write a page; a paragraph to start with will do quite nicely, thank you very much.
Never set yourself a minimum number of words per-day task. I know some authors, some phenomenally successful authors, do. I find that you might just slip into being more preoccupied with your word count than your story. You have to find a way to totally immerse yourself in your story. Get to know your characters in the same way you know your friends. Remember the adage— keep your friends close and your enemies even closer. The same applies to your characters.
There will be several roadblocks along the way, particularly if you take a break from writing your story. The longer a break you take the longer it will take you to get back into it. If you go to your story each and every day, the plot and the characters will be forefront in your mind. You’ll be living with them, so each day you’ll naturally pick up from where you left off the day before. Running a spell check doesn’t count as working on you story.
I find six o’clock to nine-thirty in the morning works best for me. The day is fresh; your head is clear and there will be fewer distractions.
Distractions to be avoided include: the phone; the internet; answering emails; coffee; tea; Paris Buns (an Ulster delight, please Google them); remastered Beatles albums, Michael Connelly books; Robert A. Caro’s audible books, and “Breakfast With Beatles” on Radio KLOS 95.5FM. It has to be said all the above are much easier to avoid at 6 o’clock in the morning
The important thing to remember . . . getting started is the vital bit. Same with diving. It’s no use spending ages sitting up on the diving board with set squares and a compass working out your routine. Just jump. Make your marker. Then once you’ve made one, start to consider how you can make it better.
You will serve your story best by keeping yourself out of it.
Dally with your characters for a while; surrender to their rhythm. Don’t fret over plot issues. If you have the courage to leave it to your characters, they’ll resolve the various story concerns for you. This way you’ll make your stories as real as a dream you’re in the middle of. Be prepared that some of those dreams may turn out to be nightmares. You’ll find your characters screaming at your conscience to let them be themselves, to let them lead you.
When you are gifted a line, a saying, or you observe a character trait, catch it while you can. It doesn’t matter the time or the place, it’s best to write them down immediately, because the next day, believe me, they will be gone. When these gems go, they will rarely return. Just like all the great fish that escape the fisherman’s bait, all the ideas you fail to catch (or write down) will, with hindsight, turn out to have been the gifted material . . . if only you could remember them.
I’d like to close with another piece of advice I received from Colin Dexter. He felt there was nothing as uninviting as dense pages of print. He suggested not to be afraid to break up your writing with paragraphs and reported speech and sticking to short snappy chapters. Exactly, in fact, as he managed to do in his own fourteen classic D.I. Morse books (including one collection of short mysteries). He said his brother thought he was one of the best writers ever. Colin assured me this had little to do with brotherly love and more to do with the fact he had really short chapters in his books which meant his brother could get through one chapter each night before falling asleep.