Professional Ghost

Great ways to begin the writing process

I learned my best lesson about starting the writing process as a young reporter. Having secured my journalistic qualifications at the fantastic Southern Daily Echo in Southampton, I’d succumbed to the lure of the bright lights of London and begun working for national newspapers. It transpired that my news editor at one particular tabloid was every bit as terrifying as the angry-editor-trope that is regularly used in movie depictions of newsrooms. Even seasoned hacks would approach his desk in trepidation when they needed to tell him about a story they wanted to work on.

This news editor had a simple rule: reporters needed to sum up their entire scoop in one sentence. Not a single word more. This sentence had to be compelling enough to get the green light to continue. Or, more importantly, not to get chewed out in the most horrifying and public way. I can still remember pacing up and down in the corridor, trying out different headlines out loud, desperate not to fall foul of his sharp tongue.

The process taught me how to summarise my stories in the most powerful way. More importantly, it made me really think about what was most important about what I wanted to say. At the beginning of any writing process, it is very easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of the task. Inevitably, there will be dozens of plot lines or topics that you are quite certain you need to include. The sheer weight of information can make it almost impossible to think clearly.

Writing a whole book is very different from writing a news piece or feature, but if you understand how the narrative is going to develop, and have properly defined all the component parts, it makes it a lot easier to focus on your starting point. It is for this reason that I find it really helps to plot out a synopsis of the whole book before I begin with chapter one, or indeed that dreaded page one. It not only provides a helpful road map as I go along, but it’s also a very useful pointer of where I need to focus my thought processes from the beginning.

Another journalistic trick that I learned back then, that I still rely on today, is to just get on with it. Start writing. Get something on the page. Once things start to flow, you will quickly find your direction. Then (and this is the magic part), highlight your first sentence, or even paragraph and press the ‘delete’ key. (Or the ‘cut’ one if you are not feeling brave enough). Nine times out of ten, the next sentence or paragraph that you are left with is perfect. It’s the absolutely brilliant, 100% attention-grabbing, beginning you were looking for all along. Try it.

Something else along the same lines is to allow yourself to write badly. If your head is bubbling over with ideas, get them down on the page. Don’t tie yourself in knots trying to craft your sentences into the perfect prose. That can come later. Ditto, don’t worry if you stray off topic at times. If you have something to work with you can tweak and polish it when the time comes. Remember, you always have that delete key and you don’t need to show your manuscript to anyone until you are completely ready. (Another good tip here is to leave a time gap before revising your copy. A break of even a few days can give you completely fresh eyes. You’ll be in a different mindset and your copy will hit a different note too.)

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to offer the reader absolutely everything you have from the off, in order to entice them to stick with your book. Yes, this the moment when most readers make up their mind whether or not to plough on, or try another book, but it’s a huge mistake to cram in too much. Including long-winded details of as many characters as possible, along with their motivations, reasons for being in the book and relationships with each other will only ever be a turn off. The narrative should develop as you go on. Tempt and tease your reader: but don’t reveal all too soon.

It should go without saying that you should get rid of all distractions when you write. First drafts are tricky enough, without social media messages bleeping, emails flashing up, or radios blaring in the background. Turn off any instant message devices, resolve to only check emails twice a day and find somewhere quiet to write. Interruptions destroy your focus and it can take forever to reset.

My final thought on this subject is this: if you are still stuck after days and days of struggling, maybe you are not writing the book you really want to write. I know from experience that my personal interest in a subject makes all the difference. This is the reason why I am very careful about the ghostwriting projects I take on. If you are not passionate about your theme, it will be a tremendous struggle to get started and even more of a trial getting it finished. If, even after following this advice, you still find it almost impossible to write the first page, it might well be a signal that you are heading down the wrong path. Go back a stage, rethink your narrative and find something that does interest you.

If you would like to learn more about the benefits of working with a ghostwriter, or would like to discuss your book with me, please get in touch at teenalyons@professionalghost.org