How to Create Storylines - Notes from a Bestselling Novelist

In this authonomy writing tips article Cathy Kelly, best-selling woman's commercial fiction author, gives her advice on how to create storylines. For more writing tips and advice on how to get published check out our writing tips section.

Novelist Cathy Kelly was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, brought up in Dublin and started her working life as a journalist at an Irish national newspaper. She worked as both a news and feature reporter, and worked as the paper’s film critic for five years, as well as being the agony aunt for seven years.

Her first book, Woman To Woman, was published in 1997 and was an instant bestseller, spending eight weeks at number one on the Irish bestseller charts. Her subsequent novels have been number ones all around the world and are published in many different languages. Cathy lives in Wicklow in Ireland with her partner, John, and their twin sons, Murray and Dylan.

In 2005, she was appointed as a UNICEF Ireland Ambassador. She’s since visited Mozambique and Rwanda as part of her work with UNICEF. Global Parenting – caring for children orphaned or affected by HIV/AIDS – is the main focus of her work with UNICEF.

What’s the number one piece of advice for putting a great story down on paper?

Since I first looked at authonomy, I’ve met loads of people who want to write, so well done to you all, believe in yourselves and keep at it. And that’s almost the best advice I can give, actually: keep at it.

Talking about your book won’t get it written. You’ve got to put in the hours at the kitchen table/computer/wherever. Whenever I do talks or signings, I get asked about how to write a book and I think about five per cent of the people I meet are working on something.

It’s wonderful that so many people love writing and have a story they want to tell. In the past two years, I’ve worked a lot with emerging writers and it’s the most wonderful experience to read early work and try to advise and guide people along the road to getting published. My advice depends a lot on what sort of work it is or where the person is in their book.

But certainly, sit down and do it is pretty high on the list for being creative. It’s no good keeping it in your head – you have to get it down on paper, which is, hilariously, the hard bit.

Story writing is supposed to be a creative process. Wouldn’t it be more helpful for us all to tear up the rule book?

It’s tricky to lay down rules about writing. One person’s ‘I never do that!’ is another person’s ‘but I always do that.’ Perhaps it’s better to say there are principles. And the point is that if you are fabulously brilliant and can make words dance across a page, then you can take the rules/principles and throw them out the window.

But…yes, there’s always a but. Painters are the best way to explain the but. Picasso painted incredible, exquisite, life-enhancing pictures and he left all the rules/principles standing bewildered by the roadside. But before he did that to the rules, he mastered them.

Master the rules before you break them.

That’s the point: before you write a two-hundred-thousand-word stream-of-consciousness novel, you need to get the rules. A big part of that is reading. I’ve probably said this endlessly before too, but if you want to write professionally, you need to read almost professionally.

Reading also influences how you present your book. When you send it off to the agents and publishers listed in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, you need to present it properly. Your story might be fabulous but if you haven’t checked your spelling, laid it out correctly, grasped the whole area of using separate lines for different lines of dialogue, or used quotation marks correctly, then the agent or publisher might well throw it on the ‘look at that later’ pile. Much later. Reading and paying attention to how books are laid out will help you with that.

I keep hearing that storytelling is so important… Can you tell me more about how to achieve a strong storyline?

There are whole books on the art of the story and I wouldn’t dream of thinking I could better them and explain it here. Hell, there are many times when I stumble through chapters, thinking I haven’t a clue about story (if you agree, don’t write in: I’m my own worst critic, honestly.) But what I have learned is that you need a story to carry you through the whole book or else you sit in the middle, realising that your character is stuck and you have no idea what to do with them.

Do plan ahead. I start with a mental plan of a book and it’s like a train journey from one end of the world to the other. I might know five of the stops on the journey and the final destination, but that’s all. I let the book and the characters tell me as I write where we have to stop off.

Precisely where in your story you begin the journey is very important. If, for example, it’s about a child and her dog dies, you could start the story with the dog having died and what happens next. So it starts off hard and gritty. What happens next determines what your book is about. Redemption? The child slowly learning about death and getting a new pet?

Or do you start with a week before the dog dies, where the reader is aware of what’s going to happen (possibly from the blurb on the back of the book) but the child isn’t. This could be about the pain that’s just around the corner and about growing up.

The thing is, both books could sound like the same book: ‘I want to tell a story about myself when I was seven and my dog died.’ And depending on where you start, you end up writing two very different books. You, the writer, needs to be aware of what you’re doing. And you need to be open to change. You might write 20,000 words with one beginning and then decide you were wrong: that the book should start before the dog dies…..oops. That is where a good reading friend is useful.

How should I handle feedback?

I’ve said it before, if you have someone who reads a lot and will be honest with you (most of the authonomy community!), ask them for their opinion. By the way, you don’t have to take their advice but don’t shoot the messenger if they don’t like the book.

I was once asked for an honest appraisal, gave it (very gently, I should add – I don’t do the hard, cold type of appraisal. I am honest but kind and constructive) and the person concerned was horrified, shocked and determined not to listen to one word I’d said. Don’t ask if you don’t want to hear.

Finally, I’ve had great fun reading a book about screenwriting by Joe Esterhaz – The Devil’s Guide To Hollywood. It’s funny, clever and a marvellous read for writers.