How to write a plot – novelist MJ Hyland’s advice

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Saturday 15th October 2011

A staggering 150,000 books were published in the UK last year – yet thousands of us yearn to add even more to the pile.

Writing’s a long, hard, solitary business so I’m always looking for ways to escape my office. On a sunny autumn morning I came up with the perfect plan and drove 40 miles through the stunning Cotswolds countryside to attend a Writing a Good Plot workshop at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Tickets to the three-hour event cost a hefty £25 but the session was so stuffed with good advice I reckon it’s the best money I’ve spent in a long time.

The 30 or so of us who’d signed up were an eclectic bunch, ranging from a showbiz agent to a couple of education publishers to a young A level student. Some had written novels, short stories and poetry galore, while others were just thinking about getting started.

The workshop was run by MJ (Maria) Hyland, who’s no slouch in the novel-writing stakes herself. The author of three novels – her second, Carry Me Down, was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker prize – she also teaches at the Centre for New Writing at Manchester University. I’m deadly envious because she’s got the next-door office to one of my all-time favourite writers, Colm Tóibin. If you haven’t read Brooklyn yet by the way, you’re in for a treat.

Sitting cross-legged on a chair at the front of the class, Hyland deftly led us through her tried and tested ways to plot a novel. She offered such constructive, achievable advice, particularly for procrastinators like me, that I scribbled page after page of notes. Here are some of her tips for writing that tricky first draft:

1. Turn the internet off and put a sign on the door saying “go away, I’m writing.”

2. Write as though no one will ever read it. “The best writing I have ever done is when I forget the world and forget that it’s ever going to be read,” said Hyland. “I am just sitting and telling a fictional truth.”

3. If you can bear it, try writing the first draft with a pen. Writers often faff about choosing fonts that look pretty, changing margin widths and looking at word counts. If you do use a computer, said Hyland, “choose an ugly font. Then you’ll see what’s really on the page.”

4. Begin each writing session without looking at what you wrote last time. “Don’t get bogged down by what came before.”

5. “Don’t think about the 100,000 words you’re writing. Write your novel scene by scene. Make it work as a moment of drama and move the characters through the drama scene by scene.”

6. Most writers begin with an idea that obsesses them. “It’s got to be something that you care about, something that fascinates you and will fascinate you for a long time to come.”

7. The three main components of a plot are conflict, setting and characters – although interestingly, Hyland pointed out that sometimes the setting of a book may be so strong “that it takes care of the plot.”

8. The plot must be controlled and tight. “Don’t go on about anything that doesn’t feed the story,” said Hyland. “Make sure stuff needs to be there. Avoid summarising – ask yourself how information can be enacted or shown on the page in the moment.”

9. Lots of us assume that the plot is of a novel comprises a series of events but Hyland declared a plot can be built on themes – for example, loyalty, breach of loyalty, unfaithfulness or a search for the holy grail.

10. If you’re stuck it’s a good idea to read lots of non-fiction. As Hyland said: “There’s no better place for ideas.”

PS: There’s a brilliant interview with musician Noel Gallagher in today’s Times. It relates how he was watching TV earlier this year when his long-term girlfriend (and mother of two of his three children) Sara MacDonald said to him: “Just so you know, I’m not getting married when I’m past 40.” Gallagher glanced up and asked: “How old are you now?”

PPS: In fact MacDonald was 39 and a few months, and they duly married this summer. As Gallagher added: “… you can’t keep introducing your other half as ‘the girlfriend’ when you get to Rod Stewart’s age.”

9 comments so far

  • I love the tip about writing in an ugly font because that really works. Even reading through what you’ve written on a laptop instead of your usual PC (or vice verse) helps because you see your words in a different setting. But my best tip is to read everything out loud. If you have to gasp for breath then your sentence is too long. If your dialogue sounds like a hammy actor then fix it. You may be considered by all a crazed writer talking to herself in the attic but it’s the best advice I ever received as a writer.

  • Thanks Wendy. I tried the ugly font trick yesterday and it worked a treat. At the risk of sounding bonkers I’m going to try the reading aloud tip too!

  • That was such helpful advice. Particularly about switching the internet off. It is so tempting to break off each time an email arrives but it completely destroys your train of thought

  • Thank you for commenting, Sarah and Tom. I hadn’t heard of the ugly font idea or the never looking back at what you’ve written while you’re on the first draft. I’m going to try both.

  • I enjoyed reading this and will definitely try the horrible font idea. Also found point. 9 interesting. Know I should turn the internet off but need someone to make me do it!

  • I’m glad it was helpful, Anita. Good luck with the horrible font and point 9 – hope the writing goes well.

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