Tim Lott’s first book The Scent of Dried Roses was published in 1996 and won the PEN Ackerley prize. His tenth book, When We Were Rich, will be published in June 2019. He lives in London and East Sussex, and works as a writing mentor, novelist and journalist.
I’ve been writing all my life, but only published my first book at the age of 40, a memoir: The Scent of Dried Roses, now a Penguin Modern Classic. My first novel, White City Blue, was published subsequently, and won the Whitbread First Novel Award. Since then I have written eight books, among them two Young Adult titles. Several of my later books have been shortlisted for major awards. Most of them have been optioned for TV or film. My latest novel, a follow up to White City Blue, will be released in 2019.
When I started writing books, I was immensely intimidated, mainly because I didn’t know what I was doing, and lacked much confidence, coming as I did from a fairly humble background (my father was a greengrocer and the only books we had in the house were the AA Book of the Road and The Guinness Book of Records). So, I just decided to bluff it – and it paid off.
However, I now realise how lucky I was to be able to do my apprenticeship as an author ‘on the job’ so to speak. It took me a long time to try and consciously work out what it was that I was able, at a crude level, to do instinctively. This process began when I started teaching at the Faber Academy, and continued when I moved to the Guardian Masterclasses, where I remain as a teacher and lecturer.
I had always in the past been sceptical of the benefits of teaching – I thought it could get in the way of creativity – but I have learned that, in the hands of an expert, it can be immensely useful. The trouble is, many good writers – who often teach in higher education faculties – are much in the position I was when I started writing. They know they can do what they do, but aren’t really aware of how they do it; writing and teaching are two very different processes.
I have spent the last five years studying the craft of memoir and novel writing, much in the way most screenwriters study storytelling for film and television scripts. I consider myself an expert on what you might call the ‘what happens next’ problem – because the real difficulty most writers come up against is not so much writing style, or dialogue, or character (although these are tricky enough). What they struggle with is the fundamental question of storytelling, both for the reader and the writer – the ‘what happens next?’
After thinking about this subject for many years, and meeting with and discussing it with brilliant thinkers on story shape such as Robert McKee (Story) and John Yorke (Into the Woods) I have finally – I think – understood the common structure that lies behind all stories. Like radically diverse faces, all have common bone structures behind them; stories all tend to flow along the same channel. It is this channel that I investigate and continue to explore.
So how do you deal with the question of ‘what happens next’? Well, some of it, of course, is down to your imagination – and there’s little I can do to help you there. But what a proper story plan does is provide clues to what might be a way forward. You can’t do it in an A-B-C fashion – that would be writing by numbers – but by having a sense of the landscape you are inhabiting, you are not left nearly so high and dry and clueless, a place I found myself often in the early part of my career.
The structure of stories, it seems, is naturally lodged in our subconscious. That is why the oldest English story, Beowulf, written a thousand years ago, is so remarkably similar in shape to Peter Benchley’s book, Jaws (later made into one of the most successful movies of all time). It also explains why George Lucas, having read Joseph Campbell’s book on the universal nature of stories, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, was able to produce, using Campbell’s template, the most successful global template for a story ever – Star Wars. The question is not so much, ‘how can I write a story according to universal structure?’ but ‘how can I teach my subconscious to work along the lines that classical story form requires?’
Of course, you can ignore this universal structure – many writers do, and some disdain it. As a result, there are a lot of interesting novels with little or no plot. But they tend to be commercially unsuccessful, although they are sometimes critically admired. And nowadays, when a writer’s success depends so much on selling their stories to TV or film, the ‘story’ part of a novel is more crucial than ever.
I teach these principles in public with, among others, John Yorke, but a large part of my time nowadays is spent on individual mentoring of writers. I have found teaching writing at least as fruitful and enjoyable as writing itself, because to bring out the latent abilities of anyone who is struggling with this most difficult of tasks is an enormous pleasure. I try not only to teach, but to input my own creative imagination into the pages of the novel-in-development, acting not only as a mentor, but as a partner.