photo – skater Paolo Bacchini of Italy, European Figure Skating Championships in Sheffield, 2016
There are people who long to be writers, although they haven’t yet begun to write. (see “I’ve Always Wanted To Be A Writer, but I’ve never written anything”) I started thinking, suppose such a person landed on my doorstep? What would I do to help them?
There’s as much to know about writing is there is to know about engineering. People go to graduate school to study writing, and long after they leave school, they’re still honing their craft.
But what if you’re picking up a pen for the first time. What’s the least you need to know?
What Is A Story? A story is a series of events (or insights, decisions, epiphanies) that result from a goal, a motivation to reach that goal, and obstacles that get in the way. In the end, the goal is reached (or not).
Where Do I Get Ideas? All ideas come from somewhere. They don’t originate inside your head. They pass through your head, but they come from somewhere else. There’s a book called Fieldstones which tells you to build up the raw material you’ll need for your writing. Notice landscapes, pay attention to clouds and the ocean, eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, have interesting life experiences. It’s all grist for the writing mill.
Nor is there anything wrong with re-using an existing plot. There are only so many plots out there, twenty according to one count ( boy meets girl, coming-of-age, escape, revenge, etc.) that it would be impossible not to repeat plots. Don’t even worry about it.
And characters? Most novels begin with the disclaimer, “This is a worth of fiction, the characters do not resemble any person living or dead.” As an author I can tell you, that is totally BS.
Finally, if you ever had worries that you’d use up all your good ideas in your first book and not have any left for the next one, most writers find that the well doesn’t dry up, it starts to overflow.
Start Small As a new writer, your first stories will probably be short, a couple of pages at most. That’s completely normal, the length of the story is closely associated with how long the writer has been writing.
Give Yourself Permission To Write Badly As a new writer, your first stories will almost certainly be awkward or clumsy. Think of the first time you ever went ice skating. Pretty lame, right? But if you want to learn to skate, you have to fall, get up, fall again, and get up again. You wouldn’t go out on the ice for the very first time and expect to be good at it. Writing is the same. And unlike ice-skating, no one will see your first attempts unless you let them.
The way to become a good writer is to start out as a bad writer. There’s no other way, we’ve all been there. Writing is mostly skill, it gets better with practice.
Exercise Your Writing Muscle If you write every day, writing gets easier and the quality of your writing gets better. There are two reasons for this.
First, if you do something regularly, it doesn’t take as long to get started. You know where your materials are, and your workspace hasn’t disappeared beneath ordinary household clutter. Also, when you write a lot, you think about it more when you’re not writing, and you get more ideas.
Second, there’s an inhibition about putting your private thoughts and feelings down on paper. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. When it’s done well, writing exposes your innermost self. Emotionally speaking, it’s like walking around naked. But if you do it all the time, you get used to it.
Writing is Hard Work You may see books or articles that promise, “The secret of …” or “Writing made easy”, but even Hemingway said, “Sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”
You can read a page in about a minute, but it might have taken a hundred times that long to write. (I recently got fan mail, “I really liked your book, I read it in just one day,” which I loved hearing, but I also thought, One day? Do you have any idea how long it took me to write it? Over a year!)
I find the experience of writing similar to the experience of reading, but slower and more intimate. It’s like the difference between driving along a scenic route and walking. It takes longer and it’s more work, but you feel it more deeply.
Write What You Like Stephen King said, “Write what you like to write about, even if it’s Teenage Zombies Ate My Brain.” His point was, when you’re writing about something you really enjoy, you’re doing your best work. I like to write fanfiction. My writing friends say, “You are such a good writer, you don’t need to be writing this schlock,” to which I say (middle finger extended). When I’m writing about ringwraiths, I’m having a seriously good time.
Keep Writing If it seems like you’ve hit a rough patch, keep writing. If you think you aren’t any good, keep writing. If someone important to you says they hate your story and you should be prevented from ever writing anything again, keep writing. The only way to learn to write is by writing, and the only way to become good is to write a lot.