A couple of times over the last eighteen months, people have asked about ‘how to write a story’, and I’ve read some samples that were energetic and ambitious, but not quality writing. (I say this fully aware that I am growing as a writer, and am more guilty of failed composition than of good writing.) I say that what I read was not quality writing, not only because of mistakes in grammar, but because certain preparations had not been made. We'll go over how to write effectively.
All creativity begins in your head. Unquestionably the absolutely-must, 100%-required, don’t-leave-home-without-it necessity is this: Believe in yourself. If you aren’t thoroughly convinced you can start and complete this writing project, you are doomed from the start.
Certain steps are obvious. You have to know your subject, your purpose in writing, and who you want to reach. You need some plan for telling the story (the outline is helpful). Other steps should be obvious, but in the excitement of ‘becoming an author’ and the enthusiasm to ‘tell the story’, often are missed. To accomplish this, you have to have ‘tools’.
What are your tools? Read other writers’ work and expose yourself to as many different styles, and as many different genres, of writing as you can. Read many different authors within each genre. Read mysteries, if that’s your interest, but read poetry and non-fiction as well. Although you are writing a non-fiction article, exposure to fictional writing may help you reach a larger audience because of some literary technique you discover. Reading poetry helps build a rich vocabulary, and a sensitivity to phrasing that can turn a mundane sentence into something truly compelling. The larger your vocabulary, the greater the richness and sensitivity with which you can write. By reading ‘outside your area’, you collect bits of fact than can be useful in giving your writing substance.
Let’s say you want to write fantasy stories. You should read JRR Tolkien, Piers Anthony, Spider Robinson, Lloyd Alexander and others. Include some of the older children’s stories like Mary Poppins and Wind in the Willows. Elements that are common to all the stories are part of the genre, so you will want to include them in your story. Read fairy tales too, and don’t limit yourself to Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. Read Russian fairy tales, and Japanese ghost stories. Look into Native American folklore. Here is a wealth of material for the fledgling fantasy writer!
In every creative discipline, the end ‘product’ is the result of practice! practice! practice! Every successful book has gone through myriad drafts and revisions (rehearsing), and a few arguments with an editor (the audience/critic). No one just bangs out a good best-seller without these steps. Two questions resonate in the creative person’s mind: 1) is this what I wanted? and 2) can I do this better?
Regardless of what you are writing, you have to know:
- yourself and how you want people to see you in this instance;
- what it is you want to say, and why;
- to whom you are speaking;
- when to stop.
Recently, a friend decided to write her life story, and showed me some of her early efforts. As far as I could tell, she hadn’t answered most of these questions. I never knew what aspect of her Self was speaking. Was she a wise woman who had learnt much during her journey on Earth, or a tragic victim of a painful childhood? Was the reader meant to see her as a hero, a philosopher, or a psycho?
A mistake that many neo-writers make is forcing a ‘writing style’—trying to write in the manner of someone they have read. Can you imagine a book like ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ if it had been written by AA Milne, or ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ by Alexander Solzhenitsyn? The writing style of an author is the result of considerable growth and maturation, plenty of rehearsal, and a willingness to look critically within and accept this can be better (until, of course, it can’t be).
Good writing is the fruit of humility; bad writing is a source of humiliation.
So, here you are. You know who you are; you know what information or tale you want to relate; you have an idea how to cause readers to be most receptive. You know your subject. You know why you want to tell this particular tale. The computer is on, your coffee is at hand, your story is mapped out, and you’re feeling very ‘authorly’. What comes next?
BALANCE. Pick a starting point. Write down the basic elements of what you want to say. When you’ve done that, leave the room.
That’s hard to do. Some perfectly wonderful tales have become perfectly dreadful writings because:
- the author was too descriptive;
- the author wasn’t descriptive enough;
- the author wasn’t informative enough;
- the author didn’t know when to stop.
After reading the latest work of a best-selling author, I checked the reviews posted by fellow library-goers and was gratified that we all agreed on one particular point: the author missed at least half a dozen good opportunities to end his book, and as such, it dragged on forever.
Similarly, I read a book about whales that was so stunningly written that after I put it down I didn’t want to pick it up again. The author wrote beautiful and detailed descriptions—so beautiful and so detailed, in fact, that the book was difficult to read and understand. The experience was akin to eating too much rich food too fast.
I imagine many people think a story ‘simply flows’ from the writer’s pen, when in fact it must be built, almost in the same way you would build a house. You need plans, your materials and tools, you have to know how long it is meant to be, and who is going to read it.
Follow the outline you’ve set for yourself; you’ve researched the story; you know what you want to say. Say it. Come back later and look it over. Now you can start getting ‘artsy’ with it—lay down some descriptions, embellish some sentences, editing as you go along. Eventually you’ll have a finished draft. (Oh bother, all that work and we still aren’t done? No.)
When you’ve completed a draft, read it over to yourself, and read it out loud. You’ll be surprised, as you listen to yourself, how wonderful certain passages sound, and how awful others do. Some sentences simply won’t feel right, and you should pay attention to that feeling. As you listen to yourself, you’ll catch the over-usage of words and phrases, another thing that can kill good writing. (I once gave a lecture at a university, and in my final preparations discovered I had used the same word six times on one page!) This will help you refine your writing.
In the beginning of this article I mentioned the importance of an outline. Some writers view this as crucial, while others prefer to ‘let the book write itself,’ which also can be very useful, depending on how inspired you feel. Both approaches have validity, but in my experience, a combination of the two has been most satisfying. A dedicated writer will view the outline as a guideline. Feel free to experiment and play with words and ideas—sometimes you can be inspired by your own creativity. Don’t hesitate to change your storyline, or write more than one version of a scene to see which plays out best. Flexibility is as important as discipline in any creative field, and the more flexible you are, the more satisfying your creation will be.
One more thing—creativity depends on practice! practice! practice! Do your best to write every day, even if the end result of a day’s exercise ends up in the rubbish bin. It gets easier as you go along, and your skills and talents will be honed and refine.
You have the technology, you have the facts. You can build your story and make it better. You may earn $6 million, so get out there and write!