Becoming a Writer—Part 2, Learning How to Write and Thinking About Where
You already decided you want to write and you have an idea of what you want to write. So now you are ready to get started. You fire up your computer or your tablet, or you pick up your pen or pencil.
Sure, you can just jump right in. You can start a blog, if you don’t already have one, on Blogger or WordPress.com. You can post your poems, your short stories or whatever thoughts may occur to you on Google +. You can find many sites on the web to submit flash fiction—the really short bits of writing that are much less than the typical short story. You can submit feature articles or stories to print or online magazines. You can even go to Amazon and create a Kindle account to upload your work to publish an eBook. Or you can use CreateSpace on Amazon to create a print book. There are plenty of other options for self-publishing as well–Kobo, Smashwords, Lulu and many others. Should you? No, not right away,
Why not? Because you want to make sure what you write is of a quality that won’t embarrass or short circuit eventual success at attracting readers or selling your work in whatever market fits what you are writing. If you surf the web, you will find countless complaints (rants even) about the “crap” that can be found among eBooks and on websites. You have probably seen some of it yourself. What should you do? Learn more about writing well and before putting something out there in print or as an eBook make sure it has been edited. Take your chances on blogs and social media if you like, but remember—nothing ever leaves the web, it will be discoverable forever. OK, enough of what not to do; read on for how to get there.
As the quote from Stephen King emphasized in the February edition, the best way to learn how to write is read a LOT. Finding ideas for content is the easy part—they are everywhere. People around you in cafes, stores, waiting rooms, etc., talking to one another or on their phones—heedless of anyone within earshot. You will hear many interesting things. You will also learn something about creating realistic dialogue in the process. Ideas for content are all over TV, the web, print media and in school or the workplace. If you are writing non-fiction, the same is true; news about current studies, reports or inventions—not to mention political or scientific controversies. Back to fiction, you don’t need the ideas of other writers for creating your own work. What you can learn from other writers is how they express those ideas. How they show the conflict that a protagonist must deal with and how that moves the story along. How a plot works. What works and what doesn’t.
Still in college? Take some literature classes. Take some composition classes. Take a creative writing class, if there is one. Out of school? Try a community college for writing classes or adult education through the local school system. Find writing prompts online. Writing prompts typically include a few sentences, sometimes more, to stimulate thought that will get you started. Find a writing group at a local writing group when you have something to share.
If your grammar, syntax, sentence structure and the like are not optimal, you can get help through classes or from books.
The venerable Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss with its somewhat more humorous way of explaining the importance of grammar and punctuation.
Less didactic but very helpful books like–the previously mentioned Stephen King book,
William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (for writing non-fiction)
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird,
Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life,
Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way
Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing
Philip Gerard’s Writing a Book That Makes a Difference (for both fiction and non-fiction)
Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir—to name just a few.
You can find most of these books in your local library. Many are now also available as eBooks in multiple formats. They are also available from used bookstores, new from brick and mortar stores or online. If you want to search for and buy them from Amazon, you can use the search box on the home page of this website (disclosure: that may result in a small pittance coming Eagle Peak’s way from Amazon). For many more books on the inspirational side, you can also see Stephen King’s list of books that have influenced him, at this site.
OK, you have done all that or decided you will just wing it, now what? As we said at the beginning, this article is neither comprehensive nor an online writing course. What follows are general principles that apply to anyone who wants to write. We will start with suggestions that apply to both fiction and non-fiction and then will move on to concepts and tips that apply specifically to one or the other. Some of them may seem simple or obvious but many people still overlook them. The most important advice is this: there are no hard and fast rules to technique; there are strong advocates for one prescription or another but ultimately you have to find what works for you and not feel you are “doing it wrong” if you don’t follow some “expert’s” advice on how to write. It is important, nonetheless, to know what those “rules” are so that you can break them not out of ignorance or impunity but because you know when it’s OK and again, what works for you and your writing.
General writing tips
- Find a quiet, distraction free writing space if possible—make it so with headphones, a door or other means. Writing is a mental exercise; don’t try to multitask.
- Devote a solid block of time, whenever possible—build up to a few hours, if your circumstances permit, from 30 minutes. Otherwise, you will find it difficult to focus and get into a flow.
- Make use of the writing tools that work best for you—try pens, laptops, desktops even typewriters if you have access one, until you find a level of comfort.
- Set meaningful goals or determinations for progress—words or pages, time, etc. Here is an example of varying opinions or advice: some will suggest you must set a goal of X number of words no matter what; others will say you must spend at least a certain number of minutes/hours. It is up to you, in analyzing your own level of self-discipline versus laziness or procrastination (among other things) to make your own commitment in a way that makes sense to you. Artificial rules won’t help and will only frustrate you.
- Have everything you need to be comfortable—clothes, food, beverages and the right chair; you can’t write if you are uncomfortable. Poor posture is not good for the body or the mind. Use a keyboard properly to avoid wrist problems. Blink and look away from a monitor from time to time to protect your eyes.
- If you are using a computer, consider what software you will use–Word-processing software will work for a start. Eventually you might want to consider specialized software such as Scrivener (usable on both Mac and Windows). If you want to blog or put stuff up on the web, you don’t necessarily have to start with a word-processor but it’s not a bad idea to get your work together in the final form you want before you load it up on the web.
- Is there such a thing as “writer’s block?”—You have heard the phrase often enough. It means you are staring at a blank page and can’t figure out what to put there. Some say it’s a myth or it really is something else. Don’t get hung up on the concept. Consider these options to deal with that empty page:
- Get up and walk around for a few minutes. Step outside for a change of perspective, fresh air, etc.
- Open or pick up another writing project and work on it for a while, then come back to the one that isn’t moving for you
- Re-examine notes, an outline or whatever planning document you may have
- Just work through it, if you can, putting something/anything on the page; you can always change it later
- Switch media—put down the pen and boot up the computer or vice versa
- Get some coffee, tea or another beverage; have a snack or a meal
- Only as a last resort, shut it down for the time being and come back to it later—but be sure you do
Nonfiction Writing Tips
There are only two major categories of prose—fiction and non-fiction. The distinguishing feature of non-fiction, of course, is that it should be true that doesn’t mean it can’t be creative—especially for those writing memoirs and personal essays. Which simply means that these and similar types of writing can make use of a narrative style which includes imagery, potentially a story arc and where necessary to proceed can sometimes use dialogue embellished with what the writer honestly believes is reflective of what individuals might have said during conversations 40-50 years ago or supplement details of events that follow logically. Could anyone truly believe that Frank McCourt accurately recalled every conversation and every incident in his bestselling and critically acclaimed Angela’s Ashes? I don’t, yet I’m sure it’s close to reality. But when you’re writing most other non-fiction, truth is critical. More on that and other tips below:
- Be truthful; facts and not fiction are what you must write or risk justified criticism—exceptions:
- Memoirs and personal essays, as noted above, may necessarily require some invention
- Opinion pieces, which represent your beliefs and conclusions about possibly controversial issues where the facts are in dispute (climate change, for example)
- Satirical essays, which often might include hyperbole an inventions but aren’t really fiction if their point is to criticize or suggest change
- Do the research necessary to be truthful—Google and Wikipedia may be a starting point today, but unless you are writing an item discussing the value of them versus other sources, they are not sufficient
- Primary research trumps relying on secondary sources (see Google and Wikipedia, above); that means going to the original studies, reports, etc., on which the secondary sources rely
- Reference librarians are helpful; that’s what they chose to do with their lives and they can direct you to sources you might not think of or find on your own but don’t expect them to do your research for you
- If you are a scientist or researcher yourself in any field and you are writing, you already know much of this—especially the need for data, statistics, analyses, etc. to back up conclusions but these tips are not for meant for your publication of studies in peer journals but for articles or features intended for general audiences so,
- Avoid jargon and write at a grade level of readability that a general audience can understand the meaning and import of what you are writing
- Cite sources and attribute facts and conclusions of others properly
- History is written by victors or survivors, whose inclusions, exclusions and conclusions about what really happened are not necessarily consistent; certainly not on what significance is attached to events (recently President Recep Erdogan of Turkey strongly condemned Pope Francis’s remarks about the 1915 genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, for example; an issue now 100 years old) so where there are differing views, you do well to present the various scenarios and defend your position on which is correct if you are taking one
- No matter whether it’s a short piece or a full-length book, you should consider how and why your work is different or better than any others out there on the same topic;
- If not, why should anyone bother reading it—the web is full of regurgitated tips or news about making use of this technological advancement or that
- Make yours fresh by putting a new spin on it or distinguishing it from what others have written
- Establish your authority through work and educational credentials, as well as commenting on the books or writings of others via the web, magazines, etc., to the point that by the time that you publish your item or book your expertise will be recognized.
Fiction Writing Tips
Fiction, no matter the length or the genre, has a number of elements that you probably already are well aware of:
- Plot—the narrative or storyline of events that make up the story; depending on the length and complexity of the work, there may be a number of subplots
- Protagonist—the main character, often at odds with an agonist also known as the bad guy
- Secondary characters with whom the protagonist interacts
- Setting—where the story takes place; there could be multiple settings for different scenes but there is still likely a main focal place for the story
- Theme—the overarching issue or concern of the story; it could be love, war, man’s inhumanity to man, etc.
- Conflict—an internal or external challenge to the protagonist; how the protagonist deals with the events that precipitate the conflict are an essential part of the plot
- Climax—when the plot elements of the conflict come to a head, a time when the tensions reach the maximum
- Resolution—how the protagonist and any other essential characters resolve the climax, the payoff of the story, if you will
So how do you make these disparate elements into a story—from a short story to a novel? You need a beginning and an end. A good story, no matter its length, connects readers to the protagonist so that they empathize with him/her—feeling what they feel. A story arc introduces the protagonist and through a series of event escalates the conflict to the climax and resolution. Along the way, the story shows the possible character flaws, shortcomings or other reasons that make the challenges the protagonist faces difficult. The speed at which the story progresses from beginning to end depends in part on the genre (action/thrillers are typically fast-paced and sacrifice character development to the plot; romances, mainstream drama and other stories may take a more deliberate pace) and in part on whether it is a short story or novel.
- Point of View—the perspective from which the story is told; from whose head is the story being told to the reader; for an excellent explanation check out this site
- First person (“I walked along the shady trail”) common in memoirs and autobiographies
- Third person (“Fred walked along the shady trail”)—which can be limited or omniscient; most books today use limited third person (inside the head of one person only)
- Second person (rarely used, talking directly to readers)
- POV can and often does switch from scene to scene but not within a scene; imagine if two people are talking and then the story first offers one person’s thoughts about the other and then the story switches to the other character’s view—very confusing
- Flashback—You know what this is, right? A character’s thoughts go back to events of the past; used judiciously for a setup or for character definition and development it works well but done too often in one story it can be confusing
- The beginning—ideally, the opening of any story will cause a reader to want to continue reader; hence, the advice to begin with a “hook”
- Set up an action sequence—something is happening with or to the main character
- Do a flashback of some event from the past that sets up a plotline
- Introduces the main character or another key character
- Show don’t tell—Tears fell from Lisa’s eyes at the viewing. Her knuckles whitening as she gripped the seat back before her, “What will I do without him?” she voiced her thoughts aloud. [an example of showing] Lisa cried at the viewing, overcome by the loss of her beloved husband Bill. [the same scene told instead of shown]
- Avoid unnecessary adverbs—“Stop it,” Sal yelled loudly (loudly is redundant); “Stop it,” Sal yelled; “Stop it,” Sal said loudly—yelled does the work of expressing Sal’s emotion without need of loudly and much better than by modifying said with loudly
- Speaking of said—some (including Stephen King, who rails against adverbs) insist that it works fine to attribute dialogue to a character:
- He said, she said is fine—especially if you are showing and not telling so that any emotion that hissed, laughed, growled, etc., might convey is unnecessary; only if it is critical and more expedient to use something like “yelled” as in one of King’s own examples in his book, On Writing should you consider something else
- Often, if not most of the time, dialogue attribution can be omitted altogether when two characters are having a conversation; it should be obvious who is speaking
- Be sparing in the use of cliché’s—consider “It rained cats and dogs, soaking his pants and shoes” versus “The rain fell hard, bouncing drops soaking his pants and shoes the moment he stepped outside”
- Dribble out character details—dialogue works well for this, as well as responses to events during scenes; it’s more interesting and keeps reader’s attention learning about the characters as they go along, it’s another aspect of showing versus telling; don’t try to do a biography of the protagonist and other major characters all at once
- Reveal a character’s faults or flaws—it’s OK for the main character to be imperfect, in fact it may be essential in presenting the scope of the conflict and getting through the climax to the resolution as the character succeeds despite his or her shortcomings—which most humans have, even heroes
- If you can plan, do; if you can’t, don’t—there are two (or more) camps of writers: those who swear by complete planning with outlines, character sketches, setting descriptions, plot lines, etc. and then there are those who completely wing it, letting the characters take the story where it should go; you will have to decide what works for you—try them both on for size and see which you prefer
- Get it all down, then revise—this is a mantra sworn to by many, for the sake of not getting bogged down by constantly editing while you are trying to complete a story; it may be hard to resist but if you can, you might find it worthwhile so long as you can forgive yourself for what appears on the page or the screen on the first draft—because it is only that (and should be)
- Polish and revise until you can do more—except that will probably never happen; you just have to stop and say enough but then you need to have beta readers and/or an editor look it over, preferably both, if you want you have written to be something others will really want to read and pay for to do so
- Use spellcheck and grammar/usage checking if using a word processor—it’s far from perfect but it will give you a start on editing; it won’t catch everything, it will annoy you with its recommendations that are incorrect or unhelpful but it still is useful
These are just some of the mechanics that you should consider. There are more, that you will find exploring them on the web or in books about writing, as noted above. We will get back to some them as we proceed in the August edition of the quarterly. Just write and have fun doing so. But remember, while you can get some tips on improving your writing by posting it on the web on sites of your choosing, you do risk having people take you less than seriously by putting up less than your best work, writing that will forever remain discoverable with only a tiny effort by anyone.