Thursday, March 15, 2012

Tips for starting out as a writer

Over the years I have spoken to several people who've been interested in becoming authors or who have had a story they wanted to write but weren't sure how to start. To be honest, I can see how writing an entire book can be daunting as I came close to feeling like when I first started scribbling down ideas. The one piece of knowledge that saved me was that I knew all creative activities require immense work and practice to appear as polished and/or beautiful as they do when shown to the public.

So, for those interested in writing but feeling a bit daunted I decided to put down a few starter points on writing a novel in hope of encouraging those prospective writers to take up pen and paper or their laptop and have a go. 

Knowing how to start putting down such complex ideas as usually appears in a full length novel is vital. It is also an essential skill for constructing short stories as although short stories seem to have fewer ideas or details they often have as many, just woven a little tighter. Knowing what to include and what not is a skill increasingly required the shorter the writing length.

(Don't get me started on poetry. I couldn't formulate a decent poem if I were sitting amongst flower filled rolling hills. More often than not my mind refuses formulate such incredibly concise descriptions or details.)

But lets get back on track. Even if you are writing solely for yourself or for a small audience you should know how to set down your ideas so that they are understandable and fun to read.

A starter list for the prospective writer:
  • Research whatever necessary: whether your research is on your characters, the setting, ideas already published or the desired style of writing it is essential that you do most of it before you begin writing. Research will help you ground your ideas.
  • Formulate in your mind the basic story: dream up the story in full, not just the beginning of it, or you may find yourself with a thing called writer's block half way through. The other problem that can occur is what I call writer's drivel, where you end up writing on and on aimlessly and the vast majority of what is written being unnecessary or pointless. Neither is desired.
  • Create a skeleton of your ideas by noting very basic details under chapter headings: this allows you to tie down when events should happen and how they are related. Think carefully on cause and effect, your character's reasoning and intentions, time lines and on what needs to be written out in full versus what needs only to be referenced.
  • Start writing: I find it easier to untangle any contradictions by starting my writing from the first chapter and progressing straight through to the end of the book. Only in cases where more though has been required for a particular section have I skipped over it to come back later. If you find it hard to write from the beginning then choose the section most vivid in your mind and write that. This should get you started.
  • Research as you go: try to get any topics requiring grounded detail in the descriptions (for example, the scientific principles behind a sci-fi novel) set out correctly in your first draft or two. If the information used as the base of your story is full of contradictions or irregularities then the entire story may be ruined as it just won't be believable (even if the reader is suspending disbelief).
  • Once your first draft is written, be prepared to rewrite and edit it at least 4-5 times: only by rewriting and editing is any piece polished into a one readable by the masses. I know of absolutely no one in the present market who's written a single draft best seller. There might be one or two classical authors who've managed it but lets face it, the vast majority of published authors nowadays will not make it to the classical listing in the future. Only the very best will and the selection criteria is far more extreme now than ever before. You can't just be popular and have a way with words. You need themes, social applicability, rounded arguments and reflections on humanity. A good read is not a classic read but a good read is what you should aspire to no matter your audience so keep polishing your work.
  • Don't be afraid to change big details: this is far easier to do nowadays, what with computers having word search, so feel entirely free to search through your work and change the placement or details, the wording or a series of phrases, the order of events or anything else that may occur to you. In fact, most editors will do such things and call it substantive editing (copy editing is an in depth edit of grammar, punctuation etc. while proofreading is a light look at these same issues). I find it bet to do several substantive edits, focusing on sections hard to read for whatever reason, and at least two copy edits.
  • Get feedback from trusted readers as you go: I suggest writing at least two copies before sending your work out to those willing to give you opinions on topics, style, content, readability etc. Just know that your work is still likely incredibly rough so it will be hard to read and will, hopefully, receive constructive criticism. This criticism will guide you in your editing from there on in and without it you are working partially blind of reader expectations. Don't be too shy to show your work, just find the right readers.

Tips on surviving the judgement:
  • Don't judge your initial works (your first draft or your practice works) as worthless or terrible if you are only starting out as a writer. Look at your work as objectively as possible and try to see what needs improving. Seek advice if necessary but again, don't take negative non-constructive feedback as absolute truth. Know that whatever the problem is you can likely fix it by writing another copy and that is where constructive criticism should be welcomed and often acted upon.
  • You may not find your talent in one style of writing but you may in another (as mentioned, I'm absolutely atrocious at writing poetry but quite good at essays and prose). Find your style, through trial and error if necessary, and start practicing.
  • Know that writing is both a craft and art. Like all such things practice is needed and lots of it before an initial talent can become a skill.
  • Much work is required to polish a single piece into one presentable to an audience. If you have presented your work to an agent or publisher before it was ready then don't be hurt by negative feedback as you likely just need to write another copy. You will be told if your work is unpublishable due to plagiarism, liable or its marketability. These can be fixed, depending on what has been initially written.
  • If you truly want to write then don't give up. Select the audience, style and level or professionalism for yourself at each stage of your progression. You don't need to aim for being a bestseller to write. And you don't need permission from critics. You simply need to keep practicing, updating your aims as you go.

Reasons to give up on any particular piece (not writing entirely):
  • If you can't imagine or work out a beginning, middle and end to your story.
  • If your work plagiarises someone else's.
  • If your work is likely to get you taken to court for liable.
  • If your work is unmarketable when you were aiming for it to be marketable (if you weren't aiming to be published through a house then disregard this point as you please. Self publishers wishing to make a living should still live by it though.).
  • If you can't seem to formulate the base details to your satisfaction, even with help (by that I mean the principles behind your imagined world).

Reasons for giving up on writing altogether:
  • Your own disinterest.

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