Writing is not easy, and writing well is even harder. What works in the case of one writer may not necessarily work for another. All of us are our own creatures and it is important to find your own rhythm. In this article, I have put together a list of things for you to think about while writing your next story. You may find that nothing on this list helps you, but that’s fine – writing is all about trial and error. It is like sculpting: you just have to keep chipping away. It will come.
1. Read. Read Wide and Deep
I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told this. Put simply, how can you write strong, diverse narratives and characters if you have only ever read work by one author or one genre? The best writing out there has been written by writers who are themselves devoted readers. Reading contemporary, modern and ancient classics alongside more popular fiction and non-fiction will open your mind to sentence structures and character progressions that you won’t have thought of by yourself. Don’t forget to keep up to date with current affairs too; the news is a great way to pick up ideas for your next great masterpiece.
2. Think it Through, Plan it Out
Not everyone does this, and not everyone should. However, for a great many aspiring writers, planning does a world of good. So many great stories have been ruined by poor planning, often losing speed or developing difficulties towards the end. Don’t let this happen to your writing. You would not embark on an adventure without doing a bit of planning, so why a story? Your plan need not be long or even particularly detailed, but you should have at least some idea of where you are going and what you are hoping to achieve with your story.
3. Decide What it is You Want to Say
By and large, many of us take up writing without intent. Too many people want to be ‘writers’ and it’s spoiling the water. If you are writing, you should be writing with purpose: the world does not need the-next-Harry-Potter or the-next-Fifty-Shades, but it does need more novel fiction. Work out what it is that you are trying to say with a particular piece. Are you trying to address the gender imbalance or dealing with issues of race and sexuality? Perhaps you are moved to write because you are moved by the shrinking rainforests or because you have found a new way to discuss slavery? The best fiction is a mask worn by writers to explore key themes that are important to them.
4. Figure Out How You’re Going to Say it Well
George Orwell, arguably one of the finest writers of the past century, once wrote that ‘a scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions…1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?’ If you hold these in your mind, then you can’t fail to produce a novel prose.
5. Give the Reader at Least One Character to Root For
This is important. Remember that you are expecting a total stranger to spend time with your story. If you have not written any characters for them to get behind, how can you expect them to invest their time in you? Your characters need not be saints, but they should have clear and discernible aims: a convict wrongfully convicted; a trader stranded on an island; a recovering drug addict. Something about your characters should leap off the page and convince your readers to participate in your story. Think about your favorite novels/short stories – what is it about those characters that keep you interested?
6. Get Your Dialogue Right
Take your pen(cil) and you’re Moleskine out and about in the wide world. Take notes everywhere. People are odd and the best way to really understand their idiosyncrasies is to copy them down. Dialogue should be light and should flow like any other part of the narrative. Whatever you do, be consistent; and if I never see ‘came the reply’ again, it will be too soon.
7. Get Rid of Everything That Isn’t Necessary
Think about writing as though you are packing to go on a long walking holiday. If you do not think you are going to need a collapsible barbecue, don’t bring one. It will likely be too heavy and will weigh you down – you would probably soon wish that you had not brought it with you. So don’t. Anton Chekhov once wrote that ‘If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’ Once you have finished the first draft of your story, go back over it. Every sentence that you write should be achieving one of two things – revealing character or advancing the action. If something feels flabby and unnecessary, ditch it.
8. Do Back Exercises
You might not have thought about this, but you will soon learn that back pain is distracting. If you can’t afford a good chair, spend a little bit of everyday doing a couple of stretches. You will thank me.
9. Remember, You’re the Boss
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that a writer should channel the sadist in them. Do not be afraid to throw the worst situations at your favorite characters. If you have written them well, your readers will follow you. The story is yours, at the end of the day. You can do whatever you like, but do it with conviction.
10. Before You Send it Off, Have Someone Else Read It
You might think that you are T.S. Elliot, but we all miss things in our writing. After you have edited your work and before you send it off to be published, have a friend read it. You will be amazed at what they find.
Visual courtesy: https://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/