Thursday, March 5, 2009

Creative Writing For Beginners

MotivationIt’s not too difficult to find the right motivation for writers to write. Most (if not all) were prolific readers long before they thought to write creatively. To borrow a page from the Catholic Church, I’ll use guilt as a motivational tool. In other words, if you have the time to read, then you have the time to write. Put down the book and dust off the keyboard or pick up a pen from time to time instead. The rest, you’ll find, will eventually come from the heart. After all, writing is a wonderful vehicle to help tap into that inner spark that defines us for who we truly are.

Even though it’s early days, you may as well begin writing in the correct format expected by most editors and publishers around the world. First set your Word document to double spacing in 12 point type using Times New Roman. Set a 3 cm boarder on the left, and 2.5 cm on the remaining boarders (right, head and foot). The header-title and page numbers should be placed at the top right-hand corner, with your name and address centred in the margin at the foot of each page. Begin your first paragraph half way down page-one with the title and author’s name centred in the space above it. Always attach a cover sheet with your details and the copyright statement clearly displayed.

Sounds like a lot of guff I know, but its all necessary tools that the editors, proofreaders and typesetters use for notes and references throughout the publishing process. As first impressions count, you’ll want your work to look professional. The presentation will likewise help make you feel somewhat confident and professional also. Lastly, print or copy on one side of the paper only and don’t staple your pages together. Always use a paper clip instead.

For a sample of this format in Word or PDF format, feel free to request a copy at:  Simply write “Format, Word” or “Format PDF” in the subject field and I will send you a sample within 24 hours.

Writing – For yourselfI don’t believe any two writers work the same, so this is just a brief description on the system I’ve fallen into over the years. I write my first draft “closed door”. In other words it’s just me and the project. I have my ideal places to write, and in time you’ll find your own. My only suggestion is that it’s a place that is distraction free. I use the term “closed door” both literally and metaphorically. The initial creative process needs to be written in your own space primarily for yourself. It’s that first raw product full of passion – “warts and all” as they say.

The second draft can always be written “open door” because the essence of the story is already captured on paper and a few distractions won’t make any difference. In fact I prefer to edit and polish my stories with music playing in the background. I can even do it in front of the TV now, but I’ll expand on the “open door” process a little later.

The Small Picture in 3DTo commence creative writing from scratch, try not to consider the big picture too much just yet. Look at writing the way an art student would look at painting. Don’t attempt tackling an entire landscape right away. Most artists begin by painting a tree first – or an orange – or a chair. Consider approaching writing for the first time in the same way and practice describing something as simple as a chair first. The only initial discipline necessary is that you describe it in one paragraph. From that first descriptive foundation you can then build the subject from a flat picture to a three dimensional story by guiding your readers imagination.

1st Dimension – Description
As suggested above, the first of your “small picture” exercises is to paint (in words) a chair. As we’re tackling fiction here, your chair doesn’t have to be something in your home or garden, but rather created from your imagination if you like. Let your creative juices flow, anything from a small three-legged milking stool to the command chair of a space craft. Your discipline here is to keep it as a descriptive piece only and limit the work to a single paragraph. Remember, the creative process is “closed door” and for your eyes only.

2nd Dimension – HistoryWhen you’re happy with the descriptive piece, write a second paragraph on the chair’s history. Again, this is fiction so anything goes. Look at ways to bind these two paragraphs. You might want to change something in the initial descriptive piece to link them together such as a damaged portion of the chair sustained in some incident from its past (Here’s where you’re love affair with cut & past begins). The discipline here is to again limit the history portion to one paragraph, but also consider the first paragraph without repeating details.

3rd Dimension – HumanityNow add a third paragraph introducing a person to the painting. Maybe this person uses the chair in their daily lives; perhaps they’ve built it or restored it. Again you may want to review the second paragraph and add this person to the chairs history, therefore linking the paragraphs and making them flow. Your disciplines here are to keep your character’s description brief, and again limit the exercise to one paragraph.

3D Exercise SummeryThe aim of this three paragraph exercise is predominantly to get you writing by way of condensing the bigger picture down to smaller portions. Although I’ve discussed formatting, and the closed door approach, you can also practice this in doodle form with pen and pad almost anywhere. Pick a new subject each time and see where it takes you. There’s no need to take it too seriously, but it’s a great way to work on flow and structure. Once you find your groove you’ll gain confidence and begin looking to broaden your skills.

Editing – Writing For your Ideal ReaderOnce you have your three-paragraph exercise down on paper you’ll need to polish the rough cut stone into its potential diamond, particularly when you begin writing to specific guidelines and word counts. Consider things like repeating details, excessive use of pronouns, over description, stating the bleeding obvious and relevance to the story. These seem to be the five basic sins committed on most first drafts.

The editing process can be done with an open door approach as I’ve mentioned earlier, as the pressure of capturing your initial ideas is now lifted and you can afford a few distractions along the way. I find you can be more critical of your own work this way, stepping outside your comfort zone and considering what others may think of the finished piece (Whether you decide to show it to someone or not). This brings me to your “ideal reader”.

The concept of the ideal reader is simple enough. Your first draft was a love affair between you and the concept. The final draft needs to be written after the honeymoon period, essentially with your ideal reader in mind – the person you want to impress. It can be spouse, parent, child, sibling, colleague or friend, someone to consider when polishing your work. In essence, a target audience or readership. This will help later when you’re writing for a particular marketplace.

Editing – A Brief ExampleAs a sample piece of editing I’ve written the same line twice – rough cut and diamond. I’ve used the chair scenario to keep within the original theme:

1st DraftThe old wooden chair, weathered and sun-bleached, stood right where Mary and John had left it ten years before.

Not bad, the initial concept now on paper. It sets the picture nicely but after consideration I recognise unnecessary pronouns and irrelevant details.
2nd DraftThe chair, weathered and aged, stood where they’d left it a decade before.

This is better. Straight to the point, but still reading nicely.
PracticeWriting is like any other skill and needs to be practiced whenever you can, but above all else enjoy your time with the written word. Repeat the 3D exercises and editing for a time while focusing on technique to gain confidence. Although you need to be critical when writing, don’t ever let an opportunity go by to praise yourself whenever you nail that sucker (it’s a wonderful, private moment and should be savored). Don’t be too concerned about your writing style just yet, this will develop over time when you tackle more substantial projects like short stories and novels.

The Big Picture – In Three ActsWhen you first attempt something like a short story, try to approach it as simply as possible. You’ll come across many variations of structure in your search for the perfect format. There are the 6, 8 and more popular 9 act structures currently out there, but even these in their essence are a more detailed break up of the good ol’ fashion 3 act structure. That’s essentially a beginning, middle, and an ending.

The beginning, approximately one-quarter of the story, sets the scene and introduces your main characters.

The middle, approximately one-half, tells the story (usually not much more than a situation in most short stories).

The ending, which is the remaining quarter. This concludes the story, usually with a twist in the tail when possible.

When writing to specific market guidelines it pays to progressively check your word count to alleviate any heavy editing at the end. So if you’re writing a 2000 word story (as many magazines prefer), your first act should be around 500 words, your second around 1000, and your final act the remaining 500 words. Remember, there’s nothing rock solid about these numbers, it’s simply a guide.

Detailed SynopsisOnce you have a story concept, it helps your development to write a detailed synopsis before commencing the creative process. Write this in one-line bullet points first. Then add a few critical notes to each line as memory joggers. You can even pencil in where your word count should be in the margins. I also suggest that you type your synopsis in double spacing to allow space to later pen in further notes as you begin the creative writing stage. All this helps you form the idea up front, alleviating any distractions later and allowing you to focus on style and technique when writing the text.

Although the synopsis is relatively detailed for continuity purposes, try not to set too many boundaries, as you’ll discover stories can sometimes develop themselves throughout the process, often changing directions as preferred ideas surface along the way.

The Creative ProcessNow it’s crunch time. You’ve practiced your short 3D exercises, honed your skill at editing, and developed a new story synopsis into three acts that you’re rather pleased with. So start writing!

The bad news here is that I can’t offer you any tips on style (no one can), this is something that will develop over time, but it’s not uncommon for new writers to first imitate authors who’ve had a positive influence over them. All I can suggest is keep the narrative to a minimum (particularly on short stories) and let the characters carry the story through dialogue and action. “Show me, don’t tell me,” is most editors’ catch cry.

I find that a good “hook” helps both the story and the author begin the project. The “hook” is that first line, a powerful statement that gets the reader in and keeps them long enough to take the rest of the journey with you. I think my best hook to date is the first line of my novel Sleepwalker: The nights are worse, by far. I’m also rather proud of the opening line to my short story The Boogeyman: Sometimes, long before the first clap of thunder sounds, long before the first finger of lightning strikes the ground, you just know. This is gonna be one heck of a storm. A good hook will fill you with pride, confidence and enthusiasm. And like all journeys, it’s your initial creative step in the process of writing your first draft.

Just follow the points noted earlier on writing drafts and editing. Find your preferred closed door and open door environments. Remember the intimacy of the first draft, and then consider your ideal reader for the second and final drafts. But above all else, enjoy the ride and be proud of your efforts.

FeedbackI believe feedback is a very important tool in writing. You’ll discover that you become very close to your projects throughout the process, often not seeing the forest for the trees at times. Let others read your work when you’re ready and consider their feedback carefully, particularly when your ideal reader offers comment.

Time can also be a good tool. Place your story aside for a week or so without reading it again (Use the time to develop your next story). Quite often you’ll discover indiscretions and typos at first unnoticed. It’s that “what were you thinking!” moment when you slap your forehead and run a red line through the paragraph. Consider all feedback carefully, while remaining true to your original concept.

NetworkingOnce you find your feet, try networking by joining one of the many writers groups and organisations around the country. This will help you discover new markets and create feedback opportunities within the group. The Internet is full of such organisations, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find one near you. For Australian residents, membership to the Aust. Society of Authors is an excellent avenue for resources and legal support.

MarketsNewsagents and supermarkets are full of magazines that may prove suitable markets for your work. If you are targeting a particular publication, be certain to read the content over a period of time to assess the type of story they prefer. Over time you should be able to see a particular pattern. Also worth noting is that most magazines in the market for unsolicited fiction usually have Author’s Guidelines available on request.

Pitch and PresentationOnce you’ve found the markets you’d like to write for, it’s important to catch the editor’s eye, as you’re story will be one of many crossing their desk that day. The first thing they will note is the level of professional presentation, so stick to the format recommended in the opening chapters here and you’ll have it covered. The next thing is not to waste the editor’s time. On a single cover sheet you need to present everything they want to know. 1: Your contact details. 2: Title and Word Count. 3: One to two sentence Pitch describing the concept. 4: One paragraph storyline. 5: And a brief CV of your writing history.

For a Cover Sheet sample in Word or PDF format, feel free to request a copy at:  Simply write “Cover Sheet, Word” or “Cover Sheet, PDF” in the subject field and I will send you a sample within 24 hours.

SummaryPersonally it’s been a great exercise recording this process, strangely helping me understand the method a little clearer myself by actually having to consider how it is I write what I write (An excellent example of poor grammar right there). The process isn’t as complicated as it first seems, and I’m sure you’ll find your own groove and routine in time. In the interest of name dropping, it was Stephen King back in ’84 who suggested the “closed door”, “open door” and “ideal reader” concepts to me, so we do indeed stand upon the shoulders of giants here. The rest I’ve picked up along the way as I’m sure you will also. As with all passions, listen to your heart for the art content, but create with your head if you want to make a buck out of it. BMR 2009

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