It’s not just about ‘reading a lot’
Sometimes, I just happen to be wandering around Reddit in boredom. Such is the life of the procrastinating creative writer who should really be working on his next novel right now. But I also love to help other authors with their own creative writing.
It happened a few days ago. One user had a dream, and he decided to show it to Reddit: he wanted to learn creative writing. But he did not know where to start.
Make no mistakes, creative writing is an awful lot. There’s a lot to know, a lot to do, a lot to think about. And there are those who will try and sell you THE ULTIMATE FORMULA TO CREATIVE WRITING (oh, yes, I’m sure you know all about that), which can certainly sound enticing to someone who doesn’t know where to start. Don’t fall into their trap. Because, here’s the news: there is no ultimate formula to creative writing.
As I can picture a lot of people wanting to know how to get started, I decided to adapt my reply to that Reddit post, expand it and put it here on Medium for everyone to see.
Some people there mentioned outlining, the Snowflake method, three acts and more. But, no. Please, no. This is only going to mess with your mind more.
How to get started with Creative Writing: the basics
Reading is just as important as writing
This was probably the most quoted solution within that Reddit thread. In order to write well, you must read a lot. This is true, but it’s not just for the sake of reading, nor only for analyzing someone else’s style.
Creative writing is like a constant study of both your capabilities and the ones of others. You must have the right attitude to be surprised, to find novel things on beaten paths. Be willing to explore new ideas, to unravel theories and find ways to improve at your craft. The catch: you can only do that by reading.
The ultimate choice of what to read is up to you, but I do recommend not to stick to your reference genre only. If you’re planning to write science fiction, explore horror as well. Read magical realism, read speculative fiction, read historical, if you can. You don’t have to read what you don’t like, but you should read what isn’t necessarily up your alley. You might find out you loved a genre you didn’t even know to begin with.
Most importantly, you can find ways to weave that mash-up of genres into your own writing, if you so wish. Who said western and sci-fi stories don’t go together? Does Westworld ring a bell? Think outside of the box. That’s why we call it creative writing.
Meanwhile, you will have fun studying the most popular tropes and structures of storytelling. You may then decide to follow them or defy them altogether in your stories.
Of course, feel free to explore non-fiction as well. There is a lot of structured style in that too, and you will progressively absorb more words, concepts, metaphors and rhetorical figures as you keep reading.
But don’t just read. Support that with your writing.
Writing is just as important as reading
Sure, creative writing can be ‘learned’ just as it can be taught, but you’re going to learn much quicker if you start experimenting with stories yourself. Listen to your gut instincts; any time you feel the compelling need to tell a story, just sit down and write.
Just sit down and write. I can’t state that enough.
Writing has a way larger impact on your own self if you’re the one fuelling your instincts. And all writing is about ‘making an impact’, isn’t it? It won’t always be on others — most of the time, you’ll find out you’ve learned something about your own self.
Besides, you don’t need a writing prompt to start telling a story. Let your inner voice guide you, and you’ll find that anything can put you on the right path. Again, be willing to welcome new ideas: characters, worlds, situations, rules, and people.
But do bear in mind that you need to write just as much as you need to read. Absorbing all that style, vocabulary and knowledge will be of no use to you if you only write one story a year. Put all that into practice. Complement lots of reading with lots of writing. You’ll make progress much quicker.
Write a short story every two weeks, for instance. Force yourself to sit down and find an idea worth less than 2000 words (reading short stories too can help with structure, there). Who knows—perhaps one of them will expand into your first novel.
And don’t worry too much about style and voice. Those will come with time, by experimenting with vocabulary, sentence structure and pace. Keep it simple at first. Soon, you’ll develop your own style.
Regardless, you need to give it a try.
Where to start with your first story
As said, you don’t need a writing prompt to tell a story. Those are just extremely useful for making practice. So I’m not going to give you one.
What I can give you is a teeny wee bit of structure, and a little nudge to get you on the right track.
Here’s one thing you should know straight away: before having worlds, pretty much all stories have characters. So start with one. Character-driven stories are my personal favorites, and there are many writers out there who believe the best stories can only be character-driven. Abbie Emmons, to name one (you should follow that lady — she loves waffles).
It doesn’t have to be a totally invented character—you can even write about yourself. Matter of fact, you should; the best authors write from experience, or, rather, know how to turn that experience into a story. Maybe you have a funny story to tell. Perhaps there’s a traumatic event you’d like to write about, like a break-up or a loss—and the best thing is you don’t even need to show it to anybody if you don’t want to. You could just write about it and let it go. It will be good practice all the same.
Or it could be something entirely different and extremely trivial in appearance, like the image of a bottle floating towards a sewer canal. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you will imbue it with your meanings and reflections. Youwill make it a story.
Whatever you choose, just try to put that in writing, then start again. After you move past that initial strategy and providing you’ve been reading a lot in the meantime, you should be able to find your own original ideas to develop.
If writing isn’t for you, believe me, you’ll know soon enough. If you’re a sane person (unlike most of us, to be fair), you won’t enjoy it. Writing is like stripping yourself of all clothes and running naked in front of a crowd. Putting words on a page is scary.
Even if you like it, there will be an initial discouragement. Words won’t come to you, characters won’t speak as you’d want them to. Find the strength to move past that. Undress all of your fears and transfer those fears to the page. The sooner you open your heart to one blank piece of virtual paper, the sooner you’ll find out that writing can be the most beautiful gift in the world.
So, write, write, write. If you don’t like the first story, write the second one, then the third one, and so on until you lose count. If you really want to become an author, the only thing that can stop you is yourself.
The only way from there is upwards.
Resources for Creative Writers
Say you’ve started thinking seriously about creative writing and you’ve made a lot of practice. You’ll probably want to study the craft a bit more in-depth.
Lucky for all of us, there are resources for that.
Most books about creative writing will cover voice, storytelling structure(s) and character development, which is really all you should know before starting a novel, a film or anything else. These elements are so universal they can be applied across most of the entertainment we know — even some video games, to an extent.
This will be the time to think about character arcs and all that. What’s important is to not rush into it before you’ve had the chance to work on your style.
You’ll find there are a lot of different approaches to anything in creative writing. For instance, some authors advocate the three-act structure, while others go for five, seven acts or even none. Either way, as I said, beware of the gurus trying to sell you the ultimate formula. There isn’t one to be found; all stories work for their own different reasons.
What you can find is a couple of books that can help with that. Off the top of my head, I can think of three amazing ones for general storytelling:
- Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them, by John Yorke (Amazon UK link);
- On Writing, Stephen King’s memoir (Amazon UK link);
- The Storytelling Animal, by Jonathan Gottschall (more of an anthropological reflection on storytelling, rather than a book of tips) (Amazon UK link).
And a little extra for screenwriters:
- Screenplay: the Foundations of Screenwriting, by Syd Field (Amazon UK link).
That’s really all I had to say. Now it’s up to you; think of an idea, a story, a prompt, a dream you had, anything.
Best of luck, my friend.
This story originally appeared on the Startup on Medium.