Whether your project is a short story, a biography, a series of novels or anything in between, creative writing can be hard. The road to greatness is often encumbered by speed bumps. Maybe you have an entire story plotted out in your mind, but you can’t find the right way to fit that cinematic adventure into words. Perhaps you can’t wait to fashion beautiful sentences, but you’ve got no clue what to write them about. Or maybe you’ve written the whole thing, but re-reading it disappoints you because it’s not what you imagined.
Overcoming these issues and more is all part of the creative writing journey; what makes it so rewarding to produce something you’re proud of. So, from sparking that fateful idea to getting it onto the page to editing the complete piece, here are some tips to help you through.
1. Finding inspiration
Sometimes your inner wordsmith for creative writing just has to come out, but it can be frustrating when you don’t have a story on which to set him or her loose. Here are some things you can try to spark some inspiration.
Use writing prompts
Scattered all over the internet, writing prompts are usually small statements depicting an unusual situation. For example:
It’s raining outside, but the raindrops aren’t water…
Often they seem dangerously wacky. But they’re designed to get you thinking about the story behind the statement. If the rain isn’t water, what is it? Is it raining milkshake? Blood? Specks of dust and concrete? Is something melting? Has someone thrown their possessions off the roof? Eventually you may come up with something that begs to be written about.
Keep a notebook
This is a tip as old as time, but it still stands, because inspiration doesn’t wait for you to be sitting at your computer. Inspiration can strike at any time, and during daily life it can vanish as quickly as it appeared – so jot every little spark down! And don’t forget to make a note of what happens in your dreams each night. Nonsensical as they may be, dreams present bold images and strange situations that wouldn’t otherwise occur to you.
As well as being relaxing and fun, reading is a brilliant way to absorb new vocabulary and a wider appreciation for the things that can be done with words. This isn’t to say that you should lift ideas directly from other people’s work (lawsuits don’t just happen in TV dramas). But reading and responding to books can help you to understand the sorts of emotions you’d like to stir in your own readers.
Remember, it’s best to be selective when choosing books to read. As P.D. James once put it, “Bad writing is contagious”.
2. Developing your ideas
Once you’ve grasped your fantastic idea, it’s tempting to start work on that first chapter right away. But diving in without forethought can lead to periods of agonising writer’s block. There’s something to be said for planning. While different planning techniques will work for different writers, below we’ve described a widely-recognised and respected process:
The Snowflake Method
Created by award-winning author Professor Randy Ingermanson, the Snowflake Method is a step-by-step process for building your vague idea into an intricately-woven story.
First, write a short sentence stating your story idea. Then expand this sentence into a paragraph, noting the story’s beginning, major plot points, and ending. Your characters are just as important as your plot, so next create a short summary for each of your characters, describing their storylines, motivations, goals, and the lessons they’ll learn.
The following steps involve taking what you already have and expanding them further – turn your paragraph of plot into a full page, turn your character summaries into page-long synopses. Then turn your full page plot into a four-page plot, and your character synopses into detailed charts revealing everything there is to know about them, and so on.
The further you progress, the more you’ll need to go back and change what you’ve already written. You might find that how a character behaves in the plot no longer makes sense considering his motivations and background. Responding to and fixing these issues means that the elements of your tale will work smoothly together, making for a more believable story.
3. Writing it up
Coaxing all of your preparation into an eloquent manuscript can be a rage-inducing labour of love, but it can also be a lot of fun. Here are a couple of tips to ease the process:
The only way to develop your voice is to write, write and write some more. Find time to write every day (or at least as often as you can) and set realistic word-count targets for yourself. If you find that you can’t reach them, there’s no shame in lowering your targets; as long as you keep writing, you’re making good progress.
Don’t get bogged down with editing
Some writers like to re-read and rearrange as they go along, while others like to soldier through the whole thing before even considering checking for typos. We can’t advise on which method will work best for you. However, if you find yourself editing as you go along, make sure you don’t get lost in it. It’s tempting to repeatedly drag a fine-toothed comb through that first chapter until it gleams with perfection – but this is time that could be spent adding words, pages and chapters to your story and bringing it closer to a complete piece. And when it’s all written you can edit more easily – having seen exactly how your story ends, you’ll have a better insight into how it should begin and progress.
Don’t write to sell
Commercial awareness is by no means a bad thing, but if you’re constantly stretching your work to include popular tropes and current trends, there’s a good chance it’ll be born without a soul. Forget what’s set the public raving and write something that’s meaningful to you. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “Write to please just one person. If you open the window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia”.
4. Polishing your work
So, you’ve finished your story. First and foremost be extremely proud, because you’re currently sitting where plenty of writers wish they were. After basking in the warm glow of your first draft, it’s time to start transforming it into your second (then your third, then however many come after that).
Use friends and family
Try as you might, you simply cannot read your own work as if for the first time. So send your story to people you trust and respect and ask for their honest feedback. You love your story, but be patient, receptive and open to the fact that other people may not feel the same. Every piece of feedback can potentially help you improve.
On the other hand, remember that your story is your own – you don’t have to heed other peoples’ suggestions. It’s up to you to decide how to fix the problems that have been pointed out.
Perform cold reads
When you’ve been working on something for a long time, you grow too accustomed to the way it reads. Spelling mistakes and nonsensical sentences slip sneakily by, unnoticed. So, hide your manuscript away and have a few weeks’ (or even months’) break in which you do not glance at it once. When you come back to it with fresh eyes, mistakes will leap out at you.
So there you have it – a few simple tips and instructions to help you through your creative journey. Good luck!
Julia Watts, StoryTerrace