Saturday, December 04, 2010

Writing Tips to a Curious Reader

I just wrote a really long reply to an email from a reader of my books who was asking about becoming a writer. From her email she was obviously very bright and particularly articulate for her age, so I thought it was worth giving as full a response as I could without going nuts.

As I've been getting a lot of emails lately asking for 'writing tips' I thought I'd share some of what I wrote. Here you go:

One of the most vital skills you need to be a good writer isn't really covered in English at school: storytelling. Alongside a writer's ability with words and fluency with language, there has to be a storyteller working his or her craft. Otherwise all the fancy words and well constructed sentences aren't worth anything!
There are loads of ways to develop that storytelling skill, but it takes time. I'm still working on it now. Pay attention to how people tell stories. I don't just mean people performing stories or 'storytellers', I mean in every day life, in conversation, or in any normal situation.

When someone tells you about something that happened to them, or something they've done that day, what keeps other people listening? You can start analysing how other people construct their stories and whether it works. It's not something most people think about, but it's worth doing. Is there any suspense in their tale? Could they give the same information in a different order and improve the story? Did they dwell on one part a bit too much? Things like that.
Some stand-up comedians are really good at telling stories. Obviously some just tell jokes, but I think the best ones tell a story, and it's funny of course, but it wouldn't be so funny if it didn't keep the audience listening for what happens next. That's the key thing. So perhaps watch a few stand-up comedians and listen to how they construct their stories, build tension and things like that.
The other people to watch are older celebrities in interview shows. If they've been around a while, they've told the same stories over and over again. So they've really got the story down to the best shape it can be in. And they usually tell it really well - as if it's the first time, every time! So watch them. Learn from them.
It's worth practising telling stories. They don't have to be made up - just little tales about everyday events that happened in your life. If that sounds boring it's just because you're not telling the story right yet! So work on it.

You don't have to write any of this down, you can just practise out loud to yourself or, even better, practise it in conversation with your family. Sometimes you can tell them why you're doing it and what you're doing, but sometimes you might just want to keep it a secret and you'll get a more honest reaction from them. If they wander off to do something else then you know you haven't mastered telling the story yet!
Once I've planned out the story of a book I always take ten minutes to 'pitch' the story out loud to my wife. In those ten minutes I get a really honest impression of which bits need work and which bits are great. I can tell from her face as I'm telling the story!
When I was little, my parents used to come back from the cinema late at night, creep into my room and sit by my bed to tell me the whole story of the film they'd just seen - usually I was half-asleep, but totally gripped by the way they told the stories! Practise doing that. If you see a film you like, or read a book you like, how would you tell the story in ten minutes, out loud? It's a real skill, and surprisingly hard to do well. If you can do it, you'll be a great writer.
Obviously it's hard to practise that because you don't want to ruin the film or book for people who haven't seen it or read it! Younger brothers and sisters are useful. If you can grip them with your storytelling, you'll know you're on the right track.
So that's the first big tip - work on your storytelling: by practising and by learning from people who've been telling stories for years.
Meanwhile, work on the other side of being a writer - writing!
So read a lot! You obviously do this already, so keep doing it!

Keep a notebook with you so you can jot down anything you see or anything that comes to you. It doesn't have to be a proper 'idea'. It's not that kind of notebook. I have a notebook by my bed for when ideas strike me in the middle of the night, but you need a different kind of notebook that you keep on you so that you can CREATE ideas out of nothing.

Jot down snippets of dialogue, phrases, even just words. Today I had my notebook on me, for example, and I just wrote down the line: "It was time to catch another goat, and make it King." It doesn't mean anything, I just sat down in a café and wanted to write something, so I pulled out my notebook and forced something into my head. You're not waiting for ideas to come to you - you're creating them.

Now, that line on it's own isn't an idea for a book. But gradually your notebook will fill up and some of the things you write will spark other thoughts, and some could combine with others that came to you months ago. The notebook is really just to get your brain working - and practising creating ideas out of nothing.

There are ALWAYS ideas to create. Don't wait for them. Carry a notebook and take any opportunity to get a pen in your hand and write something down. Doing that forces your brain to CREATE something. It's like doing mental press-ups. The creation bit of your brain is getting exercise. Then when you DO have a brilliant story idea, or you want to combine little thoughts that have built up over several weeks, you will have the brain muscles ready to do something about it.

Finally, write a little every day, if you can. The more you do it, the better you get.

Good luck.

1 comment:

NutmegAngel said...

And what about doing something like National Novel Writing Month (they also have a Young Writer's Programme for people who don't fancy doing the full 50,000 word challenge)? Very good for making you write every day and follow an idea through, and perfectly doable. 1,667 words per day can be done just by getting up an hour earlier or watching a bit less television. It's great fun too :)