What do I write about?

Lots of people in various writing groups have said,

“I want to be a writer, but I don’t know how to get started.”

There’s been some great feedback in these threads, but it doesn’t take long before the last post on the subject is too far down the page to easily find, and someone else asks,

“Hey, I’m new here and I’ve always wanted to write. How do I get started?”

The most obvious, and frequently commented answer is, of course,

“Write”.

While this may seem condescending, obvious, and not particularly helpful, it’s also true. As daunting as it always seems to put pen to paper for the first time before you even have an idea, it really is the best start. Free-writing, which is writing with no agenda, is a great way to practice writing, get in touch with your creative side, and kick-start your imagination.

Don’t get upset with yourself if you don’t get a killer idea on your first try. You might not even get your story idea from free-writing at all. It could be a conversation with friends, a movie, a video game, or even someone else’s book that gives you an idea you can’t wait to write down. You could even ask the group for a writing prompt if you like.

Once you have an idea, no matter how you got it, you need to write to expand the idea into a full story. Tell yourself the story in broad strokes. Who is the main character? What do they want out of life? What interferes with that? Do they overcome this obstacle? How does it affect them personally? Make any other notes about the timeframe, setting, and characters that come to mind.

You may wish to provide yourself with an outline. This can be as simple as a paragraph each describing the beginning, middle, and end of your story, or it could be an elaborately detailed timeline. Some people prefer to skip this step entirely and write by the seat of their pants.

Whether you’re pantsing or not, you’re going to need to make a rough draft. This is the first run through of writing the story. Keep your notes and outline handy, if you’ve made any, so you can be consistent. Don’t worry too much about it though, or about spelling and grammar, you can fix all of that later.

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If you find yourself deviating from the plan you made, that’s okay, you find the story brings itself back on track in a way you didn’t expect. Character’s personalities might even change as you’re writing them, that’s all okay too. Keep writing, and see where it leads. Getting a story down on paper can sometimes feel like wrestling with a live python.

Once you’ve managed to fight the story onto the pages, now comes the part that a lot of writers, including myself, hate. Reading through the rough draft and finding those errors in consistency, spelling, grammar and flow that you tried so hard to ignore while you were writing out your rough draft. Lots of people give up at this stage and say to themselves,

“I’m a horrible writer.”

Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s a rough draft. Everyone’s rough draft is horrible. I’ve said this before in previous articles because everyone needs to know this. The rough draft is supposed to be rough.

Some people, Steven King included (according to his book ‘On Writing‘),  like to leave their rough draft in a drawer for two weeks to make this step easier. Read through your rough draft, as if it’s someone else’s work. If you have a writing buddy, you might even want to swap manuscripts at this step and provide each other with helpful notes.

There’s a variety of different ways to do this. Some people like to make notes as they’re reading, and then write up the new draft from those notes. Some (like myself) transpose the handwritten rough draft into a word processing document, making corrections as they go. Others will scrap the rough draft entirely and start from scratch.

Once the second draft is written, you’re still not done. Read it again. If it doesn’t need another re-write, now’s the time for beta-readers, which might include the aforementioned writing buddy again. Beta-readers, for those not familiar with the term, are people who get to read your story before it gets published, in exchange for their feedback.

You don’t have to agree with everything the beta-readers tell you, but if you find that many of them are offering the same input, you may have to add a little to the story to produce the desired effect. The missing piece that makes the story fully immersive may take a while to find, and that’s okay. Don’t feel bad about putting the story on the backburner until it comes to you. You may even find your incomplete story inspires a better one.

Writing well takes practice. Sometimes you’ll get stuck completely, in which case try to use your time productively. Free-write, work on another idea, help someone read through their rough draft, read books that will help you understand the subjects, places and people you’re writing about, or chat with other writers to try and get your creative juices flowing again.

In other words, the best way to get started is to get started! Let me know if you need any additional help with this.

Happy writing! 🙂

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