Getting Started

So, in the open thread Love Pickles asked: How would you advise an amateur writer who mainly writes poetry and journals, and while proud of it, it’d be nice to venture into new territory. I thoroughly love writing, but dialog and the process of character development is a little intimidating to me. I think it’d be a cool challenge to push myself further with writing, and am absolutely fine if it never goes anywhere.

Which is a fascinating question. I know how I started, which was pretty much, hey I have this shiny new computer, what can I do with it? I know, I’ll write a book. Then I leapt. But that’s not a terribly helpful prescription for anyone else. Sean had one good suggestion down at the end of that thread. After thinking about it in more depth I can think of a number of others. I’ll put one out there now.

I tend to start with an idea for a place or piece of magic. If you’re not writing f&sf, that latter’s not as useful, but stick with me for a little bit. On that front, think of something you’d really like to know more about. It can be something you already enjoy, or something you’ve always wanted to do or see but never got around to. The key is that it’s something you’d really like to spend some time with.

Go, take a look at your thing. Think about something that might happen there. It can be as simple as the meal you’d like to cook in the really great kitchen you don’t own with the ingredients you can’t afford. Build a scenario for whatever the idea is that runs from start to finish. If there’s only one person, add another so the two can talk about what’s happening. Spend some time building a little opening dialogue for the scene. Make sure to give yourself enough to really get a feel for the beginning of this cool thing that’s happening. Write it all down.

Got it? Good. Now imagine something going wrong. If you want a small domestic kind of story it can be a minor problem. The pilot light in the kitchen scene won’t start. If you’re writing epic fantasy, maybe this is the time for you to discover that the real gas source for the stove is a not very happy baby dragon whose really unhappy mom is about to arrive to set things right. The exact problem doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s a problem you can work with.

How does the problem change the scene? What do your characters do and say? Are they calm? Do they unravel under stress? Spend some time thinking about it. Go ahead and start writing, but don’t finish it yet.

Why? Because they’re going to fail in that first attempt and you need to figure out how, and how they’re going to overcome the failure. Now, that may lead to another failure, or the solution of the overarching problem, or to something that solves a different problem entirely, perhaps one that’s been exposed by the way they deal with failure. Again, the specifics don’t matter. What matters is the way the characters are transformed or fail to be transformed by their interaction with the problem.

Figure that out, write it down, type “the end,” and you’ve got a story. Or, if it doesn’t end, if the problem builds into another and you want to keep following it, maybe you’ve got the opening chapter of a novel. Whatever you’ve got, hopefully you had fun getting there and will want to try another go.

Another approach for a poet might be to take something that you’ve already written that has a core story that interests you and expand it out into a short story.

You’ll probably find that writing the story is less work than writing the poem was. For me a good poem takes a week’s work and might run 200 words. A short story will probably take the same week and come in around 5,000 words. Or I can write 10,000-12,000 words on a novel in the same time.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog February 7 2009, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)