Advice for Beginner Writers
The advice in this page was originally aimed at supporting children, but the truth is that we all have to start somewhere, young or old. Nothing below is guaranteed or even required. With all writing advice, you are best off taking what works for you and leaving the rest to compost. Many of these ideas came from teaching, and so teachers should be able to incorporate them in class.
Go Through To Completion
Starting many writing projects is not as good as finishing a single one. We learn by attempting story structure, by finding where we made mistakes. Even what feels like an awful story is best finished. The more you finish, the more you exercise your mental muscles. And you will gain a sense of accomplishment. A half a page story is still a story. The more you write, the more you will finish. You don’t ever have to share it with anyone… but read on for the reasons why you should.
Show your work to others
Even if you are only writing for yourself, it can be very hard to spot flaws in our work. Often our mind inserts missing elements, our knowledge of characters means that we haven’t put those details on the page. If you want others to read it eventually, you’re best off learning how to do it now. Separating feedback of our work from criticism of ourselves is a skill. Understanding readers is a skill. Using feedback is a skill. However, if someone puts you down to the point you think of giving up, or does no provide constructive criticism, look for new readers who will. Just remember constructive criticism isn’t always pleasant.
I don’t know what to write
Ideas will eventually become as plentiful as waves on the sea. But at first, the sea of ideas might appear calm, or the waves threateningly high. Wow, that metaphor beached itself quickly. Here’s a tip to get past this. Use someone else’s worlds and characters. Obviously, without permission, you won’t be able to publish them, but there is much to be gained. The pressure is off to come up with all the details. Pick a novel, a movie or a play you know, and give the characters a new challenge. Maybe imagine your friends in that story and how they would cope. Avoiding putting yourself there will give you the distance to think about the characters strengths, flaws, habits and the like.
For real fun, go with a mashup. Mix more than one world together. For example, My Little Pony meets Captain Marvel, Macbeth with The Matrix, The Hungry Caterpillar with Zombies. This can work with everything from novels through to picture books. The more outlandish the mix, the more room for fun and risk taking.
The one idea that is helpful from the first story onwards is a problem or conflict. Think about what the character wants to achieve and what might stop them. Do they want to prove themselves worthy of the throne? Do they want to escape from detention? Do they want tell someone that they love them? If you’re not sure, consider mind mapping. Put the want in the middle of a page and all around it, write anything or anyone that might get in the way. A rival, a guard or teacher, their own fear. As you grow more experienced, you might connect some together to make a bigger problem.
Some people like to start writing with no idea where they’ll end up. If you’re having problems, structure can provide support. Sometimes it’s called outlining, but we’re going to look at two simplified methods, the story mountain and storyboarding.
Draw a big upside down V. This helps us understand the excitement of our story. The base of the mount on the left is our start. What is our character doing when they find out about the problem? As they try to deal with the problem, the tension increases. So make the situation worse for our character. Bob needs milk. His bike tyre is flat. He walks to the shop and picks up milk. The milk leaks, making a mess. He gets to the counter, wet and puts the milk on it. The store owner stares silently. Bob reaches in his pocket. He has forgotten his wallet. This is the peak of our mountain. How will this problem resolve. The store owner smiles, and says Bob can pay next time. The other side of the mountain is where we let that tension release. Bob gets home, feeling good. He pulls out a bowl ready for cereal. He picks up the cereal packet and pours. It’s empty.
This based on a technique used in movie making. It is called storyboarding.
Grab a sheet of paper or a whiteboard and draw 5 large squares—more if you’re getting more comfortable with the process. If you have a whiteboard, this is even better than paper as you can change things easily. These squares represent story beats which can be thought of as ‘stuff that happens’.
In box one you will introduce the main character and a minor problem based on what they normally do. E.g. a kid has arrived at school, but their homework book is still at home. You can either write notes in the square or draw a picture. If you draw a picture, add a few written notes below for detail.
In the second square introduce the problem. In the third, the problem makes the situation harder for the character. Maybe in box two, a substitute teacher turns out to be a vampire. In box three, the teacher tells the kid to stay back because they didn’t finish their homework.
Box four is the climax. The problem is going to be sorted one way or another. Does the character realise something about themselves that helps them, or does their foolishness mean the problem defeats them? Box five is the afterwards. A sudden end to a story doesn’t feel good. If the kid in the example was able to open a blind and destroy the vampire in box four, then in box five, are they left to explain to the principal where the teacher has gone?
Do I have to?
In future, you may choose to develop a story’s structure before writing each time as many successful authors do, or you might move away from it and let your unconscious mind manage the details. There is no right or wrong, just what works for you. Story structure is critical, whether it is planned or not. Once you are regularly writing, read about different structures. Let them fertilise your understanding and grow in your chosen direction.
A writer is someone who writes. No matter how bad you think it is, you are a writer if you write. Conversely, if you don’t write, you are not a writer. The choice is yours.
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