Becoming a Writer

I recently received an email in connection with a post I made on the TUT Writer’s Group on Facebook. The writer asked me about how to become a writer. The following is the basis of my reply.

When it comes to writing, I would like to know where your writer’s block lies, so that I can give you more targeted advice. However, I can give you the following points, to begin with.

What sort of writing do you want to do?

Are you intending to write fiction or non-fiction? I do both, and each needs its own way of looking at things.

Fiction

If you want to write fiction, do you know what sort of story you want to write? Is it romance, general fiction, fantasy (science fiction, dark fantasy or horror, sword and sorcery, urban fantasy, to name but a few), erotica? Is it a novel or a short story? Whatever type you want to write, you need to do some reading in that genre, just to get a feel for what is acceptable to the reading public. I, for instance, have read all of the above-mentioned fantasy types for years. You don’t want to copy them, of course, but you do need to know the kind of stories that are available.

Sometimes, a story you read will trigger an idea of your own. You might like the story and want to know what happened next. Why don’t you write about that? If the story took place years ago, why not rewrite it into modern times? West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet set in 20th century New York, for instance. The Lion King is a modern take on Macbeth. One of the short stories I’m about to publish is my take on Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid. And so on.

At other times, you might think to yourself “I don’t like the way that story turned out.” So why not write your own version, giving it the ending you would have liked? Or you read a story and imagine something completely different, that’s still somehow connected with the original, like my story about a modern Frankenstein.

Television and movies are other good sources of ideas. Just as I mentioned above, they can trigger thoughts and ideas that lead to a story. I’ve also had ideas that have come from dreams and daydreams. You just have to be open to your thoughts. There are stories that I have started writing with nothing more than a single phrase or concept.

To throw a couple of ideas out to you:

  • What would it feel like to be immortal? You know that everyone you love will one day be gone, while you have to carry on without them forever more. How will you live? What will you do? Is there a problem with boredom, because you’ve done it all before?
  • How about someone whose job is to protect a city, like a superhero, except he can’t remember who he is until the city is about to be destroyed? How does he react until he realises that he’s the one to save the day? How do the inhabitants treat him because he’s always so late coming to the rescue?
  • Or how about a woman who can’t find her car keys, until she remembers that she never learned to drive? Why does she think that she has keys for a car she doesn’t own? Is she suffering from amnesia? Does she have a split personality? Is she channelling someone from a parallel world? Or is a ghost trying to contact her? The possibilities are endless.
  • What is the exact meaning of a company name, like Blue Dog? Does someone have an unusual name? Why do they have it?

These are a few ideas that just popped into my head while I was writing this. Be prepared to think strange things and follow them up.

If you do decide to write, I suggest you keep some sort of notebook to write your ideas down. Personally, I use a program called Evernote, which you can get for free. It runs on the PC, Mac, iPhone and iPad, any Android device, etc. What you do is download it on any device you use and then set up an account with them or Dropbox or iCloud, or some other cloud service. Once all devices and their versions of Evernote are synchronised to the same account, if you write something down on one of them, it will be available on all of them within seconds. You need never lose an idea again. Except in the shower; I still have no idea how I can do it there.

If electronic devices are not your thing, and I know people who still prefer old-fashions methods, buy yourself a small reporter’s notebook with an attached pen or pencil. Keep it with you at all times and jot down any ideas you get. Every so often, say once a week, write them up in a bigger notebook or school book. Give it a title like “My Great Ideas Book.” Cherish the ideas as they come, accept them as the gifts from whoever or whatever you think of as a higher power, and they will keep coming. They will increase, and you will soon wonder why you never had any ideas.

Non-Fiction

Although all that I’ve written about above is as true for non-fiction as it is for fiction, non-fiction has a few extra points you need to keep in mind.

First of all, how much do you know about the subject? If it’s something you work with every day, and you know all about it, then you’re set. You just need to work out how to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.

If you only know a bit, or even nothing at all, then you are going to have to research. There are books available on just about every subject under the sun, many of them cheap or even free, if you know where to look. Try Amazon’s free books, for example, or check out Project Gutenberg for books that are out of copyright. Google the subject and follow any leads you find. Just be aware that there is a lot of useless or even false information out there. As Theodore Sturgeon, a science fiction writer, once said: “90% of everything is crud.”

As you’re doing your research, keep making notes of ideas and concepts that you want to include in your book. As I noted earlier, a notebook, or some electronic aid such as Evernote, is an excellent way of keeping everything together. It doesn’t matter whether everything is neat and tidy, or just a bunch of scribbles and phrases, as long as they make sense to you when you come back to them later.

Once you start writing, you will have to find your personal style. When I’m working on a non-fiction book, I always write as if I’m actually talking to the person. If I’m teaching someone how to use a computer program (and I have written user manuals), it’s as if we’re sitting down together in front the machine and I’m telling them what to type and where to click. This is my style, and I know that there are people who prefer other styles, such as an impersonal teacher dishing out commands.

Whatever you found during your research, don’t write it exactly as you noted it down in the first place because you may find that you are plagiarising someone else’s words. Instead, write it down in your own words, as if you are trying to explain to someone else what it is that you’ve read. Don’t worry if you think you have nothing new to say, it may be that someone else needs to hear it put the way that you can uniquely do. Say it your own way, and it will be new to someone.

Don’t talk yourself out of an idea just because it’s been done before. Put your own spin on it. Bring in your own personal experiences. You will have your own stories to tell, which will make it unique.
Dr Joe Vitale

Now, let’s look at one or two problems more carefully.

Ideas are blocked

If you think that your problem lies with writer’s block, try this little trick. If you prefer to work by hand, get a blank piece of paper and a pen or pencil, and write the subject you want to write about at the top of the page. Underline it or draw a box around it, whatever makes you feel that it’s important.

Now let’s establish a couple of simple rules. First of all, when you start writing, don’t stop! Secondly, you are only allowed to write from left to right and top to bottom. You can’t go back and correct something at the moment; that comes later.

Now, just keep writing whatever goes through your head on the subject. If you find that nothing relevant to the subject comes out, just write whatever you are thinking about, even if it’s about the problem you’re having writing anything down. The idea is to disconnect your creative process from the critical process of editing. Once you’ve been writing for five or ten minutes, or whatever feels comfortable, take a break or stop completely.

Now is the time to go back and look at what you’ve written. Don’t change anything yet, just read it from beginning to end to see what exactly you have created. If you find something you would like to alter or even delete, make a mental note to come back to it later.

Once you’ve reread it, you can go back and make the changes you thought about earlier. When you’ve finished, use that as a basis for your writing. You can repeat this as many times as you like, until you’re satisfied.

If you’re a computer user and can type fast enough, create a new blank document and start with that. I’ve even used dictation software to get ideas down as quickly as possible.

This is a combination of two different methods that I personally use. The first is Free Writing, where you just allow words to come out of you without censoring them in any way. The second method includes the first as its first stage. The method is called the Disney Method and is named after Walt Disney. It’s the way that he and his team of creators brainstormed new ideas for films and features.

If you want to find out more about this and other methods of achieving your goals, I suggest you look at my book Unleash Your Dreams: Going Beyond Goal Setting. You can find it on Amazon as both a Kindle ebook and paperback.

Another suggestion I can make is to have multiple projects going on at the same time. For instance, right now I am doing the final cleanup on my collection of short stories, I’m working on a second collection of stories on the same theme, I have a fantasy novel I’m working on, and I’m also working on a follow-up book to the one that I just mentioned. If I run out of ideas, or find myself blocked on one of these projects, I simply switch to another one and continue working there. I do this because I’ve come to realise that it’s not really a block, as such. It really means that what I’m working on at the moment isn’t quite ready to be written down yet.

No ideas at all

You said that you have no idea where to start? Is this because you have no ideas? Or is it because you have no idea what tools to use?

If the first one is your problem, please look earlier in this email, where I’ve given you a few pointers on how to start. If the second one is where you’re stuck, any word processor, such as Microsoft Word or Apple’s Pages, will do perfectly well. I wrote my first book using Word, and it did the job fairly well.

These days, I use a product called Scrivener, which is specially designed with the writer in mind, allowing you to structure your work any which way you like, moving stuff around if it makes more sense that way. You can download a free trial at http://www.literatureandlatte.com, which will run for 30 days of use; if you use it only once a week, it will work for months. If you decide you like it, it only costs about $45 to buy the full licence. There are versions for the PC, Mac, and iPhone and iPad.

Other problems
If your problems lie more in the realm of the actual publication of your writing, we can talk about this on another occasion.

I hope this helps you in your quest to become a writer.

I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to put this up as my next blog post, because I think other people might profit from it.

I wish you lots of luck in the future and look forward to hearing from you soon and reading your writing.

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