Five top tips for getting writing

"The scariest moment is always just before you start" says Stephen King in On Writing.

In 2016, BBC Get Creative asked me to share my top five tips for getting going on creative writing. Here they are again, followed by a couple of short case studies showing what writing creatively could bring to your life.

 

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1. Write. 

Your stories will never happen if you don’t write them. Believe that writing is for you. You want to do it and that’s, literally, all that you need to start. Classes really help. Ask around for a good teacher that people would recommend. In one fell swoop you gain encouragement, a tutor, an editor, and a writing tribe of new friends who are on the same journey as you. There are lots of online courses and forums of writers if you prefer to do things over the internet.

 

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2. Read. 

And then read some more. And then some more. The more you read, the more you will be able to write. Don’t worry that you’ll end up copying someone else’s style – you simply won’t. Name your own project. As soon as you tell people you’re writing, they’ll ask you what you’re working on. If you can say, ‘I’m writing a short story called ‘___’ or a novel about ‘________’ you’ll feel much more confident in yourself as a writer. Reading will improve your writing. Writing will also improve your writing; practice really does make perfect.

 

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3. Speak. 

When you say the words on the page out loud, you can instinctively feel which phrases sparkle and resonate, and which are less engaging. Your brain has been working hard on sorting out words and sentences all your life; listen to this finely tuned instrument and take note of what it tells you.

 

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4. Think. 

Use your experiences and other people’s to build stories and characters. In schools this is known as ‘magpie-ing’, collecting shiny details and interesting traits from wherever you might find them. Carry a notebook everywhere you go.

Make your characters rounded and deep. Find a real-life stranger who looks interesting and ask yourself, what is their name? Where do they come from? What do they carry in their pockets and why? What do they want more than anything else in the whole world? Dress your characters in the clothes you see people wearing, add real life characteristics – a hand gesture from one, a voice from another, the way they run their fingers through their hair. Remember that hands are every bit as expressive as faces.

When your characters speak, keep it neat and short. In real life we splutter and repeat ourselves and use the same words over and over, those things don’t work in print. Use ‘said’ rather than ‘exploded’ or ‘spat’ or ‘whined’. Believe it or not ‘said’ becomes invisible in writing – check in some of your favourite books.

 

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5. Trust.

 Believe in yourself and your ability to write. Just get words onto the page. You can chop out things that don‘t work later on and no one will even know they were ever there. The beauty of writing is that it’s infinitely revisable. No character, phrase or storyline is ever lost. Keep the things/people you’ve cut from a story in a file of clippings. I’m about to write a novel using a character I developed and then cut ten years ago. And always remember, you don’t have to know how a story ends when you start it.

A few exercises to get you going:

  • Describe your walk from home to somewhere familiar. Make sure you use all five senses. What did you smell? What did you touch and how did it feel in your hand? What could you see, which colours, shapes, surprises? Where there tastes in your mouth, what were they like? If you include all these things in your short journey, you will be showing, not telling. This will keep your reader right in the action. Now change your story from first person to third person (or vice versa depending which you instinctively used)

  • Look at first and last lines books you love. See how much of the promise of the book they carry. Write a story that starts with someone else’s first line

  • The rules, rhythms and shapes of ‘art’ are the same across disciplines. Go to an art exhibition, a concert, a dance, then write a story based on the feelings it invoked. The Greeks called this ekphrasis

  • Put two characters together and let them swap some dialogue about something simple like a meal Make them have different opinions and speak in different ways (perhaps one is mousy and one bombastic - maybe one is loquacious and the other curt)

  • Write a short passage about something you know and others might not. Perhaps you have climbed a mountain or been inside a castle. Imagine that the person you’re writing for has never seen this place and tell them about it