The Three Steps to Writing Your First Story

For the first time on this site, I’ve opened up a post to someone else. The following is a guest think piece written by Tim Wilkinson, who was gracious enough to lend some of his advice on writing to you guys.

Tim majored in Screenwriting in college and has taken a variety of creative writing classes on the side. He moved to Hollywood and hung out with other writers while doing freelance work on the side. During his time there, he met a lot of great (and not-so-great) writers who have helped shaped his strategy for making what you make, well, great. Enjoy!

 

By Tim Wilkinson.

A strange mistake writers make when they decide to write something is when they think they have to start by crafting a novel. If you were just learning how to sew, you wouldn’t start by making a California King-sized quilt, just like if you started running yesterday, you wouldn’t attempt a marathon this coming weekend.

Don’t get me wrong, I want you to get to wherever it is you want to be (creatively speaking). I just think you’re going to need to start by developing your tools and endurance (yes, writing a novel is an exercise in endurance) before tackling the beast.

Part the First: About Writing Itself

The first mistake that many intrepid young writers make is to think that writing is “easy.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Writing can be fun, rewarding and extremely satisfying, but I’ve never once considered it especially easy. As a result, many new writers tend to dive in and quickly flame out on their project. Or just get lost in the world they were trying to create. Then they stick it in a drawer and never look at it again.

My advice is simple:

Read. As much as you can. You can’t write if you don’t read. Don’t like to read? Guess what? You’re not a writer. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.

Reading helps you develop your own voice (likely by first emulating writers you love and then growing from there) and keeps your brain in what I like to call word mode. I read every day on my commute and most nights before bed.

Write. Every. Day. This one is even harder. There are days when you’re not going to want to. Days when the words won’t come. Days when you think everything you’re writing is crap and you’ll be right.

It’s going to suck sometimes, but you’ve just got to muscle through it. All professional writers do it, and they’ll all admit to having days when they want to pull their hair out and scream until they lose their voices. But they still do it.

Study. You need to learn story structure. I’ve heard too many new writers say, “I don’t need to learn story structure because it will mess up my story” or some other line that implies that they are too “artistic” to bow to the traditional guidelines of storytelling.

If you’re one of these people, let me tell you something: you’re just like everyone else who thinks they’re a genius until that moment comes when you discover that your really cool plot twist or story structure was actually done (better) by someone before you were even born.

Writing is extremely humbling if you’re doing it correctly.

So just suck it up and learn story structure. Pick up a copy of Story by Robert McKee (it’s targeted to screenwriters, but the story elements translate to prose fiction as well) and On Writing by Stephen King. Read the crap out of them.

Then grab a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and learn it by heart. I also recommend The Little Red Writing Book by Brandon Royal. But grammar and spelling are only important if you want other people to read your work.

Find a Community (but don’t get too caught up in it). This is optional and not for everyone. I’m sure that if you’ve started writing something already, you’re a bit annoyed because writing sounds like a lot of hard, lonely work.

It is.

That’s why it’s good to have friends who understand what you’re putting yourself through.

Search for a good local writers group (lots of libraries have them, depending on where you’re located) or even online. Reddit (r/writing) is a nice place to hang out as well. These people will be a tremendous resource for you and will help you find your way—or at least be a support group that your non-writer friends won’t be able to be.

However: Note that there is a fine line between being a writer and playing the writer. People who play the writer want to have all the “perks” of being a writer—the prestige, being able to say you’re a writer to impress people at parties, etc.—without actually writing. So be sure you’re finding an actual writing group that will help you progress.

Okay, now you’ve established the building blocks. Hopefully this means you’ve started kicking out a few pages every day. Awesome. Now we can move on to:

Part the Second: About Writing a Novel

All novels start with one thing: An idea.

You need an idea that is going to keep you interested for at least a year, probably more. The idea that birthed my novel was simple: What if a teenaged boy became obsessed with capturing proof of the giant monster living in the local lake?

(Side note: Don’t be paranoid about not telling people ideas like this—you can’t copyright an idea, and even if they did steal it, their story would be completely different from yours. Just look at vampire and zombie novels if you don’t believe me).

So now that you have your idea, you’ve got to figure out a few things:

  • What genre will my novel be?
  • What is your narrator’s point of view?
  • Will you follow one character or jump around between multiple ones?

I find knowing these few things at the outset to be tremendously helpful. I’ve actually rewritten an entire project because I decided after one draft that past-tense/third person was the wrong way to go and changed it to present-tense/first person.

Now this is where things get tricky. You have to decide if you’re a gardener or architect.

Gardeners plant a story and let it grow organically, often starting at the beginning and then letting it grow as they write.

Architects plot everything out in advance so they know how to build their story.

For example: Stephen King is a gardener; J.K. Rowling is an architect.

I am very much an architect. As such, I’ll walk you through my process.

Start with a deck of 3×5 index cards. Write out each scene in one sentence on the card. If you find you’re adding more than one or two sentences, tear it up and start over.

Your sentences should be simple, like:

Jeff kicks in the door, shoots the guy on the couch and takes the drugs on the table.

Worry about the details of it when you’re actually writing. If you obsess over the details now, you’ll have nothing to keep your interest when you finally start to write.

Write all of your scenes out like this. Now lay them out and read through them. You may start to notice that this scene here would go better there, and so on.

This is why you use index cards and vague-ish scenes. So you can move them around.

Rearrange, add, subtract and generally play with it to your heart’s content. Then, once your satisfied, number them (trust me) and then type them up in a single document.

Viola! Instant outline!

Now you begin to write. Set a daily goal. My current one is 500 words a day because I work full-time and have a pregnant wife. It’s what I can do, but I make sure to do it every single day. And yes, there are plenty of days when I don’t want to at first.

Now write and write and write and write and one day it will be done.

And it will be horrible. Or at least, you’ll hate it. You’ll hate everything about it. You’ll consider self-immolation. You’ll consider taking up an “easier” artistic outlet, like painting with fresh rattlesnake blood that you procured yourself.

In the immortal words of Douglas Adams: Don’t Panic.

This is normal. Calmly put your hard work aside and do not look at it for at least one month. Maybe longer. Fight the urge to tool around with it. Start something new. Go have an adventure. Just don’t touch it. Right now, your manuscript is a wad of dough, and it needs time to breathe and rise. Which brings us to…

Part the Third: Turd Polishing

After enough time has lapsed, go back and read it.

Don’t start rewriting immediately. Read it.

All the way through.

Tough it out. It might hurt in places, but you’ll also notice little pockets of prose that you don’t hate. Feel free to keep a notepad handy, but don’t spend more time writing than you do reading that first time. Re-acquaint yourself. Note any large plot issues, but save the finer stuff for later.

After your read through, it’s time to rewrite.

Start by fixing any gaping plot holes and work down to the smaller details. Take good notes. A good rule of thumb I’ve learned is that your second draft should be 10% shorter than your first draft. Usually, this can be easily achieved by editing out extraneous words.

One thing we should talk about here is grammar, which is literally the last thing you should worry about. Your first draft (as well as everyone else’s) will be a hot, steaming turd. You don’t ever want to polish a fresh turd. Your successive rewrites will act as a coat of varnish on your turd, making it nice, shiny and less horrifying.

Once you’ve applied several coats of Rewrites™ brand varnish, you’ll be able to polish (or, if you prefer, proofread) without getting dirt under your fingernails. Besides, what’s the point of correcting spelling and grammar if you might just rewrite that whole section anyway?

Now it’s just a matter of banging it into shape until you’re happy with it. Once you’re satisfied that your story is absolutely as good as it is going to get, then you can fix your grammar and spelling. Once you’re done, find that one friend of yours who, when asked for story feedback, only ever points out your typos.

“Uh, it was good but you misspelled butt cheek like six times in chapter nine.”

All writers have this one friend, I promise you. Right now, he’s your best friend.

Now you’re finally ready to show your bad boy off. Ask a few trusted friends to read it and give you feedback. This will likely spur another round of revisions—again this is totally normal.

Also, be sure to give a copy of your manuscript to your mother (or whoever loves you unconditionally).

Because who doesn’t occasionally need to hear how great they are? Just don’t expect it from anyone else. You’re going to have to earn it from everyone else.

I really hope you find this piece helpful. If you’re a little freaked out now, that’s good.

If you still want to write a novel, that’s very good.

One final note: Find what you’re comfortable writing on and stick with it. Clive Barker writes his novels longhand and then types them up. I use a program called OmmWriter to do my daily 500 words, then paste it into Scrivener, an amazing (and cheap) writing program that has its own index card system (which I now use instead of actual index cards).

Just find what works for you and do it.

 

Thanks for reading! You can follow @Tim_Wilkinson on Twitter.

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18 thoughts

  1. Thank you soo much for this. I really needed that. I’ve been writing for about two years now and I convinced myself that I should write a novel. Now by some divination, I’m stuck. So I decided to read more. The only way to learn something is to observe the best. I also experience those days when I just can’t seem to put words together. It can be frustrating, but I’m determined to push through. I thought writing was easy. It never ever is. Thank you for reminding me of this.
    -Hakeem

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    1. I just knew you would enjoy this article, Alicia. And as you’ll recall, this really is the first guest post I’ve ever done in the last two years…

      Like

  2. I am just getting myself started and taking writing a lot more seriously. Your post was so timely! I especially liked your advice about reading and reading MORE. Currently I am challenging myself by reading Pulitzer Prize winners, I am reading a lot of books/authors I probably would not have otherwise chosen and learning a TON!! Thanks

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  3. Since I was in second grade I’ve known writing is what I wanted to do. Now, I’m twelve and I’ve started to have trouble. Sometimes at school I take a notebook and just write the whole class period(I know I shouldn’t and I should pay attention blah, blah, blah). Really, this has helped!!!!! . When I read this, I got this weird exciting feeling that just made me want to write. Now I have Microsoft Word up and I’m brainstorming. THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!
    -Skylar

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    1. Keep going Skylar! I was also in second grade when I realized that I was destined to be a writer (actually, my teacher told me that plainly). I have little doubt that you’ll be a one as well.

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  4. Ugg. I needed this. I’m working on my manuscript and a script for animation movie. The manuscript I have a rough draft of and I need to work on. Add a little more to one of my characters. I know it doesn’t have to be perfect( somehow crappy books get published all the time) but I want it do be so bad. The script is another story. I haven’t gotten any feedback from any of my friends. Neither of my parents have read it yet and I keep asking people if it’s to much like Frozen. They say no but I still worry. My dad tries to help but he over analyzes everything and doesn’t know much about writing. My editor( not a real one, just a really smart friend who’s also an English teacher) hadn’t emailed me back and I’m dying for real feedback.
    (P. S. Sorry for the lengthy post. I really needed to get that off my chest

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  5. I found this amazingly helpful, as I had been working on a project for nearly 6 years and had gotten nowhere with it. And I especially loved the tip about using index cards to map out scenes (I’m definitely an architect). Now, one question. I ended up with 86 cards. Is that normal or way too much?

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    1. In my opinion, I don’t think you can have too much if you’re happy with what you have. In other words, it’s easier to edit things out than to have to shoehorn more things in because it’s too short.

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  6. This is great. I will definitely be referring back to this as i start to settle on an idea and will DEFINITELY read those books you recommended. As a new writer who reads a lot of short stories by other new writers I totally agree that they tend to think writing is easy and that’s why they get stuck o give up but for me It’s the exact opposite. I’ve came into this with the perspective that writing is gonna be hard as hell so anytime i have an idea I’m hand tremblingly scared its the stupidest thing anyone has ever thought of so that’s why i end up putting a lot of them in the drawer. But this has given me a little more confidence to keep trying so thank you!

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