“Gather round, yous chillun’: ol’ papa pooey has a tale ta tell yins.”
O.K., so that’s not the best example of writing out there, but it does hit a few key ideals, at least one of which I hope to expound upon.
So. Writing. I hear it all the time: “I have all these amazing stories in my head, I just have to get them down on paper”, or, “I don’t know where to start!” Well, here’s my solution to that. Will it the best answer? Maybe. Maybe not; But if you’re totally at a loss, then at least you’ll have more than you did.
There are a lot of “rules” to writing, all of which you can promptly and expediently throw right out of the window this moment. I’ll wait. Done? Good. Now, go out and pick them up and bring them back in, because although the key to great writing is to “Do what feels right”, no one-and by no one I’m referring to any serious publication or journalist or what have you- will ever take you seriously if you don’t possess at least a rudimentary knowledge of basic grammar, punctuation and sentence structure. Oh, and a dictionary. Because even though there will be times (like above) when misspelling words will be essential for character development, most of the time it’s just plain annoying.
I’ll try to save you a lot of time and recommend Stephen King’s book On Writing, because by and far it is the best “how-to” book on writing I’ve ever read, and a lot of what I’ll type here is found there, because I’ve tried it and it works. So there.
So, you want to be a writer, eh? Well, the first and most important thing you have to consider is this: What are you trying to say? You see, there’s something inside of you that wants out, and if writing is the outlet for that message, then unlike, say, abstract painting, you’re not going to get your message across unless you have an idea of what it is you’re trying to say. People aren’t mind readers, but they can read minds. I’ll explain what that means in a bit.
So what is it you want to tell? Are you in the mood for non-fiction? A great sc-fi epic, perhaps. Maybe it’s a true story about your uncle from the old country. Whatever it is, deciding what your writing is going to be about is the first big step you’ll have to take. I’d love to say the rest is easier, but you may not find it so.
Once you figure out what you want to write about, you need to figure out what you’re going to write about what you’re writing about. Make sense? Let’s say you want to tell the dramatic tale of how you overcame all the obstacles and odds and learned how to tie your shoes. Well, O.K.: What about it? Kids (as well as older folks) learn to tie their shoes everyday. What makes this so special? Why is this the story you chose to write about? What sort of special memory does this hold for you? Or, let’s say you think you have the greatest wizard story ever to grace a library shelf. What makes this one so different from all the others? Now, I’m not saying this to push you into a recessive slump, or to scare you into never submitting anything ever again. It’s just that there’s a lot of stuff out there, and you need to figure out what sets yours apart, and build your scaffolding around that specific thing. Wizards? Been there. Cybernetic-Mermaid-wizards from Mars? Now we’re getting somewhere.
When I say scaffolding, I mean it in every sense of the word (which, by the way, is defined as a structure used for support when working. Yea!, dictionary!) Whenever you undertake an art, not just writing, you’re essentially building a structure. Like building a house, your writing is going to need certain things if it’s going to stand the test of time, as well as the stormy battering of criticism. By choosing your medium (type, paint, charcoal, etc.) you’ve basically picked the plot of ground you’re going to be building on. Now it’s time to lay the foundation. In one sentence, write out what your story is going to be about. “A boy’s dog saves the world”, or, “A girl falls in love while her dog saves the world.” Keep it sweet and to the point. “A rag-tag group of teenagers discover and defeat an alien invasion.” There. It’s not so hard once you actually try it.
Once you’ve boiled your plot into a single noodle, add details to the sentence. It’s easy if you just play with the nouns you’ve already created by replacing some pronouns and adjectives. “A young boy’s golden retriever…” Or you can be even more specific. “An autistic twelve year-old’s prize-winning golden retriever…” Though I’d wait a draft or two before getting too in depth. You’ll find more details emerging by themselves as you write, and may even be amazed at how much of the story will write itself: it just needs you to type it up.
I was getting ahead of myself for a bit with the whole foundation thing. You never want to start any project, whether it’s fixing a run-on sentence, or fixing a bad wire, without the proper tools. So if you’re just setting off on the wonderful road to authorship, here are a few things to take along:
• A dictionary. I suggest getting a few, actually. One thick, unabridged version, one mid-sized edition, and a small, easy flip for those commonly misspelled words. (Misspelled is one of the most misspelled words out there!) There is also a rhyming dictionary, in case you’re writing poetry, or just feel like being a nuisance to your friends.
• A thesaurus. It’s not THE dinosaur, but a book that tells you what word you could use instead of the one you’ve chosen. For instance, it might tell you that instead of running home, you could dart or bolt or zip. This addition to your bookshelf can really help if you’re not familiar with words.
• Tape recorders come in handy when you want to record thoughts, but your hands are tired from all that typing/writing you’re supposedly doing.
• Last but certainly not least, you’ll need an objective friend-slash-reader who can go over your work throughout its various stages and give you some perspective. (Read: criticism. It’s a good thing, honest.)
Which brings me to the last note on this entry: people are going to read what you write. Otherwise, why would anyone write anything? Yes, they are going to read it, and-here it is- some of them won’t like it. DUN DUN DUN!
But seriously, who cares? Everyone has specific tastes and likes, and if you truly attempt to bend to the whims of everyone who glimpses at your meager scratching, your writing will be lifeless and fake. Someone out there will love what you have to say, some will think it’s so-so, and some won’t care one way or the other. You can’t let these things deter you from writing. Listen to what they have to say, and if it makes you mad, it’s a good thing.
We tend to get angry when our faults are brought into plain sight, so if you find yourself getting defensive and argumentative, it’s a good sign that you knew all along what a load of errors your writing truly was. If you try to rush or cut corners, the reader WILL pick up on it. I’ll get into this more next time. For now, think about what it is you want to say, how to simply define it and the possible directions it has to grow. Like a tree, or, in some cases, a shrub. Take notes-preferably in a notebook to avoid a thousand pieces of scratch paper all over your table-and don’t be afraid to write something completely inane. (dictionary, anyone?)