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Help for New Writers



Lots of people want to write fiction.  Sadly, most of those people, when they finally get around to trying, quickly become discouraged and give up.  The simple truth is that getting what’s in your head onto the paper or screen* is more difficult than it seems like it ought to be.

The thing is, those great books or stories that are lurking in your brain, desperate to get out, are in a pretty remote corner.  A dusty, murky, neglected corner.  And they’ve been there for so long that they’ve gotten pretty comfortable in their solitude.  They aren’t going to come out without a fight.

I don’t know the anatomical term for the circuits that connect the brain to the fingertips, so I just talk about writers’ muscle.  As you approach your early writing sessions, your writer’s muscle is a pretty pathetic, puny little thing.  You don’t approach the home gym for the first time already sporting washboard abs.  And you won’t start out writing with golden phrases spilling from your brain onto the page or screen.

The purpose of the following is to provide some concepts and approaches that will help you begin to develop your writer’s muscle with minimal angst.

* If you have access to a computer, USE IT.  If I only had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a wannabe writer say, “But I have to write longhand” . . . “I can’t be creative on a computer.”   Wrong.  You want to write longhand because that’s what you’re used to.  Once you’re used to using a computer, and you begin to appreciate the convenience of being able to move paragraphs around, etc., you’ll feel pretty silly about your affection for longhand.   I know I did.          

 Before you start . . .

 Once you decide Today’s the day, the last thing you want to have happen is for something to stop you dead in your tracks.  And something will unless you do some simple preparation. 

The thing is, the second you sit down to write, some evil little corner of your brain will start looking for excuses not to write – you know how you are – and if you suddenly realize you can’t remember whether or not Route 6 intersects with Tequila Terrace and you have to go looking for that map you used to have stuck under your owner’s manual in the glove compartment of your car, odds are you won’t make it back to the keyboard any time soon.

So before you sit down to write, have everything you might need close at hand.   

 Make a long, long, long list of names

Actually, make several lists of names – male first names, female first names, and surnames.  One of the most common reasons a perfectly good writing session gets stopped cold is that you come to the point where you need to introduce a new character.  Your brain goes blank and suddenly the only name you can think of, male or female, is Kenny.    

Make sure you have a nice variety in your lists:  cool names, stupid names, old names, young names, multi-national names . . . Keep this list right next to your computer, or in a “Names” document on your computer, so that when you need a name, all you have to do is run your finger down the list until you find just the right name for your character.

Phone books are a great source for names.  So are newspapers, especially the sports section where rosters are listed.  Also, you can do a Google search for “Most Popular Girls’/Boys’ Names” by decade, according to how old your character is.

Character names are important.  We’ve all heard somebody, on being introduced to somebody else, say, “Huh.  You don’t look like a Cindy.”

Names, in real life and particularly in fiction, carry information.  Everybody knows that in real life we shouldn’t judge a person by the name, but that’s exactly what we do in fiction.  So the choice of a name is important. 

Choose the name that is exactly right and will convey exactly the right image, for the character.  At the same time, don’t go for the glaringly obvious.  I’ve stopped reading books, even best sellers (well, I guess I should say, especially best sellers) when I discover that the name the author has given the macho dare-devil he-man star of his novel is Rip Thorn.  Gag me.  If you’re going to name your male lead Rip Thorn, your genre better be high camp, is all I’ve got to say.

Dictionary.  Maps.  Other Reference Materials?

 Where’s your story going to be set?  Have a map right at your side, even if you know your terrain pretty well.  If you’re setting your story in a fictional place, draw a rough map and mark in locations as you create them so that when you need to refer to a place you mentioned earlier, you can see at a glance where you put it.

Also, have a dictionary handy along with any other reference materials you might need.

Music – the Value of White Noise

 The second you begin trying to concentrate on your writing, you will probably suddenly develop the super-human ability to hear every distracting sound being produced within a three mile radius.  An antidote to this is background music. 

You may have to experiment a bit to find the music that’s right for you.  I like Rock ’n Roll, R and B, and some Rap, but when I’m trying to write those genres don’t do it for me.  When I write I need soothing music which is happy to step into the background once I get going strong.  Sometimes I listen to native American flute CDs such as Sacred Drums, In Beauty, and Spiritlands.  Other times I use the radio on iTunes to find classical stations such as WGBH Boston.                                                                         

Start out with Realistic Expectations

You didn’t paint the corners the first time you tossed away the rosin bag and picked up a baseball.  You didn’t run the table the first time you picked up a cue stick.  And you’re not going to produce something profoundly evocative the first time you attempt to write.

In fact, your early efforts are probably going to suck.  Everybody’s early efforts suck.  This is why lots of writer wannabes get discouraged and quit.  Don’t quit.  So what if your fastball just sailed over the backstop and into the nosebleed section.  The good stuff will come if you stick with it.  In the meantime, you’re writing.  You’re doing it.  Yay.

Try to write every day and set yourself a daily goal

And I don’t mean a time goal:  “I’ll sit at the computer for one hour each day . . . ”  If I did that, I’d spend that hour losing play money on Poker Stars.  I mean a production goal, whether it’s a paragraph or a page.  I know this is difficult for people with busy lives, so set an easily-attained goal, even if it’s a mere paragraph.  (Anyway, before you know it you’ll begin to get the reins in your teeth and that daily paragraph will turn into pages.) 

There’s a good reason for setting a modest goal daily.  You’re trying to grow your writer’s muscle, remember?  Well, a critical part of writers’ muscle is found in the subconscious.  It may take a week or two, but at some point your subconscious, knowing that in a few hours you have to sit down and come up with something to write about, will begin to kick into gear during your busy day.  You’ll start coming up with ideas when you least expect them.

Get yourself a little notebook

 to carry around with you.  Because when your subconscious writers’ muscle begins to crank out ideas at odd times during your busy day, you need to write them down.  Or at least write down enough key words so that when you sit down at the computer, you can remember what that idea was.  Oh, I know . . . when the idea comes to you, you’ll think, No need to write this down.  I’ll remember it.  No, you won’t.  Write it down while you’ve got it. 

Getting Started 

So you’ve got your notebook, you’ve made your list of names, you’ve got your dictionary and maps and what-not, your background music is playing, you’re fired up and ready to go, you sit down at the computer, and . . . FINGER FREEZE. 

Don’t worry.  You’re just putting too much pressure on yourself.  Remember, you’re not striving for great literature here.  You’re just trying to begin to open up the circuits between brain and fingers . . . to get something down on paper (or should I say, onto the screen).  You’re beginning to exercise your writer’s muscle.  So start simple  . . .

 Record a simple event from your day

Describe a simple event you’ve just experienced.  Keep it simple.  When you’ve described it, go back and flesh it out.  Who else was around?  What were they doing?  What were they wearing?  What were the background noises?  How did things look?  Smell? 

Embellish.   This is your writing and we’re talking fiction here, after all.  You can make your event twist and turn however you want it to.

Record a conversation you overheard

or you took part in.  Once you’ve recorded the conversation, how can you change it to make it more . . . interesting? . . . threatening?  . . . titillating? . . . mysterious?  . . . revealing? . . . etc., etc.  What did the participants look like?  How did they sound?  Who else was around?  What were the non-participants doing?  What were the hidden agendas or motivations in the conversation?  What were the undercurrents?

When hearing voices is a good thing

Voice, in fiction, means how the story is being told.  It may be told in third person, which means the voice is an anonymous onlooker . . . “He climbed the stairs.  She stood at the top . . . ” or it can be told in first person, which means one of the characters is telling the story . . . “I climbed the stairs and I was surprised . . . ” 

When writing in third person, you have a certain amount of leeway . . . is the tone folksy or formal, for example.  Biblical or tabloid-ish.  But when writing in first person, you can infuse personality into your narrative. 

Experiment with first person voices.  Try telling a simple story in a voice different from your voice.  Think of an acquaintance who has a distinctive way of speaking and try to write something using that voice.

Tackle a scene from that novel you’ve been carrying around in your head

 And, of course, if you’ve been walking around with the germ of a novel in your head, choose the scene that’s clearest in your mind and write it.  Remember, be satisfied at first just to get the bare bones down.  In later sessions you can always go at it again.  The main thing is to get started.

Play, experiment, have fun, take chances . . .

but never use session 4, for example, to go back and edit what you wrote in session 3.  Editing, when you’re starting out, is cheating.  It’s what you do to pretend like you’re writing when really you’re trying to avoid writing. 

Later on, editing will become critically important to you.  In fact, some might say editing will be even more important than the writing itself.  But at this stage, if you want to grow that muscle, you need to keep producing new, fresh stuff every session. 

Save everything, even your worst stuff   

 Maybe that early writing sucked, but the ideas have value and may come in handy later.  Also, someday you’ll be able to look back and laugh . . .

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