This is the start of a series of articles I’ve been meaning to write for some time. I’ve often avoided talking about the writing process because, having read so many great books by great authors on the subject, it’s always felt a little presumptuous to butt in and say “I have opinions on writing too.” Still, enough people have asked me about why I write, how I write, and what it’s like publishing through KDP, that I’ve decided to just push ahead and do it. And what better place to start than at the beginning.
How to Write Your First Story.
The biggest hurdle for a new writer is taking a piece from the blank page to completion for the first time. We’ve all written stories or started the first chapter of long and winding epics, but being able to take an idea from its conception to a finished piece is what separates a hopeful writer from the real thing. The length of the piece is largely irrelevant. What matters is being able to step back from a piece and say that it is complete in itself. Unfortunately too many new writers get completely lost in the process, leaving cluttered desktops of half-finished ideas, never really know where they went wrong. Not so long ago, that was me. If it sounds familiar to you, read on.
There’s a reason new writers get tangled up in their stories and abandon them. From a young age, we are encouraged to write. Children are natural storytellers, they can fill pages and pages with their imaginative scrawl. Unfortunately, we aren’t taught how to write well until fairly late in our lives. When most start writing seriously, they begin as they had as a child. They write the first words on the page and go from there, expecting a story to spring forth. Then after a couple of sentences, they go back and read, only to find it doesn’t sound as clean, or as clear, as the last published author they read. It can be disheartening, and a lot of people stop there and never start again.
Somewhere along the line, we acquire the notion that writing should come naturally. That those who write well, do so as freely as others write a shopping list. But writing as an art form isn’t like that. It’s just like picking up a paintbrush for the first time, or learning your first notes on an instrument, we can all do these things but that doesn’t mean we can paint or play the saxophone. We have to learn a little craft.
Writing is really made up of three stages. Everyone’s approach is a little different, but if you asked around, I think you’d find broad agreement with this. Each stage requires a different set of skills, and trying to work on them all at once is a surefire way to get mixed up. Try to think of each stage as a different hat, a separate role you step into.
Stage 1 – Planning.
The first step is all about figuring out what you’re going to write. There’s lots of debate as to how much you should plan. Some writers go completely off to cuff, but they’re a rarity. Other plan almost paragraph to paragraph in excruciating detail before they start, but they’re the exception too. Personally, I find I need a loose plan that details what my story is about, how it’s going to evolve as it goes, and the final resolution. If I don’t have one, I write myself into a corner. If I plan too tightly, the writing becomes restrictive and I can’t get into the flow of this better.
For short stories, I usually break the idea down into three acts, and write a paragraph or two in each laying out the narrative. A plan doesn’t need to be clean, or tight, or even well written. It just needs to guide the flow of the story a little so you’re not trying to plot the next twist and turn of your story while you’re trying to write a good scene.
For your first story, try writing out a plan for a 1000 word story. A good start is to divide your plan into three, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Each would be about 333 words long.) For now, ignore the old storytelling tropes like “put a man up a tree”, just get an idea you like and loosely plot it with three acts. Keep it simple, something too complicated won’t fit well into the word count.
Stage 2 – The First Draft
The first draft is probably the most important part of the process. It is closest to what most people think of when they think of writing, and with good reason. It’s the stage where you’re probably going to be doing the most work. For me, it’s my favourite part of the entire process. I know other writers who find it to be a slow and agonising step, with each word like hard labour. For a first draft, you will take your plan and turn it into a story. This means sitting at your computer, typewriter, pen and paper, or whatever you’re using, and actually writing for significant lengths of time.
This is where a lot of people fall down. Writing can be hard work, and it’s tough to keep your inner editor at bay. Artists of all kinds will tell you, looking back on your own work is extra hard because you can always see all the little flaws. It’s easy to look back your first drafts and hate your work, but you have to ignore that voice. Probably the biggest secret in writing is that all first drafts are terrible. You will hear stories of writers like Harlan Ellison who knocked off masterpieces on the fly, but those guys were magazine writers who hammered out science fiction stories for a penny a word, day after day, week after week. They did it or they went hungry. You learn to be very good, very fast under conditions like that. For the rest of us? First drafts suck, they all suck, and it doesn’t matter, because you never have to show it to anyone.
Writing a good first draft is just about turning the plan into a more elaborate, expressive piece. As a writer, your job is to be completely unrestrained. Take off your editor’s hat completely, and tell yourself that you can write whatever you want, however you want. A lot of what you write will be terrible. A lot of it will be corny, tired rubbish. It’ll be sappy, groan worthy, hackneyed trash, and it’s supposed to be. A first draft is all your ideas, without restraint, or taste, or manners, or patience. Just write the damned thing. We’ll fix it later.
With that in mind, take your plan for a 1000 word story, and write it up into a first draft. It shouldn’t take much time. Writing is a skill you build up over time, typing will come along with it. If you set yourself a little time to work every day, you’ll soon be able to write well over 1000 words in a single sitting. If you aren’t there yet, don’t worry. Write your first act, don’t think too much. Just plug away at it. Then go take a break, think about something else, then come back and do the next. Soon you’ll have all three written. They might be terrible. But they’ll be done.
Stage 3 – Rewriting
Once your first draft is done, you let it settle. Maybe for a day, maybe for a few days, maybe longer. The idea is to come back to the work with a clear head. Now you put on the editor’s hat, the nagging voice that has been trying to drown out everything else through this entire process. Now you re-read your story, and you make changes.
I don’t love rewriting. After the first draft is when the fun ends for me. About the only pleasure I get from rewriting is seeing good writing slowly being brought out of the bad. Again, everyone’s approach is different. Some start almost from scratch, using their first draft as a loose plan to a major rewrite. I don’t have the stamina for that, personally I prefer a read and polish approach. I take a finished first draft, save a backup so I can always go back to it, and the I read the story through. I try to detach myself from it, and read it as I would any book I’d picked up from the shelf. Every time I hit something that doesn’t read right, anything that sticks in my mind as feeling wrong, I rewrite it. When I get to the end of the story, I start again. When I can read the story through comfortably, I pass it on to some other people to read and get some feedback. A word of warning though, it is possible to rewrite too much. To get too caught up in the process, and essentially write your story to death. Draining your own writing of all its character and humanity in an attempt to get the writing cleaner, purer. If you’ve got to the point where you’re just swapping words in and out and it’s not making much of a difference, it’s time to stop.
Stephen King in his excellent book On Writing, describes rewriting as being like a sculptor working stone, with each pass of the chisel bringing out more detail and refinement to the finished piece. It’s an analogy that really works for me, and it keeps me going through the lengthy process.
I’ve gotten better at it as the years have gone by. My first story published, Christmas Past, was a nightmare rewrite. I read and re-read that story so many times for months that I could still tell you every line from the book. Over time, your writing grows and improves. Today my first drafts come out cleaner, and my rewriting goes quicker.
Now it’s back to you. After you’ve given your first draft some time, go back. Read it, re-read it, and edit it as you go. Try to make the writing smooth, make it read well and feel confident and clear. When you’ve subjected it to a re-write or two, let it settle again. Read it after a few days and see how it feels, share it with others and see what they think. It might need another rewrite, but if you can step back and say “I’ve taken this as far as I can” then well do, you have successfully written your first story!