General Tips |
Dialogue: Dialogue should sound natural, regardless of your character's voice. Read it out loud if you're not sure. Also, each character should have their own voice. Be careful about making all of your characters sound the same. It's a more common problem than you think.
Description: You need to be descriptive, but not overly so. Pay attention to what needs to be described. I don't need to know what shirt your main character is wearing unless it's relevant, or her middle name. This is the same for scenes. I don't need you to describe the character's walk to the mall, or her thoughts while she's microwaving her meal, unless they are necessary for plot or for mood.
Critique: Give and receive critiques. When you receive critiques, you get a chance to fix problems you hadn't noticed. When you give them, you learn to think more critically and to start to recognize errors that people make, which you can then keep in mind in your own writing. See "Who should read my work" later on this page.
Purpose: Everything you write should have a purpose. Every scene, every character, every death, every dialogue. The purpose can be character development, plot development, whatever. Do not write purposeless prose.
Being a Writer
- Observe the world.
- This is huge. If you're going to write about the world or make up one of your own, you have to know what you're talking about.
- -The People. What are people like? How can you make realistic, interesting characters?
- -The Places. There are many interesting places out there. They can give you inspiration, a setting, or can provide you with details to add into your own story.
- -The Whole Experience. Observing the world isn't just about what you see. Sight is important, but it's one of five senses. What do you smell? What do you taste? What do you hear? What do you feel? I'm in the woods. It smells like rain and earth. It tastes like a fresh morning. I hear birds, and running water, and leaves crunching, the wind rustling the trees, a bug buzzing near my ear. I feel sticks crack beneath my sneakers, leaves tickling and sticks snagging my sweater as I brush past, an unseen cobweb on my face, something sticky on my hand - was that tree sap? No, a slug. Yuck. Yuck yuck.
- Keep a journal.
- I've heard this so many times, and there's merit to it. If you write what you see you get really good at describing thoughts, feelings, and the world around you. I personally don't keep a journal and feel I am a poorer writer because of it.
- Write all the time.
- Keep at it. Write down your ideas. Talk about you writing with others. Allow yourself to be inspired.
One of the questions I run into a lot is "I want to write but I don't know what to write about." If you have the urge to write but can't think of a story, there are things you can do.
- Writing Exercises
- First of all, here's my favorite writing exercise to recommend:
- -Write down 25 concepts, such as "sadness" or "forest." My favorite ones to recommend are "amnesia," "abandoned car," "ghosts," and "ballerinas," but you can pick anything.
- -Put them into a hat and draw three.
- -Try to make a story using them.
- You can find other fun and useful writing exercises by searching for them, or under the Writer's Block section.
- Look for inspiration.
- Watch a movie. Read a book. Allow it to inspire you.
- After reading Twilight, a lot of young writers suddenly wanted to write about vampires. There's nothing wrong with that. If your story's too similar to another, it likely won't get published and people probably won't be interested in reading it. Beyond that, there's nothing that says you can't be inspired to write about a topic because someone else wrote about it and it touched you.
- A lot of authors are asked, "Who is your inspiration?" And the authors will list other writers that inspired them. Just be aware that if you want your inspired story to become a serious writing project, it needs to have some originality.
- Look at your interests.
- What do you like? Pirates? Elves? Pirate elves? Cats? Wintertime? The sound of acoustic guitars?
- Think about what the world would be like if you could change anything.
- If you want to take that politically, go ahead, but I really do mean anything. What if you had wings? What if all girls had wings, and no boys did? What if there were mermaids in the sea and spaceships in the sky? What if you could step between universes just by doing a dance?
- Remember your own daydreams. A lot of my story ideas have come from daydreams.
- Daydreams aren't the only dreams that can inspire you, though. Think back to cool dreams that you had at night. What made them cool?
- One night I dreamed that the local library became a sea at night, with islands and sea monsters that you had to escape by climbing the bookshelves.
- Another night I dreamed of a battle at a crashed spaceship in a desert.
- Still another night I dreamed of a boy whose feet were rollerblades, and he could skate on all surfaces, even up walls and along railings.
- Find a place that inspires you.
- It may be a corner of your room, a section of the library, or a park bench in the autumn. Make this your "writing place," where you can just sit, think, dream and write. It should be somewhere you're comfortable, where you can just lose yourself in the story you're creating.
Creating the World
When you start a story, there are a few decisions you have to make. Does it take place in a real place? If so, is it one you know? If not, is it just a fictional modern town? A space station? A fantasy world? A different galaxy? A different time?
- Writing about the familiar
- This is, in some ways, the easiest: writing about the town you live in or have lived in or have visited. Think about your impressions of the place, what stood out to you, how the place felt. Don't forget details. The level of detail is up to you.
- Writing about the unfamiliar but modern
- The best way to do this is to think about real places and make them your own. My home town is a small coastal cow town with Victorian-style houses. It's a tourist trap and full of farms and people who are related to each other. Now, say, the town in my story is a slightly larger town. It's not coastal. But the libraries in both towns are similar. And the town in my story has a burger place much like the one in my town, but not quite the same. However, my fictional town has a zoo, which my real town does not. Think about real places. Then change them to how you want them to be to fit your world.
- Creating your own world
- If your world is completely different from 21st century Earth, you need to keep in mind a few things.
- Government. Chances are regardless of what your story is about this is going to be important. The government sets the whole feel for the place. If it's a whole planet, or even just a whole country, or multiple kingdoms, keep in mind that there will likely be multiple governments who disagree with each other. A single government system will probably have some internal fighting as well.
- Nature - What is the climate? Are there hills? Forests? Swamps? Plains? Mountains? Is it an island? What's the geography? What's the flora (plant life)? The fauna (animal life)?
- History - What are the carved faces in the mountains above the ruined city of stone? What wars were fought? Why are things are the way they are today?
- Culture - Think of Earth. There are so many cultures across the world, rich cultures. Some are merging. Some seem bizarre to us. What foods do they eat? Why? What can they grow? What social practices are expected? What are taboo? How do people treat each other? Who's respected, the eldest or the greatest warrior or the wisest thinker? What clothes are they wearing? How do they get around? How technologically advanced are they?
- How the world works - Is there magic? If so, how does it work? Is there technology? How advanced, and how does it impact day-to-day lives? Does the world spin on its axis? Are humans the main race?
When you are making a character, whether it's for a game or a story, the first thing you need to realize is that you are making someone. What are people really like?
- People are not perfect.
- Don't just take this at face value. Really think about it. Think about people you know. Think about what you like about them and what you dislike. How does it balance? How do their merits and flaws work together? Think about yourself. Are you perfect? Why not?
- People are not always logical.
- This is a big one. Emotions are a big part of our lives. People don't always do the right thing, they don't always listen to reason, they don't always make sense.
- People are special.
- Every person has their own identity. It's more than just virtues and vices, being popular or liking video games. There is usually something unique about each person. Observe the people around you. Does that girl have a lisp? Does that boy hate his hair? Is there a word that person tends to use a lot? What speech patterns make them stand out? Think about your friends. What makes them who they are? What makes your character who he or she is?
- Details are key in this. It's usually little things that make people stand out. Here's an example:
- In a game I played a character (mentioned above) named Darcy. He was not a very nice person. He could magically look like someone else, and had stolen the identity of someone (a non-player character) rather high up in the game, named Felice. He looked like her and tried to act like her, and did a good job of it. Thing is, he was a guy pretending to be a woman. While he was a good actor, he couldn't get everything perfect. He lived in her mansion in place of her, and while he had access to her wardrobe full of fine things, he didn't always know what shirt would go with what skirt so while he was wearing expensive, nice clothes his outfits were often just a tad bit off. Same with his makeup. He wore a little bit too much, but just a little. He didn't look like a raccoon, it was just a tad bit off. So when I dressed like that character, I wore nice clothing that was slightly mismatched, but not incredibly, and I wore lipstick that was one shade too dark. While it probably didn't seem like a big thing, it was important to the character because of who he was.
- People have depth.
- Every person has a life and a back story. They have memories and feelings. Even if that person is only in your story for a brief moment, or even if you only get to see one side of her, that person has a whole life around them. That popular kid making fun of your new character? That evening she hangs out with her friends at the mall, then goes home and listens to music. She reads a romance book because it's peaceful to her, and gives her a fantasy world to be lost in and someone to dream of being. At dinner her mom and dad are both in good moods, but her brother had a bad day and is stressed because of a test. That night she has a nightmare but doesn't remember it when she wakes up. The next morning her boyfriend gives her a ride to school. He's seemed distant lately, and she's worried but she's afraid to say something in case it makes her fears come true. People act and react the way they do because they have thoughts and feelings of their owns. Your characters shouldn't just be tools for you or plot devices, they should be people.
- Character Ideas
- Some people like to come up with their characters by choosing their zodiac signs, or filling out personality quizzes. Everyone has different methods; you should find what works for you.
- Sometimes naming your characters can be harder than it seems like it should be. Either you just can't find a name that fits what you have in mind, you can't think of anything original, or... well, I don't know what else. Here's what I have to recommend:
- List of Names
- Click here for lists of male and female names that I've compiled.
- Baby Name Sites
- Baby name sites are wonderful for finding character names. What I usually do is create a profile and go through and save the names I like. Then I can just reference the list later.
- Name Generators
- Name generators are also incredibly useful. I recommend Seventh Sanctum. I recommend having it generate a large number at once so you can mix and match first and last names. I usually use it for finding last names that fit with the first names I've already chosen, but it works quite well for first names too and is especially useful for side characters.
- It may sound a bit morbid, but graveyards can be really inspirational places and you can get some great name ideas.
- Coming up with the story
- Where to start
- -Don't know what to write about? Don't already have inspiration? See Finding Inspiration.
- It helps to know what genre you want to write. Horror? Fantasy? Historical fiction? Mystery? Comedy?
- Preparing to write
- Many people find outlines useful. Some outline each and every chapter. Some don't outline the plot but make a detailed chart or list of the characters and how they relate to each other.
- Having a detailed outline is good because there are no surprises. You know exactly what you're doing and where you want it to go. The downside is that there is little room for your plot to grow.
- Others just jump in and start writing.
- This is great for giving yourself some freedom. If all you've planned is that the characters have to get from point A to point D but you don't know what points B and C are and you don't even know why the character would have left point A, your story can surprise you. It can take a life of its own, and can go in directions you never expected. Your characters can develop and grow in ways you hadn't planned on. The downside is that sometimes you can get stuck. From personal experience, my characters tend to get themselves into sticky situations and then I have to come up with how they get out of it before I can continue writing.
- Actual Writing
- If you want to write a short story, then my advice is to just keep working on it until it's done. If you want to write a novel, it's going to take a lot more than that. One thing that young writers don't always realize is that writing a book takes a lot of dedication. One of the most common complaints I hear from young writers is "I always start stories/books and never finish them." For professional writers, it's a job. Stop and think about that for a second. It's a JOB. That means they put aside hours EVERY DAY in which they HAVE to write. They don't just write when they feel like it. If they have writer's block, tough, they have to push through it. If you are serious about writing a novel, then you need to be serious about finishing it.
- Novels are roughly 70,000 words or more.
- Usually when you are talking to another writer about your book that you're working on, they're not going to ask how many pages it is. That's highly inaccurate. Various document programs fit a different number of words per page - a six and a third page paper in Microsoft Word can be a seven page paper in OpenOffice. Also, pages in document writers don't actually reflect pages in a book. They're going to ask for your word count. That provides a much better statement of progress. Keep in mind, the industry standard is 250 words per page (generally; recently it can be a bit higher than that because of fonts, etc). So if you want a rough idea of how many book pages your story is, divide your word count by 250.
- Know spelling and grammar
- If writing is something you really want to do, you should know the rules. Know spelling. Know basic rules of grammar and punctuation. You don't have to be perfect or a whiz, but you should know what you're doing. Yes, when you are actually publishing a book you will have an editor, but your manuscript shouldn't be completely riddled with errors. Yes, you can bend the rules - but you have to know them first!
- Shock Value and Unnecessary Elements
- Stories need tension and conflict. However, there's such a thing as overdoing it.
- My biggest pet peeve is unnecessary romantic subplots – ones that have no purpose, that do not serve the story, and are there just for the sake of having romance. Be wary of writing love stories for all of your characters. For each romantic subplot, look at it and ask yourself, Is this really necessary? Is this contributing to the story or the characters? This is most often found in action movies where the writers throw in a love interest just for the audience's sake.
- Shocking scenes and character death can also be problems. Sometimes they have a purpose, but sometimes they're just cheap tricks by the writers to invoke an emotional response in the reader. Handle such things carefully.
I Never Finish the Stories I Start
This complaint is more common than "I don't know what to write about." If you can't finish any of your projects, you need to learn how to discipline yourself.
- Try National Novel Writer's Month.
- This is a wonderful exercise to help you get better at getting more words on paper.
- If you have too many projects, make a priority list.
- Focus on one project at a time; only move onto the next if you've finished the previous one.
- Edit later.
- If you find yourself rewriting too much so you never get past that first chapter because you're a perfectionist: STOP. Edit when you're done. Get a complete rough draft first or you will never get past that first chapter.
If you have writer's block, my advice is to write.
What? you say. But I have writer's block! I can't write! That's the whole problem!
Well, if you're not inspired, you have to inspire yourself. You'd be amazed at how fast you get into it again once you force yourself to add a couple of paragraphs to what you last wrote. You can:
- Work on your story.
- This is basically you sitting yourself down and just making yourself continue. It will come back to you, trust me. The first few sentences/paragraphs/pages may be difficult, but once you break through it you're good to go.
- Look for inspiration.
- Talk to people, work on planning your plot, focus on developing your characters - maybe something in their past will influence something in the future and that will tie in with what you're working on now. Just keep thinking about it until you know what you want to do.
- Do writing exercises.
- This is a great, fun way to get back into writing. There are many websites out there with great suggestions and resources. Put a bunch of topics into a hat, draw three and write a story or poem using all three topics. Describe your bedroom. Have a friend lead you blindfolded somewhere interesting, drop you off, and then you have to write what you see. Write about someone you know. Write about a dream you had. Get a writing group together or join a writing forum (the NW forum is not exactly ideal for this). Have a write-in with your friends.
I have some general advice for writing poetry.
- Don't force rhymes.
- This includes restructuring sentences in odd ways to make the rhyme work.
- Read it out loud.
- Make sure it flows properly, and that you don't have some lines that are too short or too long.
- Avoid overused rhymes or phrases.
- Using a few is OK, but if you're using too many you're not trying hard enough.
Who Should Read My Work?
There is nothing wrong with you having friends and family and random people on Neopets read your word. They can let you know their opinions, and that can be very useful. After all, your target audience is likely the average person, right?
However, if you really want a serious critique and useful help with your work, you need to be a bit more selective. Friends and family don't always know when something hasn't been done correctly. You should try:
- English teachers.
- They are usually willing to help out, and they know what they're talking about.
- Writing forums.
- I don't mean the NW forum, I mean actual writing forums. Google "young writers" for some ideas.
- Writing groups and clubs.
- This can be really hit or miss, but if you find a good group, it's gold. If you can't find one, you might want to try to form one.
Writing by Hand vs. Typing
Some people prefer to write by hand. Others prefer using the computer. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.
- Writing by Hand
- This has some obvious advantages, like the fact that it's portable. Some also feel more inspired writing by hand. But it has some problems too. The first is word count. Word count is something you need to keep track of in order to have an accurate view of the length of your story. It's a lot harder to count words than to look them up in a computer. Also, editing. It's not as easy to do major editing on paper than on the computer.
- Writing on the Computer
- Using a computer program you can easily edit things and keep track of word count. However, some people find a blank page intimidating. Here's a tip:
- Usually in word processors there is an option to make the document full screen. This removes some of the clutter and distractions. You can also change the colors. Some people find green text on a black background to be more conducive to creative inspiration.
- Speech to Text software is also extremely useful. You can talk at your computer, and it types up what you say. Something to look into.
- Google Docs and similar programs are very useful, especially if you don't want to save your story to the computer you're working on or if you switch computers often. I use this for NaNo.
- Using Both
- Some people write their story by hand, then type it up onto the computer, editing in the process. I find this to be very effective.
Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling: How important are they? A Rant
I find it deeply frustrating when a person who says they want to be a published writer does not know basic grammar and punctuation rules. I'll tell you why.
What chemist doesn't know his periodic table? What mathematician doesn't know algebra? If you are going to work on a craft, you should understand what that craft is, and you should know how to use the tools of that craft. A story is made up of paragraphs; paragraphs consist of sentences; sentences are made of characters - that is, letters, spaces and punctuation symbols. How can you write – truly write – and not know how to construct these words and sentences and paragraphs?
If writing is something you really want to do, you should understand how. You should know what you're doing. When a writer comes to me and asks me to critique something that is filled with glaring errors, I can't imagine that they are a passionate writer, or that they really care about what they're writing. When I write a story, that story becomes important to me. I want to feel satisfied with it; I want it to be polished.
That's my opinion. There are other reasons to improve your skill at the technicalities of writing.
First of all, if you want to get it published it's going to have to be edited regardless. Books don't go on shelves that haven't even been spellchecked.
But that's what editors are for, right?
Technically, yes. But consider this: no one in the publishing industry will take a second glance at a paper that hasn't been edited at least a little bit. If your first sentence has three errors in it, the publisher is not going to read further, no matter how wonderful the concept of the sentence is. If you don't care enough to fix it, the publisher doesn't care enough to read it. Also, getting published is not easy. You want your story to stand out, to be chosen. Submitting a book is, in a way, submitting a resume. You're saying, "This is what I have done. Please choose me, and I won't let you down." Potential employers often say that if they see spelling or punctuation errors on a resume, they just throw it away right then. Now think if you wanted to be a writer and your resume looked like that.
So how do you learn the proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation?
To start with, you need to read what teachers write on your papers. An English teacher's job is to help you become a better writer. If there is a red mark on your essay, take note. Why is it there?
The other thing you should do (and this is very important) is read. A lot. Pay attention to writers you like. How do they phrase things? How do they use commas? Remember, not all published writers use correct punctuation or grammar 100% of the time. But for the most part, when they do, they are knowingly breaking a "rule" of writing. They know the rule, they know it inside and out, and they are artistically choosing to go against that rule to add emphasis or make a point.
This brings in my last point here. You don't have to be an expert at writing rules. All I'm saying is you should know the basics. Editors are there to catch the errors that you miss. As long as you understand that they're not there to "fix" your story.
There are many websites out there that have handy quick reference charts if you're not sure, and other websites where they go into more detailed explanations about grammar rules. I won't do that here.