By J.D. Huffman
When someone hears for the first time that I’m a writer and have a published book, a common question is: how did you do it? For someone who hasn’t written a novel or other long story, the process can seem like magic. Even just writing coherently at any length is challenging for some–people often don’t know where to begin. I’m here to demystify things a bit!
It’s important to remember that you can start anywhere. Don’t feel bad for not knowing where to begin. Maybe you wrote some papers in high school, and you don’t feel like they were any good. That’s OK! Writing is a skill, and nobody is instantly good at it. It takes practice.
So, where should you start? It helps to begin with something simple and not too long. A common bit of advice for writers is to “write what you know.” Why not pick an episode from your life, or something you did recently, and just start writing about it? This might sound boring, but it’s actually very good exercise. It helps train you to think like a writer.
Choose a particular event or incident you want to write about. Think about where and when it was. Was it indoors or outdoors? What was the weather like? Who was there? What did it smell like? What sounds were around you? Put yourself back in that situation explore it through every sense. Then, start writing those details. Don’t worry about the order, or making them organized. Just practice translating what you’ve experienced into words.
Once you have set the scene, write about what happened. Just follow it chronologically. If you want, describe what you were thinking and feeling in that situation. Describe what happened, from start to finish. Talk about people’s postures, tone of voice–explore your senses again. Try to give the reader as detailed a picture as possible of what happened. Keep writing until you have finished the scene. The event in question has ended, or you’ve left the area, or you’ve otherwise reached what feels like a natural conclusion to the scene.
At this point, you should have a nice little story. Maybe it’s half a page, or maybe it’s several pages. The next step is to think about how you would revise it. “To write is to rewrite,” after all. Read through your story and prepare to take some notes.
What tense did you use? Are you writing about it as if it’s happening right now (present tense), or as if it’s a past event (past tense)? If you are writing in future tense, kudos for trying something unusual! If you find that you are shifting tenses a lot, think about which one you’d like to stick with, then go back through and adjust it so the tenses are consistent. In the future, consider what tense you’d like to use before you start writing, so you can make things easier on yourself!
Did you write it in first or third person? In first person, you are speaking directly to the reader, and are a physical participant in the story, as in, “I went to the park today.” In third person, you are narrating events from the outside. It’s often assumed that a third person narrator must seem impartial, but this is not the case–third person narration can be funny, and have a point-of-view all its own! Much like tense, however, try to make a decision when you begin and stick with it, so you’ll stay consistent.
How did you structure the story? Do you have one long paragraph or did you break it up into individual paragraphs? If you don’t know how best to break up paragraphs, there are a few simple rules for it. Anywhere there is a pause in what’s happening, break for a new paragraph. When it comes to dialogue–that is, people talking–start a new paragraph each time a different character speaks. If one character speaks for a long time, consider setting paragraph breaks anywhere the speaker would take a breath. If you keep practicing this, you’ll eventually find a good rhythm and begin to know intuitively when it’s time to start a new paragraph.
What about your word choices? Consider that more specific words and phrases are better than more general ones. As you reread, think about how you could add detail through better word choices. Don’t say “beautiful flowers,” say “delicate, pale lilacs.” If you need ideas, don’t be afraid to search for pictures of whatever it is you’re trying to describe, and feel free to consult a thesaurus, too. Again, this is to get you thinking about how you choose words to describe your setting, the people in it, and what transpires.
Having read through your story once or twice by now, how do you feel about it? Are you satisfied with how it ends? You can always change the ending if you’re not happy with how it turned out–it’s your story, after all!
You might also decide that you’re not pleased with any of it, and would prefer to start over. That’s OK, too. Believe it or not, a large share of what published writers produce never sees the light of day–it’s thrown out due to poor quality or being out-of-place, heavily revised until it’s unrecognizable, or completely rewritten. There is an incredible amount of my own writing that will probably never be published anywhere, simply because it’s not worth putting out there. I’m not happy with it, so nobody gets to see it!
Now, you’ve written a story. What’s next? Well, you should write another one! Try to do it regularly, maybe once every week or two, to start. Do it every day, if you want! Keeping a daily journal is a very good way to practice your writing, just try to keep your structure, tenses, and word choices in mind. Write with an eye toward making it as vivid and evocative and true as possible.
If you have ideas for original stories not necessarily drawn from personal experience, try those, too! Start breaking it up into individual scenes that have beginnings and endings. You can make chapters out of sets of scenes, and tell a larger story from start to finish. For more information about the process of writing novels specifically, check out my post on the topic.
You can also dabble in fan fiction–that is, stories based on properties and characters others have created, like comic books, TV shows, and other book series. You will generally not be able to publish these, of course, beyond posting them online, but they can be good practice for sharpening your skills. Some people will try to discourage you from going this route. Just try to keep in mind that you are using this to practice and explore your skills and preferences. What’s most important is that you keep writing and then examining what you are writing, deciding what you like and dislike, what passes your standards for quality and what doesn’t.
You may just be getting started, and I welcome you on this journey! Unlike stories themselves, this journey doesn’t have any particular ending. As I’ve noted in the past, it is an endless journey of growth. Stick with it!