CREATIVE WRITING

Creative writing should be entirely optional, though an English exam may currently require you to write a little story to test your compositional techniques. Such a story need not be of high quality, nor need it be structured particularly well, but it should demonstrate that you have a reasonable idea of what you are trying to do, and there is no reason why you shouldn't add comments in brackets as you go along to explain what you would change if you were allowed to edit it properly: you are after all only writing the first draft of a story, and even the best writers can produce pretty awful output if they put pen to paper without spending hours planning things out in their heads first. If the only stories you want to write in your life are those necessary to pass exams, then skip the next two paragraphs and focus your attention on rule number one.
indentGood writing is hard, particularly fiction. If you plan to be a writer, you would do well to learn the rules as early in life as possible, to study the books which have inspired you so that you understand how they work, and to practise writing. The act of writing a book can be sufficient to train a writer how to write well, but because only the last few chapters are likely to be up to scratch, the book will then need to be rewritten, and that's usually a horrendous task because you'll find yourself spending most of your time trying to salvage good bits from the first draft which are no longer compatible with the new version: you could end up taking ten years to write a book which could otherwise have been completed in one. It is far better to learn the craft beforehand, perhaps by starting out with short stories: then if you write a novel later on you will not get bogged down in issues relating to style and technique and will instead be able to concentrate fully on getting the story to work properly. In any case, a good novel usually needs to be planned extremely carefully, with hundreds of ideas being collected in notebooks over many years so that there is no danger of the story taking a wrong turn or running dry. If you haven't already done so, a good way to start out is by writing down your own life story: the sooner you get round to collecting your early memories in this way, the less danger there is of you losing them, and events which you have lived through for real will be infinitely more valuable as a source for your writing than any imaginary happenings you try to invent.
indentYou should aim to make any novel you write the best book of its kind ever to be written: you will probably fall well short of this, but if you start out with low expectations only hoping to scrape through to publication, you will be producing work which simply will not sell, and even your best friends will be reluctant to read it, unless it's so bad that it's funny. The same applies to short stories: they are extremely hard to get published and there are very few people want to read anything unpublished because even many published ones are diabolical. If you aren't going to aim high, please do yourself and everyone else a favour by not trying to become a writer.


Rule Number 1: A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

This seems ridiculously obvious, but most writers plan at the very least how they want their story to begin and how it will end before they put pen to paper. Once the starting point and destination have been decided upon, it is much easier to work out what the middle of the story will have to do to link them together. Some writers break this rule and have no idea where their stories will end, but this is a risky strategy as you may write two hundred pages of a novel only to find that it is impossible to close it in a satisfactory way. Many short stories do not have a proper ending at all: they just stop and hang in empty space, often driving the reader into a fury. I have never read a satisfactory story that doesn't have a proper ending. Some stories start without a proper beginning, and they tend to be confusing and irritating too, so I would strongly advise you not to break rule number one.
indentIdeally, the begining of your story should do something to grab the reader's attention straight away. You can always go back immediately afterwards to explain what led up to the dramatic opening event, but if you need to do this, try to fill the reader in quickly so that you can get on with telling him what happened next. The ending of your story need not wrap up all the loose ends, but it is good practice to embed some clues into the story so that if the reader does guess a few things, these clues will bubble up to the surface in his memory and confirm to him that he's got it right. The middle of a short story should normally be the minimum length necessary to cover the ground and to achieve your aim in writing the story. The middle of a novel is expected to be long and to contain a multitude of events, but you should still try to keep each episode reasonably compact.


Rule Number 2: Show, don't tell.

Don't tell the reader things about a character directly: if you want the reader to know that a character is a nice person, make him do something in the story that shows him to be nice, perhaps rescuing an insect from drowning in a puddle. If you just say that John is a nice person and that he's very intelligent, you aren't letting the readers decide that for themselves, and readers want to be made to think when they're reading because it's an active process for them. To show that a character is intelligent, you might think up a situation where he can save the day by resolving a crisis cleverly, or if you want to show that he is dumb you could do the opposite, making him the cause of the crisis.
indentIn the same way, don't just tell the readers that it is Christmas day: let them work that out for themselves by the things going on in the story. Respect your reader's intelligence and let them fill in the gaps for themselves. If your story is set in the past of future, instead of saying so, it is more effective to let the story reveal its place in time by the events and items which crop up in it. If it is set in an exotic country, reveal this through little comments about the clothes people are wearing, the architecture of the buildings, the wildlife, etc.


Rule Number 3: Try to affect the reader's emotions.

Art is the business of affecting people emotionally for positive reasons. Some good stories don't exploit the reader in an artistic way at all: in crime fiction the whole story may be about the clever way someone devised a crime and the clever way a detective solved it. Most stories, however, have the opportunity to tap into the emotions of the reader and to make them happy or sad (preferably both, but in the opposite order). Some stories are based on an injustice which is righted at the end, making the reader concerned for the hero at the start and delighted by the resolution. Others start with someone in poverty or obscurity who is elevated to wealth or success by the end. These types of story reward the reader through their emotional involvement. The reason we like stories so much is precisely because we identify with fictional characters as if they are real, feeling absolutely real emotions as we travel through a story with them: this is an accident of evolution, the original purpose being to make us empathise with real people in our communities upon hearing of events which have befallen them so that we will feel more inclined to offer help, the survival advantage of this being that we too will be more likely to be offered help when we have suffered some calamity.


Rule Number 4: Write what you know.

Your story will be more convincing if you know what you are talking about. You will tend to write about things which interest you in any case, so you probably do have more knowledge than the average person in those areas, but it is also best to draw upon your own experiences where emotions are involved: if you try to make up a story involving a traumatic event which you have not personally lived through, you are unlikely to sound authentic, unless you do a great deal of research by interviewing people who have experienced that kind of event. It is far better to write about something you have lived through personally, and so a writer who has had a troubled childhood is more likely to have stories worth telling than someone who always had it easy. If you were lucky enough to be driven to the edge of suicide, you will have a qualification infinitely more worthwhile than anything that can be earned by passing exams.


Rule Number 5: Be transparent.

All the rules can be broken if you break them for good reasons, but noticing the writer usually takes the reader out of the story and spoils it for them by breaking the spell. Your job is not to display your cleverness, nor to show off your fancy writing style, but to try to let the story tell itself as if you are not there. Tell it simply and clearly, and be sparing with any decoration. Sometimes a story has a line in it which is so beautifully written that it brings the reader to a halt and makes them think about the author in awe, but in this kind of situation they will not mind so much as the line itself is so rewarding. Even so, you should not deliberately design a line to have this effect.
indentIf you have an unusually wide vocabulary, it is not wrong to take advantage of it, but try to keep it under rein to a reasonable degree: rarer words always slow the reader down, and using too many of them in quick succession can turn what might otherwise have been a pleasant read into an ordeal. It can, however, be highly effective to use wordy sentences for the speech of some of your characters, particularly if you are using them for comic effect, though it takes a lot more than fancy words to make something amusing.


Rule Number 6: Avoid lengthy descriptive passages.

Sometimes lengthy descriptive passages work, but more often they annoy the reader by stopping the action. Wherever possible, it is better to drop little bits of description into the story one at a time, allowing the reader to adapt the scene in their mind to accommodate the new information as it arrives. A piece of description can be sneaked into the middle of a conversation to mark a pause, one of the characters perhaps noticing something going on in the background while the person talking to him has hesitated for a moment to think. Always remember that the reader just wants the story to keep rolling along, and they don't appreciate lengthy divertions.


Rule Number 7: Don't point ahead.

Some writers have a nasty habit of telling the reader that what has just happened was the last time that so-and-so ever saw so-and-so or did such-and-such, implying that some kind of doom lies around the corner. This closes down the possibility of what might happen later in the story by telling you part of it in advance, the result being that you can end up reading many chapters feeling that you have gone backwards and that you are spending all your time trying to catch up with where you feel you should be.


Rule Number 8: Switch between simultaneous events at a sensible rate.

Many stories have more than one event taking place at the same time. Some writers switch between these events in the way that a film would, while others may spend two or three chapters on one event and leave it at an exciting point before going back in time to deal with the other one in a further two or three chapters. The latter way of doing things can be irritating, leaving the reader to grind their way through what can feel like a history lesson when all they really want is for the story to continue. Rapid switching like in a film can also be irritating because there are too many points where the story stops. A good compromise is to switch over three times within a chapter, and also to switch between chapters.


Rule Number 9: Don't use empty tricks.

Many writers use tricks such as exploiting the reader's curiosity, perhaps by introducing a box and indicating that there is something extremely interesting inside it, but without revealing what it is. By the time the reader finds out that the box contains absolutely nothing of any interest whatsoever, another mysterious item has been brought into the story to try to hook the reader again. Some authors write their entire books in this manner, but they are rarely well liked for it: it is never wise to alienate your readers by letting them down. Make sure that every time you leave the reader in a state of desperation to know something, they are eventually rewarded with something clever, something which you have had to work hard to think up.
indentMany failed short stories are based entirely on the same old empty trick, so much so that they might as well all be the same story. I will outline one version of it so that you know what to avoid. A teacher reads a child's story and it so impressed that he decides to pass it off as his own: because it is the best story he has ever read, it is obvious that no one would believe it had been written by a child. On the way home, he drops his briefcase and the pages of the story fall out onto the ground before being blown away by a gust of wind. Naturally enough, the poor chap can't remember a word of the brilliant story and it is lost forever! I have lost count of the number of stories I have encountered which involve fantastic secrets which are never revealed: they are like broken promises and they leave the reader cold.


Rule Number 10: Avoid corny endings.

Many stories infuriate readers by taking up valuable chunks of their time only to supply them with a lame ending. I remember one occasion at school where the ending of a story was so bad that it brought about an erruption of heavy swearing. It was a story about a man dying of thirst in a desert, but who ended up rolling down a slope and drowning in a pool of water. The teacher thought this was terribly ironic, but everyone else reckoned it was an idea best left as a single sentence: they were furious that they had been forced to endure a prolonged and tortuous build-up to what in the end turned out to be a pathetic little attempt at a joke.


Rule Number 11: Make your story credible.

Fact is often stranger than fiction, and there is a good reason for this. Consider a story about someone who lives through a series of disasters, each one dragging him lower and lower until he is on the point of ending it all. He is saved at the last minute when he suddenly discovers that he has won the lottery. This might make a great story if it happenes in real life, but in fiction it is absolutely crass. What makes it work as a real-life story is that it is such an unlikely event: the unlikeliness is the story. If it is a mere piece of fiction, however, it is a cheat. When you write your hero into a corner and make his escape look impossible, and then you introduce a miraculous event to rescue him, you are insulting the reader: the reader expects you to find a clever means of escape. Never draw on real life events for your fiction if they depend on extreme chance to make them interesting.


Rule Number 12: Give the reader added value.

While it may be enough to entertain the reader and send them on an emotional journey, the best writers often try to give something extra. Some do this by building their story into the past so that the reader will automatically gain an extensive knowledge of real historical events. Arthur Ransome inspired many of his readers to learn semaphore and Morse code, while Willard Price tried to inform his readers about wildlife. If you have an extensive knowledge of something which you could pass on to others, it may be worth considering building it into a story. Be very careful not to let any added educational aspect turn a good story dull, but an indifferent story can also become interesting if it has an educational component built into it.


Rule Number 13: Think carefully about the way your writing flows.

Read your writing back some time after you've written it and think about the effect the rhythm of it has on you. If all your sentences are the same length it will become very irritating to read, so you may need to rewrite a lot of it just to break up the rhythm to make it feel totally random. You also want to avoid using the same type of phrase or the same word to start every sentence: He said..., He went..., He thought..., etc. Think of ways to begin sentences that will break the pattern so that it jars less with the reader. Read the books of your favourite authors and look at how they do things: you may learn some useful tricks from them.


Rule Number 14: A story rarely writes itself.

If you're writing a story of any size, you will need to work hard at getting it out of your head and onto paper (or disk). Some writers write a set amount every day, but others prefer to work only when they feel inspired to do so, and if they hit good form they will continue day and night. The former approach is very evident in the books of Philip Pullman where you can feel all the boundaries between different writing sessions as you read through them, his stories never quite managing to gain enough momentum to take off and fly. Even so, his disciplined approach does ensure his books get finished, and there is much to admire in them. Varying the lengths of your writing sessions is probably a better strategy, and if the story really takes flight, don't stop to edit anything, but let it flow and just keep on writing, riding the wave for as long as you can stay on it: if you are inspired in this way, you will probably take the reader with you too.


Rule Number 15: Get a notebook for collecting your ideas.

Good little ideas are easily forgotten, and although they may turn up eventually, they often can't be found when you need them. Write them all down, and make sure you keep a torch by your bed as well, because the best ideas often come in the minutes before you go to sleep, and by the morning they will be gone. An alternative or useful addition to a notebook is a PDA. If you can find one, an old Psion 5 (or 5mx) is the ideal machine for writers as it can be switched on and off in an instant without any boot time delays (it never fully switches off - the processor stops, but the batteries continue to power the entire memory, using so little power that it can keep running for many days between battery changes), and its keyboard is comfortable enough for touch-typing, once you have worn it in (I have personally written a 400-page book on a Psion and it is the only machine with which I don't suffer repetitive strain injury problems). The main fault with Psions is that opening and closing them stresses the connections to the screen and eventually breaks them, so you should avoid closing them. The 5 and 5mx use AA batteries (I would recommend Ni-MH rechargeables), but other types of Psion usually have embedded batteries which leave you in deep trouble if they run out when you have no access to a power supply: the expensive lithium backup battery will drain rapidly as it tries to keep the contents of memory alive, and if you don't get some power into it from the mains in time you may lose your data. With the 5 and 5mx you don't have this problem as you can simply raplace the main batteries straight away and ensure that the expensive lithium backup is hardly ever used (it will only ever run when the main batteries are being changed). While you are unlikely to be able to get hold of one of these machines, I mention it here mainly in the hope that manufacturers will produce something new which can do the same job, for there is nothing available on the market today so well suited to serious writing.
indentYou might also want to store words and phrases in a notebook as you read through books written by writers whose style you like. Often they use interesting words which you may never have used yourself, and you will often be unsure as to exactly what they mean, even if you can guess from the context. Using words of this type adds colour to your writing and enables you to avoid repeating ordinary words too often. Any phrase that catches your eye and makes you think "I'd like to be able to write like that" should be noted down straight away, along with the page and line numbers: collecting them will help you to become the kind of writer which you may think is beyond your reach. We all start out as bad writers, so you need to believe in yourself and do the hard work that will turn you into a good writer, because you can make the transition.



A short story example.

To illustrate how the above rules relate to a real story, I have provided one of my own for analysis. To access it, click here