Most students who take up a creative writing course in college have a pretty fuzzy notion of what they are dealing with. It is clear that after taking it you are supposed to learn how to write fiction, but what exactly will you do in the process?
As it turns out – to a considerable chagrin of many – learning creative writing has very little to do with creativity. Creativity is what you are supposed to supply on your own, and nobody is capable of teaching you how to be creative if you don’t have any personal inclinations in this direction. What most creative writing courses are all about is organization, planning and streamlining. Until you’ve mastered these, all the creativity in the world isn’t of much help – so let this guide help you with the basics.
There are probably as many outlooks on the writing procedure as there are writers. Some authors claim that they simply sit down and write down the way it goes, and the text basically creates itself without any preliminary planning. Others, on the contrary, write a very detailed plan of their future work before writing the first word of the text. Still others utilize peculiar techniques of their own invention.
However, this goes for professional and well-experienced writers, and you are yet not one of them. Before you understand what works for you personally, you should employ as much planning and preparation as possible – it will help you streamline your work and can always be abandoned later. You need procedure. Here is what we can suggest:
- Define the main idea of your writing. This can be decided for you by your teacher, which makes a task a little bit easier, but let’s assume you have no such luck. What is the topic of your writing? Can you define it in a single word? A single phrase? What is the main idea you wish to convey?
- Define the setting of your story. Where and when does it happen? Does the world you describe follow the conventions of reality or have some fantastic elements? What is the general mood of the story?
- Decide who the characters of your story are. Before you describe them or tell about their actions, you yourself should have a fairly good understanding of who they are. Write some notes on each character, just to make him or her more imaginable.
- Jot down the main elements of the plot. Don’t try to describe everything in complete detail right now – your task at the moment is to create a frame around which you will construct the story proper. Don’t worry about what you write and don’t try to cover every eventuality – you may be forced to revise and change things later on, but right now you need ground under your feet, and this plan will provide for that.
Writers wildly disagree as to the ideal amount of preliminary work and planning. Some write down only the most basic elements of the plot not to forget about them and to check with them from time to time. They allow the main plot to accrete details and additional plotlines as they go along, and manage quite well.
Others, on the contrary, don’t set about writing until they’ve planned for every little thing – their plans are basically complete retellings of the plot without all the additional fluff. And, of course, there are innumerable intermediate variants.
It is up to you to decide which works for you – it would be best if you try different methods and see what suits you better.
Building up Your Story
There are so many stories written by so many people, living in different countries, epochs and cultural backgrounds. Surely there should be a great deal of difference between them?
As it turns out, not as much as you would think. Christopher Booker, for example, boils down all the world literature accumulated over thousands of years to seven basic plots:
- Overcoming a monster;
- Rags to riches;
- The quest;
- Voyage and return;
He is not the only one – there is a number of works that state that literature operates with a rather limited set of tools. What you need to understand right now is that almost every story is built using the same toolset, and a limited one at that. Although stories may look differently, they are very similar at their core. It is a good exercise for a writer to analyze the fiction he reads to find these commonalities.
What concerns you right now is that absolute majority of stories (probably about 80%; closer to 99% if you take all unpublished works into account) are built around one structure:
You get acquainted with the setting, characters, their relationships and general context of the story. This stage’s goal is to interest the readers in the fate of characters.
The hook is something that sets the plot into motion. While introduction is usually static, the hook destroys the status quo.
The character or characters encounter a series of obstacles.
- Low Point
The character is almost overcome by the challenge. The aim is to make the readers root for him.
The character manages to cope with the challenge after all.
The challenge and the way it is dealt with leads to characters’ discovering something important about themselves or the world. This is where the moral of the story is present in its most obvious form.
The newly-found truth is tested yet another time, in other, sometimes more serious situations.
The main characters celebrate their victory, we get to know what happens next – this stage is present to make the readers cheer after the moment of tension and uncertainty is over.
Of course, it would be a gross oversimplification to say that every story is built along these lines, but when you start analyzing plots of the works of fiction you know, you will find out that a surprising number of them follow this pattern. And those that don’t are often subversions of the same structure and repeat most of these points while negating them.
Which leads us to a logical conclusion: it isn’t necessary to mechanically organize your own story along these lines, but right now you are not writing the magnum opus you are going to be remembered for. You are taking a creative writing course, and using this structure as a basis for your first tentative steps in writing is a very good idea.
Writing Per Se
How exactly you should work is only for you to decide – each writer develops their own procedures. However, there are several principles that you can use to ease yourself into the process.
- Write in the Right Order
It is preferable to write a piece as it is going to be read, but if some scenes are especially vivid in your imagination, feel free to write them down right now. These scattered scenes may be harder to organize later on, but at least you will have them ready when the need arises.
- Try to Stop Your Inner Perfectionist
If there is something that can ruin your chances at creative writing, it is the inability to stop polishing your work. Robert Heinlein in his famous writing tips went as far as to condemn all rewriting as unproductive, and while he probably went a little bit too far, there is a lot of truth in it. When you write the first draft, overcome the urge to reread what you’ve already written every now and then. It is best if you don’t reread the passages you’ve already written altogether – there will be plenty of time for that once you’ve finished, but if you keep coming back and reword what you’ve already written you have all chances of never getting to an end.
- Trim the Fat
Wordiness is another enemy of good writing. It may be a result of many factors: a feeling that your writing is too dry and needs some color, the need to rack up the word count, or just plain inability to express yourself curtly.
- Navigate between Purple and Beige
Purple prose results from an attempt to make writing beautiful by means of using long multi-clause sentences, attaching numerous adjectives to every noun, a liberal use of adverbs, and general preference for polysyllabic words looked up in a thesaurus. As a result, text turns into a confusing and incoherent mess that the reader will be inclined to skim-read (or not read it at all).
Beige prose is its direct opposite – it is characterized by brief sentences, short or nonexistent descriptions, a bare minimum of stylistic devices, simple words.
Both have their uses. Purple prose can be effectively used for comic effect. Beige prose can be striking and witty when used skilfully – but will strike you as boring and bland if handled poorly.
In most cases, you should stay somewhere in the middle.
- Accept Constructive Criticism
With an emphasis on ‘constructive’. Peer reviews are an integral part of most creative writing courses, so you should be ready to meet the critique of your fellow students and your teacher head-on. On the one hand, not all criticism is helpful – don’t feel obliged to change your writing style, plot or its handling just because somebody (even a teacher) doesn’t like it. However, you should carefully analyze everything that is said about your piece and be ready to accept your mistakes if they are, indeed, mistakes.
Now that you know what you are supposed to do, let’s talk a bit about what you shouldn’t do – it can be no less important.
- Not Reading
If you want to succeed in creative writing, you have to read creative writing by other people. A lot of it. Concentrate on the type of writing you intend to do yourself, but don’t limit yourself to it – reading pieces from other genres may provide the much-needed insight and inspiration.
- Not Writing
If you take your creative writing seriously, you shouldn’t limit yourself to the tasks given to you by your teacher. Writing is an area that requires constant practice, and no amount of theorizing is going to replace actual words written by you.
By plagiarism we mean not only copying other people’s work, but more ingenuous approaches, like rewording other works and passing them for your own. Don’t do it – it gives you nothing but has a real danger of ruining your reputation. Even a witty phrase lifted from somewhere may turn out to be widely recognized as belonging to a particular writer, so don’t be tempted to use it.
- Imitating Somebody
Imitating another writer almost never pays off in the long run – the best you can achieve is to become a second-rate version of this writer, always compared unfavorably to the real thing. Developing your own style is a slow and arduous process, but it is worth it.
- Using too Many Adverbs and Adjectives
Sometimes they are called for. But in most cases adjectives and especially adverbs are used to add a bit of padding to writing because you subconsciously want your text to sound bigger than it is. Some are just overused – the words like “suddenly”, “simply”, “curiously” can be dispensed with in almost any situation without losing anything. Which means that an important part of revision is to pluck out all the words you can do without. Everything that exists just for the sake of occupying place is useless filler. If you can get rid of it, do so.
Creative writing is, by definition, the least organized and uniform kind of writing. Which means that if you bring a bit of organization into it, at least when you’re learning the ropes, you can only benefit from it. By establishing procedures and creating working habits, you will make your future inroads into this area much easier and more effective – so why not start right now?