I was asked to prepare a workshop on how to set about writing
So I put my thinking cap on and came up with this piece.
I presented it at the meeting on 25th May and it seemed to go down very well indeed.
Writing Workshop U3A 2023
I Introduction: The Big Secret of How to be a Writer
There is a story probably apocryphal that a famous writer was asked to give a workshop on writing. He agreed and quoted a fee of $500. The organisers accepted it. The great day arrived and the author walked on to the stage. How many of you here want to be writers? he asked.
Every hand went up.
Then go home and write something, said the famous author, and stop sitting around here wasting my time.
Then he collected his $500 fee and went home. Presumably to write something.
Its facile to say it, but if you want to write something you have to put your bum on a seat, your fingers on a keyboard and your eyes on a screen. Or whatever the equivalents of these things are for you.
There is no short cut to writing something, no hidden secret to make it easy, no formula or recipe. But there are four unbreakable rules. If you stick to these rules then you are a writer. If you break any of them then you arent a writer and you probably never will be.
1. Start writing something
2. Finish it
3. Revise it
4. Go to 3 until it is really finished
Thats the whole of the law. There isnt anything else to it. But sticking to those rules is very, very difficult. In my experience it helps if, when you are actively working on a piece, to work on it every day. Even if you only spend a short time on it each day, do make a point of returning to it every single day until it is finished, until rule number 2 has been ticked off. Every day means high days, holidays, your birthday and Christmas day and days when you are so hungover that your eyebrows bleed . I find that if I dont work on the piece every day it goes stale on me and rule number 2 gets harder and harder to obey. Your experience might be different, but I promise that if you do lose the momentum you will never get the piece finished. If that happens you will have broken rule 2 and you wont be a writer. At least not for the current piece.
Once the piece is finished you can afford to relax a little. Indeed, it is often useful to wait a few days before you start revising it. That way you start to see it with fresher eyes and its a bit more obvious what works and what doesnt.
II How to Write Something
Again this sounds facile, but you write something by putting words on a blank screen or on an empty piece of paper. Words are the tools of your trade and you really must learn how to use them correctly. Proper spelling and good grammar are absolutely vital. You simply cant afford to be lazy about this. Modern word processors have very good spelling and grammar checkers. Dont be afraid to use those tools. Use them a lot!
Something that spelling and grammar checkers are very poor at doing is detecting the misuse of homonyms. Common examples are:
your / youre
their / there / theyre
its / its
And something that Im seeing a lot of these days in internet discussion groups:
cue / queue
to / too / (two) to/too are not quite homonyms, but they are close enough that they
are often confused with each other.
Make sure you know the differences between them.
You also need to understand how to use apostrophes that last word is apostrophes, NOT apostrophes. An apostrophe does NOT mean look out here comes the letter s and neither does it indicate a plural. An apostrophe means one of two things. Either it indicates a contraction (letters are missing its rather than it is, dont rather than do not) or it indicates a possessive (Johns book, in other words the book belonging to John).
Steer clear of the passive voice (good grammar checkers will constantly warn you about this). The passive voice distances the reader from the story and breaks the spell. Dont say:
The car was dirty so it got washed. (Passive voice)
The car was dirty so John washed it. (Active voice)
The active voice is much more alive. It involves us with the people in the story and keeps us close to the action.
Be very careful about describing things. My own personal preference is never to describe anything at all, but sometimes you just cant avoid it. If you really must describe something, keep the description brief. Two sentences maybe, three at the most. Descriptions that go on too long are boring and the readers eye skips past them looking for the next interesting bit. Assuming there is an interesting bit, of course which there wont be if its all description and reported speech.
When you describe something, try to appeal to one or more of the senses. Dont overdo it, dont try to invoke all the senses every time. That would be a sensorial overload. But bearing this in mind, lets suppose you are talking about a statue. Dont simply tell us that the statue is beautiful. That is far too vague a statement. Tell us why the statue is beautiful. Whats its size, or its colour, or its shape? Whats its texture, or its smell, or its taste? That last is perhaps a bit creepy. How many people do you know who make a habit of smelling and tasting statues?
But dont go overboard descriptions are like the salt in a stew. A pinch of salt makes the stew taste great, but a whole salt cellar full will ruin the taste completely. So use descriptions sparingly. And remember that sometimes salt is not necessary because the other ingredients, along with a lot of slow simmering, will give the stew its flavour.
III What Defines a Piece of Prose Writing?
There are two kinds of writing fiction and non-fiction. Each of these, of course, can be broken down into an almost infinite number of distinct categories. Fiction divides into crime fiction, science fiction, romance fiction historical fiction etc. and non-fiction is made up of travel articles, family history, biography, self-help etc. The categories go on forever.
But both fiction and non-fiction have many things in common. There is a logical progression of ideas, a structure, if you will that takes us from the beginning to the end. All fiction and quite a lot of non-fiction will involve people in some way shape or form and, of course, people all do things. They talk to each other and stuff happens to them and it happens all around them as well. Thats how life works and so thats how your writing should work as well.
This too is pretty much an inflexible rule. You can break it in certain circumstances, but by and large it applies to almost everything. The only real exception would be a piece of non-fiction that doesnt involve any people at all. As an example, consider the essay that you are reading now. There arent any people in it. So it legitimately breaks the rules. Nevertheless it still has a pattern, a logical approach. Stuff happens, though the definition of stuff and the definition of happening are a bit flexible
But ask yourself a question. Do you really want to read a piece of writing in which absolutely nothing happens and nobody does anything at all? Of course you dont, it would be boring and it would quickly send you to sleep. So because you dont want to read something like that, you dont want to write it either. If you are a genius like Samuel Becket you can probably get away with it at least once (see Waiting for Godot) but you and I are only ordinary mortals and therefore we cant get away with it.
So almost always, no matter what you are writing, be it fiction or non-fiction, the golden rules that define how to write are:
1. A piece of writing always involves people
except when it doesnt.
2. People do things
3. People talk to each other
4. Stuff happens
Your writing needs to reflect all of those circumstances. If you are writing a non-fiction piece that isnt about people you can safely ignore rules 2 and 3. But rules 1 and 4 can never be ignored.
Any piece of writing always has a fairly formal structure. It starts, stuff happens (see rule 4 above), and then it stops. In other words there always has to be a beginning, a middle and an end. If you dont have a beginning, youve just got a blank piece of paper and nobodys going to bother reading that. If you dont have a middle, then clearly theres nothing happening and again youve broken rule 4. And if you dont have a proper ending then everything just dribbles away leaving everybody feeling unsatisfied. I could probably make a very dirty joke here, but Ill leave that to your imagination.
a The Beginning
The beginning is the only chance you have to grab the readers attention. Its called a narrative hook. The opening paragraph or two is the bait on your hook and the reader is the prey that you are fishing for. Once youve caught your reader(s), hopefully they wont be able to wriggle free.
If the beginning of the piece isnt interesting, nobody will bother to read what comes next. Theyll put it down and move on to something else. That doesnt mean the beginning has to arrive with a bang and a roar. You dont necessarily need lots of drama and fireworks (though they always help, of course). Just raising questions in the readers mind is generally sufficient. Heres the opening of a story I recently wrote:
The advert said:
Seasonal workers required for the Martian iron tree harvest.
Temporary work permits and visas available at all Martian consulates
Free transport to and from Mars will be provided to all successful applicants
We should do that, said Peter. It could be a nice little earner for us.
Theres no drama here, no flash bang wallop. But nevertheless it remains intriguing enough that people will (hopefully) carry on reading because they want to know whats going on. Clearly the story is going to take place on Mars. Equally clearly, Peter is going to go to Mars where he will take part in the iron tree harvest. Whats an iron tree? How do they get harvested? Enquiring minds want to know. Hopefully...
Heres another example:
The seal, streamlined and elegant, arrowed through the waves, heading towards the shore. She splished and splashed in the water, just for the fun of watching the sun cast rainbows through the droplets. She slowed down as she got close to the land and when a final wave pushed her gently onto the sandy beach she was barely moving with any speed at all. She flopped in an ungainly fashion up the beach, away from the rising tide, heading for the dry sand. Once she reached the dunes, well away from the domain of the sea, the touch of the land transformed her from a seal into an elegant, naked lady who scratched herself vigorously and cursed the itching caused by the sea salt and sand drying on her skin. She headed purposefully for the cave where she had stored her clothes. When she got there, she was rather irritated to find a leprechaun sitting on them, "What are you doing here Patrick?" she asked. "And stop sitting on my clothes. I need to get dressed."
In contrast to the first example, quite a lot is going on here. It starts out in a straightforward way with a seal swimming in the sea. But it very quickly turns weird and then it becomes decidedly odd. If you dont have just a smidgeon of curiosity about whats going on here then you arent human. You may or may not like the final result, but Im sure you youd like to find out what happens next. If you do, just follow this link
What about non-fiction? Should that have a narrative hook? Of course it should. Heres the very best non-fiction narrative hook Ive ever read:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
It doesnt get any better than that.
b The Middle
Heres where you have room to play. Once youve attracted the readers interest they will stick with you all the way through, unless you make a complete mess of it of course. This part is where you elaborate on your opening and really get things moving.
c The End
A lot of people think that a piece of writing always has to have some kind of a twist in the tail. Thats because at the beginning of the twentieth century, an American writer called O. Henry published a huge number of short stories all of which had an ending that made you see the events of the story in a completely different light. They are very clever stories which were (and which remain) very popular. But twist endings like that are fiendishly difficult to do. O. Henry was a genius and, as Ive said before, you and I are not. If you can reach a twist ending, its just icing on the cake. Ive written one or two and it does feel good, but really its just a gimmick and your stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, shouldnt really need gimmicks to succeed.
All that an ending needs to do is answer the questions raised in the middle. The questions dont all have to be answered in detail of course. Answers can be hinted at, left to the imagination. And, unless you are writing a trilogy, you shouldnt end your story on a cliff hanger. Thats too frustrating But you do need to invoke a sense of closure.
One of the most influential novels of the twentieth century is The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. After more than 1000 pages of rip-roaring narrative, adventure and deeds of derring-do we zero in on one of the main characters who has returned home. He says, Well, Im back. And the story finishes there.
If that isnt a perfect ending I dont know what is. Theres an implied happily ever after which is always nice but theres also the sense that everything important is over and done with.
d Tying it all Together Revising What You Have Written
So youve reached the end and youve finished what you were writing. How did you get there? Is there a better way of reaching the end? Of course there is. What you have written needs to be treated in much the same way that you treat the stuff you put outside your house once a week for the council to collect. Theres almost certainly a lot of rubbish that you can get rid of (including repetitions that dont bear repeating). And theres lots of good stuff that doesnt really belong but which can be recycled for another piece. Or perhaps it just needs tweaking a bit to make it fit better.
Above all else, make sure you stick to the point. Dont ramble, dont get distracted, dont follow random thoughts that take you away from the main thread. I once belonged to a writing group that limited all presentations to just two pages anything longer than that meant that we didnt have enough time to get through everybodys work. But one person was completely incapable of controlling what they were writing within the imposed length. They simply couldnt keep their mind focussed on what they were thinking about. It got distracted, and that distraction was reflected in the writing. Over the course of two years the writer never once managed to bring anything they wrote to a conclusion within the allowed word limit. I did a thorough analysis of a one piece that they presented and I showed that in less than 1500 words they had started eighteen separate stories and, of course, they hadnt finished any of them. The whole thing was a complete mess. So heres another rule:
5. Only deviants deviate
An implication of this rule is that you must decide whats important to the story and what isnt. Anything thats irrelevant shouldnt be there at all and you should delete it when you start revising the piece. Its a principle known as Chekovs Gun, named after the Russian playwright Anton Chekov who seems to have been the first person to articulate it. He said words to the effect of If theres a gun mounted over the fireplace then, before the end of the play, someone must take it down and shoot it. If you think about that it makes perfect sense. If you dont make use of something that you mention in the piece then why did you mention it at all? When you make a shopping list before you go to the supermarket you only write down things that you intend to buy, you never write down the things you have no intention of buying. Unless its chocolate, of course.
IV Writing Fiction
Fiction has a fairly formulaic structure. It doesnt matter whether were talking about a short story or a novel, the structure is always broadly the same. The protagonist is faced with a problem. Attempting to solve it causes complications. The complications get resolved, not necessarily for the better, and the story ends.
Again, these are golden rules that you should never break. All successful stories follow them.
If you are writing a short story this structure needs to be kept very simple. Restrict your story to small, simple problems that can be dealt with in a small number of words. You cant tackle any big themes directly in a short story because you simply dont have room to do it. You can address the human condition, you can introduce big issues like love, death and taxes but you can only do it indirectly in simple (though not necessarily superficial) ways.
Suppose, for example, that we have a character called John whose mother has just died.
If we are writing a short story around this idea perhaps wed zero in on one small part of Johns responsibilities. As he is getting dressed to attend the funeral John is horrified to discover that none of his ties are suitable. In the stress of dealing with all the ramifications of his mothers death he has overlooked that one small detail. And now he finds that all his ties are novelty ties, festooned with odd decorations and patterns. One tie has a flock of white sheep with one black sheep in the middle of the flock. One tie shows a cat proudly eating a (computer) mouse. Another shows Botticellis Venus Arising from the Waves in all her stark naked glory. Obviously John cant wear any of those ties to his mothers funeral! What would she think? Shed be mortified. Shed probably come back and haunt him for the rest of life. And after it as well The ceremony begins in less than an hour. How can John find a suitable tie in such a short time?
The big themes are all there in the background but the story itself is very simple. John has to find a tie. Weve given him a good reason for needing to find a tie and he doesnt have much time to find one. So how can he find a tie and still get to the church on time? I imagine that this story will probably be a fairly light-hearted piece, given the silly ties that John has hanging in his wardrobe, but that doesnt mean we can ignore Johns feelings about letting his mother down. You can make the reader laugh at Johns dilemma but John himself wont find it funny at all. This sense of conflict or contradiction is what will give the story its strength.
So it will be short and simple. You could probably write it in about 2000 words and I think it would work well.
However if we were writing a novel with the same theme, it probably wouldnt be light-hearted at all, though exactly the same conflict would remain, because wed have a lot more room to explore things above and beyond Johns immediate problem with his ties. This would change the emphasis completely. Because we have many more words to play with, we will be able to talk in a lot more detail about the relationship between John and his mother, something we could only hint at it a short story. Perhaps she was a domineering character and John never really escaped from under her thumb. Does he feel relieved now that shes dead and hes finally free of her? Does he feel guilty because he feels relieved? When youve got 100,000 words to play with, you can look into a lot of things much more deeply.
So lets think about three different kinds of novels that we could write about John and his mum:
Maybe were writing a murder mystery novel so did John kill her or did he arrange to have her killed by someone else? Or is he completely innocent? Perhaps his mother has upset a lot of people over the years. Who are these people and what direct motives do they have for wanting to kill her?
Or maybe were writing a novel about family life. Johns father died years ago fighting in Vietnam. His mother remarried and has always been deeply in love with her new husband. But John has never accepted his stepfather and tensions between them have caused a lot of ill feeling and quarrels in the family. Now, after a long illness, his mother has died. Both John and his stepfather have a clear duty towards her. Can they reconcile their differences, at least temporarily?
Or maybe we are writing a historical novel. Its 1199 and John has just become the King of England. His mother, Eleanor of Acquitaine, is the real power behind the throne and she guides and controls all his decisions. When she dies in 1204, John is left helpless and floundering. The remaining twelve years of his reign (John died in 1216) will be very difficult for him as he fails to cope with catastrophe after catastrophe, the loss of Englands lands in France, the revolt of his barons, the loss of the crown jewels in the tidal estuary of The Wash. How will he cope without the support of his powerful, experienced mother?
In summary, Ive discussed how to start writing a short story and three novels. And every single one of them can be described as being a story about a man called John whose mother has just died.
Short stories are about small, simple problems. Novels are more discursive and use a lot more material so they paint on larger canvases.
V Writing Non-Fiction
Ideally non-fiction should have a similar structure to fiction, though you do have rather more latitude. Nevertheless the idea of a narrative hook at the beginning, a more discursive middle and a conclusion at the end still applies.
One of the most cogent essayists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries was Joan Didion. Her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a masterpiece. She deliberately structures her essays as if they were stories and presents non-fictional realities with invented details and colourful metaphors in order to make the stories more vivid. Some people call this approach creative non-fiction though thats a controversial term which itself probably needs to be examined in a few essays, though not by me. At least not here and not now. But if you are considering this approach to non-fiction writing you need to be very aware that the techniques used to write fiction are fundamental to it. Everything I said in the last section will apply here.
Outside of that, a more general non-fiction piece (not involving people) will likely be more of an essay than anything else; much like the piece that you are reading now. But it still needs structure, it still needs to progress logically from the beginning, through the middle to the conclusion at the end.
VI Laying Out a Manuscript
If nobody except you will ever see what you have written then who cares what it looks like? But if you are going to give it to other people to read then you need to lay it out properly so that its easy to read. Good layout is just as important as good grammar and proper spelling.
At the very least you should have a header on every page which contains your name, the title of the piece, a page number (and perhaps an indication of how many pages there are in total). You might also want to include a word count. Round the word count up (or down) to the nearest hundred words.
Your paragraphs should be left justified and separated one from another by a blank line. Never right justify your text. Unless you are a professional typesetter, youll just make a mess of it and youll get ugly gaps that will put your readers off.
Ive done all of these things in this essay and as a result Im sure you find it easy to read and easy to absorb the information Ive presented in it.
If you are going to submit your work to a professional outlet (a magazine or whatever) read their submission guidelines very closely and make sure you adhere to them to the letter. If the submission guidelines ask for double spacing with two blank lines between paragraphs (which they probably will its pretty much an industry standard) then make sure that you do just that. If they want a monospace font such as Courier with emphasis indicated by underlines rather than specific font styles (which again, many of them will) then use a monospace font and make sure that you dont have any bold or italic words. Just underlined.
Never, ever under any circumstances use the Comic Sans font that this sentence uses.
Rest assured, if you submit a piece to a professional outlet and dont follow their submission guidelines they wont bother to read what you have sent them. Theyll take one brief glance at it and just throw it away.