It occurred to me that most of the articles I have written for this blog so far are aimed at readers who have already been writing for a while, at least in some form. But we all have to start somewhere, sometime, so this week and possibly in a few future articles, I wanted to give you my writing 101 class for those of you who are completely and utterly new to the craft.
To start this off, I want to answer some frequently asked questions. Most of these are questions I had myself when I first started and some are from my classmates, but all of them are worth knowing the answer to.
“I’ve never written anything longer than a shopping list. Where do I start?”
My recommendation is to get a little practice with shorter pieces of writing before you tackle your novel. Try bashing out short stories of around 1,500 words, or if that is too daunting, you could even write 500 word vignettes (which are essentially single scenes rather than a beginning-to-end plots). Starting off this way will have several benefits. First off, you will get a feel for how much effort it takes to write any given word count. To the uninitiated, “1000 words” can sound like a death sentence, but once you have written a few shorts of this length, it will no longer seem so daunting. Second, you will be able to experiment with many different themes, settings, genres etc. each time you start a new piece. This will give you the breadth of skill you need, whereas a novel will force you to focus on a narrow selection of themes for 70k words plus.
Before I started practicing, my greatest masterpiece looked something like this.
-Image by Ex-Smith
“But what should I write about?”
When writing these shorter items, try not to be overambitious in writing an insanely complex, interwoven epic. You won’t have space. That doesn’t mean your story shouldn’t have depth, but keep in mind that within 1,500 words you will be physically limited on how much information you can give your reader. I recommend focusing on one element per story. For example, one piece may have a more complex plot but have less focus on the character backgrounds. Another may have more finely tuned characters but a plot that is simple to follow. As your stories get longer, you can take the time to build up multiple elements, but for now, just try to concentrate on practicing one at a time.
“A novel is too scary. Can I just write and publish short stories?”
Yes, in theory, you could just write short stories and never move on to a novel. There’s nothing wrong with that at all and I personally love shorts, although I caution you that they are considerably harder to find commercial publishers for, if publishing is your aim.
However, one thing I would warn against is just writing short stories as a crutch, because you don’t think you are capable of writing a novel, even though you want to. You are capable of it, even if it takes some practice. I would argue that writing a really great short story takes just as much talent as writing a really great novel. The only difference is the length and, by extension, the amount of time you will need to invest into a single project.
“I’ve written three short stories. Should I start my novel now?”
There’s nothing stopping you from writing your novel right away if you want. But my recommendation is to wait until you have really mastered the short story before you move on and that is going to take some serious time. It took me four years of short story writing before I felt confident to move on to my novel.
My reasoning for this is that if you can write a great short story, that should give you some confidence that your novel will be of good quality too. Writing a novel is a big time investment and you may be disappointed if you start too soon and then read it back and feel that you could have done better.
It’s all good practice, of course. Even if you write something that’s not publishable, it has still served to improve your skill. But writing a bad short story means that you have put a few hours into a project you don’t want to share. Writing a bad novel means you’ve put a year or more into it.
I should highlight that as always, the above is all just my opinion based on my own writing experiences. But perhaps you would give different advice to a new writer. Drop a comment and let me know what you think.
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(Feature Image by Evan Bench)