I was asked a question about what advice I would give to someone who wanted to be a writer.
Simple answer: You are, you just don’t know it.
I do believe everybody has a story to tell. We don’t share because we don’t know how to tell the story … then we get frustrated … then we give up.
Truth is, there is no magic formula. Each of us are different with a different story to tell. Some of them come from the deep recesses of our imagination. Others come from our experiences. Others are tutorials, how-to books and manuals. Still others are a collection of work formed around a central theme. Most are words — our words, our choice of words — fashioned into sentences creating paragraphs that make up chapters and wind up as stories. But all follow the same process.
I’m going to talk a little bit about the mechanics of writing. The basic recipe for any story – be it a letter, a press release, a short story or novel – is the same. What. When, Where, Why. How. Those principles are universal and connect the readers (the audience) with the writer (author). If any of the five elements is missing the words are just words.
In the 50-plus years I spent as a writer and editor I have written and edited some real stinkers. I have also polished words to bring them to life, both my own and those of others. If I can do it, so can you.
It all starts with an idea — the what. It might be a thought, something you saw that triggers an emotion, a dream. The key is developing that idea. Will it evolve into a short story? A poem? A novel? A journal jot? A blog post?
That’s what you have to decide. What is the underlying story? What idea do you want to develop? Most important, what do you want readers to get from your manuscript? It’s not enough to have an idea. You have to be able to develop it.
Your idea will pretty much give you a time frame for your work — the when. In my book, My Name Is Sam … and Heaven Is Still Shining Though, for example, the story follows Sam(antha) from about age five into her 70s. So, all of the descriptions should be geographically and chronologically accurate. In my case, Sam’s early years were in the mid-60s in northern New Jersey. After she got married to a Navy officer, the scene shifted to the Dayton, OH, area from the 70s on.
I bring this up because you decide the time frame. If you’re writing something historic, know the history. Know what was happening during that time. If you’re writing a contemporary piece, stay in the here and now. If you’re writing a futuristic fantasy, let your imagination run wild.
That all, of course, leads to research, research, research. You can write about what you know – in fact you should write about what you know – but if the words or scenes are at odds with your time frame, you’ll have a problem keeping your readers’ interest.
Like the “when”, your idea (the “what”) will dictate the “where”. It’s the setting you choose to carry your story forward. It becomes part of the infrastructure for the story.
The pitfall for many writers is they don’t identify the “where” and readers get lost trying to figure out where they are and how the characters got there. From experience I can tell you readers will just give up.
Just like the “when”, the “where” needs your attention as a writer. For example, you can’t move your characters from one location to another in a way that isn’t plausible. To explain, you wouldn’t have 19th century slaves moving through Indiana in the space of a day or two. It was time consuming and dangerous. Those chilling stories have to be incorporated into your story.
Why is perhaps one of the hardest parts for a writer. You can have the greatest idea in the world. Your thoughts can be riveting. Your story might click mechanically, words flowing like a master wordsmith. But if you can’t answer the question — “Why am I writing this?” — the sustainability of your work is in peril.
For some — especially journalers, poets, and to a large extent, bloggers – the answer is self-satisfaction. They’re not necessarily writing for profit. They are satisfied capturing their words and sharing them with a narrow audience. For others it is the prestige of seeing your name in print and, hopefully, a few coins to offset the costs.
I always advise prospective authors to write for themselves first. It might be a reflection of your beliefs or your history. Remember, these are your thoughts. The value is in the eyes of the reader. Count yourself as your No. 1 reader and expand from there to family and friends, then outside your circle. Don’t try to do it in reverse.
The nuts and bolts comprise the how. This will actually be the most intense part and it largely will depend on what genre you choose. Regardless of your genre, however, the spokes still have to connect to the hub. The difference is whether you use a carriage bolt or a screw, a nail or an angle brace, a rivet or a weld.
Remember, the shortest definition of writing – in any form – is communication. If you’re not communicating your thoughts to your readers, the words are hollow. That’s where your writing skills come in. Good writing skills allow you to communicate your message with clarity and ease. Proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation are important, but the crucial element is always to remember your audience.
Always, good writing is more than stringing words. It’s painting a mental picture through your words. It’s the writer and reader interacting and being involved. The best writer in the world would fall short if no one reads his work. The most avid reader in the world would be empty if there were no words to read.
I did compile a short guide, So, You Want To Write a Book as I prepared to teach a class on “Taking the Fear Out of Writing.” I would be happy to send you a copy. Contact me here or leave me a comment and I’ll get it out to you. Make sure you include your e-mail address.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: There’s not a day in your life that doesn’t have the fingerprints of God all over it.