As a nice counterpoint to my last post, I decided to talk about something a little more positive.  I was asked a question today by one of my Facebook friends, a very nice person who used to work in comic book retailing but whose shop closed down within the last six months or so.  This person (and yes, I’m being gender-neutral, so please forgive some slightly tortured phrasing) used to be able to read all the free comics they could stand, and now has a big, story-sized gap.  They thought they might fill it by trying to write, and asked me if I had any tips for starting to write stories.  It was clear that they wanted to write a book of some kind, fiction, and I this is what I told them, slightly edited:

  • So, writing a book.  First of all, it’s hard, and it takes a long time.  My suggestion is to start with something small, just a short story.  Think of them as a sketch (or more realistically, a series of sketches) before you jump into the main event that is writing a full-length novel or comic.
  • I would structure each story as a separate exercise, within which you’re working on a different element of telling a story.  Each one will help you to understand how your brain comes up with ideas, and will also limber up your brain so it can come up with ideas.
  • Start simple.  Write a story about some random object – let’s say a sunflower, or a jug of milk, or whatever.  Write one in which the color blue figures prominently somehow.  Stuff like that.  The rest of the story doesn’t matter – just figure out a way to integrate one concrete thing.
  • For round 2, keep going with the single idea (a rabbit, the moon, a laser, the measles…), but try writing in different voices to see how they work – first person “I did this…”, third person “she did that, and then he did this…” etc.
  • Round 3, description.  Go someplace interesting and try to describe everything you see in as much detail as possible.  Then put that aside and do it again, but try to describe the mood of the place, only using the details that are important to that mood.
  • Once you’ve done those things, time to graduate – write stories in which one emotion or another is important.
  • Write stories in different genres (horror, romance, sci-fi).  Write with different kinds of characters as the protagonist – give them limitations and challenges to overcome, and interesting strengths.  (A story about a ballerina with one leg, or a story about a blue person who lives in the sky, or a story about a person who can leap tall buildings in a single bound but is terrified of heights…)
  • Again, each little story can be just about trying to figure out how to do one thing.  Once you’ve gone through all that, you’ll see that the stuff you practiced in the beginning starting to creep into the later stories, just naturally.
  • And once you feel like you’re able to confidently do all of those things, you’re probably ready to combine them in ways you find interesting to tell your own longer, book-length stories – because all of those techniques get used in every book, in varying ways.

Those were my words of “wisdom,” such as they are.  I grew up in a musical household, where I was taught the violin through the mastering of a long series of exercises.  You get one right, you move on to the next one (which generally would use the skills developed in the previous exercise as a foundation.)  Eventually, you get to the point where everything’s completely natural, and then you can make your own music.

I wrote, conservatively, half a million words in my “serious writer” phase before I was ever published, and the next half million I write will all serve to improve the million after that.  Small things equal big things.  Your approach may vary, but that’s what’s worked for me so far.

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