Basics for Beginning Writers – and the Rest of Us

In another life, I had the opportunity to conduct driver safety seminars for a Federal agency. Attendees ranged from twenty-year-olds who had received high school drivers ed, and had been driving for maybe five years, to persons who had been driving since the invention of the rubber tire. Everyone thought they were pretty good. Not one of them left class without having a different assessment of their skills—especially the long-term drivers who had not reviewed those skills since Andre and Edouard Michelin mounted the first pneumatic, rubber tire in 1895.
carLike the driver’s safety course reviewed fundamentals, this eFile takes a look at some basic elements of writing. While on the surface the content appears intended for the beginner, those serious about writing might want to review some of these.

1.  The Talent Factor

goatWriting is a gift. You either have the talent, or you don’t, or fall somewhere in between.  Liken it to an artist who has a eye for color and the coordination to draw. Without at least those basics, whatever the project, it’s just scribbles. That’s me. Frankly, my drawing sucks, but I’m good at fashioning clay objects and at graphic layouts. Falling into the “in between area,” those talents could be greatly enhanced if I were to study and work at improving them. That applies to the in between writers. Study, write, study, write, study, write. Interesting, that is the same formula for those who have major talent. The old adage applies, “Use it, or lose it.”

2.  Be True to Yourself

headEvery person on this planet and beyond is unique—how they think, how they act are the results of interaction with other unique people and events. This could be painful, but a writer really needs to come to grips as to who they really are, not what they want others to believe. What makes you, a writer, smile, laugh, cry, scream, become angry, hold back, become aggressive, ignore, abhor, desire, crave, fantasize? A writer then uses their talents and perspectives to create a successful story populated by characters who possess some of those things in their makeup written in their style or voice. Never lose sight of  “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

3.  Slavery is a Crime

ball chain
When a house is erected, there is a framework built upon a foundation. That part is designed to hold the shape and details together. There is a framework to stories as well called “structure.” There needs to be a beginning, a middle, an end, and a plot through which characters move. Another author once said that structure is like a wave upon which characters ride. Television and movies have become a slave to formulation. From  opening credits to “The End,” a viewer soon recognizes how all the pieces fit and can predict the outcome before the first commercial. That’s like reading the last chapter of a book first. In the 1950’s and on, contractors built tract homes. Block after block, each house looked like its neighbor with very little variation. Owners then did things inside and out to make their home appear different. Same basic structure, but very different tweaks. Structure is necessary to hold a story together and help guide it along, but it is not the master.

4. Where Did That Come From?

boxedRecently a media conversation asked, “Where do I find ideas that I can write about?”  Ideas
are a basic element of talent. If a person can’t think of anything to write about, it’s time to find a different hobby. The individual with writing talent has no end of ideas, whether they are for a full-fledged story or a simple scene. Just about any and everything can spontaneously trigger an idea in such people, and when that happens it is important to log it in as much detail as possible. The idea may not be applicable to the current project, but certainly may work in something else down the road. On the other hand, it may be just the needed piece to flesh out a scene, or take it in a different, more interesting direction. Rule of thumb: Never toss an idea without recording it somewhere.

5.  Learn to Write From Others . . .

but for cryin’ out loud, don’t copy them. An excellent way to learn writing is to look at successful stories, just don’t fall into the trap of trying to duplicate them. Agents, editors, and the like review hundreds of manuscripts every year that contain the same elements. There should be no surprises here. The story that stands out from the crowd gets noticed. Case in point. I’m not a fan of vampire stories because they have been overdone like a burnt steak. I don’t read them. Period. And then . . . an author asked me to review his book. From paragraph one, I was fascinated because the plot picked up from where Charles Dickens left off in “Oliver Twist.” Same characters a bit later in life, same writing style slightly updated. From the opening, I found the story fascinating and entertaining, and then BAM! The plot became a vampire story made believable by a very plausible, scientific explanation for the existence of vampires. The story is a stand-out.

 Pirates are depicted as rude, crude, bloody, bullies—until Jack Sparrow stepped off his sinking longboat. Private Eyes are hard-nosed, cigarette smoking toughs—until Jessica Fletcher walked on the scene clutching her novel, “Murder, She Wrote.” Aliens are ugly, grotesque things—until Mr. Spock joined the Enterprise. Prince Charming came to rescue Rapunzel on a white horse with some serious identity issues.
Write the story, but write it in such a way that it will stand out and be noticed. Throw convention to the wind to see where it might land.

6.  Avoid Falling into the Box Trap

3 stoogesWhy does it seem every body and every thing has to carry a label? Be pinned in a niche? In
this profession, that’s writing to a genre. The novice uses genre as reference points that must be touched along the race to the end, and then wonder why their manuscript never gets noticed. Think of genre as an artist’s pallet with daubs of primary colors. Using a brush, Rembrandt took a little of this, a little of that, swirled it around to blend, and then added another color until finding just the right shade. The writer who wants to break free and create a stand-out story will use genres like primary colors, to pick and choose elements for the story at hand, thus creating something with a very different personality, creating an experience unlike all the others. Creating something that leaps out from all the rest.

7.  Go Back to the Roots
Becoming a success has its pits. Caught up in the whirlwind of promotions and pressed to write the next, great best seller, we think it too mundane, a waste of time to review the basics of writing. Maybe that’s why that next novel didn’t quite measure up. A house has a foundation upon which it is built. Every story rests upon a foundation. The serious writer will check that foundation to make sure there are any cracks that will weaken the story.


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