This is a common question. I ask it of myself. A lot. It feels like a holy grail question - if you could just answer it then all problems would fall away.
I think it is, however, a little like asking an actor ‘How do you learn all those lines?’ They just do. That’s their job.
And that’s the point.
I want to start with the simple things. Of course, I want to talk about characters and conflicts and story arcs and maguffins and dragons. But to get there you have to start somewhere. Somewhere a bit more boring.
From afar the arts (and writers are artists as much as musicians and painters) seem like an easy gift. It is amazingly romantic. So many writers are cool interesting people that dress flamboyantly and seemingly have amazing taste and (somehow) loads of money and time to be interesting all over the world and talk to interesting people. They capture the essence of what it means to be alive and spin it into words. They do the impossible. They seem to be magicians. They are.
They are also crafts people. ‘Wright’, as in ‘playwright’, comes from the Old English wryhta ‘worker’ and whyrta ‘maker’. If you are a writer you are a maker, a builder, of stories. Making, crafting, ‘wrighting’ is work. It is constructing and honing and shaving off this bit and that bit. It’s hard. It involves practice and graft and boredom and patience and work. It’s a job, basically.
Tip 1 – Treat it like your job
“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair,” said Mary Heaton Vorse. I love the idea of being a writer. I love having ideas for things. I often hear or read something and go ‘That’s a good idea for a story!’ but never actually get it down. Making yourself sit down and write is the first, and most crucial, stage.
We want writing to be the fun romantic thing all the time. Sometimes it’s not. When it’s not, sit down and write.
If we only wrote when we’re inspired, we’d never finish anything. If you look at it like it’s your job, it’s just the thing that you do every day, then the chances of getting something done increases. It also gives you more respect for what you are doing. It is not just your hobby, it is your job, your profession. This can be tricky, especially when it is not actually your job and you’re fitting it around the thing that pays you. But for some part of the day it is your job so treat it as such, even if you don’t feel like doing it.
That leads on to…
Tip 2 - Find out how you work.
Some people are best in morning. Some people do their best work between the hours of two and six am. The playwright and screenwriter Steven Beresford doesn’t read anything before he begins writing – “I have to send before I receive” he says. He writes first thing in the morning and then reads the news, takes emails etc after breakfast, before going back to work. Find out what environment, time and pattern suits you best. This can take while.
I found that I had to carry a notebook with me wherever I went and wrote whenever I got a few moments. This wasn’t ideal but I did get some stuff down and some shape of a story that I wouldn’t have managed any other way (I also had a lot of notebooks to type up). It wasn’t the best but it was a start.
That leads on to...
Tip 3 - Don’t try to be good.
Your first draft will be rubbish. Sorry. The only person who wrote perfect first time was Mozart and he got a whole name to say that God loved him. Don’t worry that what you’re writing is rubbish. Write it anyway. Just get something on the page and you can go back and edit it later. If you edit as you go along you will never finish it.
Which is related to…
Tip 3a – The first ten minutes will possibly seem a waste of time. But that’s ok.
Once you’ve worked out when you work best and you sit down to work, the first stuff out of your head will probably be super rubbish. That’s alright. Think of it as the warmup before you start a gym session. Or preseason for a footballer. You’re writing the fluff from the top of your brain and getting it into gear. Again, don’t critique as you go along. Get it down and then make it better later.
Tip 3b – Writing is rewriting
Once you have your rubbish first draft have a break. Then go back and read your draft. Then go and write it again but better. This is where it really feels like your job but it is where it will begin to come into shape
If you want to think a little critically…
Tip 4 – Try to focus on the story your telling not the big idea you want to get across.
Ok, a little on things like character and stuff. Trying to write about some great theme or idea is hard. I mean trying to write the piece that catches the age is daunting task. It can also lead to you writing a lecture on your own value system. Try and focus on the characters and the situation they’re in. That’s much more interesting (for you and your audience) and will also explore the idea much more than imposing it from the outside. Writing about something specific that can be expanded is a place to start.
Tip 5 – Think about your medium
What are you writing for? Theatre, TV and film are very different ways of telling a story. They’re also very different ways of experiencing a story. If you go to the theatre you are actually in the space with the story – how does that change the way you write? How can you create an experience specifically for that space as opposed to the held gaze of the camera lens? If you’re not sure, watch more films and go to more plays. Consuming more of other people’s work is never a bad idea.
Tip 6 – “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous” - Orwell
There are no hard and fast rules to writing. There are just guidelines. A bit like being a pirate. There will be writers who look at the above and disagree; of course there will. Hopefully these ideas will give you a place to start.
“Keep your butt in the chair. If you want to do this professionally, you have to do it even when you don’t feel like writing” - Marianne Gingher, University of North Carolina.
Give yourself the respect to make it your job. It’s hard. Be proud, you’re doing something hard.