On Writing

Start Me Up

The following draws on elements of my workshop, "Kindling the Creative Flame," which is intended to help emerging or struggling writers turn the spark of an idea into the full-fledged flame of a writing project.

The most common question that I get from new writers is, “Where do I start?” Since this question is most often asked by people who want to write something other than a purely academic, research-based work, this post is directed specifically toward that audience. For someone who’s never really written something before, the act of writing can seem pretty intimidating and nebulous and you may be uncomfortable with the idea of just sitting down and writing whatever comes into your head. While there’s no one right way to get started on a project, answering the following six questions about your work is a practical step that you can take to make the act of writing seem less intimidating and help you achieve focus (note: it’s certainly not the only way to go about it).

What’s It About?

Every flame starts with a spark. In the case of writing, the spark is your idea, or what it’s all about. Maybe you’ve imagined a character in your head or you’re inspired by nature. Perhaps you want to write a mystery or an account of all the random people that cross your path in the course of your everyday life. Even if your goal is to write about “nothing” à la Seinfeld, that’s still an idea. You can start by jotting down whatever thoughts you’ve had related to this idea. Write as much as you can because this will help you to zero in on the focus of your work and may even be enough to kindle the actual writing bit.

Why Do You Want to Do It?

If you’ve given any thought to writing, then you must have some reason for wanting to do it. Whether it’s “just for fun,” an exercise in healing, making money, sharing your passion, gaining notoriety, or educating or entertaining others, your underlying reason for wanting to write is your motivation. That driving force can keep you going when you lose track or get discouraged. It’s important to keep it at the forefront of your mind when you sit down to work.

Who’s It About?

If you’re writing a book that’s focused on teaching or providing knowledge, I realize that this question may not apply. Instead, you’ll want to answer the question “Who is it for?” That involves thinking about your audience, your readership. Consider the people you hope will want to read your work: what types of things do they like, what expectations or opinions might they have about your subject, etc.?

If you’re writing a different type of nonfiction story or a creative piece, who’s it about? Is it about you, some other real person, or some fictional characters you’ve made up (who may or may not be human)? If you’re writing about yourself or other real-life people, then you’ll have to decide just how wide you’re willing to open the door on your/their reality and you should also consider the potential impact that your writing may have on those mentioned in the work. I’m not saying don’t write something because you could upset some of the people in your life if you do, but rather, if you’re telling someone else’s story, think about whether you should get their permission to do so, assuming that’s possible. In the case of biographical works, you’ll have to determine how much research you need to do and what the focus of that research should be. If you’re writing about fictional characters, human or otherwise, then you’ll need to take some time to really get to know them just as you would a real person. Regardless of whether the people in your story are real or made up, you’ll convey various traits about them at some point, such as the way that they behave or speak and what motivates them, so making some notes about these things is useful.

Where and When Does It Happen?

Whether your story is real or made up, it takes place somewhere and at a specific point to time; that’s your setting. When considering the location, think about specifics such as city and town names, elements like the weather and the type of terrain, particular venues that you want to include, and things like that. This can also inform some aspects of character such as how the people in your story may dress or talk. If you’re writing about somewhere you’ve never actually been, then be prepared to at least do some research on if not travel to that area. You should consider, too, whether your outsider’s perspective is colored by any potential biases or stereotypes. If you’re writing about a place that doesn’t exist, then much of the setting is left to your imagination and world-building skills, which is not to say that you won’t need to do some research. Maybe you will, but it shouldn’t be the focus of your writing right now. Generally speaking, if you get too caught up in research, then you won’t make any progress with the actual storytelling.

One half of your setting is the location of your story; the other is the time period when your story takes place. Is it set in the present day, some point in the past, in the near or distant future, or some alternative thread of spacetime? Think about how your chosen time period influences the events of your story and the characters, considering the relevance of things like milestone historical or current events, dress, and manner of speaking. Does the time period need to be clear to your reader? If so, why, and how will you let them know when it takes place?

How Does the Story Unfold?

This last one is basically the plot or outline of your story. You may not have all of the details figured out at the start and it’s highly likely that you won’t even know what the actual beginning and ending are. That’s OK because what I’m talking about here is the general action of the story. Make some notes or put together a storyboard with what you do know about your plot, generally speaking, such as the main points, and some of the specifics if you already know them as well. But do that with the caveat that this doesn’t have to be set in stone. Be open to new ideas that may come up as you write. That’s what makes writing beautiful—the story often unfolds as you write it; you figure out much of it as you go along.

If you need some help generating ideas for any of the above, there are number of writing exercises and tools that you can use, such as freewriting, mind-mapping, and outlining, examples of which are freely available via the Internet. Try some of those things out if you feel they’ll be useful and find out works for you and what doesn’t. You’ll develop your own set of tools and your process over time.

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