This was originally written for a children’s website
(I started writing when I was married and had children of my own. and I think one of the things I wanted to tell people in my books was how to cope with the world when it goes crazy around you. It does that even without a war on, of course.)
Everyone is different and that means that everyone is going to need to write a story in a different way. You have to discover how you need to do it. There is no easy way. You can only discover how to by doing it. These hints are to help you find your own way.
Most teachers will tell you that you need to make a careful plan of your story before you start. This is because most teachers do not write stories. Professional writers divide into four different ways:
1. Those who do make a careful plan. These are the rarest. Even writers who write detective stories often only have jotted notes about what order the clues come out in. You do a careful plan if it makes you feel safe. Otherwise try one of the other ways.
2. Careful realistic writers. These writers have little cards written out with descriptions and past histories of all the people they might want in the story, and the same for all the places. This is quite a good way to work, because the story often falls into place in your head while you are discovering the things on the cards. But it takes a long time, though it can be fun. You will often find you have far more information on the cards than you will ever get into the story, and if this is so DON’T try to get it all in. You will drown your story.
3. Back to front and inside out writers. These writers start by writing Chapter Eleven and then Chapter Twenty. Sometimes they have no idea what the story is and have to put the chapters away until they see what the story is that they fit into. A writer called Joyce Carey had a whole chest of drawers filled with chapters out of books that he never got round to finishing. When he did write a book, it always started this way. with a chapter from the middle. I sometimes work this way, but I warn you, it takes a very clear head to sort it out in the end. It is a good way to get started, however.
4. My way. If you’re the kind of person who gets stuck writing a story, try this. When I start writing a book, I know the beginning and what probably happens in the end, plus a tiny but extremely bright picture of something going on in the middle. Often this tiny picture is so different from the beginning that I get really excited trying to think how they got from the start to there. This is the way to get a story moving, because I can’t wait to find out. And by not planning it any more than that I leave space for the story to go in unexpected ways. Sometimes things happen that I never would have thought of, just because the story wants them to happen.
The IMPORTANT THING is that you should ENJOY making up your story. If it bores you, stop and try something else.
To start, you have to have an idea. I can’t help you there. Whatever idea you have, and everyone has ideas, it has to be something that really grabs you. Think of the thing that most excites you in a story and the kind of thing you most like to read and take it from there. One part of it is going to make you much more excited that the rest. To get started, try to begin as near to the exciting bit as possible. That way, you will want to go on. You can do the rest as flashbacks, or change the middle to the beginning afterwards. Above all don’t try to write something you think you ought to write.
Whatever you think of DON’T make it too neat. Stories need loose ends to move. A girl wrote to me once that she could only get to Chapter One of her book. She had two sets of identical twins who lived on two identical small islands and they had both just discovered buried treasure. It was not surprising she was stuck. It was just too neat.
Places in it
The places your story happens in are very important. For instance, if you want to write about a vampire, you might want him stalking someone in a narrow street by the docks. Or you might want him to attack at a picnic in the country. These would be quite different stories. A lot of people worry about having to describe places, but there is no need to worry at all. What you have to do is to SEE the place where this part of the story is happening, in your mind, as if you were there yourself. By the docks, you would see the shapes of the houses and sheds, and the stone or wood they were built of, and seagulls and boats and machines, and the paving you were walking on. At the picnic, you would see the grass and the insects and the shapes of the trees and the hills, and exactly where each person was sitting round the food. Then you simply write what happens. You don’t need to describe. It will come over as you tell it. You could ask someone to do a drawing and they would draw it just as you had seen it. Promise.
People in it
People are even more important. They are the ones that make the story happen. You have to SEE them even more clearly than places. You have to know the shape of them and if their breath smells and how their hair grows. In fact, you have to know twice as much as you put in the story. Sit and think and SEE them before you start. And HEAR them too. Everyone has their own special way of talking. Make them talk like they should – and do remember that people don’t talk proper sentences and that they shout or they mumble, and try to get them doing this. If you have trouble, put a real person in your story. If you have an Aunty May or an Uncle Joe whom you don’t much like, use them as the vampires and they will come out wonderfully real. You won’t need to describe them, just do the way they talk and move. (You don’t need to tell your aunty or your uncle either).
Feelings and Actions
Some people get stiff and unhappy writing because they think they can’t manage to write how it feels to have an adventure, or to be in the middle of very fast, exciting action. This is nonsense. Everyone knows. What you have to do, if you are stuck this way is to stop thinking in words and then shut your eyes and think how it would be if you were the one having the adventure, falling down the cliff or being attacked by a vampire, or whatever. You’ll know at once. Then you simply put down what you know. It may come out queer, but queer is good where actions and feelings are concerned.
It is important to know you can finish a story, so you should if possible. Just bash on and do it. Endings are not easy. I find them the hardest part. You don’t know whether to stop with everyone just at the end of the adventure, and not knowing what really happened to Aunty May or Uncle Joe, or to make sure that the right people are going to be happy and the wrong people not, or even whether to go on and tell what happens in the next twenty years. This is really up to you. If you want to know what happens in the rest of lifetimes of your people, go ahead and find out and put it down. If you think you’ve done when you’ve got a stake driven through Uncle Joe’s heart, then stop there. My feeling is that the best stories leave the reader trying to imagine what happened after the story stopped, but that is only one opinion.
Doing it all over again
If you want to make your story as good as you can get it, you have to go over it and get it right. Professional writers never write a book just once. They do a second or even a third rewriting. Even if you don’t have time for that, you must go over it for bits that have gone wrong (if you know you’re going to do this, you can get on with the story first time round and simply promise yourself that the bit that went wrong will get put right later). First, you must read your story AS IF YOU HAD NEVER SEEN IT BEFORE. Yes, this is difficult. You are going to read it and admire all the bits you like instead. But, while you admire, you will come across bits that make you sort of squiggle inside and say ‘Oh, I suppose that will do.’ That is a sure sign that it won’t do. So, secondly, think hard about these bits, what is wrong with them and how they ought to go to be right. If the wrong bit is supposed to be funny, think hardest of all. Funny bits have to have exactly the right words or they are like jokes where someone had forgotten the punchline. But even serious bits can be like that too, if you get them wrong. If you think hard enough your story will be MUCH better.
Giving it a title
Sometimes this is harder than writing the ending. You have only a few words for a title: you don’t want the same title as someone else; you want to say what the story is about, but not give it away; and you want to make people interested enough to read it. You probably want a snappy title. Difficult. If you are very lucky, you will have thought of the title before you wrote the story. Then you have to make sure it still fits when the story is finished. It sometimes takes me six weeks to find a title. I hope you have better luck.
Good luck. Enjoy yourself.
Copyright © Diana Wynne Jones