As many of you already know, I have not always been “serious” about writing. In fact, it wasn’t until college that I really took the plunge. That’s not to say that I never wrote anything before then. I would occasionally pen a poem, and there were a few short stories I finished–albeit as school assignments, but I still enjoyed writing them.
My favorite was a story I wrote about two scientists (Dr. Green and Dr. Pepper–yes, I thought I was hilarious) who invent a machine that can drill to the center of the earth while they ride inside it, facing many life-threatening dangers along the way. The title was, you guessed it, “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” Sadly, my English teacher informed me that, while the story itself was fine, the title was already taken.
Blast you, Jules Verne!!
My writing attempts even extended beyond the literary into music. I once wrote a song (many, many years ago, I would like to point out) about Peter finding a coin in a fish’s mouth, as told in the Bible. I called it “Big Bass Boogie” (insert face-palm here). Yeah, I know. It was pretty ridiculous. Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately), the lyrics were lost long ago so the song no longer exists for your listening pleasure. Personally, I do not bemoan its fate.
But enough about my embarrassing dabbles into writing as a youth.
The point is, it wasn’t really until the idea for my current work-in-progress (WIP) struck me one evening in college–which led me to think, “Man, I wish that was an actual book. I’d read that”–that I decided to try my hand at serious writing.
Since then, I have discovered just how much I actually love it! It was a love that until that moment had laid dormant inside me. Needless to say, I thus have a special attachment to my WIP. It awakened my joy of writing and, for the first time ever, it also awakened a desire in me to actually share my work with others. Before then, I was extremely shy and protective of my writing.
While part of me thinks, based on the aforementioned embarrassing experiences with writing as a kid, that it might have been a good thing I waited so long to write for the public, it also means that I had some serious catching up to do. I was unaware of many of the writing rules that most writers take for granted. Whether it’s the “evils of -ly words” or “show, don’t tell,” and the list goes on–I had never heard any of those rules before.
Thankfully, God brought me into contact with a group of friends who happen to be gifted writers at precisely the right moment in my life. We started a writing group together, and for the first time I was sharing my story with others who gladly shared in return their knowledge, feedback, encouragement and experience.
In fact, if you’re reading this and you’re a new writer who’s looking to hone your craft, that would probably be my first piece of advice–surround yourself with other writers whom you respect and admire, and whose judgment you trust. Try to find a group to join in your area, or start your own group if there aren’t any! Don’t be afraid to share with those who have more experience than you, because that just means they’ve already been where you are now. And don’t be afraid to receive constructive feedback, because it’ll only make you better.
I can’t begin to tell you what a difference it’s made for me. At the very least, it’s made me braver about sharing my creative works (and actually admitting that I write in the first place).
As I have thus spent the last few years finding my voice and figuring out how to write well, one thing I’ve noticed is that I tend to analyze everything.
This can be a blessing and a curse. It means if I’m not careful I can get caught up in tedious details in my own writing. Literally no sentence is beneath my scrutiny, no matter how insignificant it may seem. It also means that everything else I come into contact with gets analyzed–be it a movie, book, song, conversation, etc. There is always something going on inside my busy head.
While I do have to remind myself to not lose sight of the big picture when I’m writing, I have also learned that asking questions can be an important tool, when used properly.
One of the most important places to put your inquiring mind to work is in other books. I believe it is of extreme importance for a writer to also be a reader. But when we read a book, no matter the genre, we must do so with the understanding that we are not simply reading for pleasure, although that is always there–and if the pleasure of reading is missing from a book, and it’s not required reading, you certainly don’t have to finish it (but that is a discussion for another time).
You see, reading is the primary means we possess to hone our craft. If you can recognize what makes another story good (or bad), as well as what works well (or what doesn’t work) in that story, it can become a tool for improving yourself. In a way, you are learning from the experience of other authors, even though you’ve never met them.
What sort of questions should one ask when reading? That depends, of course, but probably the best place to begin is with a simple, three-letter word: “Why?”. Any time something jumps out at you in a book, ask why.
- If there’s a particular character you really like, ask: “Why do I love this character? What traits draw me to them? Do they remind me of someone I know? Is there an emotional connection?” etc.
- If a character’s actions take you by surprise: “Why are they doing this? What are their motives?”.
- Do you find yourself getting lost in the world? Then figure out why: “Why is this world believable? Is it the descriptions? The history? The depth of the characters? A combination thereof?”
- Or, maybe it’s the opposite, and the world isn’t believable or interesting at all: “Is it lacking in detail and/or description? Does it break its own rules? Is it confusing? Does it lack complexity? Or, is there too much detail?”
One of the things that grabs my attention the most in a story is the descriptions. I love well-written, beautiful/creative/unique imagery that stimulates my imagination and pulls me in. So when I read a description that I like, I ask, “What about this sentence grabs me, and why?”.
Yes, I sound a lot like a toddler inside my head when I read, always asking why. But think about it: why do toddlers ask so many questions? Because that’s how they learn.
Similarly, those questions you ask and the answers you discover in other’s writings can be transferred to your own work. There are times when I’m writing that I stop and wonder, “why is this happening?” or “is this important?”. Or, my personal favorite, “how did things get to this point?”
You see, I’m all about backstory. It makes me feel more connected to the people and the world, and makes me care more about them when I know what they’ve been through and where they come from. If this aspect of world-building is lacking in a book, especially in fantasy, I find it’s a lot harder to stay interested. A depth of characters and of history is what keeps a story from falling flat for me. This might be largely a consequence of growing up with authors like Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling constantly under my fingertips…
I blame them!!
So, it probably isn’t all that shocking then that in my own writing I have put at LEAST as much time and effort into creating a strong history for my fictional world as I have into creating the parts that will actually be read. I have pages and pages and pages of backstory written down, some of which might make its way at some point into my series, while a lot of it won’t. But it gives me a stronger connection with my world, which I hope will transfer over to my readers in the future. That is the end goal, at any rate.
Funnily enough, I often don’t go looking for a specific backstory. Rather, a question will jump into my head which might seem random, but must be answered all the same. After all, just because a question isn’t related to what I’m writing or planning at present, that doesn’t mean the question itself is irrelevant. Sometimes it is those random, unrelated ideas that connect story lines together in an unexpected way. This has happened as I am writing, and when I am out in the real world, minding my own business until I observe something which inspires my imagination.
I know from experience that Questions can be a major source of fuel for creativity. It takes practice, just like anything else in life worth learning. You have to train yourself to be observant all the time, to wonder why, and to not ignore the questions that arise unlooked-for. I still have to work at it, but those moments of revelation are so worth it.
I suppose the lesson that can be drawn from my ramblings is this: never take anything for granted. You never know when inspiration might strike, or how it can be used and incorporated into your creative work.
I am all too familiar with this fact. After all, the initial inspiration for my entire fantasy series, The Armor of Edir Chronicles, came about in this “accidental” manner. It was all thanks to these two beautiful trees I noticed one day next to the Fine Arts building on my college campus.
They bent over the sidewalk, creating a canopy of green leaves and white flowers. It was breathtaking.
The series itself has little to do with those trees, although they do make a “cameo” appearance, but they provoked the question in my mind that started turning the gears: Why did they bend over that way? What events did they witness that made them bow in perpetual grief? Naturally, I invented that history. Then the actual plot of the series sprung forth from that point.
That is why I’m sharing this post today. To encourage other writers out there to don’t fear or ignore the questions in your head–or those asked by your readers. Instead, embrace them! Let them challenge your imagination. Use them as a bucket to draw from the well of creativity. Maybe that random idea you discover ends up in your current writing, maybe not. But as long as you’re letting your creative juices flow, and learning from your experiences, it is never a pointless endeavor.
Furthermore, one of my favorite writing mottos is this: never throw anything away. Keep your ideas, or parts you have to cut out of a story, logged away on a computer file or journal. Just because something doesn’t fit into your current work doesn’t mean it’s useless. It could very well be used in the future.
So go forth! Observe your world–the people, the settings, the situations. And never passively read a book. Instead, engage your mind. Study each author’s writing style and methods, and learn to recognize what can be emulated and what should be avoided.
And above all, ask questions!
Happy dreaming. 🙂