(Note: This is the script of the talk I delivered on Feb 5th, 2017, to the students of Lady Shri Ram college during Tarang 2017, LSR’s annual cultural festival. Thanks, LSR Tarang, for having me!)
So what is creative writing?
Well, if you ask this question to a hundred people, you will perhaps get a hundred different answers. Each writer has his or her own reality—formed over the years by the things that have worked for him or her.
In my reality, there are certain aspects that directly relate to the process of creative writing, and then there are factors that influence them. I have bundled the two together under Fundamentals of Creative Writing.
There are other important aspects of creative writing that I am not going to cover today: like existence of a conflict, dialogue, point-of-view, setting, etc. So much has already been said on those topics that to use our time effectively, I’d rather focus on the aspects that are of paramount importance yet don’t typically get talked about.
So here they are–-my 21 fundamentals of creative writing:
1. Be a good reader first, if you wish to become a good writer.
Be surrounded by books everywhere. Plant books of all kinds at every place in your house–like bed-side tables, bathrooms, kitchen, drawing room couch, and what not. Read multiple genres to broaden your perspective on writing, even if you tend to gravitate toward a particular one more.
A writer can do without food for a few hours, but not without the sight of books.
2. If you think there is no time to write now, there would never be.
Doesn’t life work that way in general? There are tons of things happening around us every day that claim our time. Some of these deserve our time while others need our ability to manage time.
Break your typical day and typical week in chunks. Plan all the necessary things you would want to achieve in a week and how you would slot them. Assess how you did at the end of every week. Be rest assured that you would suddenly see that the days and weeks are longer than you ever experienced.
3. Develop the ability to create something from nothing.
One of the pillars of creative writing is dealing with a subject in a way like never done before. An effective way to achieve the ability to do so is by consistently imagining novel situations–which are completely out of the ordinary–and turn them into stories. Write a story that the readers would always remember for it’s uniqueness, even if they hated the story itself.
Few minutes before this session, I thought of two novel situations as illustrative examples:
- As you enter your house one day, you find no one home. You start calling them, the phones ring, but no one answers. Then you start calling relatives, and none of them pick up too.
- Your soul gets swapped with your favorite pet’s
4. Look for ideas that have deep roots in your heart
An idea doesn’t have to be big, its development probably has to be.
Who would have thought that the story of a man turning into an insect as he wakes up one morning was one day going to become one of the most acclaimed work of literature (Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka). The good writing ideas don’t have to be about political turmoil, mass killings, capitalism, racism, injustice, etc. Find that one idea that has deep roots in your heart.
Remember the times you have felt so bad that you still remember it. Remember how you felt when someone duped or betrayed you. Remember when you were taken for granted. Remember when you were not cared for. Remember when you felt the world was at your feet. Remember when something moved you so much that it made you feel for days that you must do something about it.
Turn those deep feelings and obsessions of your heart into captivating pieces of literature.
5. Ideas either age like fine wine or rot like potatoes over time.
Give your ideas some time to allow them to show their worth. Keep them in your notebook and let them come back to your mind to remind that they need you to develop them. You will notice that with time, some of these ideas would start rotting while the others will only become more and more promising.
For how long should you let a particular idea age? Is two to three years’ time too long to keep them that way? Absolutely not, especially when you are thinking of a novel. There is no hard and fast rule to apply this to each idea, though. You may have an idea flash in your mind that seems like the idea of the decade – then why wait before testing it immediately by starting to develop it?
Allowing enough time will ensure that the ideas you ended up picking for development didn’t just have a momentary appeal, but looked promising over a long period of time as weighed by a range of your perspectives arising from a variety of situations, moods, and ups and downs of your life. This way you allow an idea to hang in your head for long enough time to test its durability.
So does that mean you are out of writing about anything, because of having to wait for that long? No. The key is, keep adding ideas to the pool, and decide which one(s) is(are) the next to work on.
6. Don’t suffocate your heart.
Do you remember how you felt during your childhood when your parents said no to a play date with your favorite friend–because they wanted you to study instead? Or when they said no to something similar that you wanted desperately? Artists feel that way all the times when they can’t find time to devote to their craft.
If you are a singer, you must sing. If you are a dancer, you must dance. If you are a writer, you must write. Your passion as an artist is a magnate that draws you at all times, but if you don’t follow, it will suffocate your heart. So don’t suppress your longings to write–because when you address the longings timely, you stand a better luck with creativity.
7. Help your readers see exactly what’s in your mind.
Think about it–why do you want to write a story? Perhaps because your heart feels very strongly about the underlying subject. You have very intimate and tangible feelings about every detail involved. If you describe a story in matter-of-fact and non-tactile language, your readers will understand what happened but not feel it like you or your characters do. They will just be reading, not actively engaging in the journey together with your characters, until they drop your book midway.
You must transmit the images in your mind and the feelings in your heart to your readers and ensure they are fully intact. This can’t happen without involving reader’s senses in the way you or your characters are involved. Create a world in front of your readers where they can taste, smell, touch, hear, see, and move. Else they are likely going to move on to another book. The use of tactile imagery will help stimulate your readers’ imagination to a much greater heights.
For example, instead of saying that it was a rainy night, you can say, “At night, she could see from her window that the postcard perfect sky from an hour ago had turned to a dark abyss filled with tar-black clouds that had just begun to weep heavily, as though completely devoid of any hope in the mankind beneath.”
8. Don’t interrupt when your characters take a flight of their own.
Don’t worry if it’s not going in the original direction. Let your characters run to the incredible destinations you had no knowledge about until they reached there. If your characters pleasantly surprise you, your readers will likely get pleasantly surprised too. If they want to go to weird places, let them. Having seen their flights, you can choose at a later point which ones of those would readers want to experience.
9. Don’t break the rules when you haven’t fully figured them out yet.
We experience right from our early childhood days how much fun it is to break the rules. But we also learnt to break them only if we knew the full consequences. Writing is no different. In order to break a particular rule, a writer must first fully grasp it, understand the impact of breaking it on the overall work, and then challenge himself/herself if it’s truly necessary. If it still makes sense, do it.
10. It’s okay if what you just wrote sucks.
Re-write it repeatedly until it’s to your satisfaction. If it is not, throw it outside the window.
Writing is re-writing, it’s a process that takes time. It may take days at times to refine a sentence to a point where it communicates exactly what you want to show or tell. It may take weeks for a paragraph.
The best you can do is to write iteratively. That is, instead of trying to finalize every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter, do the best you can every time you traverse through what you have written and come back to it in the next iteration. If a particular part, or the entire story still seems hopeless after several iterations, maybe the subject isn’t worth development and it’s time to throw it outside the window and start with the next subject.
11. Pay attention to your dreams.
Your thoughts often collaborate in an unimaginable ways during your sleep. You must listen to your unconscious mind. If you remember an interesting or weird dream, note it before it disappears from your memory. Dreams are good at playing with your memory. They love leaving no trace behind and hate to show up once again in the morning. So when they do, note them down.
The unique collaboration of the thoughts during your dreams presents a great potential for leaving you with fantastic ideas for stories that aren’t told yet.
Many acclaimed books have been inspired by the vivid scenes in the dreams including the likes of Dreamcatcher by Stephen King, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Stevenson.
12. Tell a story in lesser and simpler words.
Your goal as a writer should never be to fill more pages when you can do in less without losing anything. Quality of a writing is never assessed by the thickness of the book. A thicker book wouldn’t lead to a better acknowledgment of your work. It may be quite the other way if your story runs into more pages than needed to effectively tell the story. Kill the sentences or paragraphs that don’t help advance the subject—in terms of revealing the character, surroundings, the overall action, etc.
As you become a better writer, the writing becomes more difficult. You toil harder to tell a story in a lesser number of words.
13. Let your writing convince you on holding your attention as a reader.
Your writing should continuously hold your attention as you pretend reading it for the first time. If you can learn to read your writing every time as it was someone else’s work and you were reading it for the first time, you can easily see if the work holds your attention throughout. If it does, it would most likely ensure it would hold potential readers’ attention too. This way you are able to reduce the likelihood that the readers’ would call it a waste of time, or drop it midway.
Don’t try to write for everyone. You would not get anywhere. Even the best books of all times have received hateful reviews from critics and readers. Write for the readers’ like you. If you like it, and it’s well done, you will likely find audience.
14. Observe everything, and love everything you observe, love the life blooming around you in whatever form it does, without getting biased by your own beliefs.
Learn to accept the lack of control we all have on life as it lives through us. As a writer, you are better off being an observer than an intruder equipped with your own beliefs. Turn your observations into deep thinking, without having to bring your own conditioning into play.
15. Don’t let the literary devices, grammar, syntax, come in the way of storytelling.
Fiction writers are storytellers before anyone else. No other aspects of the storytelling are as important as the story itself. Else, why would the translated versions of the all-time great books appeal us in the same way as they do to reader of the respective native languages?
Don’t let the other factors take the focus away from the story. I know this may not be the right thing to say for this audience that comprises of bright students of English, but if you ever want to tell great stories, you must understand this part well. Forming a good story is more important and higher priority than using the language to its best. Once you have a good draft of the story, you will have all the time in the world to experiment more with the other important factors that would certainly make the story more appealing to the readers.
16. Cliches are the viruses that infect your writing with diseases.
If you let them in, they simply make your writing sick. They are the phrases or expressions that are commonly overused to a level where their effects have dwindled. In writing, they sound bland and can easily disengage, even irritate, your readers.
A writer must vaccinate herself against cliches by developing a habit of attentively looking for them at all times because the cliches are hardwired in our brains and are good at disguising themselves among other English words.
Here are two examples: Every dog has its day, The quiet before the storm
17. Money or fame shouldn’t be your objective when writing.
A writer gets to live yet another life every time she creates a new story. Think of it as an adventure you are privileged to embark on. Think of the happiness when your readers experience the story in the way you have envisioned it.
Writing a story is like going on a date—you will spoil it if you aren’t living in the moment.
18. Seek feedback before releasing to prime-time, respect it, but don’t take it to heart.
Rarely are your relatives and friends the right people to provide feedback on your writing—because they may not have enough exposure to appropriate genres to assess your work. Moreover, since they’ve known you for a long time, they may already be biased one way or the other about the story, characters, or your capabilities as a writer. Therefore find the readers who love the books similar to yours and ask them for their feedback. Once you have the feedback, take it very seriously to see if it could make your work better.
Feedback is a gift but often people find it hard to take it that way. A number of writers struggle hard to not take it personally.
19. Most readers like to root for one or more characters–give them at least one.
This is someone your readers care about and what to know what would happen to the character(s) as the story unfolds. This could be the main character or someone else, a character with negative traits or positive, a villain or a hero, or a combination of them.
20. Ensure rigorous consistency in settings, actions, behaviors, events across the pages of the book.
Every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter in your novel must fit together without any logical flaws. If a reader finds even one or two things that are not consistent with everything else in the book, the book would leave them with a bad after taste.
If the plot, the setting, the characters, or the events, demand inconsistency as a design, it must be in line with the holistic picture. In other words, if certain aspect needs to be inconsistent, it must better be consistently inconsistent throughout the story.
21. Follow the interviews of the authors you admire.
Listening to your favorite authors helps you discover interesting aspects about writing by getting visibility into their thinking process. It also inspires you at times when you discover that you identify with the feelings they describe pertaining to their hunger for the art, how it rules their life and helps them create those masterpieces. You get immense encouragement and inspiration to continue with your own rigorous journey as a writer when you tell yourself, “This is exactly how I feel. May be I am on the right path.”