I was feeling extremely fortunate the day I joined my first writing course. The instructor was a famous author. He would tell a bit on how writing and storytelling works, and send us off with weekly assignments.
Every week, he took our writing apart, told us what was wrong, but by the time the course ended, I had even more questions than I had before. I wasn’t sure if it was even possible to teach and learn creative writing.
Sometime later, I took another course by a different instructor. Yet again, I found it ambiguous and disorganized. As if writing was just a matter of guesswork, hit or miss, without any tangible guidelines.
“Does everyone do it like this?” I asked one day.
“How else?” the teacher said. “It’s an art. Not science. You keep working on it till you start getting a feel for it.”
I couldn’t take it anymore. What was this “feel” that I had to wait for? And for how long? Will this feel come all at once, or little by little?
If there is no better way, may be what people say was right. Writers are born. You either have it in you, or you don’t. And maybe I don’t.
But eventually, I discovered the most incredible fact. I realized I could learn because I was learning. I had what I have been looking for such a long time. I learned about principles of writing, laid out in a clear, concrete manner.
The day it all came together in my head, I was thrilled, but also furious that it took so long to figure it out. As a result, I am so excited that I want to share with you what I have learned.
Wanting to publish your work is a worthy aspiration, whether as a short story, article, novel, screenplay or non-fiction book. Getting your work published and widely read may gain you both fame and money.
But if you have never written and published before, it can be overwhelming at first to learn and try everything in one go. To write a story or non-fiction which is good enough to get published, you’ll have to think systematically on how you’ll achieve this goal.
It’s not a quick and easy process, but just like in other creative fields like painting or design, crafting a story can be taught systematically, with basic principles to guide you.
So this guide will introduce you to the most specific, sensible and direct coaching that I wish I had access to when starting out. Together we’ll explore what the brain’s hardwired expectations are for every piece of writing.
I’ll walk you through the fundamentals of great writing and steps to getting published, with relevant examples where applicable.
Step 1. Pick A Niche
Before you start writing, it pays to have some concrete ideas on what you want to write and who are the readers you’re targeting.
Consider which other books and authors do they read and in which section of the bookstore you hope to find your book when it’s written and published.
Think about what made you want to write this piece or book? What kind of books, TV shows, screenwriters, and authors inspire you? And decide on what you hope to achieve from your work – bestseller status, writing gigs, speaking engagements, social change, get it adapted to the big screen?
You want to understand where your book fits in the entire ecosystem. In fact, it’ll help if you take some time to browse the books section on Amazon.
Look at various categories, subcategories, number of reviews and the type of feedback they get from reviewers.
All these things will not only help you pick an idea which already has demand, but will also impact how you write and publish. And they’ll also determine if you’re happy with the final outcome.
Step 2. Work On Your Content
Your research, learning and interviewing will not just be limited to the craft of writing, but also the content you plan to use in your writing.
For example, if your scenes are set in a particular place or time in history, getting the details right will lend authenticity to your work.
Content is one of the most important ingredients to write a great article, story, novel, non-fiction book or screenplay. However, it is more than just factual details. It’s your take on those facts. It’s your unique interpretation.
It’s a collection of all the experiences and information that shaped you into what you are today. It’s your memories, emotions and thoughts, and everything you bring to the table when you sit down to write.
So the good news is that you already have it. And you can use all that to write something that nobody else can. Only you. It is the repository of all your life experiences, knowledge, and wisdom you have gained as a result of living and getting older.
Content is unique to everyone. I can’t have your content and you can’t have mine. This also means that only you can write the book you mean to write. Not anyone else.
So ask yourself, “How’s my content?” You should have lived life hard and long and deep enough to have material worthy of sharing with the world. As you work with your content and on your craft, apply what you learn as you write, get your work critiqued and keep improving.
At times, you may feel like nothing is happening. Your critique group members don’t seem to be satisfied. Every time you fix an issue, several new will pop up. But it’s a phase that’ll pass.
If you keep up the hard work, in a few months you’ll realize that you’ve gotten way better. That’s when you proceed to the next step.
Step 3. Plan A Strong Story
“Most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” – Flannery O’Connor
Storytelling to essential to not just fictional stories, novels or screenplays. It is just as important for non-fiction articles and books. So you have been reading books over the years, and have watched some of them adapted to TV or film. And now you have decided to start writing.
May be you even wrote a bit, but then realized the bitter truth: creative writing isn’t as easy as you thought it to be. Most aspiring writers try to start their story by just opening up a blank screen or page and beginning to type.
Soon they find that they have run out of steam, not knowing why. So there are two choices ahead of you: give up or hone your craft. Most writing advice focuses only on writing well, not on creating a riveting story.
Yet place where most writers go wrong has nothing to do with how well they write, and everything to do with their ability to form and tell a story.
They fail because they strive only for beautiful metaphors, physical descriptions of characters and clever dialogues. And they lose sight of the things that really make the reader turn page after page to discover what happens next.
Make no mistake, it’s not beautiful prose, but the story that hooks a reader, viewer or listener. That’s why the most important thing a writer can learn is what a story really is and how to craft one.
The point is that it helps to understand a few basics about story structure before you start. Simply put, a story is how the plot affects the character. But of course, there’s more to it than that.
A good story draws you in, right from the very first line. It makes you stop in your tracks and pay attention to what’s happening. It puts you through an experience as if it’s happening to you.
That’s a type of story you should be able to write. Here’s everything you need to craft a story that captures the attention of your audience and doesn’t let go until the end. The pillars of a great story are:
~ The story world (also called setting)
Meaning: Location and time of your story. Setting enhances and supports the plot, subplots, characters and themes.
~ A strong plot
Meaning: What happens, why it happens, and why what happened matters? What’s at stake? Plot has 3 building blocks.
• Intense Conflicts (goals and obstacles on the way)
• Dramatic Actions (to attack or defend against conflicts)
• Sensible Resolutions (win, lose or compromise)
Meaning: To whom the plot happens and how it affects and changes them.
As much as possible, after every scene and chapter, the story should convey how the character feels about what happened. And how his behavior or worldview changes as a result.
~ The story theme
Meaning: What central idea is the story trying to convey. Or what’s the most important thing the character learned by the end.
To get a brief overview of the concepts, let’s see an example. What do you think about the following premise? Don’t think of any rules or structure for a moment. Just put yourself in a reader’s shoes.
Steve, a 40 something doctor whose wife has disappeared, isn’t sure whether something bad happened to her, or she willingly left him. Though Steve doesn’t like dogs, she worked as a dog groomer and often brought the dogs home.
Steve was sneezing a lot these days, making his patients worried that he was coming down with cold and would transfer it to them. He’d also been losing business lately.
Before she disappeared, Steve’s wife was nagging him a lot to take a vacation to rekindle their relationship. However, he couldn’t afford a vacation considering the decline in business. His wife is gone now and he doesn’t know what to do.
Even as a reader, you can sense something about it is not right. You can tell it’s the beginning of a weak story. But what makes it so? And what would you change, add or get rid of in this premise to make it stronger?
That’s where the system comes in. Let’s check this premise as per the basics.
Who’s the story about? Steve.
What happens and why? His wife disappears and he’s not sure what to do.
After reading the example above, we know what happens but we don’t know why.
Why the wife disappeared? We don’t know. But maybe that’s because it’s a mystery. So this lack of explanation may be intentional.
But then the story says Steve doesn’t know what to do. But it again doesn’t answer why?
Why he is unsure? Is he confused whether he wants her back or not? Is it because he wants to look for her but doesn’t know where? We don’t know.
In fact, we don’t know what he wants at all: to get his wife back or grow his business? So we don’t know what’s at stake and whether there is a conflict.
Let’s think about the character arc. Does the disappearance of his wife cause any kind of change in Steve? We don’t know what he feels about his wife and the fact that she disappeared.
To still make do with what we’ve got, the reader can assume the character has both intentions. And the problem is he doesn’t know what to do, giving rise to a conflict.
But the scene is still weak because he’s not taking action to resolve the conflict. Did he do anything to find her or make his business better? Nothing is happening. He must be at least brainstorming possible actions in his mind.
To make it better, you’ll have to strengthen the intent, followed by dramatic action. As you can see, telling a story well requires a reasonable command over all of the elements we discussed above.
You need to know your settings, characters, plot and theme inside out. Your plot should be able to hook readers and keep them awake all night.
Your characters should be relatable, authentic and multi-dimensional. The audience should be able to experience the character on a deep level, and be always desperate to know what happens next with him or her.
Your story can have many character arcs, as in Game of Thrones, or a single Protagonist, as in the Hunger Games and Harry Potter.
While you can be explicitly descriptive about characters, plot and settings, the theme should be handled in a subtle way, rather than making it obvious to the reader.
In fact, there is a 3-act structure most successful stories adhere to. By following a system, you’ll realize that it gets easy to figure out various aspects of your story.
A great example of this structure is The Hunger Games. In the beginning, we are introduced to the ordinary world of Panem. The inciting incident is Prim getting chosen for the Reaping. Katniss then makes a choice that moves the story forward.
Preparation and obstacles of the Games form the middle act. Katniss fights to live and avoid leaving Peta behind.
The 3rd act is the Climax. She beats President Snow, wins and returns to the district. And she has changed. She is the not the same person that she was when the story began.
As you can see, writing is tricky business. But if you decide to persist, it’s important that you get guidance from others’ experiences. Talk to other authors every chance you get. Plus, there are plenty of good books you can read and courses you can take.
Other than that, you should also join critique groups and start attending writing conferences if you can. Consider your favorite books and stories and try to learn from them. How do they start, go on and end? What makes you want to keep reading?
But most of all, keep writing. There’s hardly anyone ever who got good at writing just by taking a course or attending a seminar. All these things help, but without consistent practice, there’s no point. You get good at writing by writing.
Step 4. Write The First Draft
“The first draft of anything is shit.” – Ernest Hemingway
Having a way with words is obviously a huge plus. But there’s a reason I talked about the story structure first. Without a compelling story, great writing doesn’t work.
When reading a great book, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and think that you could never write something as good. But it’s wrong to think like this because what you’re reading is not a first draft, but an outcome of rewrite after rewrite.
No author gets it right the first time. Everyone begins with a first draft. If you keep judging your work and keep working on getting it right the first time, you’ll never finish the first draft.
And if you don’t finish the first draft, you can’t rework on it and make it better.
When you sit down to write, try to get as much on the page as possible. Let your ideas flow without fear or judgment, and without the regard for correct grammar and usage.
Everything can be fixed later when the draft is finished, like checking where you’re telling and replacing that with showing.
Set aside a few hours to write every day and stick to your writing regimen. When it’s your writing time, just write. Don’t wait for inspiration or great ideas. Let everything out.
Step 5. Fixing & Rewriting
“Writing is rewriting.” – Michael Crichton (Author, Jurassic Park)
The first rewrite is usually the most significant. It’s also a good idea to work with an editor to polish your manuscript.
When you rework on your script, you check and fix a number of things: the story structure makes sense, characters are engaging, you’re showing and not telling, and of course, that there are no typos and other language mistakes.
Here’s my complete guide to rewriting and fixing a story as much as you can by yourself. After you’ve improved everything as much as you can, there is one final stage of proofreading for any remaining errors.
Finally, you have a finished, polished manuscript that you can take with you on the next step.
Step 6: Network & Learn To Pitch
So you’ve been writing well for a while. You’re no longer a newbie. Other writers and members of your critique group look at your work and tell you that you’re gotten really good.
By now, you have read at least a few books on creative writing and have taken at least one course or workshop. You have also been to one or several writing conferences.
Obviously, you feel positive about this whole writing thing. You’re good at the craft. But outside of that, you’re still a bit clueless. You listen to others saying that it’s really hard to break into publishing.
You come across terms like book proposal, synopsis and query letter not knowing what all of these mean, let alone how to write a good one. You’ve become a good writer, but marketing still intimidates you.
As always, you got to keep writing and getting better and better, but now is also the time to start figuring out how to promote your work effectively.
Unless you have an editor/publisher interested in your manuscript, the reach of your work is limited.
So after you’ve written a great piece, the next step is to get it on the radar of a magazine, publisher or studio.
To a beginner, the world of publishing may seem mysterious, vast and uncrackable. So it’s natural to wonder how to break in?
There’s no sugarcoating around it. It has become really difficult these days to reach publishers and get them to read your work.
Most editors are already swamped with too many requests from aspiring writers and don’t have to time to go through each.
Thousands of aspiring writers sit down every year to type their first book or screenplay. But only a few hundred manage to sell their work to a publisher or studio.
It is hard. But not impossible. Especially if you have an agent. A book or film agent is a professional with good experience and connections in the industry.
Writing marketing and pitching materials is a skill that you can’t afford to ignore if you want to get an agent and get published.
The reason most writers fail isn’t that they didn’t work hard enough. It’s not their fault. They haven’t been given the right tools and coaching.
Good writing and pitching guidance can help a writer develop 10 times faster than otherwise, and make the leap from writer to author.
It’s high time you start studying and crafting these. Then take them with you into writing conferences and show them to as many writers, agents and editors you can.
But keep in mind that this is not your pitch. You’re not showing this to them to be considered for a deal.
Ask them for feedback. You’re just learning and using their help to make your pitch better. Then go back and rework the materials.
Keep fixing until you’re sure you have a killer proposal, synopsis and query letter. Sooner or later, you are sure to get there.
Step 7: Start The Real Pitching
So now you are a great writer, and you’ve mastered the skills required for reaching out to agents and publishers.
You continue to take your proposal and other materials to writing conferences, and some publishers and agents have even shown an interest in considering your script.
But somewhere in the process, the deal doesn’t go through. After a few days or weeks of staying in the pipeline, your work is rejected.
Every writer goes through these times, and no doubt they are humiliating, depressing and frustrating. But if you keep at it without losing steam, you should get through.
As you go through this step, the only thing you have to watch out for it not losing heart. Keep writing, improving, going to conferences, learning and pitching to publishers and agents.
A book is typically 60,000 words or more. A screenplay has a format of its own. For a short story, you’ll use the same principles, but with a simpler plot and fewer characters.
Whether you want to write a short story or a series of books, and whether fiction or non-fiction, the ingredients are more or less the same.
And they can be learned and passed on to others. You can write a powerful story, get it published and be the author you’ve always wanted to be.
As you go through this post, remember that no rule is set in stone. Every rule can be broken, as long as you are aware of which rule you’re deviating from and why.
You should ultimately do whatever works to achieve the impact you desire. Everyone is at a different stage in their writing journey.
Before you get started, it’s a good idea to identify which steps you need to work on more than the others.
Take a good look at your strengths and areas that need improvement. And keep working on those. Eventually, good things will start to happen.
You may learn from an editor that your novel is under review, you may find an agent with good connections, or a published author may notice your book and tell you how close you are to the finish line.
At this point, it’s no longer about your book or pitch. You have a complete manuscript and polished proposal. It’s just a matter of finding the right publisher at the right time. Keep hustling and keep ignoring the rejections.
It only takes one yes to get published. A day when your agent calls you and says that a publisher has offered you deal. That day, the struggles you faced stop troubling you. That day, you make the leap from a writer to an author.