Get top writing tips - Starting a story from scratch
Andrew Hammond, our Reading Activists writer in residence, gives you some top tips to getting your story going:
I remember those days spent teaching English in a sweaty, stinky classroom. The hardest thing of all was getting my budding authors to begin their stories. I understand the problem. A blank sheet of paper can be very daunting. And if it's got lines on it that's even worse.
Some students would find all manner of ways to avoid getting started: they'd spend hours on their choice of character names, then write profiles for each one. Or they'd write a plot using the ubiquitous 'beginning - middle - end' model. Then they'd spend another twenty minutes dreaming up an interesting title. By the time they'd started writing the actual story it was usually time to go next door for Maths.
Building a snowman
But I do understand. The hardest thing for writers - or for this one at least - is starting. But the more stories I write the more I realise that starting a story is like building a snowman.
You begin by trying to pack together a handful of snow. It doesn't always stick together and bits fall off. Eventually you get a cricket ball shape in your hand and start trying to pack more snow onto it. Eventually you take the plunge and start rolling it along the ground. It's light at first so it doesn't pick up much snow but as the weight increases so it attracts more and more snow to its outer layer until you'll find it builds itself, the surface snow seeming to stick to it like glue wherever you roll it in the garden. Eventually you (and three friends) find you're heaving a giant, fat snowman's belly across the bare grass. Pop a head on and Bob's your snowman.
And that's exactly what writing a story is like. It's hard to attract ideas at first - they seem reluctant to bind together into a story. But they will come. And then they'll attract more ideas until eventually your story takes on a life of its own. And it builds. (The secret is: the more you write the more you attract new ideas). Characters that were once fictional now seem real and they'll suggest lines to you. Honest, that's how it works.
DOs and DON'Ts
So here's some DOs and DON'Ts for filling that blank page as quickly as possible:
Don't even think of a title until you've finished it.
Don't waste time deciding on characters' names. It doesn't matter. You can always go back and swap them for something more exotic once the story is written. Just use Bob for now.
Do spend time on your first sentence - it's very important - but not too much. You can always go back and change it once the story has started building.
Do focus on your senses - I believe we have hundreds of those, but for convenience, why not just focus on the main five at the beginning. Start with what you can see, quickly followed by what you can smell - it's a very powerful sense.
When describing a setting or character from scratch, imagine you're looking through a camera lense, with a long zoom lense fixed to the front of it. 'Zoom in close' to the subject you're describing and then write about it in minute detail. For example, if you're writing a story set on a beach, describe a tiny claw scratching stones at the bottom of a little rock pool. Gradually we see ripples on the surface of the pool; broaden the focus further and we see it's a crab down there, scurrying for cover between two rocks; the rocks are large and slippery and covered in seaweed; the tide sweeps in from the water's edge, where even bigger rocks battle against ferocious white crests; widen the focus further and we see there's a storm out at sea; further still and we see a ship is careering towards these rocks; soon it crashes against them splintering into jagged pieces; while overhead the sky has darkened...
It all began with the crab's scratch. Without that there was nothing, but the claw itself wasn't important. I had no idea whatsoever when I started from scratch (literally!) that it would end in a shipwreck. No idea at all. It just did.
And the crab's name? Bob, duh!
Andrew Hammond is the author of CRYPT series and is a Reading Activists writer in residence.