28 August 2014

Your Ultimate Fiction-Writing Checklist

I was five years old when I wrote my first story. I still have it tucked in my bookshelf: a thin blue book about a parrot and a fairy, filled with my messy illustrations (I regret using marker). I'll probably never allow anybody else to read it, unless I someday become a famous author and can earn money from my "vintage" first-ever composition.

It's been ten years and I'm highly pleased to say that my writing has vastly improved in the areas of plot and character development. That story was ridden with a couple of grammatical mistakes, as well as one cringe-worthy instance of "cacthed" (I had intended to write "catched," and I hadn't been aware that the correct word is "caught"). Certainly, my first book was a milestone, but I sometimes don't even want to think about the countless plot holes and the inconsistent jump from point A to point T within a single page.

If you would describe yourself as being as bad of a writer as I was, allow me to help you avoid those mistakes by offering as good advice as I can.

(Interested in writing poetry? You can read my poetry checklist here.)


Get your tools in front of you.

Be prepared! Purchase pencils, pens (in various colours), and erasers to start you off. When writing, you can distinguish each pen's colour as having a different significance; for example, use a red pen to correct mistakes while editing, and use a blue pen to make notes in the margins of each draft. If you don't want to use pens, coloured pencils are inexpensive and will work just fine.

And, you'll need lots and lots of paper. This can take the form of loose leaf, a notebook, or a notepad. Don't hesitate to spend money: since you're writing, paper is a necessary and very meaningful investment.

You don't need paper, of course, but if you want to use your computer to write, make sure you have a reliable word processor installed. (Use a software to back up your documents!!) It might also help to store your files on a website, such as Google Drive or Dropbox, for the sake of making a second copy in case something happens to the first one.

Even so, you may end up using both paper and a processor. I'm currently writing a six-book series on Microsoft Word, but I also keep several spiral notebooks that are filled with character and setting details. I use a sketchbook to help myself visualize how each setting within my story, like castles and schools, are structured and what they look like. (Travelling works well, too! I toured Spain last year and used the architectural style as a reference point. . . . Barcelona was ideal for this.)

Get inspired.

Other online tools that you may find useful:
  • Click here for a dictionary.
  • Click here for a thesaurus.
  • Click here (or here) for prompts.
  • Click here for a word processor.
  • Click here if you have a deadline and a procrastination problem.
  • Click here if you're easily distracted while writing.
  • Click here to write 750 words per day without stress.
Start whenever you want, but start soon. (That being said, don't rush. If you do, the quality of your writing will suffer. Forcing yourself to write is pointless, and if you truly enjoy writing, you shouldn't have to force yourself to write anyway.)

You have to read books. It doesn't matter how much less you like reading than you like writing; it doesn't make a difference how many books you already read in your childhood. Reading fiction (and poetry, and nonfiction) helps you strengthen your own fiction skills.

If you're not immediately interested in reading, or if you don't know where to start, search for opportunities. Maybe your favourite author from your childhood also pens novels for adults that you never cared about then but are more suitable for you now. Maybe your best friend or brother (who conveniently happens to be a bookworm) has a couple of recommendations to suggest to you.

Here's a excerpt from a short story I wrote that you may find helpful:

Chapter #1: Read
It was a read-y night in the month of Read when Miss Readbecca Reader walked out the door and smiled. The breeze came at her like that new-book-smell. The sound that the trees made as their leaves rustled reminded her of the noise a page makes when you turn it. The post-sunset sky was as blue as the cover of the U.S. edition of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. That thought prompted Miss Reader to make a mental note to gift the first Harry Potter book to her nephew, Readchard, when the holidays next approached.

See what I did there?

(No, I have never actually written a short story like that one.)

Get started.

As much as you may want to embrace the "writer's lifestyle" early on, you don't have to start by working late into the night, fueled by nothing but strong coffee and those leftovers from dinner two days ago. If writing is a side project and you have a different "main" career (namely one that you have to show up to), waking up after four hours of sleep and spending a long day at said job is not how you want to function on a daily basis.

Instead, write in bits and pieces: upon waking up, before going to bed, while listening to the television or radio, while waiting for your kids' soccer or ballet practice to end. (This might not be a good option for you. There are some writers who work best in complete solitude and complete silence, for hours straight in one sitting.) Maybe, though, no matter how much fun you think writing is, you shouldn't focus your attention on it during mealtimes.

If working from home is hard, get out of the house! (Obvi.) Try writing in the serene setting of a bookstore, the tranquil quiet of a library, or the classic bookish atmosphere of a café.

Once you've figured out which routines you can tolerate, familiarise yourself with all of the many subdivisions of fiction. Just as it's healthy to read various genres, it is also useful to write in different areas. Be enthusiastic and experiment with things you're not used to; you might find your niche that way.

Lastly, keep going. It can be hard sometimes to appreciate your own work, especially if it gets criticized by your audience or by publishers, but it's a good way to learn. Think about it: If you don't listen to what's wrong with your piece, how will you know what to change about it? Improvement is the only thing that will get you published, but one of many things that can feed your passion.

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