People often ask me where I get my ideas from, and I usually can’t give them an answer. My ideas don’t usually come from any one experience or place, but weave themselves together from hundreds of moments.
That’s not to say it’s impossible to create the conditions where a story can grow. Here are my top tips for story-building:
1) Read everything you can
Seriously, everything. Fiction, non-fiction, newspapers, advertisements, even cereal boxes if that’s all you have. Join the library and read their books once you’ve exhausted your in-house supply. You can’t write well until you have experience as a reader. Get to know the ways other people construct narratives, see how they use words to make the reader feel certain ways or believe certain ideas. Look for patterns in the way stories are told, make notes of good ideas if you like. This is important groundwork in getting your own story written (and a great excuse to take some me-time to read some great books!).
2) Look properly
Most people filter out a lot of things when they’re out and about. A good writer sees EVERYTHING, from weeds in the pavement to graffiti on walls, from the lovely old couple who hold hands outside the launderette to a pair of pigeons fighting over popcorn crumbs. You never know what will be the seed of a future story, so file it all away in your amazing brain. Visit art galleries and museums to see how ideas have been expressed through time.
3) Narrate your life
This bit sounds crazy, but it really helps. Trust me. The best way to hone your narrative skills is to start by narrating your own life, either in your head or in a notebook or diary. Think about the order in which events occur, which events depend on particular things having happened first. All stories have structure and narrative, even the mundane ones of getting up, dressed and out of the house. Build up descriptions of people you know well. If you can describe them clearly, you’ve got a head start when it comes to bringing your characters to life.
4) Banish the blank page
The blank page is terrifying, and blocks creative thought. When I’m starting a story on paper, I often make a huge scribble in the middle of the page and write key words around it. If I’m working on a screen, I type words at random and look for words that look like they would go well together. It doesn’t matter what you put to kill the blank page, you can take it away later once your beautiful story takes shape. Once you have a basic plot down, try writing chapter headings to draw the reader through the story without giving too much away.
5) Know your characters
Every story has at least one character. You need to know that character well to write about them. If you are having trouble making your character believable, try “interviewing” them in a notebook. Basic details about name, age, where they’re from, then think about things that may never be in the story such as the character’s favourite book, or which chocolate they would choose from a box of chocolates. It’s like the game “If you were a car, which car would you be”, but for your character. Everything you decide about your character will make them more complete in your head, and your head is the place where the story will grow. The better you know your character’s foibles, the better placed you are to know how they’ll react to situations, and the better that character will be.
6) Make mistakes
Every author makes mistakes, in fact everyone who is successful at anything in life has failed on the way to success. The trick is to see failure as a step towards future success. Celebrate small wins, such as finishing a chapter or writing more words than yesterday. Learn from small failures and move on quickly to focus on the next success. Nothing worth doing is ever easy, and this is especially true for writing.
7) Edit and rewrite
The most important and sadly most neglected part of writing a story is the rewriting and editing stage. This can easily take longer than writing it in the first place. It will feel like you’re taking the guts out of your perfect masterpiece, pulling apart the story and chopping and changing bits, but it is vital. Get honest (blunt) people to read and comment on your manuscript. It’s better to find out about plot holes and proofing errors at this stage than after publication. When you’ve rewritten at least once, leave the manuscript for at least a day before reading it again. You’ll see new errors (everyone does, no matter how carefully you rewrote it, or how much experience you have!). Repeat this process as many times as necessary to perfect your work.
Once your story is written, you’ll need to format it for publication, either as an ebook or a print book. Read my free PDF of Short Story Lady ebook publishing advice for help with this stage. I can format your book for you, at reasonable rates. Contact me to discuss your requirements.
You have a special way of seeing the world, and a unique experience of life, ready to build a story only you can write.
Get out there and give it a go, you have nothing to lose!