March 21

On Creative Writing

I’ve been keen to invest more time in creative writing for some time – and so this year, I thought I’d get back into it, having signed up for both LitReactor and a creative writing class.

As any Weight Watcher knows, these are really good ways to avoid prevarication. Having to present and discuss something forces you into action. And, as I’m fitting this in around work, family, reading and whatever time remains, that forced action has been an essential motivator to start the wheels turning.

So far, about a month or so in, I’ve enjoyed playing with dialogue, character and plotting out a story. Whilst there are some great articles on LitReactor (including some exclusive essays by Chuck Palahniuk on the craft of writing) it’s clear that there is no shortcut here. If I’m going to do it, then writing is the only way to improve.

Some things I’ve learned so far include:

  • Good writing is not just about sentence construction. Of course, decent sentence construction is a pre-requisite for good writing – but there is a world of difference between a well structured sentence that clearly communicates an intended idea and a sequence of well structured sentences that gradually reveal a story.
  • Not all stories are good stories. In playing with plotting I surprised myself in, fairly quickly, arriving at a story that I’d written and then sequenced, in such as way that it worked within a traditional five act structure and even worked out what chapters might look like. That was a fun exercise – and I was 75% happy with the end result. However, I was also sure that this wasn’t a story that I wanted to tell. So, on the the next one…
  • Planting a gun is usually better than discovering a gun. Palahniuk talks about planting a gun as a means of burying an item or fact in the text, to be later returned to, discovered or revealed as a core plot point. However, I’ve just finished one book by a respected author – where a single character trait is returned to repeatedly throughout and it becomes jarring from about the third time onwards. So, I suggest that ‘guns’ should be buried subtly and authentically, if at all.
  • Writing in a different place or time is far harder than it looks. The urge to litter the text with pointers is strong, but of course results in a deeply inauthentic and overly specific outcome, which isn’t fun to read. So, work is required on this.

I thought I’d share two great images, that I found on a site called Electric Literature, last year, which visually demonstrate two mechanical concepts for creative writers.

Firstly, the difference between Natural and Dramatic scenes (expanded image here):


Also, a great pic illustrating interesting character arcs (expanded image here):


Finally, one of Chuck’s essays (behind the LitReactor paywall I’m afraid), encourages writers to eschew “thought” verbs in writing. Specifically he says: “In six seconds, you’ll hate me. But in six months, you’ll be a better writer. From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use. The list should also include: Loves and Hates.” Wow – that’s a very tall order. But, it’s a highly succinct way of converting the old tenet “show, don’t tell” into a useful writer’s rule, to the direct benefit of the end result.

Throughout all this, I’ve been wondering whether a better knowledge of the mechanics of story telling might affect my enjoyment of reading fiction. To date, that’s not the case – but I’m going to maintain a watching brief.

And finally, here’s a link that’s not behind the LitReactor paywall, with some hints and tips, again from Chuck.


Chuck Palahniuk