I. Do You Need This Book?
Honestly, you don’t need this guidebook to learn how to do creative writing.
Take me as an example. My first official creative writing class was when I was in graduate school, where I earned a Master’s of Art degree in English, with a Creative Writing Specialization. But my first experience with creative writing was a dozen years earlier, when I was ten years old and wrote my first poem.
In my memoir, Scaffolds: A Childhood Memoir of Books, I recount my childhood reading habits, my movie and TV watching habits, and my subsequent kid-fandom of my favorite books, movies, and TV shows. Through them, I learned about the music of words, the flow of story and narrative, and the gritty details of time, place, and human psychology, which all motivated me to write similar stuff for the sheer love of it.
It’s a trite piece of advice that the best way to learn how to write creative non-fiction, poetry, fiction, and dramatic plays is to read and hear lots of creative non-fiction, poetry, fiction, and dramatic plays, to become so a fan of your favorite authors and artists that you want to be just like them.
The advice may be trite, but it’s right. As writers, we all start not knowing what the heck we’re doing, but in caring so deeply for our favorite authors that we want to emulate them, that their creative work becomes a model of our own, then we start asking two questions: “HOW did they DO that? Can I even DO that?”
I kept a diary at age eight. I wrote my first poem at age ten. I wrote my first short story at age eleven and my first long piece of fiction (at one-hundred pages of handwritten, penciled script in a spiral notebook) at age twelve.
I have neither that childhood diary, poem, short story, nor spiral notebook, and I don’t remember what I wrote. I’m glad because I suspect they were pretty wretched pieces of writing, objectively speaking. But that wretched writing didn’t keep me from reading my favorite authors on my own, learning from them, and trying to become a better writer.
Meanwhile, I learned how to read authors better in English classes, where – yes – students are forced to read assigned authors and analyze them for a grade. While I didn’t like all the authors I was assigned to read, what I got out of the assigned readings was how to critique these authors on their craft, the craft of writing. (This was still true even when I later continued my study of literature, as I earned three degrees in English — a BA in English, the above-mentioned MA, and a PhD in Literature).
Therefore, in becoming a scholar of literature in the classroom, I also became a writer of creative writing outside of the classroom. As a result, without even an official creative writing class taken, I won my first awards in poetry writing in city-wide contests for young adults when I was in high school. I medaled in an impromptu and timed essay-writing contest, also when I was in high school. An independent short story magazine out of California published one of my short stories when I was an undergrad. I even got a full-ride graduate scholarship, studying and writing the short story form, primarily based on a portfolio of short stories, all of which I wrote just for me and not for a class.
In other words, if your reading, learning, and writing experiences are similar to mine, then you don’t need this guidebook to learn how to do creative writing. You are not a beginner.
And even so, there are plenty of creative writing information for beginners found online, as well as introductory creative writing classes, both online and in your local community colleges and recreation centers. (In fact, as a community college professor, I teach such a class, as well as being the coordinator of an annual campus-wide student writing contest – but I digress.)
However — if your reading, learning and writing experiences are NOT similar to mine and/or you neither have the time nor money to take the many creative writing classes out there, then this guidebook might just be for you.
II. What’s in This Book?
As mentioned above, I teach a college-credit writing class at my campus. I teach by modeling behavior (that is, I model what I would do if I were assigned the work), so all the examples of creative writing in this guidebook are from my own published work:
For the Creative Non-Fiction chapter, I have selections from Scaffolds: A Childhood Memoir of Books; my dissertation, “My Kind of Comedy”: An Exegetical Reading of Flannery O’Connor as Medieval Drama; and my blog, I Am the Lizard Queen! For the Poetry and Fiction chapters, I have selections from my collection, Rowena’s World: Poems and Stories, and my novel, Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones. For the Drama chapter, I have a revised version of one of the previous poems (it’s a dramatic monologue) as a one-scene play to demonstrate playwright script style.
Also, my on-campus creative writing students had to complete freshman-level Composition I (Informative and Expository academic essay writing) and Composition II (Persuasive and Research-based academic essay writing) in order to enroll in my sophomore-level creative writing class. However, for the purposes of this introductory creative writing guidebook, I won’t presume that my readers have completed college-level Composition I and II (or have much experience in formal academic essay writing). Therefore, I’ll pull information from my Composition handbook, Structures: The Reluctant Writer’s Guide to College Essays, as prefacing material in the Creative Non-Fiction chapter.
III. The Basic Tools of Any Writer
Before diving in, you’ll need to have these basic tools:
1. A writer’s journal
Whether it’s a paper composition notebook, , a document file on your computer, or a note-taking app on your smartphone, you need a dedicated place to jot down ideas, observations, and musings. Try to journal every day so that you’ll have plenty of the messy stuff to become a storehouse of possible topics or stories.
2. A calendar planner
It’s easy to procrastinate when there isn’t a deadline, so have a calendar planner to give yourself a writer’s work schedule. Parse out the schedule with daily and/or weekly goals; build in “non-work” days as either breaks or catch up time if you didn’t meet a writing goal. Every person and writing project is different, so personalize your goal so that’s it’s do-able for you, including what time you can actually just WRITE, whether that’s late at night, early morning, or some other chunk of time in the day. After all, if you draft 200 words a day, you’ll have 73,000 words at year’s end (365 days later) – and that’s a BOOK.
3. A dedicated work space
While you may be able to journal and rough draft anywhere, you’ll still need a dedicated work space when it comes to long, uninterrupted writing. Again, every person and writing project is different, so pick the location that works best with your personality and the vagaries of your non-writing schedule. For instance, I’m currently writing this in my home office (with music streaming from my smartphone). However, in graduate school I wrote most of my dissertation in an out-of-the-way Starbucks.
4. Cloud storage to keep your document files safe
While you may write your initial draft by hand, you’ll eventually type up your draft as a document file. Because laptops and desktops can lock up and die with no warning and tiny flash drives do get misplaced and lost, I’ve learned to keep my document files safe by uploading them in an online cloud storage service, like Microsoft’s OneDrive, Google’s Google Drive, and DropBox. While not required, why not check out these cloud storage services, especially since all of them are free (up to a set storage limit)?
IV. Where You’ll Be at the End of This Book, and Why It’s Called Starters
The author Douglas Adams once said, “Writing comes easy. All you have to do is stare at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds.” In other words, writing can be maddening business if you let it. Between writer’s block, procrastination, and frustration that what’s in your head ISN’T MAKING IT ON THE PAGE, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and just give up.
Therefore, my goal in this guidebook is to make the process of creative writing less mysterious and more do-able. The title of this book, Starters, is like the starters part of a menu: easy-to-handle, bite-sized versions of the vast buffet out there. By the end, you’ll have a portfolio that’s like a sampler plate from the starters menu of the creative writing buffet.
As you “taste-test” creative non-fiction, poetry, fiction, and drama, you’ll likely discover one or two forms that you prefer. With that knowledge, move beyond this guidebook: keep writing in your preferred form, practice what you’ve discovered, read and hear your favorite authors in that form, and perhaps take a formal writing course or join a writing group — to take your writing to the next level through an external support system (yay!) AND deadlines (ummm… yay?).
By the way, getting blocked, procrastinating, and feeling frustrated as you write never goes away, but I hope this book will help lessen the duration of the bad so that you can get back to writing the good stuff.