ASK a mentor:
A discussion wall on which you can post specific questions, which our team of mentors will respond to.
Developed with the help of some of South Africa’s established women writers, this sections answers a series of anticipated questions that some of these writers have themselves asked.
A lot of aspiring writers make the mistake of thinking that once they have finished writing a first draft of their story, that that is the end of the process. That their story is ready for publication. This is not true. Your first draft is a raw expression of what you want to say. Like processing a diamond, your story needs to go through a number of other stages before it is ready for publishing.
Some of the most suggested are the following:
- Read your story out loud to yourself and see if you can follow its rhythm and what it is about. You are your initial audience, if your story does not convince you, chances of it convincing other people are even smaller.
- Print your story out and read it on hard copy, its amazing the things you do not notice on a computer screen that will suddenly jump up at you on paper.
- Ask someone whose opinion you value to read and comment on your story. This can be a hard thing to do, but it is a useful one nonetheless. Another set of eyes can bring a fresh perspective to your story, or help you with sections of your story on which you may be stuck. Also if your aim is for your work to be read, critique and criticism are things that you as a writer are going to have to get used to.
- Rewrite, go through the above process again, and stop when you feel you have said, and done everything possible to shape and reshape your story.
At this point your story should be ready to be sent for publication. But bear in mind that wherever it is you send your story, they too might suggest further editing before your story is published.
Usually the sense of urgency you feel to tell your story will drive you to keep writing. But even this alone is sometimes not enough. If you write with a goal in mind, this can be one way of keeping you motivated. For an example, your motivation could be ‘I want my story to feature in the next POWA Anthology’ then you keep writing until you are ready to submit your story, before the set deadline.
A lot of writers have that initial gust, when ideas come tumbling out of them. During those times they write unstoppably, but other times they go through periods when even writing one sentence can feel like an impossible mission. It happens to almost all writers. This is why the commitment you make to yourself – to sit down and make yourself write even if you do not feel like it, is so important.
Equally important is developing ways of making writing fun and enjoyable, something you look forward to going to, and not a chore that has to be done. Be creative; let your mind burst with the many ways you can do this. Write in a different location, like a coffee shop, the park, at your friend’s house, in your bed.
Reading is another way of stimulating your mind to come up with more ideas when you feel stuck. Dedicate time to reading. Read for pleasure, read for ideas, read writers you admire to see how they do it, and practise your technique. Read writers you don’t like much and pick up things that you want to avoid. Read, but most importantly write.
I have a full time job, or I study full time, where in this hectic thing called my life do I find time to write?
Most writers who have become successful started off writing in their spare time, or in the time they forced themselves to set aside for writing. In other words they found ways of fitting writing into their lives. That is where you find the time. The author Toni Morrison tells a story of how, as a single working mother of two boys, she would come back from a full days work, cook dinner, help her sons with home work, put them to sleep and then still fit in time to write.
Again different people do it differently, but do it they do. Some writers speak about setting a number of hours, say two hours a day aside to writing and that they do not allow themselves to stop until the two hours are up. Some writers set themselves a word target ‘I will not stop until I have written 200 words’ or whatever your limit, depending also on what you are writing.
The point is to create a form of discipline or routine where you deliberately find ways of making writing part of your life. The simple fact is that there are 24 hours in everyone’s day, what makes each day different for each person are the ways in which they spend them. Cut down on the things that steal your time, i.e. you don’t have to watch 6 hours of television. Once you cut out those time wasting activities, the time you free up, you can use writing.
This, although also a difficult question is somewhat easier to answer in a slightly more direct way, begin by showing up. Once an idea of a story, be it personal or a short story has begun to shape itself in your head, the best way of honouring it is by sitting yourself down and capturing on paper all the thoughts around it that come to your mind. Section off an amount of time in your day to sit down, in a quiet space and work at developing that story, whatever details of it come to mind.
Some writers have said that what works for them is creating a mental picture of the story and then setting off to describe the image in their minds. For some writers it’s a line that plays itself over and over again in their head, which once they have put on paper, makes it possible for them to write even more lines. For others still it’s a sensation, a feeling, something they have seen or experienced and their desire to describe it.
What ever it is for you, that is the gift you have that will guide your beginning.
At this point it is important that you do not pay too much attention to whether the story is making much sense, but focus on capturing as much as possible of the initial details or fragments of your story. Only once you have captured these will you be ready to start shaping your story.
Some useful techniques include brainstorming your idea on your own, bouncing off ideas with a person or people whose ideas you trust and so on. But ultimately as with the ‘Where do I begin?’ question, only you can decide the how.
And the how is made manifest when you actually take the effort to do it.
A lot of aspiring writers, myself included at some point, hold the belief that there is a formula, a fixed set of guidelines that can be adhered to determine how you begin to write. The sad truth however is that there does not exist anywhere in the world such a formula or such guidelines.
Yes there are books you can read, and workshops or classes that you can attend, but none of these will give you the answer, ‘Where do I begin?’ At best, and this is why they are important, these books and guides will give you tips that you will find useful once you have begun, which is to say the answering of that question ultimately is left to you to answer.
Every person who wants to write has a story to tell, which only they know how to tell, in other words every one, depending on what they are trying to say will go through a process that includes trail and error, false starts, a process of writing, and writing and writing and writing again, until at the end of this process they begin to feel their story take shape.
If were to forced to answer this question in a direct way, my answer would be ‘It does not matter where it is that you begin the important thing is that you actually begin, and stay with the process until you feel like you have said in your story what it is you wanted to say.