You want to write.
You think – actually, you’re pretty sure – that you’re quite good at writing. Friends find your emails funny, people appreciate your way with words. You read a lot and know when something is not well written and, if you’re really honest with yourself, you know that just sometimes you could do better. At least on a sentence-by-sentence basis. You know how you would communicate a character’s awkwardness through description, rather than statements like “it made her feel awkward”. You have empathy and notice things that perhaps aren’t immediately obvious. You watch people and see them, and find yourself describing them to yourself in your head, creating their backstory.
But here’s the rub: you don’t know where to start.
So you begin to doubt yourself. A writer needs to have something to write, right? All day long you have stories and characters churning in your head but when you sit down and try to write them out, they vanish into a fog. You know that once you start, something will come. But you just don’t seem to be able to get out that first sentence, or to picture that first character, or story. When you come up with something it seems a bit trite or clichéd. You just don’t seem to be able to get going.
The best way to start writing is just to start writing. But tautological advice isn’t helpful advice. So we’ve put our heads together, and spoken to other writers, to see if we can’t come up with some exercises or experiments to start you on the journey. These are just to get you warmed up. But that’s the best way to begin.
1. Try writing a scene from a film you know, either in third person or from the perspective of one of the characters
It could be any of the characters, not necessarily the main protagonist (the “I’ll have what she’s having” lady in When Sally Met Harry could be interesting). And you don’t need to write it in the style of the film, although that will probably make it easier (having said that, a lyrical and literary description of an explosion scene from one of the Fast & Furious franchise could be quite an endeavour).
You don’t need to turn it into the exact same scene, remember. This is an exercise, so if your writing starts to go elsewhere, go with it. But it’s interesting to see what needs to be written in order to create the same feeling a scene can give us. I remember marvelling that pages of description in Tolkein’s Lord of The Rings managed to be perfectly captured by Peter Jackson in one shot of Tongariro National Park. It is worth remembering that films have the advantage of using music and imagery, as well as spoken words, to make you feel something. Making the heart swell in a book reader can be more difficult.
2. Take a passage from a book that is written in third person and translate it into first person, or vice versa
This is a good exercise to help you find your narrative voice. It will show you what needs to be put in, and what needs to be left out, for each point of view.
A simple approach is to write it from the established protagonist’s point of view, but you can also try it from a character whose incentives you are told less about. For example, the scene in Pride and Prejudice in which Elizabeth Bennet, Fitzwilliam* Darcy and Caroline Bingley discuss accomplished women (an excuse to watch this 1995 corker) could be told from Elizabeth Bennet’s point of view – but more interesting might to be to write it from Miss Bingley’s.
This also works when changing first person into third. For example, describing a scene from The Catcher In The Rye with Holden as the protagonist is one matter, but you could also try to change the perspective – perhaps try a take on the ice-skating date with Sally as the protagonist.
3. Write a description of someone you can see and have time to observe
While you’re sitting in a café, or waiting on a train platform, or queuing in a supermarket, choose someone and try to take in everything about them. And then write it down, just as a short description.
There are a number of ways you can do this. For example, you might find something incongruous that would make a reader take interest. Why is that smartly dressed woman, immaculately made-up, muttering to herself? Why does that sour-looking youth in a filthy hoodie have his nails painted so beautifully? Or you might take the snippet of their lives that you just witnessed and see if you can create a small story around it.
This is basically an exercise in empathy – a famous (and brilliant) example of which is described in David Foster Wallace’s legendary This Is Water speech, when he suggests that instead of judging the woman who snaps at her child in the queue at the supermarket, we bear in mind that we don’t know why she has snapped: “Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.”
It doesn’t have to be sentimental; it could be that that sweet old man opposite you on the bus, smiling and looking content, has just successfully destroyed someone else’s life with a well-placed rumour. Or that elegant mother pushing her vast buggy and dripping in jewellery is in fact bankrupt, and playing out her role desperately, not knowing how to live otherwise, driving her family into further debt. Or that vast, tattooed man staring angrily at the little girl who’s singing loudly is remembering how he’d always wanted to sing songs in public like that. This wonderful short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, written pre-Trump-winning-the-election and imagining the world from Melania’s point of view, is a perfect example of what you can achieve through this approach.
The important thing with all of these exercises is to write something down. Don’t worry if it’s not immediately any good. Or it doesn’t go anywhere. Or you feel like you haven’t done yourself justice. For the moment, you’re just trying to start writing. However, try to keep to the following “rules”: don’t rely too heavily on adjectives and adverbs; and don’t tell the reader what you see, describe it. You can hone and edit later on, but these rules are good ones to bear in mind from the very start.
The more scenes you analyse, point-of-view exercises you practice, and character studies you write, the more descriptions, potential characters and stories will mill around in your mind. Like all crafts, writing takes hard work and time and effort; and like all crafts, the more you practice, the better you get at it. Sooner or later you’ll find original characters occurring to you, with potential plots building around them then developing into whole story arcs. Then you’re onto the next stage: writing your book.
But for now, you’re just going to start writing.
*I bet you’d forgotten that was his name.