An old friend from high school emailed to say she was reading The Territory and thinking about where the book was set and how important the setting was to the story. She teaches fifth grade and said that her kids struggle with the concept of place in their writing. I agreed to visit her classroom so I’ve been thinking about how to work with the kids in a fairly short amount of time, while still helping them develop a feel for ‘story.’ As I started planning the lesson I realized how similar the steps are for a group of beginning writers versus someone who has been writing for years.

I’ve talked to quite a few people over the past year about my book, and a fair number mention they’ve always thought about writing but never got around to it. Often, as the conversation continues, the person admits they want to write, but they don’t know where to begin. I think a lot of people have ideas floating around in their heads: bits and pieces of a plot that sound interesting, snatches of their childhood they would like to catch on paper, a feeling they would like to put into words.

My best advice is to ignore the urge to write about something personal, at least in the beginning. I talked to a friend over the summer who’d had a great childhood and had a very fond memory of a specific event that he wanted to write about. He wanted to convey the emotional experience on paper. At the time I encouraged him to just put pen to paper and start writing what he remembered. Just start writing – you can’t begin revising if there’s nothing there to work with. But, after thinking about his desire for a while, I realized that’s probably one of the hardest things for a writer to accomplish. (Tom, if you’re reading this, sorry about the bad advice. But, read on. Maybe the following will be more helpful.)

Conveying any emotion on paper is difficult – especially so that it rings true and not like sentimental drivel. But trying to convey an emotion from your childhood? That’s really difficult, in part because you often can’t put words to the emotion for yourself – so how do you make it real for a reader who didn’t experience your past with you? There’s so much emotional history piled into your memory that feeds into any event – how do you get all that out there to the reader? That’s probably why I’ll never write a memoir – it sounds exhausting!

My best advice for someone who wants to begin writing is to start by planning. Following is a quick-start guide to get a beginning writer thinking in terms of story. And, one more piece of advice – when you first start writing you don’t need to think about length or purpose or audience. Don’t worry about whether you’re writing a short story or novel. First you need to master the basics of developing characters and setting and scene. When I first started writing I did the following exercise quite a bit. I thought of the writing as ‘slice-of-life’ stories. The vignettes might be anywhere from 1 to 2 paragraphs to 5 pages or so, but they helped me develop the skills I needed to write longer pieces.

Start by coming up with just two characters with dramatic tension between them. It doesn’t have to be a good guy/bad guy, but some semblance of that. Your reader doesn’t want to read about a couple of good guys – there’s no interest there. Readers want conflict. Plus, it’s no fun writing about nice people. So – let’s say your characters will be a young, career-driven woman, and a middle-aged life-wearied cop. To make the writing easier, figure out who your ‘good-guy’ will be, and who your ‘bad-guy’ will be. I’ll make the cop the good guy for this exercise.

Next, put those characters into a dramatic situation – not too dramatic, just think slice-of-life. Maybe the young woman runs off the road and hits a utility pole on her way to work. The cop pulls up and finds the young woman sitting in her car fuming because it’s taken him so long to get there. You can do better than that, but you get the idea. You just need 2 characters in a dramatic situation where something is about to take place.

Next – choose the setting. The setting is an important consideration. It will dictate how your characters interact.

Imagine the scene above taking place on a country road. The woman is dressed provocatively and it makes the officer nervous being on a country road with her.

Imagine the scene taking place on an interstate. The woman is acting erratic and the cop is worried she’s going to get hit by the speeding traffic.

Imagine the scene in a parking lot at Wal-Mart. Maybe a group of customers gathers to watch, and the cop sees one of the onlookers filming the interaction with a cell phone.

Setting can add huge drama to a situation. (But, no kitchen tables. Force yourself early on to resist the urge to write every scene around a cup of coffee at the kitchen table.)

Now – just jump into these two character’s lives and see what happens. Here’s my stab at it:

Mike Lewis looked at the digital clock on his dashboard and sighed as he pulled behind the small gray Lexus convertible. The front end of the car was planted firmly into the metal light pole that stood on the corner of Fifth and Newhouser in downtown Indianapolis. Mike pushed his car door open and stepped into the July heat. He used his portable radio to call in his location to dispatch and glanced at the China Buffet sign a half block down the street. It was noon and he’d skipped breakfast after hitting the snooze button one too many times. A young woman in an expensive looking black skirt and white blouse stood in front of the car, talking into a cell phone, gesturing around the street. She pointed a finger accusingly toward Mike and continued her rant to the unlucky bastard on the other end of the phone.

You get the idea. Write as much or as little as you want. The purpose is to start small and to begin developing characters, setting and drama one scene at a time. After you begin to feel more comfortable, the plot can grow and become more complicated. Meanwhile, read some of the short-story literary magazines. Zoetrope is a great one. Or, check out the Best American Short Stories books from the library. Begin studying the structure of short stories so that you can apply that to your slice-of-life scenes later on.

I hope if you’re a new writer and you try this exercise that you’ll let me know how it goes. My email is ttmefields – at – Or, post here on the blog. Good luck!


November 6, 2011

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