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Creative writing fundamentals

Fundamentals of Creative Writing

This slen­der book goes straight to the point and gives the basics in cre­ative writ­ing. Each sec­tion focus­es on a con­cept, such as dia­logue, fol­lowed by a sam­ple sto­ry or two and sug­gest­ed activ­i­ties. It con­tin­ues to be a handy tool for teach­ers and stu­dents of cre­ative writers.

Praise

Fun­da­men­tals of Cre­ative Writ­ing is a pow­er­ful resource to encour­age stu­dents and/or aspir­ing writ­ers to strive for excel­lence in their writ­ing skills. Not only does it guide read­ers through the basics of set­ting, scene, char­ac­ter, con­flict, dia­logue, plot, point of view, voice, style, theme and tone but it also pro­vides use­ful activ­i­ties that chal­lenges the writer to get their cre­ative juices flow­ing. I would high­ly rec­om­mend this excel­lent book to any­one who wants to improve and enhance their cre­ative writ­ing skills.” (Jacque­line Gul­las-Weck­man, Vice-Pres­i­dent, Aca­d­e­m­ic Affairs Uni­ver­si­ty of the Visayas)

“ Cecil­ia Manguer­ra Brainard has writ­ten a won­der­ful resource for stu­dents of cre­ative writ­ing. This book, Fun­da­men­tals of Cre­ative Writ­ing, pro­vides stu­dents with prac­ti­cal steps that tru­ly work. The strate­gies pre­sent­ed in this book are a prod­uct of the authors 15 years of teach­ing cre­ative writ­ing. She is also a pro­lif­ic writer who has writ­ten numer­ous short sto­ries, nov­els, and non-fic­tion books.” (Edmun­do F. Lit­ton, Ed.D., Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Edu­ca­tion, Loy­ola Mary­mount University)

“ This book (Fun­da­men­tals of Cre­ative Writ­ing) describes the “essen­tials” of cre­ative writ­ing, not only from a tech­ni­cal per­spec­tive, but also by unveil­ing how cre­ative writ­ing leads us to imag­i­na­tive­ly engage and act upon the world. Brainard’s struc­ture reminds us that, above and beyond tech­nique, the most impor­tant thing a writer needs is a gen­uine love of sto­ry and a respect for the pow­er of words.” (Rocío G. Davis, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture, Uni­ver­si­ty of Navar­ra, Spain)

“ Cecil­ia Manguer­ra Brainard’s Fun­da­men­tals of Cre­ative Writ­ing is a mar­velous text­book that com­bines use­ful tech­ni­cal advice on craft with beau­ti­ful prac­ti­cal exam­ples in her own sto­ries. Brainard’s treat­ments of writer­ly voice and left brain/right brain the­o­ry as it con­nects to writ­ing are among the best avail­able in today’s writ­ing text­books. Her sto­ry exam­ples cov­er a vari­ety of sto­ry types, tech­niques, points of view, and his­tor­i­cal as well as con­tem­po­rary top­ics and themes. This book will indeed help writ­ing stu­dents write strong sto­ries and improve their craft. Bra­va, Ms. Brainard.” (Vince Gotera, Edi­tor of North Amer­i­can Review, Pro­fes­sor of Cre­ative Writ­ing, Uni­ver­si­ty North­ern Iowa)

Top tips for creative writing

Crafting an original work of fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction takes time, practice, and persistence. While there’s no exact science to creative writing, the following tips will help you get started:

1 Write about what you know

Beginning writers always get told ‘write what you know’, but it’s good advice. Use settings, characters, background, and language that you’re already familiar with and create new stories from the world that you already know. This is like using research you’ve already done. And remember, your background, what you bring to the act of writing, is as valid as what anyone else can bring.

2 Write about what you don’t know

Use your imagination to create new situations, new characters, new relationships, even new worlds. Choose to write about a different period in history, or a place that you’re not familiar with. Where your imagination needs help, fill in the gaps with research. The best thing about being a creative writer is creating.

3 Read widely and well

Writers love reading. Make yourself familiar with the published landscape of writing in your chosen field, whether it’s modern poetry, literary fiction, thrillers, short stories, or fantasy. Nothing encourages good writing like reading good writing.

4 Hook your readers

Nobody is forced to read your novel or short story, so it’s important to hook readers right away. Your opening sentence or paragraph should encourage them to continue, perhaps by making them laugh, or exciting their curiosity, or just making them want to find out what happens next.

Consider the intriguing sting in the tale of the opening sentence of George Orwell’s 1984:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

It seems like a very traditional opening and then – thirteen? You want to know more and so you read on.

Now look at the first sentence of Raymond Carver’s short story Viewfinder:

A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house.

Just a short sentence but with so much that we need to have explained. We’re hooked.

5 Get your characters talking

We find out about the people we meet through what they say to us, how they say it, their choice of words, their accents, their verbal habits. Readers should be able to do the same with fictional characters. People on the page really start to live when they start exchanging dialogue.

Writing dialogue needs a lot of work – making it fresh and authentic, editing repeatedly to get it right – but it’s worth the effort.

6 Show rather than tell

Too much description, too many adjectives and adverbs, can slow up your narrative and cause your readers to lose interest. Where possible, it’s better to show you readers what a person, the atmosphere in the room, the relationship between your characters is like – show, that is, by what they say, how they interact, what they do. It’s more effective than telling the reader through wordy piles of information.

This is a tricky one. You have to do some telling so it’s important not to become obsessive about avoiding it.

7 Get it right first time

Try to get your first draft as near perfect as possible. Few writers manage this kind of quality the first time but no one ever wrote great literature by aiming low. On the contrary, aim for the best and do your best from the very start.

8 Keep polishing

If you don’t get it right first time, you can do what most writers do – polish and perfect through the editing process. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that editing is the same as proofreading; it’s about much more than correcting errors. Rather, editing involves carefully going through your work to see what to leave out, what to change, finding out what you have to do to improve your writing, make it sharper, tidier, better.

Editing can be hard work. It’s said that Ernest Hemingway took the last page of A Farewell to Arms through nearly 40 drafts, so don’t give up if you feel you’re getting nowhere.

9 Make the most of your opportunities

Many aspiring writers claim they simply don’t have the time to make the most of their ideas. Yet, if you analyse a typical day, there are always those intervals – using public transport, waiting for a friend, time spent in the waiting room of the doctor or dentist – when it’s possible to pull out a writing pad, a laptop, a tablet and just write. Identify your opportunities – five minutes is enough to get a few sentences down – and use them.

Creative Writing 101: Everything You Need to Know

Creative writing is writing that takes an imaginative, embellished, or outside-the-box approach to its subject matter. This is in contrast to academic, technical, or news writing, which is typically dry and factual. Most people associate creative writing with fiction and poetry, but creative nonfiction should not be forgotten or underestimated, as it’s an important and wide-ranging kind of writing.

We’ll be covering everything to do with creative writing in the rest of this series — but this post will focus on helping you understand and identify it. Many will say that they’ll know it when they see it, but there are some more forensic ways to decide whether something would be considered creative writing. Looking at its form, for example, is usually a strong indicator, but a focus on storytelling elements like narrative, perspective, and character can also suggest that something falls under the ‘creative’ umbrella.

What forms can creative writing take?

Given the fact that creative writing is often of an experimental and innovative nature, it’s no surprise that it takes a number of different forms. Let’s differentiate between the key manifestations of this kind of writing.

Poetry

From haikus and sonnets to sestinas, elegies, and villanelles, poetry is one of the most multifaceted forms of creative writing. Writers of verse have the freedom to experiment with less rigid forms like prose poetry or free verse, but many poets also work within structured traditions that make specific demands in terms of rhyme, rhythm, and subject matter. Poetry, in case you were wondering, is the form that’s most likely to break punctuation rules or be formatted in unique ways, as in the case of blackout poetry.

A somewhat nonsensical blackout poem, on us.

The key thing to remember with poetry is that there are really no rules.

Short fiction

With literary magazines growing immensely popular in the 19th century, short stories entered the mainstream. While it’s widely accepted that short stories should run under 7,000 words, even shorter stories (classified as flash fiction and microfiction) emphasize the brevity of this narrative form even more, by telling stories in as few words as possible. All falling under the umbrella term of ‘short fiction,’ these types of stories are all about compressing and distilling narrative intensity.

Novels

Perhaps the primary thing people associate with “creative writing”, the novel is an ever-popular form that relies on following a narrative arc using prose — and it also happens to have the most commercial power. Novellas and the even cuter-sounding novelettes are short and even shorter novels, the word count and narrative scope of which differentiate them from short stories. If you need an example of each, Angie Cruz’s Dominicana is a full-length novel, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome a novella, and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men a novelette.

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Plays and screenplays

Consisting entirely of dialogue and stage directions, scriptwriting is a type of creative writing that relies heavily on subtext. In other words, everything that isn’t said by the characters, the gaps that emerge between the things they explicitly say. More than that, this type of writing isn’t intended for a readers but for other storytellers (directors, actors, designers, etc) to use and interpret in their own creative work. Famous examples include Angels in America by Tony Kushner and Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Comics, graphic novels, and graphic narratives

Combining illustrations or visuals with text, these visual modes of storytelling also depend heavily on dialogue to build convincing characters, though unlike scripts, descriptive narration is not off-limits here. From superheroes like Batman to YA romance like Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper series, this category contains a huge variety of illustration styles and narratives.

Personal essays

Thoughtful, reflective pieces of writing that often follow a narrative arc, personal essays explore a person’s thoughts and feelings on a personal matter. Rather than simply chronicling the writer’s experiences, these essays typically use an artifact, book, or news development as a jumping off point from which to widen the scope of their story. These essays can also include travel and food writing, as well as think pieces that rely heavily on a personal perspective.

Humor writing

Aside from casually existing within other types of creative writing, humor can also be considered as its own type of creative writing type. Much alike to online meme-making or old-school political cartoons in spirit, humor writing satirizes and lampoons to make the reader think differently about political structures, current events, and human behavior, with its primary goal being laughter. These days, this kind of writing tends to congregate in humor websites or the humor sections of popular magazines like The New Yorker’s ‘Daily Humor’

There’s really no limit to the kind of writing you can approach creatively, so there’s always potential for new forms of creative writing. Almost anything that you write that isn’t a down-the-line report of facts is creative writing. That wedding speech? Creative writing. That song you wrote for your third-grade crush? Yes. That expletive-filled Twitter thread about the latest Marvel trailer? Congratulations, you’re a creative writer.

How do you know it’s creative writing?

Five fundamental elements are the clearest way to distinguish between well-written non-creative writing and creative writing. You can write about the same subject matter in a different way, but creative writers will use poetic license and storytelling tools to bring a story to life.

1. It’s told from a specific point of view

Point of view humanizes a narrative by offering personal insights and perspectives. Unlike news reporting, which aims to be impartial and objective, creative writing leans into the fact that each writer has a unique personality, and uses this to its advantage. From using first person and owning your ‘I’ to express your feelings or experiences, to dramatizing the gaps of communication between characters in a fictional piece, contrasting viewpoints make a work ever more immersive, vivid, and inherently interesting to read.

Need an example? Take Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and contrast it with news accounts of the same murder. Capote’s book gives the reader a closer perspective of the killers, making an effort to understand them, whereas news reports simply list the facts in chronological order.

2. Its narrative structure is designed to engage readers

Fiction and nonfiction share an important unifying core: that of narrative structure. Both use the principles of storytelling to express events, realizations, or complicated plots and subplots. Regardless of what happens in each narrative, the opening, ending, and rising action sections of a piece of writing need to be tightly structured for cohesion and coherence.

A personal essay that does this well is Lilly Dancyger’s essay “Don’t Use My Family For Your True Crime Stories”. Instead of a chronological retelling of her cousin’s murder and her own subsequent grief and aversion to true crime writing, Dancyger opens by introducing the fact of the murder, then briefly visits the present to explain her current feelings, before returning to the past to narrate how she and her family heard of Sabina’s murder. This structure allows the reader to empathize by mirroring the shock of death: being taken by surprise is followed by a need for facts and explanations.

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3. Tension is used to make readers feel invested

Whether the tension arises from an impending realization or comes in the form of suspense as the perpetrator of a crime is about to be revealed, the existence of tension means that a writer has managed to write something where the stakes are high, and the reader feels emotionally or intellectually invested. The Serial podcast, for example, does this particularly well, as it tells a true story in a serialized form with cliffhangers and a central mystery.

4. A central theme is used to organize the narrative

Life, it must be said, is not quite as neat as literary theme analysis will have you think. Writing, however, tends to operate as an opportunity for thoughts, feelings, and events to be organized into information the reader can process. Because of this process of organizing thought, certain central themes appear in each work. In a memoir, for example, that might be the lessons someone has learned, or the principle they believe best represents their experiences. To give you an example, Michelle Obama’s aptly named Becoming keeps returning to the same conclusion after reviewing each of her experiences: that you, too, can become whatever you want, despite adversity. In this case, the story’s recurring themes are hope, growth, and perseverance in the face of discouragement. Unlike the dry Wikipedia page giving Michelle Obama’s biography, Becoming is a compelling piece of creative writing that tells a cohesive story by focusing on this central theme.

5. Literary devices are used freely

Imagine reading the newspaper and encountering a report of an accident that begins with this sentence:

“The sun had just begun to awaken, emerging sleepily from the shadowy depths behind the skyscrapers and casting a pale yellow light onto the street when Yamada Kumiko had a terrible accident.”

That’s a tad too poetic for a newspaper article, isn’t it? Aside from being tragically insensitive given the accident context, the reason this sentence feels so wrong is that it uses figurative language in a way that is not common for factual journalism. That’s because literary devices (and some rhetorical devices, too) are generally reserved for work considered to be creative writing, instead. Otherwise, it might feel a little bit like the writer is showing off in the wrong context — if your washing machine troubleshooting guide is all ornate turns of prose, something’s gone wrong (and your machine is likely to stay broken).

We hope this guide has armed you with the questions you need to ask if you’re ever unsure about whether something is considered to be ‘creative writing’ — why not turn your attention to trying creative writing yourself next? May your writing flow not like a faucet, but a waterfall: abundant, uninhibited, and breathtaking to all who behold it.

In the next post in this series, we’ll be taking a look at 7 ways in which you can start creative writing yourself. Time to have some fun!