How can I get better at creative writing?
November 23, 2016 10:57 AM   Subscribe

Occasionally I write things that I really love. Can I make it happen more often?

I write poetry and creative essays, and I think I might want to try fiction. About once a year I get hit with a really good idea, which ends up becoming the work I love. The rest of the time I try to keep up with a process of stream of consciousness journaling, or using various prompts.

I feel pretty confident with my editing, which is what most of the asks about writing seem to address. The problem is, when I go through the stuff my brain spits out I don't even find anything worth working on.

How can I get more of the good stuff?
posted by lgyre to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Write more.

And not journaling. Write more of the kind of thing you actually want to write, even when you don't feel inspired by any particular idea. Writing is a thing you do, and not a feeling you have. The idea isn't the important part anyway. It's all in the execution.
posted by Andrhia at 11:05 AM on November 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Seconding write more, and then share what you write with others to critique. As you've found, you can only critique your own work so much. Others will see things you overlook. You can also ask them for ideas for topics.

There are innumerable writing prompts around the internet. A lot of them are crap, which is why the person who came up with them is posting them on the internet instead of being a famous novelist or leading an MFA workshop. But still, they'll give you something to work on, and you can develop skills at least.

What is your end goal? Do you hope to be able to publish? Or just write for yourself?
posted by kevinbelt at 11:29 AM on November 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Be aware that all first drafts are crap. It is a fact, undisputed. Okay, there may be some wunderkind writers out there who just whip out magical words on the first pass, but they are the rarest of birds. Don't be too hard on yourself when you read what you've written. Let some time pass. Write something else. Then come back and do a second draft. Your second draft will also not be the greatest thing ever written. Put it aside. Work on that other thing you were working on. Come back and do a final draft. If you do this, I'm willing to be you'll find that lump of coal has become at least a passable diamond.
posted by ronofthedead at 11:44 AM on November 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Try to pay attention to little half-ideas and quarter-ideas and things that aren't close to being ideas yet but *might* be. There are some people who develop ideas better through outlining or mind-mapping or other kinds of high-level techniques; there are some people who develop ideas better by jumping right into them; you can experiment with both. But approach your little sprouts of not-yet-ideas with the deliberate goal of eventually turning them into finished products. That's the difference between writing very little (because you only write when you have an idea that arrives close to fully formed) and writing a lot.
posted by Jeanne at 11:50 AM on November 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

Anne Lamott is on Twitter and she used to tweet multiple times a day, often with tips like "carry a pencil around at all times to jot down things you overhear." She's tweeting less now (too busy writing?) but you might want to follow her anyway, and look through her archive.
posted by BibiRose at 11:53 AM on November 23, 2016

Do you read much? I ask because I find my ideas multiply when I'm reading stories that are in the vein of what I'd like to write and/or so rich that it's difficult to walk away without new thoughts. If you want to write fiction, read fiction that's in the same ballpark of what you're trying to do.

I'm also a strong advocate of craft books such as Stephen King's On Writing and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird (among others). It's rare I find one without some new nugget of wisdom, even if there's a lot of overlap to sift through.
posted by xenization at 11:59 AM on November 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Instead of journaling, you might want to try keeping a creative notebook or commonplace book as a source of inspiration. Writing about your reading, lines from poetry, observations, not about your daily life or feelings.
posted by betweenthebars at 12:42 PM on November 23, 2016

Go to new places, meet new people, get out of your comfort zone, explore the neighborhood one block away, do something crazy, look at something mundane and find out how wondrous it truly is... and write write write.

Also, I think part of being a good artist/creative is accepting that not everything will be brilliant. It can be frustrating to see our top 5% compared to our 50% but it is something we created and is a stepping stone to a better next work
posted by Jacen at 1:00 PM on November 23, 2016

I took courses with Alan Cheuse who was a really good coach. I miss hearing his voice on NPR.

First class he asked everybody what they'd read over the summer and when he got to me he said the rest of you are reading crap and it's not going to help you become a writer. He said it would be impossible for us to become writers unless we had spent tons of time reading literary fiction. He wanted us to read all of an authors works in chronological order. He also said we should take short stories we liked and type them out. That really surprised me, but I did it with some of Paul Bowles stories (and that guy could write) and I was shocked how much I learned by doing that. It makes you think differently.

Try reading Bowles.

Also John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist deals with the psychological problems that get in the way of writing well.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 2:24 PM on November 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

You got me thinking about this. I haven't published anything in a long time. I nailed the critics but it wasn't successful and really upset readers. I got hatemail. Nobody criticized the quality of the writing, just that what it did to them made them angry or upset.

I found that women were a much better test audience to read your manuscript to. Men would tell me absolutely nothing useful other than that they didn't understand it. Women would pick up on things I didn't understand about my own writing and ask me to expand them. Women write and read most fiction.

The other professor, Richard Bausch, who was really helpful to me stressed that you got to get out there and do things that most people would never even try to have the depth of experience to summon characters.

I remember another author intensely recommended, Henry Roth. His evocation of being a child knocked me down because it made me remember so many things that I had forgotten. They weren't horrible things but it really served me when I became a parent cause I could go back to my son's age and talk about that stuff on his level and that's kind of like writing a really good kid's book.

They look at you in disbelief because, A) you couldn't possibly have ever been that young and B) nobody else has reflected it back in quite that way. But it sure does get them talking instead of acting out.

I'm doing some odd things now and one of them involves talking to people who are really upset and this question made me realize how valuable trying to write fiction is to the task at hand. I can get in somebody's head pretty easily without being intrusive and they feel better. You have to fully imagine whole people to invent them and that exercise increases your empathy. Even if you don't succeed, you'll be a better all-around person for the attempt.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 6:26 PM on November 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

As others have said, read what you want to write. You want to write short stories? Read the best you can find, by both the old masters and today's. And then write. If it's bad (which is likely even from the best of writers), write until it isn't bad.

A couple of quotes:

"You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room."
– Theodor Seuss Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss)

"Writing teaches writing."
– John McPhee

I have a blog about writing wherein I've got lots of stuff on this topic. Things like this wonderfully helpful slate of tips. My blog is listed in my bio, if you're interested in browsing for more.

Also, I am a huge fan of Chuck Wendig's blog because he doles out fantastic writing advice by the metric ton. So long as you're not averse to some rather strong language, this is a prime place to get help and inspiration.
posted by bryon at 1:37 AM on November 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

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