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Seven Golden Secrets of Creative Writing


In the following quote, master of horror Stephen King hits the raw nerve of creative writing, the single most important step you need to take in your journey towards literary expression – absolute commitment. Without it, you could get lost in the dark, doomed to wander through the long night of literary anonymity like a navigator without a compass or the will to go anywhere.

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair… You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

The blank page represents to great writers what Everest was to Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, what the Apollo 11 moon mission was to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. It offers an extraordinary journey to the uncharted regions of the imagination, a formidable challenge to the literary spirit of adventure within us. The problem is that writing creatively needs hard work and great commitment, and the vision to see a conclusion. I have developed the acronym W R I T E R S, which I hope will help you along that creative and adventurous road. It embodies seven golden rules of creative writing.

W – where, who, what, when, why

If you intend writing a book, a short story or even an essay, know exactly Where you are going. If you don't, you could end up going nowhere. When you know your direction use the other four Ws (Who, What, When, Why) to get there. Sketch a rough plan, just as an artist produces rough brush strokes to begin a work of art, and write down the essential ingredients of your story: the characters (WHO), the plot (WHAT), the direction (WHERE), the period (WHEN), the reasons (WHY).

R – Research

Adventure novelist Wilbur Smith, author of dozens of international bestsellers, spends six months a year researching his subject before putting pen to paper. He then spends the next six months writing the book. Because his novels are usually based on real-life sagas, he manages to blend fiction with reality, giving life, energy and plausibility to his characters. Research your storyline and characters exhaustively. Know far more about your subject than you intend to write.

I – Images and imagination

One of the greatest aids to creative writing is the ability to think in images. Before you write it, see it in pictures; and if you can use your senses to strengthen the image, all the better. African locals living near Zambia's Victoria Falls call it Mosi oa Tunya – the smoke that thunders, a wonderful description evoked by the sight and sound of this wonder of the world. When you're writing about characters, visualize them, hear them, smell them – your senses will be great accessories for your descriptions.

T – Tenacity

Creative writing is not easy; it requires discipline and tenacity. Tenacity means finishing the project at all costs. One quality that separates great authors and the legions of writers of unfinished manuscripts is tenacity – the ability to continue even if you think your work will not succeed. James Joyce, whose book the Dubliners was rejected by 22 publishers, went on to write the best-selling English novel of all-time (Ulysses). So even if you think you're failing, carry on. One author I know wrote several books in a cellar. He climbed down a ladder into the cellar every day, his wife pulled up the ladder, and he stayed there writing until his wife let the ladder down later that day. I've written 11 books and millions of words and it doesn't get easier – putting the first word down is like scaling the North face of The Eiger.

E – Empathy

Successful writing is all about grabbing the reader's attention. Which means your words, characters, dialogue and construction must have empathy. Tie them into your own experiences. This does not mean dull-and-boring, long-winded sentences about yourself. It means incisive originality, directness and raw energy your readers can identify with. Let your writing come from the heart and write it straight. If your words are going to drive you to literary success, make sure they're firing on all cylinders – empathy. Richard Carlson wrote his best-seller Don't Sweat the Small Stuff on a 12-hour Transatlantic flight. The book sold millions of copies because it was empathetic – millions around the world identified with his message.

R – Reality

The great masters of fiction, George Orwell, John Steinbeck, Lewis Carrol and, more recently, Roald Dahl and Harry Potter's J. K. Rowling captured the world's imagination with characters that will live forever. The magic of their writing lies in the reality of their characters. So try to construct your characters with care, affection and detail. Build them up by writing notes about them – their personal idiosyncracies, their habits, their loves. When you write, go for the jugular – give your readers characters they will love; better still, give them characters drawn from the well of common, everyday human experience.

S – Simplicity

Great writers know that simplicity is the bedrock of their craft. Short, clear sentences, short paragraphs, uncomplicated, direct constructions, and prose written from the heart are all you need. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway was a simple story about a fisherman and a fish, but it hooked millions of readers. The secret was in the simplicity of the dialogue and narration. Don't use long words to impress, and never be pompous or egotistical. Write with passion, music and simplicity – that's the real art of creative writing.

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