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So You Want To Be a Writer?


by micrody

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So you’ve read numerous stories about heroes and villains, about Neopets and people both like you and unimaginably different, and now you want to share that experience with others by writing your own stories, too. But maybe you’ve never written a story before and you’re not sure where to start, or maybe you’ve already written a story but you need some help making it better or figuring out how to share it with others.

No matter your experience, though, if you want to be a writer, you’ve come to the right place. For more than two years, I’ve read, reviewed, and written dozens of stories, many of which have appeared in the Neopian Times. I know what makes a good story good, and today I’ll teach you how to create and edit your own stories to both amaze and enthrall readers everywhere.

The first step to becoming a writer is learning what a story is so you can create your own. A story is an experience. It can be long or short and come in any shape or size, but what all stories have in common is that they give the reader an experience. What experience, you may ask? Any experience, big or small, about characters, places, or ideas. And where do these experiences come from? They come from authors just like you who want to write stories that people will remember.

So how does a thought, an idea, an experience—whether real or imaginary—get from the mind of an author to the pages of the Neopian Times? It begins with inspiration, no matter the source, and continues with the writer’s decision to write a story. Once that is in mind, the writer picks up his or her pen, pencil, or even keyboard, and begins to write their story. They choose the words that sound right, that get their meaning across, and with these words, they assemble their story.

But no story is complete as soon as it’s finished. Instead, the author continues to work with their story, shaping it into what it will ultimately become. When a story is first written, it’s called a first draft, and the shaping process that follows is called editing and revision. Through a series of edits and revisions, the story goes through any number of drafts until it has been refined from a story that perhaps wasn’t very good into a story that readers will want to read and remember.

If you’ve never written a story before, you might be wondering how one actually writes a story. Quite simply, there is no simple answer. No one waves a magic wand, no one gets put under the spell of an inspired Faerie—they just write. For some, this begins with a few words that blossom into an adventure; but for others, this can be a struggle to capture complex ideas in meaningful words.

You see, writing itself is the process of translating a thought into words. When you speak, you’re doing the same thing. There’s no way to define what you’re doing, because you’re just speaking. Likewise, there’s no easy way to define writing. It’s a process, and although it may seem mysterious, it can also be very easy to do. If you can tell a story out loud, you can write one, too.

This brings us to a saying that many aspiring and experienced writers alike have often heard: Show, don’t tell. But if you’re telling a story to begin with, what’s the difference? The difference is in how you translate the thoughts in your mind into words on paper. Consider the following:

     Punchbag Bob balled his fist and shook it in Sid’s face. “I’m tired of this, Sid, of all these people coming in here and hitting me with their weapons because they think I’m you.”

That passage is an example of showing: It takes the thought in my head and shows it to you, the reader, exactly as I see it, exactly as I experience it. Now consider the following example:

     Punchbag Bob was angry and told Punchbag Sid how he felt about it.

In this example, I told the same thing that I showed before, but this time, instead of showing the readers what had happened, I merely told them what I’d seen. Instead of giving the readers something they could experience, I gave them my interpretation of the experience. When I showed the scene in the first example, instead of saying Bob was angry, I showed him clench his fist and shake it at Sid. Instead of saying that Bob told Sid how he felt, I showed exactly what he said to him with a line of dialogue. Obviously, then, showing engages the readers and gives them something to connect to instead of merely giving them a news report, a second-hand recounting.

Even though it is better to show than to tell, it’s also possible to show too much. If you show too much, the writing can become very heavy and hard to read. Because of this, it’s sometimes necessary to tell a few things instead of showing them, because they’re unimportant and don’t add to the story or they just get in the way of other events. Here’s another example to demonstrate this:

     Punchbag Bob scowled at Sid and turned away. He was tired of this, always the same thing. First he’d tell Sid how he felt, and then he’d get shot down and pushed away. But this time, that wasn’t going to happen.

     “Sid,” he said and turned back around, “you’re not getting away with it this time. You’re going down.”

In the first paragraph, I showed how Bob scowled and turned away, but then I told the readers that this always happens. If instead I’d shown this happening a dozen times, the readers would’ve gotten bored and gone away. However, because I want to engage the readers, I chose to tell this information so the story could continue uninterrupted once they know what’s going on. In the second paragraph, I use showing again: I show the readers that Bob turns around and I include another line of dialogue, which is an important and powerful part of showing a story.

So now that you know a bit more about showing and telling and when to use them, you should have enough knowledge to write your own story, if you haven’t already. Just sit down, take an idea, and show it as you see it, giving the reader an experience just like you experience it.

And congratulations! Now that you’ve written your story and it has a beginning, middle, and end, it’s time to go back and edit it all; revise it until it’s a masterpiece. Some people scream and faint at the very mention of the word editing, but it’s not as terrifying as it may sound. In fact, editing can become one of the best parts of writing if you only realize that every great writer is also a great editor. Half of the writing process is, in fact, editing and revision, so you’ll soon grow to love it.

But what, exactly, is editing and revision? Revision is the act of returning to your story and ensuring that its plot details flow from one to another, while editing is the act of smoothing everything out so it’s the best it can be. That is, they make your story cohesive and coherent, so it functions as and feels like a single, unified whole. Allow me to give you another demonstration:

     Punchbag Bob leaned back in his chair and sipped at his cup of hot Borovan. Ah, Borovan—he could feel the hair growing on his chest already! Being made mostly of sackcloth, however, most people never realized that he had any chest hair at all. He shook his head, frowned a bit, and then took another sip.

But what about Sid? Didn’t Punchbag Bob promise to take him down in the last scene? Why, yes, he did, but this was an example of how easily one might lose their plot. Perhaps it was a bit extreme, but if your character starts the story by vowing to take out his arch enemy, and at its end, he’s forgotten all about his foe to sip on Borovan instead, you’ve got quite a plot hole to fill in.

Filling in plot holes is the number one reason to edit and revise your story. But it’s not the only reason. Let’s look at another example, and this time, I promise you, Bob will not be sipping on Borovan again:

     Punchbag Bob stepped valiantly into the Battledome, and he heard the crowds loudly cheering at him, excited and waiting for the battle to begin. Bob stepped up to his corner nervously and shook his fist at Sid daringly, egging him on to strike him first. The referee stepped into the ring anxiously and blew the whistle excitedly—the match was on.

Perhaps you don’t see anything wrong with the passage above, but perhaps you do. Right now, take a guess at what a writer might be able to do while revising it, and once you’ve made up your mind, read the next example to see if you guessed the right answer.

     Punchbag Bob stepped into the Battledome, hearing the crowds cheering at him, excited and waiting for the battle to begin. Bob stepped up to his corner and shook his fist at Sid, egging him on to strike him first. The referee stepped into the ring and blew the whistle—the match was on.

Did you guess the difference? In the first example, I told the reader how Bob stepped into the Battledome, how the crowds cheered, how he shook his fist, and even how the referee blew his whistle. But in the second example, I showed it all instead. So what makes the two examples so different if they’re almost exactly the same? In the second one, I removed all of the adverbs. Although adverbs do have their place in writing, most adverbs just tell the reader what could be shown instead. Adverbs give the reader a sense of false emotion because the writer has used his or her interpretation of the scene to “color” it with adverbs. For readers, however, adverbs just weaken the writing.

Now let’s take a look at the same example if it were to be edited a bit more.

     Punchbag Bob took a breath and walked into the Battledome, instantly bombarded by the crowd’s cheering. He shielded his eyes from the bright lights and looked around—Sid was already there, standing in his corner of the ring. Bob rushed forward to take his place and brandished his fist at Sid; this was going to end right here, right now.

     The referee stepped into the ring, and when he waved for the fighters to approach, Bob gulped and stepped forward. The referee licked his lips as he nodded at both of them and then backed away to blow his whistle—the match was on.

In this version, I’ve fleshed out the writing by using stronger and more vivid nouns and verbs to show the scene as Bob and Sid prepare to fight. It might be longer than the other versions, but it has more suspense and illustrates Bob’s character better, both of which engage the readers and enhance the story.

Now let’s look at what happens next to see if we can do anything else to improve it.

     Punchbag Bob took a step to the left as the fight began; across from him, Sid did the same. Bob lifted his fists and held his arms up before him, waiting to block the first punch.

     Sid thrust his fist forward, but that pesky puppet blocked his punch. Always that goody-two-shoes would get on him and cause trouble, always that wimpy stuffed sock would help old ladies cross the road or help lost little girls find their mommies. Well, not anymore!

     Punchbag Bob blocked Sid’s second punch and kept walking to the left inside the ring. It was kind of like a dance, he thought. He’d always liked dancing, but Sid always preferred to beat up people instead. Oh, how he would always knock down the other kids at school and steal their lunch money! He was a bully. Now, he would pay.

The problem with this example is its point of view. Up until now, I’ve written the examples in Bob’s point of view, but here, I slipped into Sid’s point of view for a moment in the second paragraph. A jumpy point of view, however, can quickly get confusing and distract the readers from the story. And if the readers are distracted, they’re not going to remember, or even enjoy, the story. So how do you fix a jumpy point of view? You rewrite it so that it only shows the thoughts and feelings of the focal character; that is, unless the character knows it, it isn’t said.

Let’s see how this last example looks after it’s been edited a bit.

     Punchbag Bob began sidling to the left as the fight began. He lifted up his fists and held his arms ready; Sid punched forward, but Bob quickly blocked the attack.

     It was just like Sid to attack first, too. Back in school, he’d always been the one to knock over the little kids and steal their lunch money. Well, it was time for payback.

     Bob jumped to the left to dodge another punch. He always thought fighting was a bit like a dance, and he’d always like to dance, too. He wasn’t about to punch back, though, but even if he didn’t fight back, perhaps he still could win the battle. Oh, yes, Sid was going down.

This version may not give as much information as the last one did, but unlike the last example, this one was written entirely in Punchbag Bob’s point of view, which makes it more vivid and engaging for readers. Keeping scenes in a single point of view also allows the readers to connect with the characters better, and if the readers and the characters connect, the experience comes alive for all of them. If necessary, you can end one scene, by using a double line space or a series of asterisks (three work well), and then start the next scene using a new point of view.

Bob’s battle has been wearing on for a while now, so why don’t we see how it ends?

     “Aren’t you going to punch me?” Sid whined.

     “Maybe I will,” Punchbag Bob grinned, “maybe I won’t.” He kept sidling leftwards and dodged yet another one of Sid’s punches.

     “You’re a chicken, Bob,” Sid laughed and pulled back his fist, his entire torso twisting as he prepared to attack.

     “I’m no chicken,” Bob yelled and jumped to the right just as Sid threw his punch—his nemesis flew right past him and fell flat on the floor, his seams bursting open. Bob leapt into the air and landed right on top of Sid, white fluff flying everywhere. “I’m a punchbag,” he declared.

Ah, what a wonderful ending! But the writing still isn’t as good as it could be. Once again, I’ve added my own interpretation to the story—but I didn’t use a single adverb, so what’s the problem?

The problem is that I narrated all four lines of dialogue with an alternative for the verb “said.” But wait! Didn’t I say earlier that it’s good to use vivid nouns and verbs? Shouldn’t this be a good thing? After all, “said” is so common and trite—in fact, it’s so common, most readers forget it’s even there! So why should I use “said” when I could use so many other more vivid and exact verbs?

The answer is simple: By saying that Punchbag Bob yelled this or declared that, I’m once again telling instead of showing. The verb “said” is an invisible verb, and it’s true that most readers don’t even realize it’s there. Because of this, when you narrate dialogue using “said” instead of its more exact synonyms, you allow the readers to make their own impressions about how the speaker is speaking. That is, you’re allowing them to experience the story firsthand—you’re showing instead of telling.

Sometimes, you don’t even need to include a speech tag such as “he said” or “she said.” Instead, you can narrate the dialogue with a bit of action, or even just write the dialogue freestanding; so long as the speaker is clear and it’s easy to understand, this can be done. However, once you add a third speaker, freestanding dialogue becomes incredibly hard to understand, so if you have three or more speakers, be certain to include a speech tag or a bit of action to make the dialogue clearer. Additionally, include this information as soon as you can; if you wait for the end of a long passage of dialogue to state who’s speaking, it’s little better than if it were left freestanding.

Now let’s see how this story really ends. Here’s the last example, but with these techniques employed to revise it.

     “Aren’t you going to punch me?” Sid said.

     Punchbag Bob grinned. “Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.” He kept sidling leftwards and dodged yet another one of Sid’s punches.

     “You’re a chicken, Bob.” Sid laughed and pulled back his fist, his entire torso twisting as he prepared to attack.

     Bob jumped to the right just as Sid threw his punch—his nemesis flew right past him and fell flat on the floor, his seams bursting open. Bob leapt into the air and landed right on top of Sid, white fluff flying everywhere.

     “I’m no chicken,” he said, “I’m a punchbag.”

As you can see, using “said” and bits of action to narrate dialogue can add a lot more excitement and detail to writing than using alternatives for “said” ever could.

So, now that we’ve talked about the writing process, from story conception to completion, and now that you’ve written your very own story and taken it through a couple drafts until it’s the best that it can be, what do you do next?

If it’s a story for the Neopian Times, the next step is to take it over to the NT Tips Page and check to make sure it fits all the rules for getting into the ‘Times and meets the size requirements. If it’s ready, you can follow the link there to the submissions page and then send it in, but if it doesn’t meet the guidelines, you’ll have to trim it down, flesh it out, or edit it a bit more until it fits before you submit it.

After you’ve submitted your story, the only thing you can do is wait (of course, though, you could also write another story if you wanted to). Sometimes, you’ll get a response really quickly, while other times you’ll have to wait a few weeks before you hear any news.

Oftentimes, a story will be rejected on account of too many good entries; this means just as it says, that there were too many entries and your story was pushed out of the database because of it. If this happens, just resubmit your story and start the waiting process all over again. Other times, however, your story will be rejected for a specific reason, such as being too violent or forgetting to disclose your characters’ species and colors. If your story gets rejected for any of these reasons, or if it gets rejected too many times for too many good entries, you should edit it again to correct any issues that it may have and also to make sure that you’ve done everything you can do. Once this new round of editing is through, you can resubmit your story once again.

Hopefully, though, your story won’t be rejected at all. Instead, you’ll get a held over Neomail that says your story is being held for a future issue of the Neopian Times (if your story gets held over, our wonderful NT editor saves it, so you don’t have to resubmit it). After some more time has passed (it varies for numerous reasons), you’ll get another Neomail saying that your story has been chosen to appear in an upcoming issue of the Neopian Times—so congratulations again! You’ve written a good story and it’ll appear in the next issue of the Neopian Times, so be sure to watch for it to come out.

Now that you’ve gotten your first story into the NT, why stop there? If you keep writing, you’ll continue to improve as a writer and your stories will get better and better. The road to becoming a great writer may be long and arduous at times, but if you keep at it, the satisfaction of sharing great stories with others and the enjoyment of writing them will give you lasting fulfillment for a long time to come.

I hope this article has helped you get started and I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading it, too, but most of all, I wish you the best of luck as you begin, or continue, your journey to become a writer and author. If you’d like an expanded course on writing, I encourage you to visit this article’s companion site at http://www.neopets.com/~Narratori for extra tips and suggestions on how to further your skills as a writer.

My eternal gratitude goes to reggieman721, whose encouragement and insight were indispensable in making this project become a reality.

 
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