12 - writing stories

Here are some tips by writers on how to write stories. Maybe you find them inspiring too. This is the last chapter in our advanced course. If you have discovered during our language classes that you like to put words on paper, craft sentences, read fiction or articles then maybe you would like continue this as a hobby or perhaps even a profession.

The zebras54 web-resource cannot offer writer tuition courses but you can visit the "writing.com" website and do their writing exercises. I enjoyed these and on this page, I have put an example of one of those exercises. You can also dedicate some quality time to read a writer's magazine. Our top favourite is "The Guardian Review" that is published every Saturday.

But most of all, if you enjoy writing, then write. And if you enjoy talking, then talk. I hope our site has provided you with some tools.

This page started on July 5th 2010

Exercise 1: read the following text, published by The Guardian Review, copied and edited by us. Think about those recommendations (but do not learn them by heart).
Exercise 2: Think about your favourite writers from the past and present, and read some of their work in the language you are learning. (If you are learning English, and your favourite writer is German, you need a translation of his book in English).
Exercise 3: Copy a short story by one of your favourite writer.

Our tip: if you like a text a lot. Copy it or copy part of it. This writing exercise helps you memorise sentence structures, trains you to type correctly, ideas and makes you think about its message. As a webmaster, I enjoyed copying various texts for this website. Take your time to copy, and avoid using the cut/paste option. Copy from a paper book or newspaper - which means that you should think about which paper book or paper newspaper you want to have in your house or borrow from the library. Sometimes, I write down a text at the library by hand in my notebook, then type it at home.

The Guardian Review - "Put one word after the other"
February 20th 2010
Elmore Leonard:
1) Never use a word other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied" (...)
2) Never use the words "suddenly" and "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who used "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.".

Diana Athill:
1) Read it aloud to yourself because that's the only way to be sure the rhythm of the sentences are OK.

Margaret Atwood:
1) Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak.
2) Take something to write on. Paper is good.
3) If you are using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.
4) Do back exercises.
5) Hold the reader's attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own). But you don't know who the reader is, so it's like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinated A will bore the pants off B.
6) You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you're on your own. Nobody is making you do this, so don't whine.

Roddy Doyle:
1) Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk. Especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.
2) Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph...
3) ....Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety - it's the job.
4) Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it and see it.

Helen Dunmore:
1) Finish the day's writing when you still want to continue.
2) Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn't work, throw it away.
3) Join professional organisations which advance the collective rights of authors.
4) A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.
5) If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of J.G. Ballard.

Geoff Dyer:
1) Don't worry about the commercial possibilities of a project. That stuff is for agents and editors to fret over - or not.

Anne Enright:
1) The first 12 years are the worst
2) The way of writing a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.
3) Only bad writers think their work is really good.
4) Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.
5) Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else.  It doesn't matter how "real", or how "made up" your story is: what matter is its necessity.

Richard Ford:
1) Don't read your reviews.
2) Don't wish ill on your colleagues

Jonathan Franzen:
1) The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
2) Fiction that isn't the author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn't worth writing for anything but money.
3) Never use the word "then" as a conjunction - we have "and" for this purpose. Substituting "then" is the lazy or tone-deaf's non-solution to the problem of too many "ands" on the page.
4) Write in the third person unless a real distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.
5) You see more sitting still than chasing after.
6) Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

Esther Freud
1) Cut out the metaphors and the simile. In my first book I wouldn't use any and I slipped up during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.
2) Editing is everything. Cut until you can't cut no more. What is left often springs into life.
3) Find your best time of the day for writing and write. Don't let anything else interfere. Afterwards it won't matter to you that the kitchen is a mess.
4) Don't wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key.
5) Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they'll know it too.
6) Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken.

David Hare
1) Write only when you have something to say.
2) Never take any advice from anyone with no investment in the outcome.
3) If nobody will put your play on, put it on yourself.

PD James
1) Increase your word power. Words are like the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary, the more effective your writing.
2) Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.
3) Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer - however happy, however tragic - is ever wasted.

A.L. Kennedy
1) Have humility. Remember you don't know the limits of your own abilities. Successful or not, if you keep pushing beyond yourself, you will enrich your own life - and maybe even please a few strangers.
2) Defend others. You can of course steal stories and attributes from family and friends, fill in filecards after lovemaking and so forth. It might be better to celebrate those you love - and love itself - by writing in such a way that everyone keeps their privacy and dignity intact.
3) Defend yourself. Find out what keeps you happy, motivated and creative.
4) Write. No amoung of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to you being a writer. Writers write, off you go.
5) Read, As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them so you won't need to take notes.
6) Remember writing doesn't love you. It doesn't care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.
Hoping that these pictures will inspire you!
Hilary Mantel
1) Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.
2) ... (From the book "Becoming a writer" by Dorothea Brande), You will probably hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself... "How to" books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercises.
3) Wirte a book you'd like to read. If you wouldn't read it, why would anybody else? Don't write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book's ready.
4) If you have a good story idea, don't assume it must form a prose narrative. It may work better as a play, a screenplay or a poem. Be flexible.
5) Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that's the point to step back and in fill in the details of their world. People don't notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they're trying too hard to instruct the reader.
6) Description must work for its place. It can't simply be ornamental; it usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If the description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of the character definition and part of the action.
7) If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

Michael Moorcock
1) Find an author you admire (mine was Joseph Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.
2) Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel.
3) If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which can call the introduction.
4) Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development.
5) Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution.
6) For a good melodrama study the famous "Lester Dent master plot formula" which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories or any length and genre.
7) If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.
8) Carrot and stick - have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery).
9) Ignore all proferred rules, and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.

Michael Morpugo
1) The prerequisite for me is to keep my well of ideas full. This means living as full and varied a life as possible, to have my antennae out all the time.
2) Ted Hughes gave me this advice and it works wonders: record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, your own sadness and bewilderments and joys.
3) A notion for a story is for me a confluence of real events, historical perhaps, or from my own memory to create an exciting fusion.
5) By the time I sit down and face the blank page I am raring to go. I tell it as if I'm talking to my best friend or one of my grandchildren.
6) When I'm deep into a story, living it as I write, I honestly don't know what will happen. I try not to dictate it, not to play God.
7) Once the book is finished in its first draft, I read it out loud to myself. How it sounds is hugely important.

Andrew Motion
1) Decide, when in the day (or night) it best suits to write, and organise your life accordingly.
2) Think with all your senses as well as your brain.
3) Honour the miraculousness of the ordinary.
4) Remember that there is no such thing as nonsense.
5) Bear in mind Wilde's dictum that "only mediocrities develop" and challenge it.
6) Work hard.

Joyce Carol Oates
1) Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless.
2) Unless you are writing something very avant-guarde - all gnarled, snarled and "obscure" - be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
3) Unless you are writing something very post-modernist - self-conscious, self-reflexive and "provocative" - be alert for possibilities of using plain familiar words in place of polysyllabic "big" words.

Annie Proulx
1) proceed slowly and take care
2) To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand.
3) Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you.
4) Develop craftmanship through years of wide reading.
5) Rewrite and edit until you achieve the most felicitous phrase/sentence/paragraph/story/chapter.

Ian Rankin
1) Be persistent.
2) Don't give up

Will Self
1) Don't look back until you've written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceeding day. This prevents those cringeing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get down to the real work which is all in.... 2) the edit.
3) Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea forever.
4) You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.
5) Live life and write about life. Of the making of many books there is indeed no end, but there is more than enough books about books.
6) By the same token remembe how much time people spend watching TV. If you're writing a novel with a contemporary setting there need to be long passages where nothing happens save for TV watching. "Later, George watched Grand Designs while eating HobNobs. Later still, he watched the shopping channel for a while..."
7) The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement - if you can't deal with this you needn't apply.

Zadie Smith
1) When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
2) When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
3) Don't romanticise your "vocation". You can either write good sentences or you can't. There is no "writer's lifestyle". All that matters is what you leave on the page.
4) Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can't do aren't worth doing. Don't mask self-doubt with contempt.
5) Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
6) Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won't make your writing any better than it is.
7) Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.
8) Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
9) Don't confuse honours with achievements.

Colm Tóibín
1) Finish everything you start.
2) No alcohol, sex or drugs while you are working.
3) Work in the morning,  a short break for lunch, work in the afternoon then watch the six o'clock news and then go back to work until bed-time.

Rose Tremain
1) Forget about the old dictum "write about what you know". Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that's going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that.
2) Never be satisfied with a first draft. In fact, never be satisfied with your own stuff at all, until you're certain it's as good as your finite powers can enable it to be.
3) When an idea comes, spend silent time with it. (...) Along your gathering of hard data, allow yourself also to dream your idea into being.
4) In the planning stage of a book, don't plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.
5)  Respect the way characters may change once they've got 50 pages of life in them. Revisit your plan at this stage and see whether certain things have to be altered to take account of these changes.
6) If you are writing historical fiction, don't have well-known real characters as your main protagonists. This will only create biographical unease in the readers and send them back to the history books.
7) Learn from cinema. Be economic with description. Sort out the telling details from the lifeless one. Write dialogue that people would actually speak.

Sarah Waters
1) Writing fiction is not "self-expression" or "therapy". Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects.
2) Respect your characters, even the minor ones. In art, as in life, everyone is the hero of their own particular story; it is worth thinking about what your minor characters' stories are, even though they might intersect only slightly with your protagonist's. At the same time, don't overcrowd the narrative.

Jeannette Winterson
1) Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.
2) Never stop when you are stuck. You may not be able to solve the problem but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether.
3) Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward.
4) Trust your creativity.
5) Enjoy this work!

You can find the above article in the Guardian newspaper online

Read the paper exactly as it was printed

Guardian digital edition



For the last time on this course :
Exercise 4: write a piece of flash-fiction (100 to 500 words) telling a story that you find important. Remember: take notes, write sentences quickly, proof-read (check for typos, mistakes etc) , read aloud. Then edit until you are more or less happy with it or when your exercise time runs out. You can show it to your friends, tutor, teacher and ask them to give you their opinion.


Everywhere she looked she saw silver...

Everywhere she looked she saw silver droplets. She had never seen a spectacle like this before. These droplets looked like melted silver, metallic pearls against the flagstone. It was like stepping into treasure.

Look how they slipped from her finger! Would anyone have thought that there was silver in that old disaffected garage? She never owned any jewelry except for a flimsy gold chain with a medal which she was not allowed to wear. The gold chain did not matter because now she could make chains with silver droplets and no-one would ever take them away from her.

Now the little girl played an imaginary tune with the broken banjo barometer, her egg and watercress sandwich on the table near the silver pearls.

She would tell no one about her secret treasure, not even if her temperature rose and her dreams became wild. Playing the banjo that afternoon by the silver treasure was her happiest childhood memory.

And it went as quick as the quicksilver spring.

Even now, she dreams of silver-tainted melodies.

Very nice, good flow, good words. I like.

That was very nice, told in a way in which I could easily picture everything. Loved the little touches: the banjo barometer, her egg and watercress sandwich, the gold chain she wasn't allowed to wear. Great fleshing in to a piece that was narrated with such a controlled tone.

I liked this piece it worked very well together. It had a lot of inner description which added to the strength of the piece. I liked the simple touches like the gold chain and so on. Great piece.

i will never look at little girls the same.
One crit: more of my personal opinion than anything, but
It was like stepping into a treasure.
Get rid of "a". It flows better.
Aside from that, I want more!

Good work, Dominique! Have a suggestion:
She would tell none of her secret treasure, (I’d swap NONE for NO ONE because it comes off like she’s saying she won’t speak to the treasure)

A well constructed 173, with especially vivid images. Thanks for the read.

Ooh, poisoned by her beautiful Mercury pearls?
You've lovely descriptions of child like awe here. I was lovely seeing it all through her eyes.
As usual - a fabulously written piece :)

Some lovely descriptions, Dominique - and a tragic ending (you're good at those).
I particularly liked the last line - beautiful.
Thanks for the read.

The language course is now finished. But there is plenty more to look at on the zebras54 website. Check out our photos, music-site fiction and the library.

If you liked the zebras54 website, kindly visit us again, and recommend us.
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If you liked the flash fiction exercise, and the idea of sharing  your writing with other writers/readers and getting feedback, then you can join the writing.comwebsite. It's free. You may now have reached advanced level at zebras54, but if you go over there, you will be a beginner again. I enjoyed the weekly challenges and the online camaraderie. Maybe you will like it too. 

Hoping that these pictures will inspire you!

funny-pet-cartoon-dog-typing-knows-.jpg image by writerchickamr