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I'm a computer engineering student, programmer, avid book lover and have a very vivid (some would say "screwed up") mind.

I recently thought up an idea for a very cool short/medium story. It's like a less technological version of the matrix with some elements of surrealism and Wonderland thrown in the bunch.

However, I've never written something before ... ever. If I try to start writing something, I find myself lost at where to begin. Do I worry about structure? Do I make a plan?

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A slightly similar question popped up before, and I gave some advice on where to start if you're feeling the itch to write. See: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/2284/… – Craig Sefton Aug 4 '11 at 7:15
up vote 8 down vote accepted

From a fellow engineer/programmer who's launched herself headfirst into a novel-length project, there's a few tips I've been picking up through trial and error.

I agree with Kate - write lots. Doesn't matter what. Could be an online RP, or speeches, or a journal. But keep writing, since that's how you improve and the process gets more natural. Especially if you've never really written before. I kept my skills from going completely rusty over the years by writing short stories, participating in RPs (a wonderful way to explore a character, by the way) and proofreading other people's work.

When it comes to planning a story, I find that it's useful to first determine your starting and ending point. If it's a character-based story, what is your character like at the beginning? Where do you want your character to be at the end; that is, how do they need to grow? From there, if you have a basic setting in place, you can start thinking about a catalyst for that growth (normally some kind of personal disaster). Piling problems upon a character is generally the way to go. :P

The same applies if the story is based around the evolution of a society, or a world. I found it always helps to think about the starting point, and what is wrong with it. Why does it need to change? If your answer is that it doesn't, then I don't believe you have much of a story. And then think about where it should be at the end. Maybe it doesn't grow - maybe it's a tragedy and the place self-destructs. Point is, you have a start and end which should start giving you ideas as to what happens in between.

I found that opening a word-processing program (any one will do!) and getting all my ideas out in a messy, stream-of-consciousness fashion normally helps to shape my thoughts. One will lead to another until ideas start forming about what I want to do. Just keep in mind that once you've decided something, it's always subject to change!

The other recommendation is index cards. Put down the key events and then start playing with them. It's fun, and leaves you room to fill in additional details. This also helps when you want to see where the gaps in your planning are.

Hopefully this will help you get started!

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There are different schools of thought on this, loosely broken down into Outliners and Pantsers (seat of their pants). Great writers in both camps, so it's really just a question of figuring out what works for you.

That said, I think I'd recommend that you jump back several steps. Writing is a skill, and while reading widely is an important step in developing that skill, it's not enough just on its own. Read a couple books on writing. (I'd recommend Stephen King's On Writing and Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel, but everyone has their own favorites). Do some writing exercises - keep a journal, write Morning Pages (several pages of stream-of-consciousness writing, done every day as a way to to declutter your brain), etc. There's lots of sites that give exercises for writers. You should also try to get some feedback on your work, so you know what's effective and what isn't. But mostly, experiment, and see what works.

While you're doing all this, I'd recommend jotting down ideas for your short story. But don't let yourself even try to start writing it. Think about it, dream about it, but don't write it. Not until you've A) got enough skill to write it reasonably well, and B)got enough enthusiasm for it that there's no damn way you're going to walk away.

And after all this, you know what? It may not work. You may not be a writer.

Writing's hard. Dreaming up the ideas is fun, but getting them down on paper, and then perfecting them - that's work. It's rewarding and exciting work, but it's far from easy. And just having one story idea is not nearly enough. The amount of work you have to put in to developing your craft is totally disproportionate to the satisfaction that you'd get at the end of it all if you only produce a single story. At least in my opinion.

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+1 for telling me not to even think of writing it and that after all I might not be a writer. – n0pe Aug 4 '11 at 2:29
Bear in mind that I don't know you at all. You could be a damned genius. The answer's more general advice to people who want to write but don't know how rather than anything unique to you personally! – Kate S. Aug 4 '11 at 2:31
Thanks for your opinion either way :) – n0pe Aug 4 '11 at 2:33
I agree with most of what Kate says here, except one thing. If you write, you are a writer. If you write (a lot), you will get better. You may have further to go or more to learn, but if you write, you are a writer. Just because someone can run faster than you does not mean you are not a runner as well. – Joel Shea Aug 4 '11 at 13:52
@Joel - no, I agree. But there are a lot of people who want to 'be writers' who don't actually seem to want to WRITE. If you write, you're a writer. If you talk about it and think about it and dream about it but don't actually DO it, you're not a writer. And writing is hard, so it's hard to be a writer. – Kate S. Aug 4 '11 at 15:12

Skip structure. Don't make a plan!

You have that idea rumbling through your mind. You see these pictures, even scenes. Grab a pen and paper (keyboard and word processor) and jot them down. Do it now! Don't read any further. Write! I said Write!, don't you even listen? Stop reading this!

Jot down your scene, think about a beginning and an end of your story and write it down (you are still reading, aren't you. Listen, if you keep ignoring my advice and read instead of writing, then you will never become a writer, because (believe or not) "writer" comes from writing, not reading. See the difference? Good. GO, WRITE!

After you have started, you will smile and be happy seeing the story flowing. After some time you will get stuck terribly. Then you should read Kate's answer again. Till then write. After that, guess what, WRITE. Oh, and during this whole process W.R.I.T.E

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+1 YES SIR JOHN SIR – n0pe Aug 4 '11 at 12:59
+1 100% agree. I would add that it's probably best not to even read what you have written, at least not at first. Once you have filled many, many pages with thoughts and stories, then you can go back and try to make sense of it. But your "job", as Natalie Goldberg says in "Writing Down the Bones", is to just fill the page and then move on to the next and fill that as well. – Joel Shea Aug 4 '11 at 13:47

If you have an idea, start writing it down. For some reason ideas seem to go stale or go away if you don't.

I'm an engineer, I'm a writer, they are not mutually exclusive. I took a creative writing (sci-fi) class in school, and almost failed. So I didn't think I could write well.

After watching a movie, I got ideas, and being bored, started writing, and 54k words later I reached the end. It was a blast! And the story was pretty good to. I'm 74k words into another story.

Writers write, reading is good but reading makes you a reader not a writer.

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For a long time, I was stuck on having a static beginning: "My name is jon. I live in utah. This is my story." HAHA, no. I generally don't reveal what's going on or even the protagonist's name for at least a time. Everything should come out eventually, but initially be a mystery; a story unraveling.

Throw your character into the middle of the action, or out in the middle of nowhere with no idea what to do next. Chain up your character naked from a metropolitan traffic light at 5pm. Go wild. It's your story, and you can do anything you want. Be God. Have fun being God. Play at it every day.

Having structure is good too, just don't let it hinder or stifle your creativity.

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