How to pass creative writing
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I have always loved to write—to toy with words, speculate with plots, sit before a blank page, and let my inner muse take over.
Since grade 9, I have been submitting to indie publishers, usually horror/dark fantasy-based, as those are my preferred genres. In my first winter term at UBC, I finally got to take 2 creative writing (CRWR) courses—and to measure my skills against a university-level scale.
Findings: a) Good creative writing often comes from atrocious, wretched first drafts that I improved afterwards, and b) my professors and publishers all roughly agreed on specific things they were seeking in a high quality creative writing piece.
Here are 8 tips to accompany you on your own creative writing odyssey:
1. Follow the submission guidelines
When you receive an assignment in CRWR (poem, scene, stage play, anything!), there will be specific formatting styles to follow, from font size to word count range. Follow them. Whenever you’re unsure about submission guidelines, talk to your prof, TA, or classmates.
2. Show, don’t tell
For prose, readers want in on the story, and providing more details on characters’ feelings and appearances can draw your readers in even more.
When describing a character’s emotion, show the physical presentation—e.g. “he looked sad” can become “his lips, quivering, curled in a pout…”
Avoid using adverbs. Merely saying “they said violently” could go further. Maybe strengthen the verb: “They barked” or “They spat.” Or, add more imagery/action to the scene: “They barked, tongues twitching and writhing, teeth gnashing together.”
3. Avoid clichés and the passive voice
Remove any clichés (phrase, expression, archetype) from your work; they detract from the creativity of your piece. In poetry, you may want to bend syntax, invert sentence structure, and use unexpected turns of phrases.
If you’re looking to accelerate the piece or minimize word count, use the active voice. Rather than “it was thrown by me,” use “I threw it” instead. That said, it’s your call. Maybe you’re going for a winding poetic skein, where using the passive voice is stronger.
4. Appeal to the senses—pretend you’re in your piece
The setting should not be a mere backdrop. Touch on multiple senses in your descriptions, specifying a sense of location, mood, atmosphere. Have the characters interact more with their surroundings. What do they hear, smell, touch? For example, maybe the sunlight isn’t just streaming in—maybe it’s blinding?
5. Give your piece a strong tone and a purpose
Writing that has a strong narrative tone and unique voices for every character (everyone should be a special snowflake) can intrigue your audience. But stay within your word range—every word/sentence/scene should matter.
With stories, you must have conflict. Something happens. It could be dramatic, like a murder mystery, or it could be a coming-of-age tale where something changes your character internally in some way.
Ask yourself why you’re telling this story. What do you want the reader to take away? Writing with a purpose, a message, and a set of themes in mind will help you sharpen your focus and increase the piece’s appeal to the reader.
6. Prepare for writer’s block.
Writer’s block, like a case of lethologica, can appear from nowhere and lock us in a chokehold—the words just refuse to come!
This is inevitable. Sometimes writer’s block can come from feeling drained of ideas, the barrel of creativity emptied.
For me (just like Virginia Woolf), it’s because I read something I love so much that I never want to write again. In Woolf’s words: “My great adventure is really Proust. Well—what remains to be written after that?”
7. . but retrieve your inspiration
You could draw from your personal life; what you find mundane may be fascinating to another. (That’s where journalling can help!)
Stephen King’s inspiration for Pet Sematary, for instance, came from his experiences of living by an actual pet cemetery and losing his daughter’s cat to a truck. Even the title and that line in the book (“That road has used up a lot of animals”) came from his personal encounters.
Or, muse-ify the things around you. Inspirations for some of my stories have ranged from a missing pet poster (a sci-fi/horror yarn with a missing robot) to a game of Old Maid (a vampire-dingo who pacifies prey with card games).
8. Almost ready to submit—did you proofread?
No one likes to read typos or run-on sentences. Read over your work with a surgical eye and with spell check on (in Canadian English). Identify plot holes, missing transitional phrases, grammatical bloopers. Pro tip: Read out loud for flow and logic.
If you would like another set of eyes (and feedback) during your writing process or before you submit, book a free writing consultation at the Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication.
When writing stories for class or professionally, remember to ensure that your work is original, solely your creation, and free from infringement on copyright. That includes any plots and wordings someone else created.
You can reference copyrighted/trademarked characters in passing, but you can’t use them as your characters (unless they are in the public domain or if you asked for permission from the original creator).
Top tips for creative writing
Crafting an original work of fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction takes time, practice, and persistence. While there’s no exact science to creative writing, the following tips will help you get started:
1 Write about what you know
Beginning writers always get told ‘write what you know’, but it’s good advice. Use settings, characters, background, and language that you’re already familiar with and create new stories from the world that you already know. This is like using research you’ve already done. And remember, your background, what you bring to the act of writing, is as valid as what anyone else can bring.
2 Write about what you don’t know
Use your imagination to create new situations, new characters, new relationships, even new worlds. Choose to write about a different period in history, or a place that you’re not familiar with. Where your imagination needs help, fill in the gaps with research. The best thing about being a creative writer is creating.
3 Read widely and well
Writers love reading. Make yourself familiar with the published landscape of writing in your chosen field, whether it’s modern poetry, literary fiction, thrillers, short stories, or fantasy. Nothing encourages good writing like reading good writing.
4 Hook your readers
Nobody is forced to read your novel or short story, so it’s important to hook readers right away. Your opening sentence or paragraph should encourage them to continue, perhaps by making them laugh, or exciting their curiosity, or just making them want to find out what happens next.
Consider the intriguing sting in the tale of the opening sentence of George Orwell’s 1984:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
It seems like a very traditional opening and then – thirteen? You want to know more and so you read on.
Now look at the first sentence of Raymond Carver’s short story Viewfinder:
A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house.
Just a short sentence but with so much that we need to have explained. We’re hooked.
5 Get your characters talking
We find out about the people we meet through what they say to us, how they say it, their choice of words, their accents, their verbal habits. Readers should be able to do the same with fictional characters. People on the page really start to live when they start exchanging dialogue.
Writing dialogue needs a lot of work – making it fresh and authentic, editing repeatedly to get it right – but it’s worth the effort.
6 Show rather than tell
Too much description, too many adjectives and adverbs, can slow up your narrative and cause your readers to lose interest. Where possible, it’s better to show you readers what a person, the atmosphere in the room, the relationship between your characters is like – show, that is, by what they say, how they interact, what they do. It’s more effective than telling the reader through wordy piles of information.
This is a tricky one. You have to do some telling so it’s important not to become obsessive about avoiding it.
7 Get it right first time
Try to get your first draft as near perfect as possible. Few writers manage this kind of quality the first time but no one ever wrote great literature by aiming low. On the contrary, aim for the best and do your best from the very start.
8 Keep polishing
If you don’t get it right first time, you can do what most writers do – polish and perfect through the editing process. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that editing is the same as proofreading; it’s about much more than correcting errors. Rather, editing involves carefully going through your work to see what to leave out, what to change, finding out what you have to do to improve your writing, make it sharper, tidier, better.
Editing can be hard work. It’s said that Ernest Hemingway took the last page of A Farewell to Arms through nearly 40 drafts, so don’t give up if you feel you’re getting nowhere.
9 Make the most of your opportunities
Many aspiring writers claim they simply don’t have the time to make the most of their ideas. Yet, if you analyse a typical day, there are always those intervals – using public transport, waiting for a friend, time spent in the waiting room of the doctor or dentist – when it’s possible to pull out a writing pad, a laptop, a tablet and just write. Identify your opportunities – five minutes is enough to get a few sentences down – and use them.