As a ten-year-old writer, I was on the brink of despair. I adored writing—I couldn’t get enough of it—but every time I touched my pen to paper my efforts ended in failure. My stories were rambling, the plotlines confusing, and I never finished a single one. I didn’t know what to do!
But when my mum signed me up to a writing workshop one school holidays, I met a woman who quickly set me straight. Carole was the workshop’s facilitator, and she took it upon herself to write me a letter that completely changed the way I went about writing and, consequently, the course of my life.
This is what she wrote:
When you are writing stories, you need a lot of DISCIPLINE! Someone like you has lots and lots of ideas just bursting to come out. The ideas sometimes get a bit impatient. They don’t want to wait for their turn at being included in one of your stories! Because you’re so kind, you don’t want to keep them waiting and you allow them to all bundle into the one story. Oh no! Everybody wants their say all at once and the poor story doesn’t know what’s what–there is so much going on. SLOW DOWN!! One idea at a time please.
You have to be in charge of the ideas, which requires—you guessed it—DISCIPLINE!
Think of your main character(s) and the story problem that needs to be solved. Only use the ideas that are directly related to THIS story problem. Save the other ideas for another story (even if they are fantastic ideas)!!! Keep a little notebook of the ideas you are just dying to use that are not related to the current story problem. You’ll always have a plentiful supply of story ideas, then.
In order to help your stories to end, you’ll need to have clearly in your mind how the story problem will be solved and stick to your plan, using only necessary details. Have you thought of incorporating a “twist” in how the story problem is finally solved? A touch of the unexpected!
Her advice was spot on. My wild imagination was not only keeping me up half the night, but it was robbing my stories of clarity. My lack of discipline made me impatient, and I was shoving ideas into places where they didn’t belong. My poor (well, non-existent) planning meant my stories had no direction, and therefore no way in which to end.
But after receiving Carole’s letter, I started recording all my ideas in a folder. I started striving to become more disciplined. Most importantly of all, I started to plan.
And I finished a story. Then another. Then another.
I highly doubt Carole remembers me, but I sure remember her. In many ways, her letter is what has allowed me to become the writer I am today. If there are any other writers reading this post, I hope her advice helps you as much as it helped me.
For those of us who live half our lives in our heads, coming up with ideas isn’t the hard part. The struggle comes with being disciplined enough to know how to apply them, and determined enough to see them through to the very end.
“The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.”
—Joyce Carol Oates