‘I’ve got a story to tell, but I don’t know how to go about it?’ As writers, it’s not uncommon for us to have friends come to us and ask us for advice. Usually, some variation of these words is where it starts. It can be difficult to answer that question; there are so many things to consider and so many assumptions we might make. Often, when this is asked of me, I end up having a very long conversation with the person about what their idea is and what they want to achieve. Over time, I’ve realised there are three very important questions that guide this process.
Whether you’re reading this as someone who needs some guidance on starting out, or maybe you’re looking to help a friend, the following three questions can help you determine what it is you want to do, and how you might go about doing it.
- Who is the story for?
Do you want to tell your story because you want it as a keepsake for your family? Or do you simply want to write for yourself? Writing without having to think about publication is one of the best positions to be in; you are free to tell your story without having to think about market constraints and building an author profile. An important thing to remember if you are writing memoir – or any kind of personal nonfiction – is to think about self-care. Sometimes revisiting painful memories is difficult and can take a toll mentally. Have a plan for how you will relax and recuperate after a difficult writing session, and how you might tackle some of those more emotionally draining writing periods.
Are you writing this story because you want it to be published? If so, who is your audience? You need to be specific here. Don’t just think ‘anyone who likes fantasy’ or ‘all YA readers’. Think about specific types of people: ‘young teenage girls who enjoy sport’ or ‘elderly men who like space operas’. This will help you decide how you are going to tell your story, whose point of view you might tell it from, what sort of language you are going to use, and how detailed your story needs to be.
- What experience do you have?
There are three parts to this question: what writing experience do you have? What reading experience do you have? And what life experience do you have?
Let’s start first with writing experience. A lack of writing experience shouldn’t deter you, but it might be a good option to start writing more often if it’s not something you’re used to. Keeping a writing journal and practising different writing techniques regularly will help you build your storytelling and writing skills. Likewise, it’s a handy way to try out different options for your story, like what happens when you switch up the point of view, or how the story changes if you tell it in a non-linear fashion. Practising before or while you’re writing your main manuscript is a great way to help you gain confidence.
Similarly, your reading experience will help you determine what decisions you may want to make with your book. Reading other books of a similar genre to yours will help you pick up on common themes and techniques for various genres. This may include things such as the length of the book, how many points of view are utilised, whether it’s common for a story to be told in first- or third-person point of view, and what story beats are expected. If you want to write a book in a genre that you don’t normally read, it might be a good idea to read a bit more before you start writing.
Finally, your life experience. Now let’s be very clear here: we’re not saying that young people don’t have enough life experience to write, nor are we saying you can only write about what you know. This question is asking why you are the best person to tell a story, particularly if you are writing about the experiences of a marginalised group. This is about acknowledging that stories are powerful and that if you are going to tell a story that reflects real-world people, you need to consider how your words will have an impact. Think about your role as a writer and how it contributes to culture and societal thinking and think about if there is a better way to tell your story. It may mean that in order to tell your story, you have to engage in large amounts of research and consider collaboration with another writer.
- Do you have to write a book?
When we say the word ‘story’ many people immediately imagine writing a book. But there are many different ways to tell stories and many different platforms for telling your stories.
These days, there are lots of different platforms for sharing narrative work such as podcasts, blogs, story circles, and storytelling apps like WattPad. It may be that your story is better as a radio play than as a book. If it’s short, you might want to record yourself telling the story in a video format to share on YouTube.
Even if the final format is a book, you may wish to engage the services of a transcriber or, better yet, an oral history expert, who will provide prompts and ask questions and record your stories and putting them together or typing them up for you.
These three questions can help you establish exactly what it is you want to achieve in telling your story and provide you with a starting point for further research, development and planning. It’s the beginning of a very exciting journey. We hope you enjoy every second of it!