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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?

  • 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
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    There are a lot of us engineer folks who also writer (I'm a computer engineer). Two words: Write. Write. Write. Write. Write. Write. Write. Write. Write. Write. Write. Write. Write. Write. Write. After a time you can't stop! – JP Chapleau Jun 7 '17 at 14:55
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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
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    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
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    @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
  • @Kate - Okay, that explanation I completely agree with. – Joel Shea Aug 4 '11 at 15:26
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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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    +1 100% 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
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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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For a second I thought I had written this question because it is literally my situation 4 months ago. Most other answers have given you a bit to work with but I think they are a little too narrow. The best piece of advice I have seen here is to just start writing. I have a dropbox account linked to all of my devices so the moment I get an idea I can open a new Text doc and title it what its about, quickly right what's on my mind before it disappears, and then save and close it after I'm done and just go on with my day. Enabling yourself to write whenever inspiration hits is my first piece of advice. Please do not ignore your job or type while driving as this will be detrimental in the long haul.

So here's my first piece of original advice, skim the internet for guides. Now before you start reading fanfics and whatnot what I mean is google websites and blogs about writing. Websites like Standoutbooks, Deadrobotssociety, and Writingexcuses are all wonderful free places to start! Here's where the word skim also becomes important; do not get bogged down by a single site. Spend your time shopping around, metaphorically of course. Wherever you go to learn about reading in this first step should cast your net as wide as you can and to be like the wind, never staying in one place for too long.

Still on the same subject of reading an researching is to do something book lovers enjoy doing, go to your schools library! I go to a community college and even the small college's library is enormous, with hole sections dedicated to things like psychology and ethics. As you may have guessed there is a whole section on how to write books! Free books about how to do the thing you want to do written by professionals doing the thing you want to do. It is a beautiful thing.

My recommendations for learning how to write can also be summed up with this, read books about how to structure your novels. The ideas come from within and reading about how to come up with writable ideas is useless until you learn how to properly structure your writing. Your notes made about stories in your head will remain that way if you don't understand the fundamental concepts of Plot, Characterization, Theme, Symbols, Syntax, Setting, Pacing, Character Arcs, and Genres. If this seems daunting, that is because it is! It is the majority of what writers must comprehend in order to consistently write compelling stories.

After you comprehend these basics then you will be where I currently stand, this is not to say that I have mastery over the fundamental concepts that I stated above, but that I have made as best use of them as I can, for now at least. Now that you have a working understanding of what the body of work should look like, it is time to dress the story and add your soul. To me the soul of the story is what you, specifically as a person, can bring to this story. If you give two writers a prompt or even set out a whole plot for them then they will write the story in two separate ways and the story will read differently. This is because they have their own soul to add. So soul then is also the way you go about telling a story; and mood, tone, and word choice seem to be the most prominent to me. Romeo and Juliet can be told in so many ways, it can be told like a horror story, two families rivalries bring two children to commit suicide, and a dastardly priest helps the two die. Or it can be told happily, two lovers having enjoyed each other for what seemed like forever, drifted off to be together for eternity.

Once you understand structure and have picked out what soul to imbue your story with you can go back to thinking of ideas to write about. You will increase your knowledge of all that you already know by writing more and more. The more you write the more you can learn from your mistakes and the more you can enjoy your successes. As the screen-wright Aaron Sorkin has said, "You can't be afraid to write crap." Everyone writes terribly throughout their career and you have to get over yourself and move on.

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For a really easy way to at least plot out your first story read about the Hero's Journey here. This page has a basic story outline that has shown up time and again in the folk tales of numerous cultures world-wide.

Go through each of the stages of the journey and try to think of your fictional world's equivalent of that stage. It's okay if the minor events don't have an equivalent. Also find a place in this narrative for all of the cool things you want to happen in the story.

Go through your fictional world and decide what the limitations the characters face. It's not much of a story if every obstacle can be wished away.

Get into each character's head and establish what they know, what they believe, and what they want. Make sure that each choice they make jibes with this.

Once these things are done, it's time to knuckle down and write.

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There are a lot of answers here already, some of which I might contradict in part, but here's the procedure I'd advise, given my own experience in world-building. (BTW skim-reading some of the links here may help before you start.)

  • Bullet-point, brainstorm or otherwise succinctly map out the way your world works. Don't waste 50k on this; this isn't what your novel will be.
  • Similarly devise characters for your story. If you need a plot in mind to do this invent one first, but be prepared to alter or even replace it to fit these characters.
  • Devise a plot that is at least consistent with your characters. You can be as much of a plotter or a pantser as you like for this, i.e. you can let as much or as little of the detail as you like exist before you write the first draft. However, have a rough idea what story you're telling in this world.
  • Write a draft in which the plot happens, the characters and their relationships are fleshed out with no show/tell violations, and the way your world works is clear when it needs to be. You can spell out some details of that as you go, especially in Chapter 1, but be prepared to junk world-building that doesn't really advance your plot or characters. Be careful any world-building doesn't happen with lazy methods like "as you know..." being said to characters.
  • Rewrite chapter 1, in whole or in part, to ensure it hits the ground running with characters, not plot. You may need similar excision of material later.
  • Read through the whole draft, changing whatever needs it. It's not just about typos; you need your characters to be consistent, you need to fix plot holes, you need to make sure the reader will understand etc.
  • When you've made the draft as good as you can get it, get someone else's feedback to make it better, preferably someone who doesn't know you well. I don't care if you have to find a fellow novelist, then promise to beta-read their manuscript in return for their beta-reading yours. Just make sure you get an external insight. Do not be downhearted by the criticism; act on it (except where you think they're wrong, but don't disagree with two people!), then say, "Wow; it no longer has those problems". It's a good feeling.

Good luck! BTW if at any point you need others' thoughts on your world-building ideas, use this Stack Exchange.

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