Creative writing can be immensely rewarding both personally and professionally. Good writers who can express their ideas creatively are always in demand, no matter where you live. Writing creatively, however, can take years of practice, not to mention a fair bit of talent. Fortunately, with courses like this novel writing workshop, you can easily learn the tools of the trade.
In this blog post, we will show you some creative writing fundamentals followed by writing exercises with examples.
Example 1: Long Paragraphs, Rich Details
This is the beginning of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Autumn of the Patriarch, a book he personally considers his best:
“Over the weekend the vultures got into the presidential palace by pecking through the screens on the balcony windows and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur. Only then did we dare go in without attacking the crumbling walls of reinforced stone, as the more resolute had wished, and without using oxbows to knock the main door off its hinges, as others had proposed, because all that was needed was for someone to give a push and the great armored doors that had resisted the lombards of William Dampier during the building’s heroic days gave way.”
Long – sometimes too long – Marquez’ paragraphs sometimes run on for entire pages. Along with Marquez’ stunning eye for sensory details, this often means that the reader has to stop mid-page, take a deep breath, and gather his thoughts before moving on. The effect can be disorienting, but the rewards for the patient reader are immense.
Lesson: Short paragraphs are easier to read and write, but long paragraphs with complex sentences can be very rewarding in the hands of a skilled writer. As a beginner, however, you should walk before you leap – i.e. start with short paragraphs before you move on to complicated sentences.
Example 2: Sparse Details, ‘And’ Sentences
Ernest Hemingway was the undisputable king of the ‘sparse school of writing’. Instead of flowery prose – as was popular during his time – he used short, stolid sentences, usually joined with ‘and’. No “valley of ashes” where “ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills” (from The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald) for Mr. Hemingway. His stories would use as sparse details as possible. While he used a lot of short sentences, Hemingway was also fond of joining several short sentences with ‘and’.
Here’s the beginning of A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway:
“Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the café des amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside.”
The third sentence here bears examination. Essentially, it can be broken down into several sentences as follows:
“The leaves lay sodden in the rain. The wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal. The café des amateurs was crowded. The windows misted over from the heat and smoke inside.”
Despite being the ‘correct’ way to write, the above sounds awkward and far less poetic than Hemingway’s ‘and’ version.
Lesson: Prose doesn’t have to be flowery to be good. Short sentences can work equally well as long sentences. And there’s nothing wrong with using a conjunction excessively, as long it adds to the flow of the prose.
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Example 3: Breaking the Rules of Punctuation
Here’s a fragment from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridien, a book for which he won _ prize:
“They traded the mule accoutered as it was for a Texas stock saddle, bare tree with rawhide cover, not new but sound. For a bridle and bit that was new. For a woven wool blanket from Saltillo that was dusty new or not. And lastly for a two and a half dollar gold piece. The Texan looked at this small coin in the kid’s palm and demanded more money but the harnessmaker shook his head and held up his hands in utter finality.
What about my boots? said the kid.
Y sus botas, said the Texan.
Si. He made sewing motions.”
If you were the editor of a newspaper or magazine, this would probably go straight into the trash or be riddled with so much red ink to be practically unusable. But because McCarthy uses the prose so fittingly, it works.
Lesson: Punctuation exists as a means to an end, not the end in itself. If you believe you can arrive at the end without using punctuation, or that using punctuation might actually distract the reader, then so be it. You won’t be the first writer to do so, nor the last.
Example 4: Poetic Metaphor
The metaphor is the most powerful weapon in a writer’s arsenal, and also the most dangerous. A poor metaphor can ruin a good paragraph. A great metaphor can elevate an ordinary piece of writing to the realm of poetry.
The best way to study metaphor, of course, is by actually studying poetry.
On that note, here’s a fragment from Pablo Neruda’s poem, Body of Woman:
Body of woman, white hills, white thighs,
You look like a world, lying in surrender.
My rough peasant’s body digs in you
And makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.
And here’s another from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table
And this from She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron:
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Lesson: Read as much poetry you can. It’s okay if you don’t understand the meaning of the poem. Focus more on the beauty of the language and the richness of the metaphor.
Example 5: Casual First Person Narration
First person narration can be very powerful when done right. Because you must embody the voice of the person narrating the story, you will often have to write in a more casual, informal voice.
Junot Diaz makes wonderful use of this in his stories. Here’s an example from his collection of short stories, This is How You Lose Her, titled “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars”
“But then the Letter hits like a Star Trek grenade and detonates everything, past, present, future. Suddenly, her folks want to kill me. It don’t matter that I helped them with their taxes two years running or that I mow their lawn. Her father, who used to treat me like his hijo, call me an a**hole on the phone, sounds like he’s strangling himself with the chord. You no deserve I speak to you in Spanish, he says.”
This wouldn’t pass muster if you were writing about an 18th century aristocrat, but fits in perfectly with Junot Diaz’ protagonist – a rough Dominican immigrant. The occasional curse word is permitted as well since it only adds to the story.
Lesson: Align your voice with the voice of your protagonist. Speak like he/she would speak and the results can be very powerful.
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Example 6: Historical Details in Fiction
Writing historical fiction requires a special skillset. Not only must you be fastidious with your research – factual lapses are rarely permitted – but you must also match your voice and tone with the historical setting.
Hilary Mantel, who won two Bookers for her books on the Cromwell family, does this extraordinarily well. Let’s see an example from her book, Wolf Hall
Boatman. River. Saint. He’s been travelling since early morning and in the saddle for the best part of two weeks on the cardinal’s business, and has now come down by stages – and not easy stages – from Yorkshire. He’s been to his clerks at Gray’s Inn and borrowed a change of linen. He’s been east to the city, to hear what ships have come in and to check the whereabouts of an off-the-books consignment he is expecting. But he hasn’t eaten, and he hasn’t been home yet.
The cardinal rises. He opens a door, speaks to his hovering servants. ‘Cherries! What, no cherries? April you say? Only April? We shall have sore work to placate my guest, then’. He sighs. ‘Bright what you have. But it will never do, you know. Why am I so ill-served?’
Lesson: Writing historical details in fiction requires a thorough understanding of the time period, right from the kind of language used to the way social structures operated.
We’ll leave you with a quote from Stephen King’s On Writing which sums up the entire process of creation:
“Life isn’t a support system for art; it’s the other way around”
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