How to write a story
Journalist and novelist Paula Cocozza shares her top creative writing tips
I came to writing fiction through writing journalism, but the two disciplines are not as dissimilar as some might think. Both are about telling a story with all the truth you can muster. I wrote fiction in my head for a long time before I wrote it in any visible form, and I think that meant that when the time came to commit to paper, I had a voice I knew and trusted. When I wrote How To Be Human, I also had a job and two young children, so finding time to write was a challenge, but this scarcity of opportunity meant that I always met the blank screen with gratitude rather than fear. I think that’s a good way to start each session - by feeling glad to be there.
1. Write. Don’t stare at the blank page or the empty screen. Put something down. If it sounds wrong, or you think it’s rubbish, keep going. Don’t be put off. A story or a paragraph or a sentence can transform over a number of drafts and revisions. (Not always – there are blissful moments when it comes out right from that secret spot where right things come from.) Sometimes you need to write your way ‘into’ a story, and sometimes you need to get something down in order to understand or feel your way towards what it is you are trying to say.
2. Use paragraph breaks to make things happen. If you feel yourself getting bogged down in physical details – characters picking things up, moving – hit return and let whatever ‘needs’ to happen, happen in the gap between the paragraphs. In your new paragraph, have everyone and everything where you want them.
3. Cut. A short story is as much about the exclusions as the inclusions. Every word must be there for a reason. Cut the lines that make you feel smug. Cut the lines that make you give a small internal wince when you re-read them. (Unless it’s a good wince.) Edit with a ruler underneath each line to make you look at each word, and cut repetitions that don’t add something (some do).
4. What is your story in a nutshell? I like to imagine my story nutshells. Then I imagine rolling them in my hands. They seem to get a firmer shape. Make sure your story nutshell is evident - but it’s a question of taste how much of this to put on the surface and how far to make the reader hunt for it. Hunting can make a reader bring more of themselves to the story. Be sure, whichever way you choose, to exercise authority on the page. Rewrite your first few sentences until you have the narrative voice ‘fixed’ in your head. You need that consistency and truth of voice to make your reader believe.
5. End in a place that lets the reader feel that the story continues beyond the final full stop. It needs to be a short story on the page, a much bigger story in the reader’s head.
• Paula Cocozza is a feature writer for the Guardian. She'll be appearing at the Henley Literary Festival on Wednesday 4th October to discuss her first novel, How To Be Human, which was published this spring. She is also a judge for the 2017 Dragonfly Tea Short Story Competition, the winners of which will be announced at the festival. Paula tweets @CocozzaPaula