Helena Coggan, aged just 15, whose debut novel was published last week, tells us why your 500 words could be the best you ever write.
Helena Coggan, published at age 15.
The first five hundred that you have in you can be enough to spark the best story you will ever write.
I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember. Or, more accurately, I loved stories: I would make them up in playgrounds and classrooms, and scribble them down to stop myself forgetting them. I listened to audiobooks, radio programmes, anywhere I could find magic: dragons and conquered lands, vigilantes and heroes. I was a bookworm, and therefore writing a book myself – one day, far in the future – was a natural dream.
So I began to write short stories. Small pieces – fragments – which I could write, go over and correct until they were readable. The vast majority of them came to nothing, as I had expected, but most of the time just writing them was enough. I would ask someone to look at them to see if they were any good, and if they provoked no particular reaction I would simply store them away, and work on new ones. I was spectacularly inefficient – I still am – but it didn’t matter. Writing was what I loved, and the less efficient I was, the more time I got to spend writing.
I entered children’s writing competitions, just to see if anything happened. I tried to learn from every entry: which were too long or short, simple or complex, melodramatic or implausible. Then I would keep writing. A long story, I reasoned, was just a more developed version of a short one, and I had written a lot of short ones. I must have tried out dozens of ideas in those attempts, hundreds of characters. They all burnt out after a few pages. I could never think of an ending, so the stories had nowhere to go. I kept trying. I was never expecting anything full-length to emerge, but I tried anyway; I had nothing to lose, after all.
But just to make sure I didn’t give up, I made myself a promise when I was ten: to write a full-length story before I turned thirteen. I never imagined being able to keep that promise; and indeed, I didn’t. It was motivation, I knew, not commitment.
But as the birthdays passed – eleven, and then twelve – I knew I was was running out of time to keep the promise. The flow of writing slowed once I started secondary school. I wasn’t trying as hard as I would need to if I was to have a shot at a full-length story.
I turned thirteen, and the promise expired. Fine. I would try again. I knew I had almost no chance of being able to do it; but if I didn’t try at all, I would have no chance. I had the rudiments of a plot, the bases of characters, the skeleton of a premise from all of that time not-quite-trying.
So I sat down and wrote them.
All the old attempts came together and unfolded. All those entries and short stories, and every lesson learned from them, was poured into the story that became the book. Five hundred words became five thousand, and then fifty thousand, and then a hundred thousand, and slowly the short story became a long one. But the first five hundred were the most important, because they were what it took to remind me of what I had always known: I loved stories. The first five hundred that you have in you can be enough to spark the best story you will ever write.
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