We all have a love of literature (why else would you be in this board?). Some people have a natural gift or talent for writing; others do not. That's what this thread is for.
I've occassionally been asked by others for my advice on how to improve their skills, to write to the best of their abilities. I'm always happy to help others if I can, so with that in mind I've decided to post my typical response here. Please keep in mind that these are only suggestions. You're obviously not obligated to follow them, but if you aren't that strong of a writer yet, I do suggest that you take the time to have a look. I'm not the strongest writer in the world either, but I've been told that this guide has really helped others who have seen it.
The best way to write is to come up with a part of the plot. Everybody comes up with a different section, and its normal for people to come up with a plot point at either the beginning, the middle, or the end. In my case, I usually think of the ending first. It's a critical thing to come up with; you should always have an ending before starting the story. That way, you know what you're working towards.
Once you have an ending, look for the beginning of the story. Ask yourself, "What is the character doing? What needs to happen for them to start the story? Who is with them?" Once you have the beginning and the end planned out, you can start on the tricky part; the main plot.
The plot is one of the most difficult parts of writing. You should have it all planned out before you even start the actual writing. You need to think, "What happens to the character to get the action rolling? Why are they doing what they are doing? What happens to guide them to the story's end?". It's so important to get everything down pat mentally before picking up that pen (or keyboard). Iron out all of the little details so that the reader doesn't get confused.
One of my favourite techniques to use (and one of the simplest and most effective ones) is to use foreshadowing. Add in little clues about the plot along the way (make them subtle); that way, an event that happens later in the story doesn't seem to happen spontaneously. You're not telling the reader explicitly what will happen by foreshadowing. You're adding in a tiny bit more detail that the reader will probably not think too much about, or miss entirely when they read it the first time. But then, that little hidden clue leads into a huge plot point, and the reader realizes that it was in the story all along. It's a magical feeling to be reading a story and that happens; you just suddenly think "Oh yeah, I remember that!". A couple of well-placed foreshadows can really save a story later on, although they're never as effective the second or third time through.
Establish what the setting(s) is/are. The setting isn't just the place, it's also the time. Keep it realistic, and flowing from one spot to another (see Pace and Word Choice below).
Always have every detail of the plot set in stone before you write. You can improvise as you go along, of course. Switching some parts around, replacing a part, or adding in a brand new idea is always good; it keeps the story fresh. But don't add in too many seperate plots; it makes the story confusing, and the reader will enjoy it less. If you have lots of great ideas, don't worry. Figure out what is most important to your story, and make it the main plotline. Take two or three more ideas and make them into subplots that keep the reader interested as the story progresses. Always make sure to wrap up the subplots before the main plot though. It's easy to get lost in ideas, and hard to work each one out. If you still have lots of ideas left over at the end, don't worry. They can go into a sequel, or a whole new story.
Pacing is tricky. You have to go quickly enough that the reader doesn't lose interest, but slowly enough that you don't accidentally leave out any of the plot. The best thing to do, in my experience, is to just write at your own pace. You shouldn't usually start a story by going straight into the action, though this really depends on the way you're introducing it (is it the aftermath of a war? Did a Pokemon battle just finish?). The first two or three chapters should introduce the character(s) to the reader, and slowly begin the plot. Put in little plot details in those first few chapters before saying what the challenge is.
Once the plot has been fully introduced it's easy enough for the characters to follow it, but difficult to decide what pace they should go at. It may be hard to do, but never be afraid to have two or three chapters in a row that seems to be mainly filler, but still have some semblance of a plot. These "filler" chapters (for lack of a better word) are where foreshadowing comes in. Remember that no detail in a story should be put in just for the sake of it. Every detail should contribute to the plot in some way, and every detail should be wrapped up at the end of the story, even if you're planning to write a sequel.
Always remember; there is never a wasted moment in any story, and every action serves some purpose in the end. It may be difficult to write, but all it does is add to your story by taking your time. And if just one reader complains about the pacing, don't worry. You're making the story flow at that pace for a reason, and they will see it at the end. Never take someone's advice to speed up, because you just shut out parts of your own plot. Going at any pace other than your own can only hurt you. The biggest problem I have with most fanfics that I read is that they rush through the story; they need to slow down.
If you're worried that the plot goes too slowly, the option of a cliffhanger is a really good choice to make. Add in a sudden plot twist and then end the chapter. If it's done well, it keeps the readers really interested in what could happen and they'll check back more often to see the update because they're being driven mad by frustration about what could happen. It's very important not to overuse them, though. You want to keep the reader interested, not piss them off.
Word choice is both tricky and fun. It's fun because you get to play around with words. It's tricky because you have to make the background and details more interesting than just the bare bones of the plot. A good story makes the reader feel as if they are actually part of the action, and word choice helps with that. For description of scenery or atmosphere, you want eloquent words that describe the setting so well the reader is put into that story. It's kind of a touchy-feely thing; you want to put the reader into the story, not make it seems as if the author is trying to make you look stupid. You want to avoid overusing eloquent words too. It's trickiest if you add in conversation.
Readers don't like it when characters talk in a fancy way, or use the same words that are used to describe the scenary/setting. A story should seem realistic, and that includes the characters. The problem is that people talk completely differently from what you would use for scenary. The trick is to integrate the two different levels of word usage in chapters.
In speech, don't always use "he said" or "she said". That's not to say that you can't use "said", just don't use it all the time. Switching things up keeps it interesting, and there are a variety of other appropriate words you can use depending on the scenario: moaned, growled, gritted, exclaimed, questioned, queried, shouted, shrieked, whispered, mumbled, panted, drooled, groaned, complained, muttered, the list goes on and on!
So as you write, think about what words you're using. Do they describe the setting? Are they too fancy? Too simple? It's a tricky part of the writing process, but it can be a very fun one.
Most people are good with detail, but it's an important and integral part that should be mentioned. Detail is vital to the health of a story. Without detail, all you have is a basic plot. Every author needs to pad their story, but the question is, to what extent? In a short story or a oneshot, you don't need to add much detail on the surroundings. All of the detail should be focused on the characters, and how they grow as the story progresses.
In a longer story, it's much harder. The characters are more likely to interact with their environment than in a short story, and the environment is more likely to play a role in the story. It's therefore vitally important for the setting to be as padded as possible to make it as realistic as possible. You want the reader to be able to see exactly what is going on. It's all part of putting the reader into the story. Even though it's so important, detail is the easiest part of the writing process. Consider the following sentences:
1) Marc, Nigel, and Erica walked on the path, heading towards the town.
2) Marc, Nigel, and Erica walked along the path quickly, hoping to break out of the forest and reach town by nightfall. A stream tinkled gently nearby and a cool breeze blew towards them, ruffling their hair and filling their nostrils with the savoury scent of fresh watercress.
Which of those two sentences is more interesting to read? Adding detail makes the setting more realistic, is interesting for the reader, and adds length to the chapters. It doesn't take much longer to write, and it can be used in conversation too:
1) "It's just frustrating," Nigel said.
2) "It's just frustrating," Nigel growled, grinding a fist angrily into his palm
Adding in that little extra detail in the second example really helps the reader feel the character's emotions. Always consider a character's perspective of the situation when you write their dialogue.
It's said that there is no such thing as an original story anymore, and that every work is inevitably based on another. This may or may not be true, but keeping a story as fresh and original as possible is absolutely vital for success. I'm not talking about plagiarism; I'm talking about seemingly inconsequential similarities between stories. If you take a look at Advanceshipping stories, for example; it's seemingly inevitable that by the end of the story, Ash and May will be a couple with either Drew or Misty ending up humiliated and loveless.
You read that in one story, and think "cool". Then you go onto another story and it's the same. And again. And again. And again. And again...
The plot of each story could be completely different. But despite that, almost every story that you read will end with the same results. It's just boring. And if you're writing dozens and dozens of these, all of them ending in a similar way... All that you're doing is hurting yourself, and your readers, by rehashing the same storylines. Okay, so maybe Advanceshipping stories is a bad example, since that's just one ship. But if you read an Advanceshipping fic, and follow it up with a Pokeshipping fic and a Contestshipping fic, you'll notice that the same things seem to happen, just with different characters. Seems like they all have to end like that, right?
It's simple to write an story that ends differently than above. I'll let you be imaginative and figure out how, but I've seen many fics that follow atypical plots. This, of course, applies to any story that you might write. Be as original as you possibly can. You'll only help yourself by going in directions that others are not.
You don't have to write one chapter and then upload it straight away. In fact, it's a very unwise thing to do for a long story (although I admit that I do it all the time). You should always have at least one chapter in reserve, if not two. By writing ahead you can spot potential plot inconsistencies, or problems that you may need to explain. It helps you to see the bigger picture. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have at least one chapter in reserve. Looking back is often just as important (if not more-so) than looking ahead.
That's not to say that you have to write ahead, but you should at the very least know where your plot is going so that you don't meander all over the place. Writing ahead just helps you to keep focus on what is happening.
Proofreading is critical. You can have the best story in the world, but if you can't spell words right or use proper grammar, nobody will want to read it. For many, this isn't really an issue. But, you should always re-read your chapters and think about:
*Speech: When a different character starts talking, always put it on a different line
*Comma use: Commas are useful little things. But if you use them too many times in a sentence, it's hard to read. If it's a long sentence, consider splitting it into two.
*Semi-colon: It's used in a slightly different way than a comma, and can be a real boon to a writer. I used to hate them. Now I love them!
*Sentence structure: Is it too long? Too short? A sentence fragment?
*Punctuation: End sentences with the right kind of punctuation; you can choose between a period, a question mark, an exclamation mark, or even an ellipse (...) or hyphen (-). In conversation, closing quotation marks go after the punctuation.
Read, re-read, and read your work again. Every time you go over it you're bound to see something you didn't notice before. It may be boring, but it helps. Or, get a friend to look over it. Getting someone who doesn't know how the plot will end to read the story is invaluable! Every published author does this. And let's face it, somebody is far more likely to read a story with correct spelling and grammar than somthing littered with mistakes.
I've already talked about foreshadowing and cliffhangers, but there are lots of other techniques you can use too. I'm not going to go into detail on each one, since there are lots of websites that can explain what each means better than I can. I will list some of them, though.
I cannot emphasize this more. Characterization may be the single most important part of a story. You can have the greatest story idea ever, but if the characters are bland and boring, nobody will read it. Because if the characters are boring, the story is boring.
So what can you do to improve your characters? It's surprisingly simple.
Give them interesting personality quirks. Perhaps May has a new travelling companion who absolutely hates ramen. That sets up an interesting (and unique) conflict between the characters. Or maybe Brock gets hit in the head and develops a love for all things spicy. Is Dawn afraid of shadows?
Original characters can be the hardest to write. When writing a fanfiction, you usually know the characters really well from watching the anime. Depending on how much they've been developed, they can be among either the easier or the harder to properly write and characterize. For a realistic original character you need to develop both their personality and a plausible backstory. This can be done in any order. If you develop the personality first, think about how what has happened in the character's past that made them this way. If you work on the backstory first, think about how this will influence their personality. It's a neverending cycle.
Growth is vital. The purpose of any story is to see how a character grows and matures, and unfortunately not very many people understand that. When developing an anime character for a fanfiction, it's usually easy to do. You can see how much a character has grown throughout the series, and you can continue to follow this path. Again, with an OC it's harder but not overly so. I won't tell you how to make a character grow - it's for you alone to decide - but it is incredibly important.
Characterizing Canon Characters
It's always nice to see an old friend from the anime, games, or manga introduced into a story, especially if it's been a long time since we've seen them. But that nostalgia can be kinda spoilt if the characterization of that person is horribly off. When introducing a character, it's probably best to familiarize yourself with them. Depending on what continuity your story takes place in, you can watch the episode(s) they appeared in, check out the role they had in the games, or read a few chapters of a manga. Bulbapedia is always a good source to check for any additional information (how likely is it that Sabrina owns a Chinchou?).
That's not to say you can't develop them like you do your Original Characters; every character should grow to a degree, and your story should reflect their changing personality. But you really shouldn't introduce Professor Oak as an axe-murderer, for example.
It probably seems like a lot of hard work to get everything included, doesn't it? Well, it is, but never get discouraged. Writing is fun, and it takes time to get everything right. If you need to, write a couple of drafts before starting the good version. It's just a part of proofreading, right? You should never put up a chapter if you aren't happy with it.
Don't worry if it takes time; you should always see lots of room for improvement in your work. Feedback is important, since it shows you where you are in your writing, and how you can improve. And never forget the difference between "its", "it's" and "its'"!
Thanks to Blackjack for allowing me to post this!