Monday, 5 April 2010

Some Lessons

The book I'm reading at the moment is a long one. It will probably take me another week to finish, which is a long time to go postless. So instead of posting about a book I've read, I'm going to share a few thoughts that have reared their balloon-shaped heads recently, in the evil soup of my mind, on the topic of writing.

These thoughts have been appearing recently for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I'm planning a novel at the moment: and planning is the part of the writing process where I really think about whatI'm doing. I do some thinking when I revise, but not as much. When I'm doing the writing itself, I hardly think at all (true story.) But when I plan, I think.
Secondly, I got an email this morning from a writer friend who has been on the blunt end of a couple of things I've tried writing before. The email was a critique of the last thing I sent her, the opening chapters to a novel I put to one side a while ago. Apart from being very positive, it made me realise two things. (1) I'd learnt a lot since the first thing I sent her. (2) There's a lot I can learn from this second lot of criticisms.

So that's why my thoughts are full of how to learn about writing, right now. It's such a complex and ineffable skill that learning it can be a bit of a mystery. Other than just getting on with it, and hoping Mr Subconscious is picking up on everything as you go, there's not much obvious to do. So it seems to me, anyway.
Learning how to write is foggy. But what it also is, is very personal. I've picked up a few good things so far in my novice attempts, and I'm about to share them. But as much as they have been useful for me, they may be the opposite for someone else. These are things I've learnt about how I should write, and I say nothing about how anybody else should.

(I've read a bunch of writing advice in my time: my experience is, for every three Absolute Rules Of Writing you read, two will contradict each other and the third will be absurd.)

Anyway. Here are some things that I've picked up. Again, this is advice for me as much as it is from me:

1. Revision is pretty powerful. The book will get better in the second draft, in almost every way. The writing, characterisation and plot will all tighten up considerably. It might seem obvious, but I was surprised by the depth and extent of the effect. Second drafts are more than twice as good as firsts, as a rule of thumb. But note: this is revision as in 'complete rewriting'; not as in 'correcting typos'. A sister point to this is:

2. Your first draft is naked. Don't hand it out too readily. If you can, don't had it out at all until you've put some clothes on it: you'll only get embarassed later. Okay, sometimes it is good to get an outside perspective early on, before you get carried away with a bad idea, but be cautious.
When you're writing the thing, a part of your brain will (has to) believe that what you're writing is actually not bad at all, and so why not show it off? A confident, likable voice appears in the back of your mind, saying you should let people know how good this thing is, and let them know that you didn't even have to revise it to make it special, like most other writers. IGNORE THIS VOICE. IT'S THE SAME VOICE THAT TELLS YOU TO DO YOUR SPECIAL DANCE WHEN YOU'RE DRUNK. IT WILL END UP ON FACEBOOK. Nobody wants that again, Ben.

3. Confuse the issue. Different problems happening at the same time will bounce off each other, distract and escalate. Your hero will have to decide on their priorities and make decisions between the problems, which tells the reader some interesting things about them--and the reader has to make their own choices, too. All good stuff.
On the other hand, if it's really obvious what the problem is and what should be done, it's no fun at all. Either it's obvious to the hero as well--in which case you're limiting how heroic they can be, as you've done half their job for them: or it's not obvious to the hero--in which case, your reader will shout swear words at the idiot as they watch him or her run around in circles when it's clear they should be running in straight lines.

4. Write like it's your job. That's what you want in the end, isn't it? For writing to be your job? So get up early and spend eight hours at your computer, when you can. None of this 'waiting for inspiration' talk. Yes, there are good writing days and bad writing days, but the only way you tell the difference is by making yourself sit down and write for ages. At 9am, you're always going to think it's a bad writing day. Most times, you're wrong. A sister point to this is:

5. Know when to let yourself off. You need to have the confidence to admit when a day is not going well, and act accordingly. If it's 4.30pm, you've written nothing you're happy with, and you're going slightly insane... stop. It's a bad day, don't beat yourself up about it. Have the evening off, or write something else.

So there's a few things I've learnt about how to get the best out of myself so far. I've got a lot more to pick up. Are any of these true for you? Or is the opposite the case?


  1. I've discovered that number 5 is hugely important (I don't write, I just study) and you have to stick to it to avoid going completely gaga.

    What's the "big book" that you're currently reading?

  2. Good points I agree with them all. Point 1 is my mantra. In fact I may even get it on a T-Shirt.

  3. the 'big book' is Micah Clarke, one of Conan Doyle's hisgtorical novels. It's not huge, but probably a solid 180,000 words.

    i'm currently failing at point 4, because i'm also 'going to work as if it's my job'. gah.

  4. I'd love to see your special dance. ... I could say something more profound about your lessons, but the dance thing seems just creepy/funny enough to stand alone.