15 pieces of advice I wish I knew when I started writing.
My review of Buffy Greentree’s The Five Day Writer’s Retreat set me to wondering what I could include in my own hypothetical writing guide. Part of me hates the idea of even offering this advice to other writers. However, if the 2013 version of me could throw a couple of pages into the DeLorean and go back a few years to when I started writing, he might tell me the following things (although I’d probably prefer if he told me to put everything I owned into gold, Google and Bitcoins). Perhaps some of the advice will resonate with you.
#1 Procrastination can be a fear of failure
Let’s draw an analogy between writing and another creative form: pottery. If writing = pottery, then the first draft of any writing you do is the equivalent of gathering the unworked clay that a ceramist drops onto the wheel. That’s it, no further.
If it’s good clay, then you can try to shape it into something useful, or something special. If it’s not, then you can put it into storage for recycling into other projects. No ceramist expects a random chunk of clay to transform into a Peter Voulkos the moment it strikes the wheel, and no writer should expect that the first draft of something reads like it’s going to win the Booker. But, often, that’s how we feel. And the danger is that we extrapolate an unrealistic expectation into a downward spiral of worthlessness and subsequent inaction.
When your writing is crap, remind yourself: nobody has to see that first draft, and nobody is going to judge you, because the only thing you’ve cost yourself is a little time in working on a skill. Improving skills is something that most people do nearly every day of their lives. The worst thing you can do is nothing. Nothing comes from nothing; that’s what bonkers old King Lear reckoned, anyway, and it’s good enough for me.
#2 The muse is lying
The muse says: I will only visit you with transcendent ideas if you create a beautiful writing space as a shrine to me. The muse says: I will only give you transcendent ideas if you turn them into the highest art for me. The muse says: tonight, we can truly say together we’re invincible. (Whoops. Wrong Muse.)
Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. Don’t wait for the muse; make the damn muse come to you. How do you do this? You treat writing as a simple exercise that you must repeat and repeat, until you get good enough to succeed more than you fail.
Shaolin monks don’t get knuckles of rock by wistfully staring at a mountainside vista while they wait for a deva to fly by with a new set of hands; instead, they punch hard things until they’re good at punching hard things. E.B. White once said: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” Put your trust in pedantic E.B., rather than the muse.
#3 Train yourself to write in small bites and odd places
Full-time writers like to show off the permanence and polish of their writing studios and routines, but you have to remind yourself that they didn’t get the heritage bluestone studio facing the ocean until the royalty cheques started flowing in from the big successes. Before that, they had to compromise. Some wrote during their morning and evening commute; others in hotel rooms, or libraries, or during their lunch hours. Whatever their circumstances, their desire to write was stronger.
We all know modern life is complex and the demands of it carve our days into small sections. It’s also easy to listen to the lies of the muse and think that, unless you have hours and hours to find the right space and frame of mind, nothing can be achieved . Yet there’s not a writer out there who couldn’t (1) spare just a thirty minute daily window for writing and, unfettered, (2) punch out at least two hundred and fifty words in that time.
That’s over ninety thousand words in a year, or sixty-five thousand if you take the weekends off – both respectable lengths for a debut novel. And here we are (me included) with much more spare time on our hands and much less writing on our hard drives.
Learn to deal with dislocations and interruptions to your routine. Take pride in the fact that your writing isn’t some fragile, wisplike construct which collapses in the face of any interference. Make the way you work resilient and you’ll be surprised at how, when and where you can write.
#4 However, routines are critical, too
That last point glibly suggests that you might be able to write a novel a year in your lunch hour. Not in this office, you tell me, not with Kate from Accounts hassling me about fundraisers every time I pick up a pen. You may find you need to get creative with how you write. Say you can get up an hour before you normally do and find you get a serene window of writing in which you can pump out five hundred words a day? Then go for it.
‘Routine’ doesn’t just apply to when you write, it also affects how and where you write. It’s a good idea to carve yourself out a writing nook with aesthetics which are in harmony with your writing style (for instance, if I had that bluestone view of the ocean I’d spend eight hours a day in a water coma with nowt to show for it). My nook is an old rolltop desk in the corner of a spare room, facing a wall. Your mileage may vary.
But don’t use the absence of a routine as a crutch for not being able to write. You should be able to get out of bed in a hotel room, or at your parents’ place, and write those words. It may feel a little like running a new and hilly course than your normal path along the river, but the important thing is that you’re running. Writing really is like exercise: the more you do it, the fitter you get.
#5 Constraints can free you
Constraints on writing come in many forms. If you’ve ever put off your tax return or writing a speech for an event until the last minute, only to find that completing the task was much, much easier than contemplating it ever was, then you’ve run up against a constraint of time: the deadline.
Here’s another one that freed me: the constraint of possibility. Back when I used to try to write something without an idea of what happened in the story, I’d often run out of steam in the worst possible place: partway through the first draft. The clay-gathering phase. My paralysed mind would stutter, What happens now? P-p-please respond. Because my characters could do anything, they did nothing. And so, to defeat this, I started constraining my stories with plans.
I understand that seat-of-the-pants writers may scoff at the use of plans, but my plans are never rigid constructs. I won’t start writing something until I have a good idea of the journey which takes place, but that doesn’t mean that if I come up with something—or, as usually happens, several somethings—which work better along the way, I won’t immediately work them into the draft. (I also remain convinced that time spent on a solid plan is more than recouped during structural editing of the story.)
So, set constraints on your writing. Panic. Only write only between the hours of 10pm and midnight. Only write while naked. Write a plan that radically prunes the possibilities of what you can write. Tell people you’ll have a draft of a novel they can read by Christmas. But don’t make it their Christmas present. Not unless you attach it to a bottle of something to make reading it worthwhile.
Proceed to ‘15 tips for novice writers, part 2’, or return to Re: writing.
What are the things you know now that you’d want to tell yourself back when you started writing?