15 pieces of advice I wish I knew when I started writing. (Continued from part 1.)
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.
#6 Keep a journal
It doesn’t have to be a paper journal. Paper journals have that tactile aesthetic which appeals to certain people, but after using both I find that electronic journals are both easier to locate information in and much more secure. (You have all your writing files backed up and automatically syncing to a free cloud service like Google Drive or Dropbox, don’t you? Then you’ll never have to worry about losing all of your writing to theft or fire, or saving over a more recent draft with an older draft of something.)
My ‘journal’ features stories and ideas in three forms. The bottom tier of ideas are the normal journal fodder, or snippets: overheard dialogue, descriptions, scraps of things harvested from real life and online. They’re arranged into alphabetical order via headings, with an index/summary page. I’ll spend a couple of hours in here after I plan or write something, leafing through the snippets in case one cross-pollinates my story.
The middle tier are incomplete stories: not always incomplete in the sense that I got halfway through them and gave up, incomplete in that they’re a more developed idea which is missing some thing (or several things) to give it enough spark to become a good story. They’re individual documents which are given a working title and a score from 1-5, with 1 showing the most promise and 5 the least.
The top tier are stories in folders which have grown legs (scored as above), and for which I’ve started to collect articles and pictures as story research. Often, this is a passive process – I’ll be reading news stories online and stumble across something which informs one of these protostories, and makes me feel excited about writing it.
This journal keeping sounds like a lot of work, and you’ll certainly hear from some writers who disdain the process as a sponge for time which you could better use writing, but done gradually it takes less time than leafing through mounds of loose notes, and provides more verisimilitude than thinking a story out from scratch as you’re writing it.
#7 My best ideas come when I’m working on something else
I’m getting good at not procrastinating, so my mind has had to come up with creative ways to prevent me from writing. I’ll be plugging away at the keyboard and it will go, “Oh, hey. Remember that story you were thinking about a few months ago with the puddles and the black cat? I have the best idea for that. But you better write that idea down right now, or I’m going to forget the shit out of it and just leave you with a vague sense of frustration and loss at how good that story could have been.” Every. damn. time.
Of course, this can happen at a more mundane moment, like when I’m washing the dishes, or driving somewhere, or shopping. Sometimes, ideas for something else tumble in as I’m scribbling down the first lot. It can be tricky to juggle a sudden rush of ideas on two or more projects simultaneously, so prepare for it. Keep spare paper on your desk or a voice recording app on your phone to shorthand the ideas. Follow up on the same day, when you have some free time, to add them to the appropriate draft. A lot of these ideas, bubbling up from the deeper part of your brain while the executive level is preoccupied by tasks, are rolled gold. They need to be recorded.
#8 There is no such thing as writers’ block
Writers’ block. That old boogeyman hiding under the desk. Doesn’t exist. Shouldn’t exist. I have more than a hundred of those middle and top tier article/story/novella/novel ideas sitting there in a folder right now, and perhaps a thousand snippets in the journal. Most of the ideas are pants, but five of them have carried enough weight to be written as full length novel manuscripts so far, and I know that another six to seven are substantial enough to be parsed out to a story plan and possible first draft. I’ve been writing for a few years and that’s twelve ideas that I’m excited enough by to consider slogging through to a first draft stage. Guys, I’m just an average writer. You can do the same thing, I’m sure of it.
If I get to the end of those twelve books and can’t attract serious interest in any of them, then I’ll know that I’m not much chop and writing is not for me. But it will be the lack of talent that’ll see me off, not the lack of writing. I’m convinced what we call writers’ block is a combination of poor organisation (not writing ideas down in a systematic manner as they occur), procrastination (the fear that what we do is worthless) and lack of constraints (both personally and on the page). Fix those three things and you’ll fix the blockage.
#9 Some stories take a long time to bear fruit (and that’s okay)
I had a story plan about a boy who wakes up alone on a deserted island. It was okay. I had another plan about a diver who had to descend into an underwater cave to recover the body of another diver. It was okay, as well. One day, these stories collided in my head and became a single, much better story. It took years to happen. If I had written both stories already, I may not have stuck a subconscious post-it note on them: BRAIN, PLS FIX. That better story may not have happened.
But that’s not the end of the process. I wrote the story out three or four times. At that point, however, I was reading too much postmodern fiction and the characters in the story started doing terrible things like quoting the narrator, as if they could hear him, much like Harold Crick does in the somewhat awkward movie Stranger Than Fiction. It was a misstep and the story sat a while longer until my voice developed and I could write it ‘straight’. Only then was the story ready to send out in the world.
It’s those collisions of partial stories and the not-quite-good-enough stories that I’m looking for. This happens in two ways. I can either consciously force the ideas together to see what clicks, or can let it happen automatically while I work on other, more pressing things – almost like a program running in the background of my mind. My most successful short story (concerning a boy, his date and his abusive father back on the farm) had a decent first draft, but something felt ‘off’. The focus was wrong. And then I was sorting through books one day, came across Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and suddenly realised that the story was as much about the lower status of the father and son among their neighbours, because of the smaller size of their farm, than it was about anything else. That gave me the title, the sideways focus and the strongest thing I’ve written to date.
So don’t panic if a story idea doesn’t feel ‘right’. Leave it to marinate and concentrate on the things you have that do work. (The dozens of ideas growing in your journal.) Chances are, in the interim, the idea will develop the substance necessary for it to stand alone.
#10 Write what excites you
I had a teacher, a guy I really respect, tell me to steer clear of writing genre fiction. “You’re a literary writer,” he told me (as if this isn’t its own genre, anyway). But he was wrong, as much as I liked the idea of being a tortured literary genius. The thing is, I feel happiest when I’m writing for children and young adults. The writing feels fresh, playful and alive with possibilities. On the other hand, when I set out to deliberately write literary fiction, I mostly feel anxious. How can I even hope to pretend to nonchalantly hold it together like O’Connor or Carver or Johnson or Paz? I’m certain this trepidatious voice comes across in the writing, too, which just makes things worse.
The thing is, with the blurring of boundaries, a lot of young adult stuff holds up as adult fiction, anyway. I recently took the prologue of a YA novel manuscript, smudged the language and darkened the tone a touch, and submitted it as a standalone short story. It was shortlisted for a prize and snapped up for a contemporary anthology headlined by a prominent Australian writer (who had actually sent out my first rejection letter, quite a few years back, from a journal I had no business submitting to at the time).
Don’t force yourself to write in a genre because you think it’s hot, or might get you a deal, especially as a novice writer (i.e. the first five to ten years). You’ll almost certainly produce a pale and lifeless simulacrum which editors will turf after reading a page. And, by the time you manage to get good enough, that the hot genre will have staled just as quickly as it gained popularity in the first place.
Proceed to ‘15 tips for novice writers, part 3’, or return to Re: writing.
What are the things you know now that you’d want to tell yourself back when you started writing?