15 bits of advice I wish I knew when I started writing. (Continued from part 2.)
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.
#11 Don’t stop writing because you’ve got ‘nothing’ to work on.
Okay, so I’ve told you to only write about fully developed ideas which you feel excited by. You’ve looked in your story folder, frowned at everything and said, “I don’t have any of those.” (Doubly so if you’ve only been writing for a little while.)
These developed ideas don’t just magically appear, though, especially not when you’re a novice writer. Take the most promising thing you have and work on developing it until you either get excited by it (at which point you write it) or sick of it (at which point you put on hold and start developing your second-most promising thing). Think about your stories at point during the day, until you’re turning them over in your mind without even realising it. When you read something, anything, think of links between it and your own developing stories. Keep noting those new ideas down as you have them. After a while, you’ll have more ideas than there is time to write them, I promise.
#12 Critical reading is 50% of your progress as a writer
Okay, so I made that percentage up. But if you’re not reading critically (i.e. not just for the story, but the form and function of the writing as well) and making notes on what you discover, then you’re slowing your progress as a writer a great deal. It’s easy to say, “Well, I’m a writer, who has time to actually read, as well?” The answer should be, of course, all of us. And we shouldn’t be skimming through what we’re reading, but asking ourselves questions like why an author chooses to use certain techniques, how they use them and how effective they are, as well.
I keep another (!) journal document filled with the great paragraphs I’ve read in books, articles, stories and poems, then sorted into categories and annotated. Okay, so I’m a bit weird like that. Here’s an example from Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home:
“A black-haired boy was standing by her bed and he was waving to her. She guessed he was fifteen years old and he was holding a notebook in the hand that was not waving. The notebook was yellow. He was wearing a school blazer and his tie was stuffed in his pocket. Eventually he disappeared into the wall, but she could still feel the breeze of his invisible waving hand.”
Characterisation: are they mad or just the victim of visions? Readers may question the groundedness of a character, like Kitty, who regularly claims to see ghosts or visions. In our minds, she becomes less knowable, more dangerous.
Whenever I finish writing a plan, or the first draft of a story, I’ll flick through this journal during the editing process to see if any techniques I’ve noted leap out at me as begging to be incorporated into the writing.
#13 Set up your writing around your life, not vice versa
That is, work on a career that you enjoy, and which offers you enough writing time to make you happy. Most forms of writing are never going to pay all the bills. (I’ve tried technical and copy writing—both excellent ways to make money by the word—but I’ve found that the last thing I want to do outside of writing for work is writing for play.)
There’s a common trope of the starving artist who struggles through poverty to find great success—Jeanette Winterson, J.K. Rowling—but you never seem to hear from the thousands who didn’t make it, or nearly made it, only to cave in after spending their most productive years hunched over a keyboard for pennies on the hour. Combine this with the mantra of selection bias from every writer who’s made it (“Work as hard as you can and you’ll make it for sure, just like me!”) and the endless supply of blind optimism available for the first few years that you write and it’s easy for novices to make appalling life decisions in pursuit of their art. Trust me, I have.
Here’s a better idea. Work towards setting yourself up so that, eventually, you can maintain a comfortable lifestyle with part-time work or consultancy. Don’t be caught down the road trying to sustain the dream while you work two minimum wage jobs to sustain the rent.
#14 Focus on living well in terms of stress, sleep, eating and exercise
As noted in that previous review, the life/write balance is one of the most difficult aspects for a writer to work out. If you’re already exhausted when you sit down at your desk, it’s unlikely that you’ll produce anything of great worth in that session; worse, you may come to resent writing as contributing to your exhaustion.
Just like managing your work time, you have to manage the other areas of your life in an efficient manner to allow you to carve out the time necessary to write and get better at writing. I know it’s hard, and my life is a lot simpler than that of other writers I know. In many cases, you really do need to sit down and budget out your time in the same manner that you budget your salary.
#15 Set big goals and break them down into achievable steps
A hundred thousand word novel might seem like an enormous task (well, it doesn’t until you sit down at your computer and see the cursor blinking in all that white space), but it’s fifty days at two thousand words a day. That’s two months of holidays or long service leave, with some of the weekends off.
A short story collection might seem like an enormous task, but it’s one story a month placed in a journal—and there are a multitude of journals out there which will publish decent writers at any level from complete novice to accomplished craftsperson—and entered into a short story competition. At the end of the year, you’ll have a collection of short stories of which half to all have been previously published and (hopefully) one or two which have been shortlisted, placed and perhaps even won a literary prize.
I’m an average writer who’s hellishly lazy and I’ve gathered half a dozen shortlistings, commendations and writing prizes at state and national level. So much of it is being in the right place at the right time, but if you’re not taking those small steps to get your stuff written, edited and out there, you’re not going to be any place at all.
Return to Re: writing.
What are the things you know now that you’d want to tell yourself back when you started writing?