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Here's a Writing Tip: Don't Read the Writing Tips...
When I was a kid there were two sayings I thought were even weirder than the normal weird
stuff adults say, eg. whatever you do, God and the Pope can see you . No? Just my mother then.
The first was it's as easy as taking candy from a baby and the second it's as easy as riding a
bike. Now maybe I was an exceptionally greedy and/or clumsy child (be quiet in the cheap
seats) but to me both of those epitomise things only to be attempted by people with no
concept of pain or failure. Not to be attempted by writers then.
Now that I have embarked on this strange thing called writing, it seems I'm surrounded by people
offering me advice about how easy writing is. From the person in the pub you stupidly answered
author to in that mind-numbing so what do you do and how can I show you that my shit is better
dance to the best-selling authors who really don't work that hard but somehow it just happens,
everyone who can pick up a pen or click a keyboard apparently knows how to write. And they
would, of course, except they don't have time...The world abounds with writing tips. Here's my advice: don't read them. Seriously, go pick a scab or look at your Author Central sales ranking if you want to inflict pain on yourself, at least they don't come with a side-order of smug. Why should you walk away? Here's my tips (irony intended):
1. They all contradict each other. A few years ago The Guardian ran a series called Ten Rules for
Writing Fiction which featured lots of authors spilling the secrets of their success. Some of these
were beautifully written with extended metaphors that didn't at all feel like a bunch of people
waving their hands and shouting look at me, I'm the literary one and they were brimming with
good advice. David Hare was quite clear that you should write only when you have something to
say; Esther Freud states Don't wait for Inspiration. Discipline is the key. Michael Moorcock
maintains you should read everything you can lay hands on; PD James asks that you read with
discrimination; Will Self advises you stop reading fiction completely. Annie Proulx demands that
to ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand; Zadie Smith is all about the computer. All right,
I'm trying to make a point here and there is some commonality, especially over editing, but
basically the only way to treat this is like a giant pick and mix - make sure you find the tip
that meets your mood and ignore the rest. My favourite? Philip Pullman: My main rule is to say
no to things like this, which tempt me away from proper work.
2. They don't make you feel good about your own work. No disrespect to Sarah Perry but how many of us read the following opening to her Guardian interview with a sinking heart: To be perfectly frank, I don't write much. I never have. No Sarah, no. The rest of the interview
may have explained what she meant and left us with no doubt about her hard work but, by that point, weary heads had crashed onto desks and were bleeding onto the rejection letters. Tell me it was tough, make me feel better. I'm a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats sort of person - I celebrate your success but I'll celebrate it even more if you tell me there was a bit of struggle involved and, like Joanne Harris, you could make sculptures from your rejection letters.
3. You only read them when you are stuck. It's true isn't it? If the writing is going wonderfully and the agent is fielding offers not rejections, you don't go searching out writing tips - you probably feel you could write your own. Please, don't or, if you do, remember what it was like when you went looking. I'm a big fan of AL Kennedy who is all about humility and kindness, it's a good way to be. If you're stuck and the scab/author central thing isn't hurting enough, go ask a member of your family what they think about your writing and if they have any suggestions about how to make it better. You'll get the same crap feeling but at least you know they're idiots.
This is a game we are all learning, no matter whether we are one
book or twenty down the line and it would be foolish to march
along the road without ever seeking a helping hand. I am a big fan
of AL Kennedy's On Writing and have never regretted buying Emma
Darwin's Get Started in Historical Fiction - if you don't know her
This Itch of Writing blog it's also worth a look for practical tips. And
that, being honest, is what I want - practical tips I can put into
practice, brush up on and pass on in creative writing workshops
(Emma, if you read this - I cite you, I promise!) not lofty thoughts
from on high. Having said that, I did read a really good blog on how
to be a writer recently by Rebecca Solnit so I'm passing that on via
my Facebook Author Page (special tip of the day - always be
marketing, offered at no charge). Obviously I liked it most because
she'd written my thoughts, only better...
There was one quote on the Guardian page that I really liked - it went with the best piece of writing advice I think I've been given which was, in essence, if you want to be a writer you have to keep writing and it may be your 3rd or your 4th or your 5th book that cracks it. It's from Helen Simpson and I offer it below while I go off to sacrifice to the writing gods and hope the agent meant it when
she said she was in it for the long haul...
The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-It on the wall in front of my desk saying "Faire at te saire" (Flaubert) which I translate for myself as
"Shut up and get on with it."
Have a good writing day and remember children, word counts are nobody's business but yours (and God and the Pope's).
And you just thought you were going to write a book...
Redrafting, editing, finding, or not finding, an agent, understanding publishing, becoming an expert in marketing and social media, begging anyone and everyone who reads you book to become a reviewer, apologising to the people you forgot to include on the thank you page, losing any grasp on social skills. The reality of a writing life.
I often use the analogy of Bambi on ice to describe myself 18 months ago when I started on the process that would see me as an actual published author. I've certainly learnt a few lessons on this writing journey to the publication of Blood and Roses. I hope you find some of the ramblings useful...