"A large number of people have talent as writers or storytellers - these talents can be strengthened and sharpened."
Stephen King, On Writing
Why Should We Write?
Ask yourself why you write. Even better, write for ten minutes, very quickly, about why you should write. The answers will surprise you.
"We should write because it is human nature to write. Writing claims our world. It makes it directly and specifically our own. We should write because humans are spiritual beings and writing is a powerful form of prayer and meditation, connecting us both to our own insights and to a higher and deeper level of inner guidance."
Julia Cameron, The Right to Write
If that doesn't do it for you, try this.
"Because I'm good at it"
"Because I want to"
Believe you can write! Accept your strengths & weaknesses and learn to be objective about them. Learn to take pride & criticism in equal measure.
Do not focus on the end result, rather enjoy the process of writing. It is a time to enjoy, to be by yourself, to be creative.
Being In The Mood
"It's a luxury to be in the mood to write. It's a blessing but it's not a necessity. Writing is like breathing, it's possible to learn to do it well, but the point is to do it no matter what."
Julia Cameron, The Right To Write
How many times have I heard people say they write when they get the inspiration to write. A lot. I used to be like that too. Sitting around waiting for that spark, that shimmering ray of light, which would light my day and my page. But what a passive existence that is. Now I write. Not everyday, but nearly everyday. And the days I write I feel better about myself. And the days I don't write I feel like something is missing in my life. I use my moods, and believe me I have many of them, to make me a better writer.
I write when I am sad and I use that sadness to write sadly. I write when I am frustrated and I write to clear that frustration. I write when I am angry and my writing is full of violent words. And then I am free of that anger. Whatever my mood, I write.
Creativity is always there, even when you do not think it is. It's a romantic notion that the spark, the magic, appears mysteriously and then slips away, leaving you with the perfect poem or short story. Creativity is not elusive. It will not leave you. Rather you have to learn to find it. Something within us wants to write. Something wants to write through us. Do not wait for it to show up. You show up. Regularly at the page, at the computer and let your writing be itself. Some days your writing will be euphoric and you will be swept away. Other days it will be cranky and slow. Accept both. And accept your writing as permanent.
But above all don't wait to be in the mood. Whatever the mood is a good mood to write.
Finding Your Voice
As each person speaks differently so it is that we write in an individual style also. Writing regularly will help you find your writing voice. You may find yourself mimicking other writers - this is ok - you need to try out different styles, as if you were clothes shopping.
If you are serious about your writing find the time to write a little bit everyday. 10mins is fine. It will go quickly. I call this streamwriting because we are just going with the flow and not worrying about how good it is, or how bad or just plain dumb. The most important thing is to put something down on paper. Do this on a regular basis and you will find it much easier to get into your writing. And you never know, you might just find you have a wonderful and unique writing voice. Try it.
Becoming A Writer
"If we didn't worry so much about being published and being judged, how many more of us might write a novel just for joy? What if we didn't have to be good at writing?"
Julia Cameron, The Right To Write
If you write, then you are a writer. Do not be anxious about not being a "real writer". Many people are too nervous to even come on a writing course, such as my weekend course, because they are afraid. "I'm not a real writer". They say. Or "I'd love to be a writer. I just have no gift for it." Where does this notion come from? That writing is somehow dangerous. Too difficult even. We are buying into the mythology that writing is a torturous and lonely activity.
Try it because it's fun and it'll make you happy.
What Do I Write?
"Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music - the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls, and interesting people. Forget yourself."
Writing is listening. And watching. Observing. Note-taking. Forgetting.
When we forget that we are trying to write, we write. It's like dictation. Forget "yourself" and let go of being a good writer. Just be a writer and have the experience of writing through you. Become the vehicle for self-expression.
Write for money. Write for love. Write to remember and write to forget. Write to escape and write to ground yourself. Write fiction, non-fiction, films, plays, poems, journalism, musicals and essays. People are suited to different genres. And by trying them all out you'll find which one is best for you. And perhaps there is more than one. You may be drawn to writing short stories or writing articles. You may want to write poetry or prefer dialogue. Try them all out and decide which one or ones you enjoy most. The one or ones you enjoy most will probably be the one or ones you are best at. When we enjoy our writing it shows.
There are plenty of magazines on the Costa Del Sol to aim for. Read them and check out what type of writing they publish - look at the style and the length. Reading is homework.
"Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. (It) was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobolized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm arouind my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'"
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
When we first ride a bike we fall off. Do not become downhearted if when you first start to write you think it is rubbish. This is why I am a fan of streamwriting because this lets us find a rhythm. It is a warm-up for the real thing.
When you have decided what you want to write, short story or article, ask yourself "what is it about?" And keep that question in mind. Pin it up so you don't forget. It's easy to digress in writing. Perhaps you are writing a love story and the theme is love between two retired people who had given up on ever finding a partner. Remember that and don't go off into dross about pensions and the weather.
Stay with your theme.
Finding The Time
"If I had a year off, I'd write a novel."
One of the biggest myths around writing is that in order to do it we must have huge, great chunks of uninterrupted time. We imagine that more time might give us time to be creative. But think of this, if you wait for enough time to listen, that means you don't have to listen now. You don't have to write now.
But I'm not going to let you off the hook that easily.
As a teacher I've heard many a student tell me that "they don't have enough time to write". And the "if I had time" line is a get out. It protects us from the fact that a novel has to be written. But get this, novels are written in sentences and enough sentences makes a novel. When we make time to write we can do it anytime. There is always enough time because we find time for it.
Don't write with an eye on the end result. Write from love. Yes, it is daunting to think of starting a whole novel but it's not daunting to think of writing a sentence.
The trick is to trick yourself.
Say to your writing self that you will write for ten minutes. Only ten minutes. Why, it is over before it has begun. Be willing to write badly, to chase dead ends, to scribble a few words and to write for the hell of it rather for the perfect, polished result.
"The obsession with time is really an obsession with perfection. We want enough time to write perfectly. We want to write with a net under ourselves, a net that says we are not foolish spending our time doing something that might not pay off"
Julia Cameron, The Right To Write
When we write we are no longer standing on the sidelines being envious and saying things like "I'd love to but &" Stop speaking in conditionals. Making the time to write can be so enriching. Believe me. I say all this from personal experience. Making time to write in my life changed a lot of things.
It gave me time.
"Show don't tell."
Stephen King, On Writing.
A good character will tell the story for you. They don't react to situations - they create them. And knowledge of your characters takes time. You are going to love some of them because they are part of you and you are going to hate some of them also because they are part of you.
When you introduce a character focus on one thing that sums them up. Perhaps it is their smell. Perhaps it is how they move. What sort of first impression they make is more important than a complete physical description. Leave something for the reader to imagine. Notice how a good writer introduces characters.
You can also base a character on someone you know, the way your dad smokes his cigarettes right to the end, or the way the woman in the corner shop smelt of cats. Pages of description will be dull, see if you can see and hear how they would say something. One line of dialogue can work better than pages of description.
If you are writing in the 3rd person let us see this character from different points of view. Your characters are 3-dimensional. If they are a "baddie" then they will not be all bad - somewhere there will be a soft spot. If they are good people they could still be capable of deception.
Stay open to your characters. Listen to them and watch them grow. Your story will come out of them. You probably won't even know them until weeks or months of working with them. It's the same as real life. The truth about people drops through gradually.
"You avoid forcing your characters to march too steadily to the drumbeat of your own artistic purpose. You leave some measure of real freedom for your characters to be themselves. And if minor characters show an inclination to become major characters, as they're apt to do, you at least give them a shot at it, because in the world of fiction it may take many pages before you find out who the major characters really are, just as in the real world it may take you many years to find out that the stranger you talked to once for half an hour in the railroad station may have done more to point you to where your true homeland lies than your priest or your best friend or even your psychiatrist."
Some people write dialogue naturally and others struggle. If you find it difficult, don't include too much. You will get better at it though. Make it as natural as you can. Each person has an intonation, a rhythm to their voice. Some people speak in short sentences with limited vocab, others are more verbose. Some use slang and terms of endearment, others are more formal. A child will talk differently than an old person. Read your dialogue aloud and decide if it flows or if it is clunky. If you want to create a pause or break in dialogue, break it up with a line of narration.
Generally using "he says" is fine. Trust your reader to understand if your characters are arguing, there is no need to go over the top with "he screamed, he wailed" etc
Don't go overboard on the adverbs either. Sometimes you do have to write "he shouted" but you don't have to write "he shouted menacingly".
Narration & Description
Ethan Canin says "Nothing is as important as a likeable narrator. Nothing holds a story together better." Having a likeable narrator is like having a great friend whose company delights, amuses and entertains you. When your friend asks you to accompany her to the rubbish tip you can't think of anything better you'd like to do, but when a boring or annoying person invites you to an expensive restaurant you know you'd rather stay home and watch paint dry.
A narrator is honest and reliable and does not manipulate us.
Many new writers go over the top in description. Do not fall into the trap of admiring your own voice. A sunset that is described in two paragraphs is dull. Too much description and the reader will think, "ok great sunset but what is happening here?" Be sparse on your adjectives and adverbs, too many and it will be crowded.
Focus attention on the parts that matter. What is the point of writing a lot on the elderly lady that appears once? You are confusing the reader. Focus. Make the key points in your scene, story, chapter stand out. They are the ones that deserve the colour.
"Plot is the main story of your book or short story. Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen. Characters should not, conversely, serve as pawns for some plot you've dreamed up. I say don't worry about plot. Worry about characters. Let what they say or do reveal who they are, and be involved in their lives, and keep asking yourself, Now what happens? The development of relationship creates plot."
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
So focus on character. What arises from the nature of your characters? Where have you put your characters? How do they react to their surroundings? How do they react to the people around them? How do they react to the weather?
Your character is on a journey. That is the plot. Do they go from sick to well, from hope to despair, from despair to hope, from weakness to strength, from dependence to independence, from bad to good? This is the tension. And this is the story. And believe me it falls into place, day by day, and the story will keep moving forward. Keep the vision, the story if you like, alive. And keep it continuous. Ask yourself where is this chapter going and where is this paragraph going. And keep it on track.
And sooner or later you'll arrive at the climax. The climax is the major event, near the end, that brings all the parts of your story together and after the climax one of your characters is profoundly changed. Maybe you've been aware what your climax is all along, but maybe it's been revealed to you slowly. Don't fix on the climax too much, just concentrate on writing your character and finding out who they are.
To Plan or Not to Plan
There's always someone who asks me, "Do you plan?" But what I do isn't the issue. It's what you do and there are as many ways as there are writers.
Lots of people, before starting a novel, think they have to know everything before they start. Some writers research carefully. And some writers don't. Some writers plot every single point and some writers merely sketch. Some writers plan consciously and some writers write unconsciously.
Writing is a personal process. We can give each other tips and hints but we do it alone. And we do it differently.
In my experience, patterns emerge after we write them, not planned out before. It looks like careful construction, it looks like we did plan, did think our books through, but a lot of stories simply unfold. You know the beginning, you know the end and you know a little bit in-between. But it's like traveling, for me, in that I never make hotel reservations in advance, I never really know where I am going, but I trust, completely and utterly, that I am going in the right direction. Even if it doesn't seem like it sometimes.
It's an adventure.
And of course, many adventures have a scary point. In traveling, it's that point where I've stumbled across myself again. I thought I'd lost her. And now, here I am, all self-conscious again. Of my gawky, awkward, English self. And in writing it's that point where doubt comes in. It's near the end, because suddenly this thing is nearly done with and then what? I'm no longer happy wallowing and splashing in my writing, I'm stuck. I'm wondering if it's good enough.
I've started to compare.
I've stumbled across The Wall. The Block.
What do I do now? Well, I keep writing. I say I am willing to write badly. By willing to write badly I am free to write. By willing to be that gawky English girl I can be the self-assured English girl. I've given myself permission to be exactly who I am. And to write exactly what I want to write.
And who cares anyway? I'm not writing for you. I'm writing for me.
If you want to write then you better get over your perfectionism. I'm a perfectionist. In my head my writing wins awards but when I try to transfer that vision to the page I'm downhearted by the gap between my fantasy and my reality.
But I don't let my perfectionism stop me from writing. My writing is my playfulness, my inventiveness, my life-force. Sure, I still want to win awards for my writing, but the only way I am going to get there is by writing. By persevering. And perseverance feels great.
Perfectionism, on the other hand, drives me mad. It's idealism. And it's false. Sometimes my writing is a mess. Kurt Vonnegut said, "When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth." So, go and make a mess. Make mistakes and use lots of paper (as long as you recycle it!). Perfectionism is not your friend. But messes are.
"The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no-one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, "Well, so what, Mr Poopy Pants?," you let her. No-one is going to see it. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great that you never would have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means."
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Almost all good writing begins with bad first drafts. In fact, Anne Lamott has an entire chapter in Bird by Bird called "Shitty First Drafts". The point is, you need to start somewhere. Get it down. And in the second draft you fix it up. You say what you want to say more accurately. And the third draft is correction.
So you finish draft one. Great! It's shitty. But still, treat yourself to something. And then put your writing out of your mind. If it is a short piece, don't look it at for at least a week. If it is longer, then leave it for longer. Then take it out and dust it down, sit down with a cup of tea, an open mind and read. And do try to quiet the voices in your head. I mean, don't be too hard on yourself huh?
You will notice the glaring errors straight away. Perhaps also the abundance of adverbs. Strike them out and neaten the whole thing up. It will be probably be shorter. Show it to someone you trust and someone who will not just say "that's good" and then hand it back. Give it to someone who will give you feedback. Positive & negative.
Go on and do draft two. Whereas draft one was all about creation, draft two is more about editing. You may need to change hats. Left side to right side of the brain.
Then leave it for a few days again and bring it out for the third time. It is almost there, all you have to do is polish it. Correct the grammar, scrub out a few more un-necessary words and tighten it. Well done. It's finished!
Depending on what you have written you need to take a look at the market. If it is a magazine piece, study your market. There's no point sending your piece on sci-fi to a publication on animals. Make a list of magazines and then call them! Find out the name of the person to send it to and check on their preferred word limit. Find out their response time. Send it to one magazine at a time.
Presentation!!! Your article or short story should be either double spaced or line and a half. Do not staple the pages together. Loose leaf is fine. Number the pages though. Include a short covering letter to the person you are sending it to. And I mean short. No need for personal histories here. Dear so and so, I am sending you a short story/article entitled "Writing Sucks". You might even want to say you go to a writing class. It means you take it seriously. Mention if you have been published before, but not if it was twenty years ago AND don't explain your story in your letter. A one-line synopsis is good. But get it into a short line, which is snappy. End the letter with a nice note, thanks for taking the time to read it. Include your phone number and address obviously!
AND do not get despondent if they say no. So what? Send it to another magazine and then another. And in the meantime keep writing. You will get better. I promise.
If you want to write regularly and are aiming for publication then you need to set up a routine. Find your writing space in the house. This is your sacred space. Close the door and eliminate distraction. If you write daily set yourself a daily target, this could be a word count, or a time limit, or a chapter. When you finish treat yourself.
When you first start out the temptation might be to get carried away. Don't. Keep the writing sessions short and sparky. That will keep up your enthusiasm. End the day on a high note so you are excited about returning the next.
Remember some days will be good and some days bad. It's just like going to the office.
Writing is a learned skill. Of course some of us are better than others and some of us are worse. But the ones that get published are the ones who don't give up when the going gets tough. They have some self-belief and some talent but most of all they put in a lot of hard work and persevere with their writing. So, start now, keep going and don't stop. Writing will enrich your life.