Monday, 5 January 2015

ADVICE FOR WRITERS

Six years ago, I started to write a book. Fiction. Slightly roman à clef, but not too much so, as I think it's probably helpful, if writing something even vaguely autobiographical, to have a life interesting enough to be worth writing about, and whilst mine is hardly without incident, it lacked anything like the drama required for a plot. One also ought to write the kind of book one enjoys reading, and I rarely read non-fiction. But still, write about what you know, and all that, so I set the book in the magazine world - a Devil Wears Prada meets Mrs Dalloway.

Anyway, I am not a fast writer. At the end of last year I had 70,000 words, not all of them good ones. I shall blame the pram in the hall, the spectre of the bank manager and the demands of work, but still, I'm hardly an automatic writing machine. 

People have given me good advice, which can mostly be captured in the succinct and pithy counsel Stephen King once gave a friend of mine -'Stephen,' he asked, 'What advice would you give to a first time writer?'
'Just f***ing write it.'

That's all very well, but along the way, one has to also teach oneself how to write: I unwittingly set myself the fiendish challenge of writing first person and - like Mrs Dalloway - setting the damn thing on a single day. Would I do that again if starting afresh? Probably not, because it made life immeasurably harder - but the plot, narrative arc and characters couldn't be written another way (or they  possibly could but it wouldnt be a book I  wanted to write) so I simply taught myself how to overcome the pitfalls of the first person/rigid time structure thing.

I also learned that you can map out your characters in enormous detail - down to their horoscope and the scent they wear - but infuriatingly, they take on a life of their own and become wilful and contrary, even when one shouts 'But I'm the omniscient author' at them.

Six years is long enough, I thought to myself over New Year-the traditional time for castigating oneself about things done and undone- I will blooming well finish it by May. It is two thirds done, I know what happens in the unwritten chapters, I even know how it ends. But, imagine the horror: I sat down at the Mac only to find my writing had become perfectly horrid. Dreary, even. I know that in these circumstances one is supposed to plough on (Advice to Writers #37), but the words I put on the page were so inept, I really couldn't bear it. 

I remembered something a New York writer I admire once wrote: writing is a muscle. You have to use it frequently or it becomes flabby, inflexible, wasted. Good work only comes with practice, like many things, it's 10% ability and 90% effort. Much like I've become entirely unfit and out of shape in the six months since I stopped beasting myself at Equinox, my writing has become creaky and clumsy. It couldn't manage a single burpee. 

It reminded me that one of the reasons I began this blog in late 2008 was to create a space where I could give my word-hoard a workout. So, before I return to my resolution to get the last five chapters down on paper, I'm putting myself in blogging bootcamp. You're getting a post every day, even if it's a rubbish one, in the spirit of a Couch to 5K mission. I'll let you know when I think I can run without stopping to gasp for breath.




9 comments:

Alicia Foodycat said...

I admire you for recognising that your writing had lost fitness. I think more people could afford to do that. I suspect too many people put their work in the comfy forgiving lycra of family as beta readers.

Cat said...

I'll look forward to them.
I always enjoy your posts (and I loved listening to the recording with India Knight).

Knackered Mother said...

Hooray! very pleased about that, I love reading your posts. Love that advice, too. Wise (four) words.

donna baker said...

I talked to an editor that told me once, you do not edit Stephen King. I wrote a novel (I rarely read fiction now) and edited that thing to death. If I had gotten it published, I'd be editing it still today. Though I had to different agents, I finally gave up; it was so all encompassing I couldn't do other things like my art etc.

amanda said...

I am heartened by how many of my favourite bloggers have marked this year as a return to old school blogging. I am trying it myself but much more excited about reading more of your bloggin which makes me snicker in an unseemly fashion.

Anonymous said...

Very pleased you will be writing far more often (note: I didn't say every day! just in case...) as I always enjoy your blog.

george tannenbaum said...

Writing more. And better. Yay!

Michele Ward said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Josa Young said...

A first draft is always a bit meh. But at the very end, when you are up against it, with copy editors coming out of your ears, trimming, refining, changing, and you feel it will never end. And then suddenly it does end and it is over, and it seems to be sort of OK, but you won't know until people start reviewing it, and that can make you cry for all kinds of reasons. It is the most exposing thing you can do that isn't running around with a wardrobe mishap.