My Saturday morning began with a quick read of a two-part article in the Guardian, "Ten Rules for Writing Fiction," in which a number of contemporary authors were asked to give their advice. As both a writer and an editor, I found a lot that was worthwhile, though some took the question more seriously than others, and the article was very long -- probably the editors didn't want to offend anyone by leaving them out. The best standalone lists, I thought, were those by Geoff Dyer and Al Kennedy.
So let's look at what the responses had in common, and what stood out.
First, each author found a way to say: "If you want to be a writer, write." I don't write fiction, but I've written every day for several decades. Before I became a writer, my journal was full of pages talking about all the reasons I wasn't writing. The ways to avoid and procrastinate are endless! If this is what you really want, there's only one path: stop talking about it, stop making excuses, and write.
Two other words appeared in almost everyone's list. The first was "Read." Good writers read widely, and they think hard about what they've read. If you list your favorite authors, can you also explain why you admire them? Have you analyzed their work, so that you know what it is about how they write that works so well? Have you tried to emulate it? There's nothing wrong with imitation if you know you're doing it and trying to learn from it.
The second word was "Cut." Part of becoming a good writer is learning to become a good editor; unless our manuscripts are in pretty good shape, they aren't going to get far. As E.B. White said so clearly when asked for his own top 3 points of advice: "Omit unnecessary words! Omit unnecessary words! Omit unnecessary words!" Writing freely is the first step and a necessity: just get the words and ideas down, and don't burden yourself with too much editing as you go. But then go back, correct the errors, and see what can be cut. We prune a rose bush not only to make its growth more vigorous and the plant stronger, but to reveal the contrast of perfect flowers and thorns that constitute its true nature. It's the same with editing. Cutting out everything non-essential strengthens the writing, and it should also reveal to you, and to the reader, the essence of what you wanted to get at in the first place.
Beyond "Read," Write" and Cut", here are ten points that jumped out at me:
1. Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary. -- Geoff Dyer
Whether it's a notebook or file of conversations overheard, interesting words, scenes observed, or a yearly collection of letters and emails that record your life, I agree that keeping a journal of some sort is extremely helpful. On days when starting the main project is difficult, writing in the journal or composing a letter to a friend is a way to ease into the harder work of the day. A journal is also a path into the deeper self, showing us not only what we're thinking but how our minds work and change over time. The best writing proceeds from this kind of self-knowledge and careful observation.
2. Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted. -- P.D. James
Our lives are boring only if we decide to think of them that way. Everyone's life is filled with opportunities for observation of the self and others, and of the world around us in its grandeur and minutiae: it's our inattention to the mystery, variety and peculiarity of life that limits us, not our inability to fly to exotic places or our lack of unusual relationships. People are fascinating everywhere. We have to seek out life, not the other way around, and learn to see and use the material that's around us by knowing it intimately, and observing our own knowing.
3. Find your best time of the day for writing and write. --Esther Freud
I'm not at my best when I first get up, but after an hour I'm ready to work. I've always written in the morning and stopped by 2 or 3 pm. Everyone's different, but writers need to find their own best time and place to write and develop a daily discipline. The existence of computers and online venues for daily writing can actually make that easier, so long as you avoid being distracted. Most dedicated writers have a minimum daily goal: 500 words, a page of writing, a daily blog post, a 140-character poem, a certain number of pages of editing. You'll be astonished how much you get done once you get in the habit of daily practice, and the sense of accumulative accomplishment will help you keep going.
4. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. --Elmore Leonard
Never say "never", either -- of course our characters have to shout or whisper once in a while -- but I think the basic point is well-taken. Write with nouns and verbs, preferably familiar ones: they form the strong foundation of good writing that can hold a reader's attention. Overuse of adjectives and, especially, adverbs always weaken writing; look for a descriptive verb that can do the same work you're trying to lay on a plain one modified by an adverb, for instance. Avoid being clever or erudite unless there's a reason for it beyond showing off. Practice writing dialogue using only the verb "said" and see if it sounds less self-conscious; allow the speakers to speak by sharpening your ear, and get yourself out of the way.
5. Listen to what you have written. Helen Dunmore
Good writing has an internal rhythm and pulse that neither calls attention to itself nor is repetitive and predictable. Developing an "ear" for your own prose is essential; read what you've written out loud, and analyze the structure of your sentences to see if you fall into repeated patterns that are boring or create choppiness, awkwardness, or confusion for the reader. Have you written three sentences in a row starting with prepositional phrases? Have you varied the length and complexity of the sentences in each paragraph? Do the paragraphs begin and end repetitively? This is an area where only practice will help: write, read, listen, and ask a good editor occasionally for her comments.
6. The way to write a book is to actually write a book. --Anne Enright
Like writing itself, large projects are easy to talk about and yet there are hundreds of reasons to avoid beginning them (or finishing them once begun.) Don't be worried about failure or what other people may think: one of the worst regrets in life isn't failure, but never attempting the things you really wanted to do. So try, and trust that the process will teach you a great deal, which is the best reason for doing new things.
7. Do not search amazon.co.uk for the book you haven't written yet. -- Roddy Doyle
It's no gift to creative types that we can now search the entire planet and find out who's already done the exact thing we thought would make us unique; in fact it doesn't take much more than a trip to the local mega-bookstore to become paralyzed. When I first started as a freelance graphic designer, my father, a businessman, gave me the excellent advice, "Don't worry about the competition, just do what you do as well as you can." It's the same in the arts: we have to shut the door, sit down at the desk, and do what we are meant to do, being true to ourselves and not worrying about everybody else.
8. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving. --Neil Gaiman
In art, we leave artifacts that trace our development both as artists and human beings. When I look back at my old journals and early essays, they embarrass me, but I also find I have compassion and greater understanding for the person I was then, and am now. Lately I've been reading all of Joseph's Conrad's novels; the earlier ones are raw and halting works-in-progress, written by a young man finding his way. Very few of us will burst onto the scene with a brilliant first novel. Life is about process much more than it is about accomplishment and laurels; we're here to learn and to grow. So it's important to do one's best, and then let it go and move on, using the limitations we've identified and struggled with as challenges for the next project.
9. Style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it. -- David Hare
What is "style" anyway? I put this enigmatic comment of Hare's in the list because I wanted to think about it more myself. Young writers always worry about developing their own style, often with unfortunate results. I think it's more important to just write rather than to focus on being inimitable. One's genuine style tends to emerge over time, and except for some particularly quirky examples, the better ones tend to be fairly subtle. Less, I think, is more.
10. Have humility. -- Al Kennedy
I like Kennedy's whole list, because she pricks the balloon of self-importance that afflicts so many writers, and also acknowledges that writers actually do live in relationship with other people. She suggests that we listen to others and learn from them, but also know ourselves well enough to run from destructive advice. Instead of using family and friends as fodder, she gently encourages us to write in a way that honors the people closest to us. Too many writers and artists get caught up in an egotistical game and forget, until it's too late, that we're here to live a whole life where art doesn't always come first. Is it possible to be in relationships, to be responsible and loving toward others, and still find the time and energy time to write? Can we avoid turning our fears and disappointments against ourselves, as well? Is it possible to be a dedicated writer and not leave destruction in our wake? These are pretty important questions to ask.
Finally, Kennedy takes us back to where we began: Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go. -- Al Kennedy
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