I’m in a mood to say stuff today. Stuff that might motivate you. Stuff that might scare you. But it’s stuff I strongly feel I need to say.
There are lots of things people don’t understand about writing. There’s a kind of mysticism that surrounds writers and the act of writing. The ‘muse’, as some people call it, is part of it – the idea that writers can only write when inspiration lands on their shoulder and starts pecking their eardrum. We adore writers like Hemingway who famously said that writing was easy, all you have to do is sit there and bleed.
People think writing is an innate skill – you either have it or you don’t, and those who have it can’t teach it to others. It’s something that’s just in some people and not in others, and we shouldn’t question that.
What You Need To Be A Writer
Writing isn’t a gift, it’s a skill – and like any other skill, it has to be honed.
I think we put too much stock in writers who seemed to write despite their position. We admire writers – particularly 20th century male writers who wrestled with poor relationships and addiction their whole lives – and seem to think we have to be like them if we want to be a mega-successful author.
So I want to draw your attention to another role model. She’s sold more books than any author in history. No, not J. K. Rowling. Agatha Christie!
There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.Agatha Christie
Yes, the mighty Agatha has spoken – and it might not be what you wanted to hear. It’s good news and bad news: anyone with a pen and some paper can be a writer. But you can’t be a writer unless you actually write – write even when what you’re writing isn’t good, write even when you don’t feel like it, and keep coming back day after day. You’ll get there.
Neil Gaiman has written a lot about writing. He said once he wanted to ‘demystify’ the process, because as a child he wanted to do it but there was no advice on how. His advice is scattered all over the internet, but the most important thing I think he’s ever said is to explain how much work is involved. Here’s a couple of his quotes:
People talk about books that write themselves, and it’s a lie. Books don’t write themselves. It takes thought and research and backache and notes and more time and more work than you’d believe.Neil Gaiman
You write. That’s the hard bit that nobody sees. You write on the good days and you write on the lousy days. Like a shark, you have to keep moving forward or you die. Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.Also Neil Gaiman
I hope that’s drilled it home for you. You don’t need an alcohol addiction to be a writer. You don’t have to be a privileged, wealthy white male who is sad but feels guilty about it and finds their release in art. You don’t really even need time – Neil said he was writing Coraline at one point by putting down 50 words a day when he went to bed because his life was so busy. All you have to do is write, because writing is a skill, and the only way to get good at it is to be bad at it.
No-one springs into life good at writing, just like there are no natural-born whittlers. If you wanted to take up whittling, you’d start small, and you’d expect to be pretty bad to begin with. But through practise and experimentation you’d learn the tricks and you’d get there. Writing is exactly the same, (un)fortunately. There’s no easy route, no cheat to get there faster. Just make words.
Some Practical Advice
All that said, I do have some practical tips for getting better at writing.
Number one, finish what you start. Imagine you’re trying to whittle a duck. You keep starting with the tail, and starting again when you can’t get the tail right. Eventually you’ll have your tail-whittling down perfectly. But then you come to the next part of the duck you ruin it.
If you keep starting stories, you’ll get good at beginnings. But if you never write through the muddled middle, you’ll never get any better at it. If you don’t write that flop ending, you’ll never make one that ties up your plot in a satisfying way. (Unless you’re really lucky, of course, but you should never make your plans based on luck.) You have to write whole stories to get a sense of how to write whole stories. Yes, it can take a while – it’s not easy. But you’ll get there.
Number two, read critically. I don’t think there’s that much value in just reading for fun as a writer – and I know that puts me in the minority. But there are folks out there who’ve read hundreds of novels but if they tried to write one it would be a total mess. Just like you can watch hundreds of films without getting any closer to writing a perfect film script.
The important thing is to read with a writer’s mindset. Understand what you’re reading, notice how one scene flows to the next and how the writer is handling the different plot threads. And identify those plot threads, for that matter. Try to see the bones of the book and then think about how those bones fit together. Then you can read another and compare the two. You’ll see common tricks that you can add to your own plotting arsenal.
Number three, study scenes. Your scenes do the heavy lifting of your book. You can have a great plot, but if it’s delivered poorly, it’ll still be a bad book. So on top of studing books for their plot, hone in on particular scenes and try to work out what they’re trying to achieve and how they’re doing it. Then try those techniques for yourself and see if you can pull it off. (Short stories are a great medium for practising this.)
That about does it. Remember, there’s nothing mysterious about writing. I don’t think there is a muse, and while there are probably some people more suited to writing than others, anyone can do it. You just have to put the work in.
Now, off with you. Write some words.