When I first began writing it’s fair to say I was ignorant of most of the rules of creative writing. I just had a need pick up a pen and get things down on paper.
Recently I came to review some of the first bits of writing I did. The first draft of an opening chapter of the novel I’m currently working on is over 12,000 words long—a totally unacceptable length for any chapter, unless your book is designed to dissuade people from the act of reading. But since writing that first chapter, I’ve gone out of my way to learn as much about the art of creative writing as possible, and new things are learned everyday.
So the purpose of this blog is to share with you these tips and ‘rules’ that I’ve picked up along my journey so far. And I think there’s no better place to start with than process—the enabler of writing.
What do I mean when I say process? In short, picking up a pen and getting something down! Everyone ought to be encouraged to write. There’s a tale to tell in all of us. Creativity unshackles the mind, stirs the soul, changes lives. “I want to write, but I just don’t know how.” I’ve heard this a few times, and what I’m actually hearing is what exactly is the process of writing? Is there a way that everyone does it? Or does it simply involve picking up a pen or typing on a keyboard, or if you’re a vintage-obsessed hipster, a typewriter?
Process is unique to every writer. Sarah Penny, author of the award-winning “The Essex Serpent” says she writes in fifty five minutes bursts. Brandon Sanderson, it seems, can churn out a novel a week. George R.R. Martin insists on using an ancient computer. “Write drunk, edit sober,” the famous words of Hemingway. Everyone is different. Nobody is right. Nobody is wrong. The answer is whatever works best for you. You may have to wear a particular t-shirt, drink from a specific mug, sit in a north-facing position. Whatever you need to help you reach that zone. It’s all up to you.
Personally, I begin with a black pen (always black, Papermate if possible) and fresh page, a mug of green tea, a cushioned chair, peace and quiet, and occasionally a creative aid, if you catch my drift. At this stage the chains of imagination are unshackled, ideas explored and questioned, conflicts conjured, problems solved. Whatever pops into my head is jotted down. Nonsensical ideas included.
Some people simply cannot plan, detest the idea on all levels. Again, this is fine. Exploratory writing can yield some great results. It avoids formulaic plots because the writer is discovering as they go along, making it difficult for the reader to work out what will happen next. A happy medium between planning and exploratory writing is where I lie. I like to know where I’m going, but sometimes the way ahead isn’t clear, so I roll with it.
Next, the first draft. Ride that wave of momentum, harness the excitement of putting your literary jigsaw together. Stephen King describes the process of writing the first draft as “writing with the door closed”. Nail hits head. That first draft, nine times out of ten, isn’t going to impress the Man Booker judges. And that’s fine. The door is closed, nobody can peer over your shoulder. Let it flow out of you. If a word comes into your head that you don’t quite know the definition of, but sounds good, put it down. If you find yourself going off on a bit of a detour, let yourself wander. Get it all out, like a glorious fart kept at bay until your partner leaves the room.
The second draft is where you can see what works and what doesn’t. For me, the second draft involves the process of typing up the handwritten first. The, “Did I actually write this shit?” bits are cut, the story refined, passive voice eradicated, adjectives and adverbs tempered, characters voices given clarity. It’s an on-going process, akin to sculpting, though admittedly I have no experience of the process of sculpting, but I’m guessing you begin with a rough shape and refine it into a work of art.
Draft after draft follows. There’s no limit to how many you should do, but I’d say aim for at least seven or eight. Printing off your work and editing it on paper is an invaluable step. Draft until you feel you can do no more. And then, as Stephen King suggests, lock it away in a draw for a few weeks. The longer the better. Forget about it completely, so when you finally revisit you come at it with fresh eyes.
This is the process that works for me. The biggest challenge I find is making myself start. The laptop will be open, the cursor winking, but that fish tank needs a clean. Procrastination is the devil. The only person who can help you defeat it is yourself. Telling yourself “no” ain’t always enough, so below are a few tips to help you get going, as well as helping you with the process of writing.
I. Writing groups
Brandon Sanderson is a massive advocate of writing groups. I will admit to being hesitant at first, but after giving it a go I’ll never look back. There’s something special about meeting up with a gang of like-minded folk (or even just a friend or two). A group provides much needed support, guidance, the invaluable truth, and above all encouragement and belief.
If you’re the kind of person that needs a deadline, a writing group can give you this. If everyone is workshopping a piece at the next meeting, you don’t want to be the only one empty-handed. I implore you to reach out to fellow writers, or even avid readers, and form a group. Even if it’s just one person, you’re better together than you are alone.
If you’re looking for a group, get in touch. I’ll do anything I can to help you out.
II. Writing forums
Writing forums can provide a great source of inspiration. You’re joining a community of fellow writers, interacting in a place where all facets of writing can be discussed, from authors and genres, to dialogue and character development. Some forums host monthly competitions, such as poetry, flash fiction and short stories, as well as providing writing prompts and spaces for you to share your work for critique. The people you’ll meet are so knowledgeable, helpful and encouraging it’ll restore your faith in humanity. Forums can be quite addictive, mind. Here’s a few to get you started (the majority are related to fantasy):
Reading some of your favourite authors can inspire you to get going. It might be a scene, it might even just be a sentence, but that could spark the creativity pilot light. It can help you find your writing voice too. Read for a bit, then have a write. It’s how I start every day!
Set yourself targets! Stephen King says he aims for 2,000 words a day. If you can achieve that, you can finish a novel in around 3 months, and good on you for doing so! With everything life has to throw at us though, writing 2,000 words a day can seem a mammoth challenge and simply put, you’ll shy away from it, then beat yourself up for not doing it.
Set achievable goals. If you get up at 8am and you’re in work at 12pm, be realistic. The main thing is to make yourself do something everyday. Make it a part of your daily routine, such that it pisses you off when you’re robbed of a chance to do some work, makes you feel guilty when you’re doing something else when you could be clocking up words. It may just be a sentence, a bit of editing, or creative thinking. Just make yourself do something. Every letter written is progress.
V. Forget everyone else
This is something I have to remind myself quite often. When you read fantastic and successful authors it’s easy to feel intimidated. How could I ever conjure such a detailed and magical world as Middle Earth? Devise such intricate and exciting plots like those of A Song of Ice and Fire? Banish all these thoughts from your mind. All you’re doing is heaping pressure on yourself, pressure that will dissuade you from writing.
Write for yourself. Write because you have a story that needs to be told. Write because if you don’t your head will explode. Your story is your story, told in your own way. It’s easy to feel envious of successful authors; we’ve all been there. But such feelings will hold you back. Instead, learn as much as you can from those you admire.
Each week I’ll cover a topic sharing with you everything I’ve learned. Posts will go out every Tuesday. The next topics will be:
– Plotting and story
– Prose: the ‘dreaded’ passive voice.
Suggested topics most welcome! Just drop me an email.
I hope you’ve found this of some use. To stay up to date with future releases, sign up to my mailing list!
Thanks for reading, and happy writing!