So, you sussed out that you’re a writer. Great, welcome to the club; gin all round. But now that you’ve figured out that you are one of us mole-people you have to get down to mole-people work along with the rest of us. Grab a spade and start shovelling.
Writing is easy.
There. I said it; writing is easy – see, I’m doing it right now. I must be magic.
Writing three hundred words an hour? Pfft, I can do that standing on my head. You want four hundred? Five hundred? I’m your man. Easy.
Finding writers gigs? Come on, pitch me a hard one! Have you not heard of the internet? Google? Even those guys back in the nineties had Jeeves. Here’s a few for you.
So when does this writing stuff get hard? Where’s the challenge? Where is the mighty Lord of Darkness sitting upon his throne of skulls?
Like the best beasts, the hard part of writing sneaks up behind you and, as we used to say in my schoolboy days, nicks your liquorish. I’ll get into the technical aspects of writing that make it hard, but first I just want to talk about you.
You make this job harder than it has to be. You are the chump that thinks, ‘I can have that hour lunch break’, or tries to fart out a proposal letter in half an hour. You are the mug that didn’t do the research and was told far too late in the day that penguins really don’t bend that way or that Ann Widdecombe isn’t a prolific skateboarder.
You’re also the one who has to reread your writing. It felt like gold plated sex when you wrote it down, but now that you’re looking at it you can’t help but cringe at how much like soft shit it is.
And to that I say; don’t worry. We writers cringe at the page all the time. Maybe we wrote something bad, maybe we spelled that word wrong again, or maybe we just hate ourselves and wish we had more gin.
Now, the work itself;
Being a writer is like being an entrepreneur. You have to have an idea. You have to craft your product. You have to market your product and you have to sell that fucking thing. I’m going to chat a bit about the crafting process here, which can be broken down into 1) Writing, 2) Reading and 3) Editing.
The only way to learn how to write is to write something and to read everything. Read something and then write everything. Write something and then read something. You get the idea.
Here’s a challenge for you; find an author you like. Next, find your favourite piece of their writing. Try to limit it to 250 words for the sake of ease. Now, copy that 250 word section out. This will help you to really focus on what each of the words is doing in the sentence and how they add or detract from the overall feel. Work out why you like it; what works for you, what doesn’t. Next, take a book you don’t like, find a bit of text that you utterly hate and re-write that in the style of the previous author. I did this with Fifty Shades of Grey written in the style of Ernest Hemmingway. If you’re very good, maybe I’ll show you, or maybe I’ll just keep my Hemmingway smut to myself.
Writing takes discipline. You have to do it every day, as early as humanly possible, and then come back later to edit the hell out of it. You have to shut yourself off from outside distractions and focus on the work in front of you. Keep writing according to that plan, keep focused on the goal. Do not click on that cat picture/Sonic porn link.
I, for example, can’t write at home anymore. The temptation to fuck around and look up Sonic porn is too enticing. I have to bumble off to the library and hid in a corner like some angry badger in its set. Once I’ve crapped out my word count I can go home and start being a human being again.
Oh, another thing; the Muse. You want to write? Fine, get rid of the notion of the Muse. I’ve heard people harp on about how they can only write when the Muse is with them and all I can say to that is; Bollocks! If you were an electrician then you wouldn’t say ‘I cannot work, alas, as the Fuses are not with me’.
Richard Feynman said, “When I cannot create I work.” This is gold plated truth. When you get to that stage when you’re pulling out your hair and weeping onto your keyboard and waiting for the words to start flowing out of you, stop. Just stop. Get up. Go for a little walk and talk to yourself about why the words aren’t coming. Have a frank little chat with yourself, whilst ignoring the looks you get from passers-by, and come back to your work with a plan of action. No, this doesn’t mean you take the afternoon off, this is just a brain break so you can refocus. Limit yourself to just a half hour.
I think this is a good place to think about what sort of writer you are. Sure, you figured out that you are part of the mole-people collective, but where do you sit in the cultural cafeteria? Are you one of those meat headed jock types that gets all the ladies, or are you over there in the corner with the nerds rolling DnD characters, or are you outside in the corridor taking my lunch money?
There’re two basic types of writer; Plotters and Headfirsters.
A Plotter is someone that plans out the action well in advance. To these people very few things come as a surprise in the story because they’ve already worked it. They know what John McEveryman will think when he sees Ms Hotness-Delicious turn up outside his office with a request for him to find her fiancé. They know that that fiancé has in fact embezzled millions from his mob boss employers and is on the run from vengeance. They know that although Ms Hotness-Delicious still loves him she will sleep with McEveryman just to feel needed and loved and be tortured with guilt for the rest of the story. They know why the Balrog shows up as the court appointed attorney for McEveryman when he has to contest his speeding ticket. In short, they know the story before they tell it.
Think of it in terms of Saturday morning cartoons: These people are Skelator. Fuck these guys, they want to rule Eternia.
Headfirsters; Stephen King calls people like this Panters because they work best when they’re writing by the seat of their pants. Lord… Buggerchops and …. Arch Minister … Lamb need to go … over there and…. Kill…. David Attenborough. They keep going as fast as they can because slowing down means getting bogged down and the work falling apart. King himself is like this. It works for some people but it’s never been my thing.
Returning to the Saturday morning cartoons analogy these guys are Ram-man; dumb fucks that stick their heads down and only look up when they’ve stopped smashing. Fuck that guy, he gets to date Telia and has goofy legs.
My most practical point of advice is to know what you need to write next. Never suddenly realise that the story got away from you and you’ve found yourself with no way of getting from here to there. Never turn around and realise that Hugh Giantsballs has run out of room on the plank and is about to fall into the foamy waters below – unless you know what happens next. Be the ultimate spoiler warning – ruin that shit for yourself! Stride into your writing space and tell your sorry ass story that not only do you know what happens, you know how it ends, what the major themes and conflicts are! Wave your spoiler warning wang in that things face whilst screaming ‘Dumbledoor dies! The Red Wedding kills the Northmen, Bruce Willis is a ghost and Rosebud was a fucking sledge!’
I’d always advocate having a plan. When you have a plan you can take down Eternia, defeat He-Man, take Castle GreySkull and mount the sorceresses head on a pike. And then you get to turn to the camera, your eye sockets filled with burning fire and say, “Just as I planned.”
Now, some of you may be asking why I put Reading up there as an important aspect of the craft. Well, it’s a writer’s version of attending a training course or conference. Reading is the best thing you can do and all the time you are not writing is time you can spend reading. It is time you should spend reading.
For some writers there is a fear of not reading the right books. You know what the right books are, don’t you? Those ones that book clubs all talk about, or that Oprah gets millions for endorsing. The right books are the ones that win prizes, the ones that the Guardian says you’ve just have to read. When you start your writing career you’re inundated with the fear that you’re not reading the right books, books by people like Caitlin Moran, Ewan Banks, Margret Atwood and Kafka. You get the impression that you should be doing something more important with your time. How can you write, you ask yourself, when you do not read anything worth a damn?
You’ll go through times when all you want to do is read the wrong books, because you’re scared of reading the right ones. What if it’s better than my writing, you think, what if I don’t like it and my book will never be among the glorious Right Books pantheon?
Don’t worry. Finish the books you want to finish. Pick up the books you’re scared of and just read little bits. Then put them down and have a think about what you just read. Chances are it wasn’t all that different from the Wrong Books. Go back and read some more of it tomorrow. Have two books on the go and think about the differences. You’ll learn something from the experience.
Treat books like a meal. Think of your favourite type of book and then think of your favourite type of food. Chances are they aren’t what you’d call nutritious, right. I’ll use myself as an example; I love Sci-Fi and bacon. I’ll eat bacon maybe once a week, and I’ll limit myself to Sci-Fi once a week as well. At other meals I will enjoy some Hemmingway horseradish or some Kafka carrots. I’d recommend you do the same. Treat your reading like you would a healthy diet.
Editing your work is a very different beast to writing it. All those mistypes, spelling errors and grammatical fuck ups can gang up on a work and make what felt like a fun romp through fairyland into a romp through Romford.
Added to that, you get to see all those Big Words you used. Big Words tend to be like bad actors; hogging the stage and shouting their lines with as much emotion as they can manage. You know the sort, words like lugubrious, sanguine, opalescent and malaise. They tend to make you feel all smarmy and clever when you write them but when you come back and read them you feel like the kid that got naked, painted themselves green and ran around crying ‘I’m special, I’m special’ to get attention.
Not a good image, is it?
You have to approach editing carefully as it has lots of different facets and you probably suck at all of them.
First, you have to wait. Don’t look at what you wrote for at least a month. This lets you forget it. Forgetting it is key as you’ll be able to look at it with fresh eyes. Remember the Big Bang episode where Penny watches the first Indiana Jones movie? She works out elements that the guys who’ve watched it and loved it for years never saw. She was a fresh pair of eyes. Your work needs that.
Second, you have to read what you wrote. Pretty simple, but it’s something most people don’t do properly. Throw out your red pen for this. This is you getting reacquainted with your words.
Third is your content edit. Does the story flow? Which scenes come off as clunky? What are the plot-holes? Who’s sleeping with who? This is also the part in the editing process where you check your facts; does the penguin really bend that way, etc.
Most writers kill their darlings at this stage and leave it at that. This is certainly the stage where you take out your pirate/monkey love scene but there’s a lot more left to the editing process.
Fourth is your language edit. This is pretty fucking hard. This is where you go through the work and change the words. Sounds simple, but it isn’t. Here’s what you need to do; look at the first 250 words. Could you say any of that better? Do you need all of those words? How can you make it simpler? Try to use the minimum amount of words to convey the ideas you want. ‘It was an expensive piano’ is better than ‘the piano was extravagantly expensive, dripping with class, elegance and bourgeois style’. Less is more. The important thing is that all paragraphs should support the main objective and anything that does not add up to the main objective should be removed.
Finally you do your typography edit. This is where you sort out all the little bitz tht wnet leik sith. It’s also where you deal with the accursed problem of the auto spell and all those dropped commas and apostrophes. I find this the most irritating bit as I’m dyslexic up the arse and I couldn’t show you a spelling mistake in a line up.
After all that you need to send your work to friends and family. They’re the ultimate fresh pair of eyes and can tell you what atrocities you have committed to the written word and why you should die alone. Or maybe that’s just my friends.
So you think you can be a writer? Work your way through what I’ve said here. Then come back and tell me all about it. I’ll bring the gin.
As always, good luck with your writing. It’s worth it in the end.