I remember my first creative writing exercise in Year 1, a full-page adventure about TV puppet characters Sooty and Sweep. I was SO proud of my effort, and I knew there was not one single spelling mistake, something dreadfully important to my solemn five-year-old self. All these years later I still feel the sting of injustice when my paper was handed back to me, clean of all red marks except a ruthless line crossed through the name “Soo”, and my teacher helpfully re-spelling it as “Sue”.
You can check for yourself that the character’s name on the show is, in fact, Soo. Go on, I’ll wait.
I have been writing since before I can remember. I wrote stories all through primary school, and begged my mother for a diary when I turned 10. I wrote in it faithfully every day for years and still have it. I have kept a journal ever since and it’s evident that even when I was very small that I had already found my voice. I still write exactly the same way, only less about boy crushes and parent hate and more about cheese pasta and baby toes. The force is strong with this one – even a semester of creative writing and a journalism degree couldn’t derail me, although it did teach me the value of brevity, and to edit and refine your writing to make every word count. And to not be afraid to hit delete on great swathes of prose. Kill it. Kill it dead, I say!
I don’t know everything about writing, no-one does. But the things I have learned over the years have served me well. I share them thus:
I think this is the first thing everyone says when they are encouraging others to write, and who am I or Annie Lennox to disagree? I absolutely would not be the writer I am today without first reading, and then falling in love with the written word. My mother taught me to read long before school, and I was reading Trixie Belden novels when my peers were sounding out the words to Spot. I was obsessed and voracious and I haven’t stopped since. I will read anything and anything, anywhere, anytime. Except 50 Shades of Grey, I am so not into erotica. Even typing that made me retch a little bit. But hey, if it gets you reading, and enjoying reading, then READ IT and to hell with everyone else. Read things that you’re uncomfortable with to learn why you don’t like it (do as I say and not as I DO, people!), read outside your genre, read what inspires you and makes you want to pick up a pencil. Read people who are so good you vow never to write again, for what is the point when such perfection exists in the world? Thanks a lot, Stephen King.
No, seriously. Sometimes just sit and write randomly and a story will make itself clear as you go. Write gibberish, it doesn’t matter, eventually you will hit on something. Then use that to springboard something else. But don’t wait until the “right” time to write, or you’ll never get anything out. Or you’ll be so inspired to write but you can’t because the baby has just hurled, or your train has arrived, and when you sit down to put that flash of brilliance to paper later on, you’ve lost your mojo. Writing is a huge exercise in self-discipline and sometimes you’ve just gotta slap yourself a bit and get started. If you have a ritual, great, get on that shit. I need a cup of tea, Hemingway stood when he wrote, and I dare say Hunter S. Thompson snorted a boatload of cocaine. Whatever. Do it and get writing. Ok maybe not the cocaine, but you know what I mean.
Sometimes I start from the middle. Being a journalist meant I had to come up with first sentences that would hook the reader in, and they were hard. Sometimes they’d come to me in a flash of brilliance and the story would roll out of my fingers. Sometimes I just had to get the story down and by doing that I would come up with a great intro. Just write, dammit. Sort the rest out later.
This is hard for a lot of people, but it is absolutely imperative if you want to write powerfully. Waffling distracts the reader and often annoys them. Sometimes you even know when you’re doing it but you push on anyway. Well, I have two words for you, Mr/Mrs I Use Extraneous Words And I Am Too Precious To Part With Them: slash and burn. Do not be iffy about it. Chances are, once it’s cut you won’t even remember it was there. Pare right down and make every word count. Want to know why Edenland’s writing feels like a punch in the gut? Because she writes simply. She does not waffle. She finds the heart of the matter and describes it, often with unexpected twists and inspired turns of phrase. There is no florid prose, no flowery paragraphs. Just words arranged effectively. Edit, edit, edit.
4. One style does not fit all.
Please do not try to be something you are not. Like that time I wrote a short story about four orphans locked in a house with infra-red laser sensors on all the windows because I had just read Flowers in the Attic. Although many people have been Virginia Andrews, I was not one of them. Fortunately for me, I went back to writing in my usual style and realised forevermore I would be really crap at fiction. I just don’t have the imagination nor the patience for it. It’s like when you meet a new guy or girl and suddenly you’re into skateboarding and declaring you love mee goreng even though you have no clue what it is. Find your voice and stick to it. People will love you for who you are, not who you wish you were. And you’ll only get better, rather than increasingly panicked that you can’t keep up the pretence.
6. Learn from your mistakes.
When you send an item off for review, there will almost always be changes you have to make. That’s just the way things are. That doesn’t mean you are the worst writer ever and why did you bother anyway, it just means that two people have two different views about what works. Or what the initial brief was. It hurts a little bit, often makes you feel really stupid, and probably will never get easier. But swallow your pride and take it like an adult. If they have seriously misunderstood your point and you need to fight for it, fine. But don’t sulk and manufacture a thousand excuses as to why you wrote it like that, just make the changes and send it on back. And never make those mistakes again! Feel free to pour a wine and vent on twitter, or email your friend and say “can you believe it?!” but at the end of the day, if you want to get paid or published (or both!), you need to be flexible.
8. Surround yourself with like-minded people.
I think this is true of anything you want to do or be in life. To those who do not write, it can be impossible to explain. But rather than let that dissuade you, go forth in search of your tribe. There are plenty of creatives out there, and the internet has made them even easier to connect with. Join a facebook group or sign up to a mailing list. Trawl the #amwriting hashtag on twitter and chat to someone who sounds similar. You need people to bounce ideas off and to learn from and be inspired by. They will in turn support you and make you feel the hours you steal away from your job or life or family to put pen to paper are legitimate and necessary.
9. Keep notes.
This is especially true for train-takers and parents of hurling babies. You can’t always write when you want to, and nine times out of ten your brilliant idea will die, taking with it your chances of writing the next Harry Potter. Keep a little book and pencil in your bag, beside your bed and in your kitchen. Write notes on your phone and email them to yourself. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve sat wracking my brain for the amazing thing I was going to write about and was sure I’d remember. You won’t. Write it down.
10. Give yourself incentives.
Just 500 more words and you can have another cup of tea. One chapter and you get a pedicure. Four blog posts and you get a cupcake. Whatever works. Like I said earlier, writing is an exercise in self-discipline, especially when deadlines loom. Before you know it one day without writing turns into five, then a month and you ain’t done shit. Impose your own deadlines, get three pages of your manuscript done by your 2.30 coffee date with Marge. Do not be calling Marge and telling her you can’t make it. Get cracking. Read bits and pieces of the people you love in between bits that you write. Keep yourself motivated by any means necessary. Except probably cocaine. When you write for a living, you sometimes need to stop vacuuming the floor and cleaning every windowsill with a toothbrush and just start typing. Write however you can for whatever reason you tell yourself. Then edit it. Use the notes you emailed to yourself earlier. Have a break and chat to someone on twitter. Remember with a flush of shame that time you missed a deadline and vowed never to do it again. Find that voice you are known for and just write.
What do you think? What has helped shape you as a writer? As a reader, what do you like to read? Do you know what mee goreng is? And can you put the kettle on, please?
*nb – you will be tickled to know I have missed two points here… numbers five and seven. My eagle-eye number-loving husband spotted them. Writing is my strong point, mathematics is not. What’s even funnier is that number 6, which should be number 5, is “learn from your mistakes”. *dies*