For our third collection of #gollanczfest authors providing suggestions and advice on how to be a writer, we welcome Elizabeth Bear, Stan Nicholls, Alex Lamb and Joanne Harris. If you missed the first two parts, click here and here.
The editor is actually rooting for you to pull it off. Don’t disappoint her. And don’t treat her as an adversary, because she’s not.
Get up and stretch and walk around every 50 minutes. Make sure your desk is low enough not to cause wrist and shoulder damage.
Back up daily to a new file and two locations.
Ignore any writing advice that claims, “You must do X always and without fail.”
Except the hydration thing, backing up, and the stretching. Those really are important.
One thing aspiring writers tend to overlook is that no one but themselves needs to see their work in progress. A first draft is just that – your initial attempt at marshalling your thoughts and choosing the right way to express them. It doesn’t matter how crude or unfocused that primary outpouring is: only you get to see it. The important thing is to have something, anything, to work with, elaborate on and ultimately polish.
Many people new to the craft have the idea that their writing has to be Sunday best from the outset, when casual, even scruffy, will do at that first stage. If you’re stuck on how to begin, here’s a tip. Get yourself a digital timer – there are many good, free apps available online – and set the alarm for twenty minutes. During those twenty minutes just let the words flood out. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or punctuation, and don’t stop to research anything. Ignore how rough it all looks; essentially you’re compiling notes for yourself, and more importantly you’re bypassing the impulse to be pedantic. Working to a tight time limit and disregarding the niceties opens a direct line to what it is you want to express. When that alarm goes off you’ll have at least a few hundred words to build on and refashion. Then repeat.
Forget perfection, forget anybody seeing your words except you, and whatever you do forget any notions you might have about waiting for your “muse”. With practice you’ll be able to dispense with the timer and your first drafts will flow naturally.
* Take time to understand the Hero’s Journey and then wildly deviate from it, but once you know why, and to what end.
* Ritual is your friend. Carve out that chunk of time when you can produce content and make sure that everything about it is the same. (Coffee, chair, music, etc. When silencing mental clutter, obsessive compulsive disorder can actually help.)
* If you feel blocked and can’t write, plan instead. Let yourself off the hook. Write a four thousand word ‘plan’ for a four thousand word chapter. Once you stop self-censoring and imagine that prose magic is supposed to come out of your fingertips, creativity can happen.
* Creative motivation happens via ‘mini-win’. When starting a large new project, set ridiculously achievable goals. Then make those goals more ambitious the more traction you gain. If you get blind-sided by life, go back to tiny goals again.
* When trying to write, do not permit leopards in the room. Likewise eagles. If your Great Uncle Isambard wishes to use your study for bassoon practice while you are working, tell him firmly no. And tell him to get his lutefisk out of your desk while he’s at it.
* Do not attempt to write unless you are inhabiting a space with consistent Euclidean geometry. Hyperbolic spaces may seem convenient and/or inspiring but they will only distract you and ruin your ability to type. Ignore the lure of an unorthodox length to volume ratio at all costs!
* Plot and character are two sides of the same thing. Plot is characters in crisis. Character requires response to crisis in order to be truthfully revealed. Eye color and sandwich preference are not character. They are merely characterization.
* Remember that taking a year of your time to write a hundred thousand words of solipsistic madness in the hope that it will change the world and that everyone else will want to read it is insane. Then do it anyway.
* To get yourself into a creative frame of mind, try yelling at bees. If you can’t find any bees, flies or wasps will do. Nothing says raw creative talent like standing in a room on your own shouting at things that others cannot see.
No-one is born good at writing. It’s a skill that comes from hard work, patience and lots of practice. Some people find it easy: others continue to struggle. And yet, whatever our writing ambitions – whether it’s to create a bestseller, to self-publish a memoir, to write better fanfic or just to improve our blogging style – all of us can benefit from improving our writing skills.
Of course, we all have different styles and different approaches to writing; but getting into good habits can really make a difference.
1. Read as often as you can. To be a writer, you must be a reader.
2. Read outside your comfort zone. We all have our favourite writers, and we often write in similar genres. To avoid going stale, occasionally swap your usual genre for something different: fiction for popular science; crime fiction for fantasy. Read as widely as you can; read newspapers, comics, bestsellers, biographies, genre fiction. Nothing – nothing you read is ever wasted.
3. Look off the page. Writing isn’t limited to blogs and books. You can learn a lot from a well-written film, a stage play, TV show – even a game. Be aware of the quality of the writing all around you. Be critical.
4. Get into the groove. However much or how little time you have, write something every day. Even if it’s only a sentence, it helps you stay in the writing zone.
5. Don’t forget to daydream. Most writing happens away from your desk. So make some space for thinking time: whether that’s a morning walk, a run or a long, relaxing bath.
6. Be observant. The best writers seem to notice more than the average person does – and then they show the reader. So watch the people around you; notice their mannerisms and behaviour. Watch the clouds; recall your dreams; remember colours, tastes and scents. You’ll soon find you’re noticing many more things – and they’ll help to improve your writing.
7. Keep a notebook. In your spare time, record anything you see or hear that you find interesting, or which might fit into a story one day.
8. Read your work aloud. Words are like music; they have their own rhythms and beats. Reading aloud helps you understand the flow of what you’re writing.
9. Don’t write to be a writer. Write because you want to write. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, it’s unlikely that anyone else will.
10. Don’t beat yourself up when it’s not going well. Some days the dream machine won’t work. That doesn’t mean it’s broken