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Holding Forth: Writing Edition

Posted by Dirck on 27 November, 2014

With the end of NaNoWriMo coming up over the weekend, I thought it would be a great time to distract people by revealing my writing secrets which guarantee results.

…and also to screw slightly with silly Google search parameters.

Let’s start at the beginning; I started to look on writing as something I might engage in about the time Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King were beginning their bitter disagreement over the nature of The Shining.   The thought process was as follows: I have been good at making crap up for a long time, and I’ve always had a broad vocabulary.  I can stick sentences together pretty well.  I have read a lot of books, many of them inappropriate to my age (I didn’t get through Catch-22 until my third attempt; the first was around age 10).  Therefore, why not write?

And you know what I though, after trying it?  “Oh, heck.  This is pretty easy!”  Easy, that is, as long as my parents didn’t interrupt me with trivial like “this place needs cleaning up” and “are you done your homework?”  In fact, in the mid-1980s I wrote two novels… which I’ll get back to.

I break off here because a discovery I have made since.  Writing is an awful lot more work than I thought.  I was, as many people with the sort of facility I mention , labouring under the delusion that all I really needed was some time and quiet to tip words out of my head and onto the page– a delusion which I hasten to mention I still indulge when I lay down entries here (pondering and proofreading get occasional admission to this space).  However, as pointed out in this excellent article, having a predisposition towards something is not the same as mastery, whether one looks at writing, gymnastics, or astronautery.  Doing it well requires actual practice and actual effort.

Happily, I worked this out before I tried to submit in un-polished form either a very rambly novel about a werewolf killing far too many people in a small town (which had some way cool cars and guns built into the story) and a speculative fiction thing that was pretty much Day of the Jackal wearing a rainbow wig and Groucho glasses.

The best advice for writers I’ve yet to come across, though, is to not take the advice of others too seriously, because unlike gymnastics or rocket surgery, there’s a lot of approaches that yield success.  Some buggers can actually bang out a functional first draft of an intricate suspense novel by retiring to a quiet room for two weeks, emerging only for the necessary bodily functions and not worrying about researching anything until second draft.  Some people need half a year of research and planning before they dare start the actual writing of an airy slice of life romance.  Some swear by a hand-written first draft, some swear at it as a foolish antiquity (I was in the latter camp in my younger days, but have since joined the former).

The only other item of advice I’d try to offer is a well worn one– read a lot.  Read in a smart way, though.  One the thrill of a magnificent passage has passed along your spine, once the tears of joy or horror that the author has forced into your eyes have subsided, read it again with a clinical focus.  What are the levers in that sentence?  How is it that this paragraph did that thing that it just did to me?  This is something that my own beta-readers, one valuable one in particular, is always yelling at me about in reference to my own writing, and it’s damn good advice.  It’s also advice that can take you outside your favourite genre, in the same way a sensible marital artist will ponder the skills of people from different traditions.  Just because it’s not what you want to pursue doesn’t meant it doesn’t have some tricks to teach you.

As far as guaranteed success… hey, if I knew that, you’d have a copy of all my books filling up a shelf in your library, wouldn’t you?  I certainly subscribe to the sort of thing described in the video you’ll find down this link— success is the result of a confluence of working like mad to be good at what you want to do, and having the unspeakable luck to get noticed as being good at what you do.  Oh, also, once you get noticed, keep working like mad to stay good.  I think we can all name an artist of some stripe who has decided they’re good enough and stop trying; it’s sad, and it eventually makes the fans angry as the skills atrophy.

By the way, I’m not a fan of the concept of NaNoWriMo.  Apart from not having the time to devote to it, I think that it would suck the joy out of the exercise of writing for me to have to produce a certain amount of content each day.  I write as much as I’m able to in what little time I have to write on a daily basis, and I love it even when it’s clearly curdling on me (I’m looking at you, “And Then the Screaming Started”), but if I had an internal guy in a leather vest pounding on a pair of drums and occasionally shouting “Ramming speed!” it would turn into a chore.  Who wants to do chores?  I am pleased to find I’m not alone in this, either.

I do, however, think that getting some writing done at extremely regular intervals is a very good idea.  I somewhat credit several years of these little stream-of-consciousness efforts with finally putting my authorly trolley back on the rails.

Today’s pen: TWSBI Vac 700
Today’s ink: Pelikan Brillian Black



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