Five Pieces of (Possibly) Useful Advice for Writers

A trio of ghost stories, now on Kindle
I'm increasingly reluctant to hand out any writing advice at all these days - mainly because there is just TOO MUCH of it out there, and so much of what there is, is completely contradictory. And - moreover - being handed out by people who don't know enough to know how little they know. In fact I've realised that although I still love to do talks and readings, and although I'm happy to answer questions to the best of my ability, I don't even like to do 'workshops' any more. There you are with a group of people of wildly differing abilities, all with completely different aspirations, trying to squeeze your own experience into some inadequate one-size-fits-all box- ticking activity. But all the same - it IS possible to give some general advice and I've realised that all my years of experience can be boiled down into about five principles - things that, if I had known, really known about and absorbed and tried to remember, way back then - my writing life might have been made a little easier. Only a little though. When I was starting out, an older, wiser (and very successful) writer said to me 'The only way to learn to write, is to get your head down and do it.' He was right. There are no shortcuts. But for what they are worth, I'm happy to share these five little pieces of advice in the hope that some of them may prove helpful.

1 Play About 
This is especially relevant in these days of formal creative writing courses where students seem to feel (however misplaced that feeling may be) that they have to 'get it right' with an assignment in much the same way as they would have to get a factual essay or dissertation right. Unfortunately, this is never the way most creative writers work. You start with an idea of some kind and then you play about with it until you find out what it wants or needs to be. Play is absolutely essential to the creative process.

2 Allow Yourself to Fail
A brave attempt which fails is better than no attempt at all. And once again, the more we formalise the process, the more the prospect of failure becomes the big bogeyman, to be avoided at all costs. I think it's one of the reasons why I find Creative Scotland's current emphasis on the word 'investment' so worrying. I know they don't intend it to mean that investment is invariably financial and always demands a financial return - but investment and support are two different things, and even if you take the idea of monetary investment or grant support right out of the equation, you are still left with the sense that investment always assumes a return of some sort, whereas support allows for the possibility of trying and failing. The doing is  more important than any end product. It's more important to travel hopefully than to arrive. As a writer, you will start out on far more projects than you will ever finish, and this is as it should be. Trying and failing means that you are learning something along the way.  

3 Make It Real
People are often told to write what they know about, but my qualification to that is that you know more than you think, and if you don't know, you can always find out. Making it real, though, involves more than just research and it's almost impossible to show people how to do it. (If I could, I would be richer than I am right now!)  You can be writing the most wild, off-the-wall fantasy and still make it so real that your reader believes everything, implicitly. Think of Ray Bradbury. He could write about a woman who played the rain on her harp and I still believed in it. Hell, I could see and hear it! Conversely, you can be writing the most everyday domestic story and discover that your readers don't believe a word of it. Beginning writers will often say 'but it really happened like that' to which the only possible, albeit a little rude, answer is 'so what?' You're the writer, and you must be in charge of your own material. Give yourself permission to shape it. Get inside your characters' heads. Above all, inspire your reader with confidence. The answer always lies with you, the writer. If you have created a fictional world which seems as real to you as the world outside (and sometimes even more real than that), then your readers will believe in that world as well. But the only way to achieve that is... well, you could start by paying attention to 1 and 2 above!

Being curious about everything helps!

4 Story Is King
I resisted this for years. But over Christmas, I heard Andrew Lloyd Webber saying it and although I have a few reservations about the ALW bandwagon, I found myself in agreement with him. I wish somebody had said this to me years ago. Forget about the formal intricacies of plotting, forget all those prescriptive pieces of advice about structure. Just tell the story as engagingly as you can. If you get that right, whether you are writing in a particular genre or experimenting wildly, everything else will fall into place. William Trevor's short stories are truly wonderful not only because they tell us so much about what it is to be a human being - which they certainly do - but because they are always very fine stories as well! Make it live, shape it, craft the raw material of reality into something better. Every truly enthralling novel, film and stage play I've ever seen, literary or popular, difficult or easy, has an enthralling story. Kids know all about story. Even when publishers in droves were telling writers that fantasy was dead in the water and sending polite rejection letters to JKR among others, kids were still demanding a magical story. When Harry Potter was first published it was kids who spread the word about it being an enthralling read. They know a good story when they read one and there's no fooling them. (Yet still so many of our critics seem to think that writing for children is a soft option! Nothing could be further from the truth. And I don't write for children. But I certainly admire those who do.)

5 Once You're An Experienced Professional - Behave Like One.
This is possibly my most contentious piece of advice. We writers are notoriously bad at treating ourselves as professionals, even when we are seasoned and experienced, with an excellent track record. I've just been reading a piece about teachers which posed the following questions:
'In what other profession is the desire for competitive salary viewed as proof of indifference towards the job? In what other profession are the professionals considered the least knowledgeable about the job?'
The answer to that would also be writers.
People who wouldn't get out of bed without payment often expect writers to work for nothing. I'm not talking about the freebies we all do from time to time where nobody gets paid, or where you work for a profit share. I'm talking about those gigs you're sometimes invited to do for large commercial organisations where everyone else is on a fair (and sometimes a very fat) salary but where you're told there is 'no money in the budget to pay the writer.' And when you're feeling nervous, watch this and take heart.
If you're going to work for free, do it for yourself, work at something you love, or for whatever worthy cause you subscribe to. For the rest, be aware that a whole industry has grown up which is happy to cast the 'talent' in the role of humble supplicant, grateful for any crumbs of recognition. But only you can do something to remedy that.

Oh - and I've one last piece of advice, which is to treat all advice with healthy scepticism. Even this blog! But do feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section!

Catherine Czerkawska


Ann Swinfen said…
I agree with absolutely everything you say, Catherine, and it's all sound advice. Can I add one very simple suggestion from my own experience? Don't keep going back and reading what you've written when you are working on your first draft. Yes, there will be gaps and bits of dreadful writing, but if you go back you won't go forward. Press on to the end of the first draft, THEN go back and edit. The one exception I make is to read the last two or three paragraphs I wrote on the previous day, so I know where to pick up the train of thought. I think this constant pushing ahead is a difficult but essential lesson for every writer to learn. Rant over!
You're absolutely right, Ann! The secret to finishing a novel (and a play too in my experience) is to forge on to the bitter end even though you know you wouldn't want anyone to look at this draft. Somebody once told me that she always tries to stop each day at a place where she really doesn't want to, because it's easier to pick it up the next day -I've tried that too, and it works, but it's very hard to do!
Ann Swinfen said…
I've heard that too, and also the suggestion that one should stop in the middle of a sentence! This is something I really can't do, because I know I'd come back the next day, having forgotten what the rest of the sentence was meant to be. Fury and frustration! I find reading those few paragraphs does the trick, without the danger of losing something precious.
Susan Price said…
Completely agree, Catherine! - Especially with the bit about admiring children's writers! - And about behaving like a professional and demanding to be paid for your work.
I've always thought children were so discerning that writing successfully for them must be one of the most challenging and difficult (as well as rewarding!) forms of writing. I used to write for schools radio - and a bit of television - in the old days, and it was never easy, although those who don't do it always seem to think it is.
As someone who has yet to be published (I have self-published the first three in a series of children's stories called 'The Colonel's Collection), I was so gratified to read the advice about not being afraid of failure.If the key to becoming a good writer is to keep at it, then surely you are bound to meet failures along the way. The secret is not to let it stop you carrying on!Thanks for the sound advice.
I agree. Wasn't it Samuel Beckett who said 'try again, fail again, fail better!' I think any career in writing is a switchback for most people.
Hi Catherine,
I've been teaching creative writing for a few years now and in my experience (both as a writer and tutor) the students who succeed are the ones who don't give up. Very useful advice, such as yours here, makes it easier to keep going! Thanks for posting it :)

"A line will take us hours maybe;Yet if it doesn't seem a moment's thought,our stitching and unstinting has been naught." Yeats
Thank-you Marianne - you're so right. There's always an element of luck, but the more people persevere, the luckier they seem to be!
Sheila Dalton said…
I wholeheartedly agree with #5!