Three kinds of writing advice I choose to ignore

Being a natural student at heart, I’ve dedicated significant time over the last fifteen years to trawling through books, articles and blogs in order to glean wisdom from more experienced writers and editors.

When published authors are asked in interviews what advice they’d give to beginners, some will set down a list of rigid commandments. Others might say cheerily, ‘oh, don’t listen to anyone’s advice. There are no rules in writing and no one knows what they’re doing anyway.’

I’m not sure either approach is especially helpful. It’s difficult to learn and grow without input from others, and while there may be no rules as such, there are techniques and principles of the craft to master, which help us improve. I’ve also benefited from insight into other authors’ creative processes, particularly the ways they overcome self-doubt.

However, as a learner it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the torrent of do’s and don’ts and musts and shoulds, which can inhibit our creativity and make us discouraged before we even start. Like so much on the internet, writing advice is a useful resource, but it pays to be careful who you listen to, and to be wary of over-consumption.

When sifting through content, to an extent I’ve learned to take what I can use and filter out the rest. I don’t accept someone’s opinion just because they’re a successful writer or well-known agent, but I do try to be open to new suggestions.

I have also identified three types of advice that raise red flags for me.

1.  People who tell me what I can and can’t write about

“Write what you know.” “Write what readers want.” “Write what sells.” “Write something no one else has done before.” “Don’t write about yourself – you’re not that interesting.” “Don’t write outside your own experience of life – you’ll get it wrong.”

We can choose to write on almost any subject, and provided we execute it with enough imagination and flair, we stand a good chance of engaging our target audience. Of course, some concepts will challenge us more than others, which is important to consider when embarking on a new project. But ultimately, I have to pursue whatever idea I feel most passionate about. Other people can help me talk through my plans, but no one gets to decide my limitations for me.

2.  Anyone who claims their writing method is the only correct one

Not long ago I unsubscribed from an account that was emailing me information about self-publishing, because the author told me I should be spending no more than three months on a manuscript. If I was taking a year or longer to write a book, they said, I must be “doing it wrong.”

Conversely I’ve heard people sneering at writers who are able to turn around a novel more quickly than they are, or at those who use plot outlines versus those who don’t. Others insist a specific number of words must be produced or hours committed daily to writing without fail. Even when you’re uninspired or sick or going through a crisis, nothing must ever get in the way of your art.

In the writing community, and of course elsewhere, too many people believe what works for them should apply to everyone, regardless of temperament or circumstances. Sometimes they try to sell their solution accordingly. If I’m going to invest in my writing career, I’d rather work with a mentor who supports my individual needs than buy into a one-size-fits-all formula.

3Anything delivered in an unkind or belittling tone

At some point every writer has to face realistic assessments or criticisms of their work that are difficult to hear. But critique should never be an excuse for mockery or crushing someone’s spirit. I’m sufficiently intelligent to understand feedback without requiring it to be brutal, and there’s already too much negativity in the world for me to give my attention to people who don’t have my best interests at heart. If someone lacks the sensitivity to be encouraging to other artists, I doubt they’ll appreciate my style of fiction anyway.

What do you think about writing advice? Is there anything you’ve found helpful or that really doesn’t work for you?

 

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Constructive criticism: where honesty meets kindness

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All writers and artists who share their work will face criticism. It’s not only inevitable, but essential for helping us learn our craft. But there’s a world of difference between constructive criticism that builds on the foundations of the early draft, and destructive criticism that tears the thing apart.

As a published author, you have no control over spiteful or negative reviews (though you can choose not to read them). When you’re a new writer or in the first stages of a new book, you get to decide who sees your draft. So unless you’re exceptionally thick-skinned, the best thing you can do for your writing career is to find someone supportive and truthful to help you, and avoid those who leave you feeling dejected and hopeless.

In my experience, some writing groups have a macho approach to critiquing, and members may pride themselves on their ‘brutal’ honesty. Well, I’ll be honest with them: it doesn’t impress me at all that they’re able to say what they think without regard for people’s feelings. What takes real skill, in my opinion, is to tell a writer their work needs improvement while leaving them feeling supported and hopeful they can make it better.

Kindness and honesty don’t have to be polar opposites. Kindness without honesty is not true kindness to an artist, because it denies them the opportunity for growth.  And while honesty without kindness may contain some useful truths, it can also cost the artist their confidence and motivation to carry on.

It may sound obvious that a critique should include positive comments, but it’s amazing how many people forget this. They assume if an aspect of the writing is already working, it doesn’t need to be pointed out.  But positive feedback isn’t just about ego. It’s extremely useful to know when your words are having their desired impact, and what your overall writing strengths are.

The difference between a constructive and a destructive critique is as much about word choice as content. When I receive a page of criticism, initially I skim through it, and certain words and phrases leap out at me. These are the words that contain a strongly positive or negative emotional charge.

Imagine if a critique of your first ever story contained the following:

Plot clichéd and predictable, pacing slow and boring, couldn’t care less what happens next, characters whiny and unlikeable, descriptions generic, bland and repetitive, spelling and grammar is very poor.

You’d need a hide like a rhinoceros not to feel a bit crushed by that. But what if the critiquer had chosen to turn those phrases into positive suggestions for improvement?

Needs new plot twist or angle, faster pace, more emotional intensity to hook the reader, use more concise and specific description, increase our empathy for the characters, sentences need a thorough edit.

You still might not like it. It probably wasn’t what you were hoping to hear. But there’s a different energy about it. It makes you feel like those changes are possible and within your power to achieve.

As writers, we do have to learn to deal with criticism, but we don’t have to subject ourselves unnecessarily to cruelty or insensitivity that is hurtful and damaging to us and our art. Because ultimately we’re responsible for the influences we allow into our lives.

Celebrating first-time authors over 40

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Assuming all goes to plan, I will be 42 when I self-publish my debut novel next year. I’m lucky that my vocation has no real age limits: you can write a good book at 19 or at 90. Creativity follows no predictable schedule – some artists reach their peak early on, but many are late bloomers, producing their greatest works in the latter stages of their lives.

Nevertheless, we live in a culture obsessed by youth and glamour and marketability. We’re also very impressed by precociousness. Publishing may be less influenced by this trend than some creative industries are, but a talented young author with a stunning photograph on the back cover of their book still has an improved chance of becoming a media sensation.

I can never be that young writer now. That ship has sailed. Since there’s no point in regretting the fact I wasn’t able to write an amazing bestseller in my twenties, I had a think instead about the positive aspects of publishing later in life.

Mature novelists are said to have a wider range of life experiences to draw on in their fiction. I’m not convinced that’s always true. There are people half my age who have suffered hardships or embarked on adventures such as parenthood which have given them insights I will never acquire firsthand.

What we older writers have had is the luxury of time to reflect on the events of our lives, whatever they might be. We’ve simply had more years available to us in which to develop our understanding of ourselves and the world, and to learn from our mistakes, should we choose to do so.

Being over 40 and undiscovered has increased my empathy for others who reach midlife with their aspirations unfulfilled. I use this theme in my writing all the time to explore the frustrations of my middle-aged characters and the societal expectations which drive them.

Coming face-to-face with failure has also lessened my fear of it. I know I can deal with chronic disappointment and still appreciate the good things in my life. (This is what I tell myself on the bad days anyway). Seriously though, I’ve learned the value of perseverance, and that some things are worth fighting for.

My extra years of practice have helped me to hone my writing voice, to think more independently, and to be certain of what I stand for. Some writers will have achieved this at a much younger age, and that’s great too. We were never meant to be all the same.

I refuse to read those articles listing ten things you should know, or should own, or should do in your 20s or 30s or beyond. One effect of ageing is that I can’t be bothered with rigid conventional thinking any more. I don’t believe anyone else can set our pace for us or tell us where we ought to be in our lives.

In the time I’ve been writing the self-publishing revolution has arrived, which means I no longer have to wait to be chosen (unless I want to). If I’d been traditionally published a decade ago, I might not have experienced the thrill of gaining the confidence to choose myself. And that in itself is surely worthy of celebration.

The mysterious origins of fictional characters

_mg_7743For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the concept of fictional characters. People who exist in the form of ideas, transmitted from the minds of creators to readers across continents and centuries. Despite having no physical presence, they’re recognisable and knowable, as well as the subjects of endless dispute and reinterpretation.

Having studied literature and been a member of book clubs, it strikes me just how intense and heated the discussion can get when readers love or despise a particular character. Fiction seems to give us an outlet to express strong feelings or beliefs about others that we’d hesitate to reveal in a real-world context.

We all have our favourite characters, but where do they come from? Are they inspired by real people? Are they invented from scratch and assigned a set of predefined characteristics? Or do they emerge fully formed from somewhere deep in the swirling chaos of the subconscious?

Obviously the answer depends on the author and their subject matter. I can only speak for myself. I’m not a memoir writer or an autobiographical novelist, and I don’t base my characters on real people (as my friends reading this may or may not be relieved to know…)

I do, however, use some elements of my life, as well as aspects of personalities I’ve encountered in the past. All authors to an extent ‘write what they know.’ Whether our story is about medieval pirates or a satire on the modern workplace, we use our emotional experiences as a basis for exploring those of others.

I began my current novel in 2015 with two characters and a setting. That was all I had to go on.  I had a vague sense of where I wanted these two people to end up, but no real plan for how I’d get them there.

For me, the characters emerge as blurry figures, which slowly come into focus. Sometimes I start with a name. I have a thing about names. They have such strong associations for me that I’d more willingly change my character’s age and appearance than what they’re called.

Gradually, more details are revealed. The outline of a face, an accent, a profession. Very soon I know all sorts of things about them: their troubled past, their taste in art or music, their secret fears and desires.

This is the point where I feel them to be ‘alive’.

Writers talk about ‘the characters controlling the story,’ which sounds mystical, but what it means is we’ve achieved a deep-level, intuitive understanding of that person in all their complexity. After that, they do take charge, because we can no longer make them say or do things they wouldn’t, in order to further the plot. We can try to force it, but it won’t feel right, and we or our readers will sense a lack of credibility.

Secondary or minor characters are slightly different for me. Sometimes, like the main players, they appear seemingly out of nowhere. Other times I consciously create them, because I feel the story needs someone extra to lend it humour or a different perspective.

These characters may start off as one-dimensional or stereotypes. I find it takes a little longer for them to come fully alive when they occupy less space in the narrative. It may not be until the second draft that I get to know them as individuals, which is when they start behaving outside of the narrow expectations I’ve set for them.

As any avid reader knows, it’s possible to become completely and utterly obsessed with fictional characters. This is even more true when we’re creating our own. Since we have full access to their minds, we can get to know them more deeply than a partner, perhaps even ourselves.

I think it’s a good thing that we fall in love with our characters, weird as it may seem to some. Most writing is more effective when the author’s emotions are engaged, and readers are more likely to adore our made-up people if we do.

Characters in stories aren’t a substitute for human connection. Our fictional love can never hold our hand or visit us in hospital or help us bring up our children. But they can be a compassionate presence in our lives, a solace in difficult times, an inspirational hero or heroine, and a route to self-knowledge and empathy.

 Such is the power of our imaginations.

The power of vulnerability: why writers don’t need a thick skin

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“You need to grow a thicker skin.”

We’ve all heard it. Almost every writer has been told that if they plan to put their work out for merciless public scrutiny, they must learn to be less sensitive.

It makes sense, but leaves us feeling puzzled and discouraged. How do we develop this tough exterior? Should we give up on our dreams if we can’t, however hard we try? And how come none of the famous authors we love seem to have one?

The confusion, I think, is in the imagery.

“Thick skin” evokes wrinkly hides and reptilian scales. Creatures evolved for protection against savage teeth and claws. In comparison, our skin is tender and vulnerable. When we fall, we end up bruised or bleeding. The briefest contact with a hot surface leaves us blistered and sore.

Our thin skin also allows us to detect the subtlest nuances of texture and temperature. It lets us feel the sensuous embrace of water, the caress of a loved one, the gooseflesh creeping down our arms as we listen to a haunting song.

It’s easy to see how this relates to art and the emotions. The more deeply we experience the influences of the outside world, the more creatively we respond to it. As artists, we neither can be, nor need to be, nor should be armour-plated.

What we need is more faith in the power of our skin to heal.

Rejection and harsh criticism hurt. They pierce our fragile outer layer, and sometimes they live beneath it for a while. Yet we’re more capable than we know of recovering from those wounds and carrying on.

Opening ourselves up to risk comes at a cost. But the scars we bear are a testament to how resilient we really are.

With thanks to Lauren Sapala for her influence on my thinking about this and so much else.