Sunday, December 02, 2007

Since you asked

In the words of Victoria Wood, I am often poked in the street by complete acquaintances, and asked about ‘writing’. “What is it?” I get asked, “Where is it?”, “How do you do it?” and “Where do you get yours from?”

Checking this website’s post bag, I see I have been inundated lately by two or even three emails asking me about the whole ‘writing thing’, so I thought it might be time to publish a few remarks on the subject (are you sitting comfortably, Paul Braggins and Robert Collier?).

Allow me to, first, disambiguate some important stuff (‘disambiguate’ is a proper fifty buck writer’s word; see how I use it, devil-may-care, like I’ve got a bag of them? This is not the sign of a good writer. Also, see how I went and split the infinitive? And you’re taking advice from me?).

Anyway, the first and most important thing to know is this: there is NO FORMULA. There simply isn’t. There is no magic formula that will turn you into a writer. You’re either a writer or you’re not.

So, how do you find out if you’re a writer? Well, is your answer to the following questions ‘yes’? Are you a reader? If you answered ‘no’, you’re excused. Do you read and read and read, anything, everything? Yes? Good start.

Do you write? Day after day, night after night, do you fill notebooks with stuff? No? Then, at this point, you, sir or madam, are also excused the rest of this, and may skip out of class early.

Who’s left? Hands up? The hardcore? Okay, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. You guys write? You write a lot? Wonderful. Do you have readers? Do your readers tell you what you’re doing is good? Or do they tell you it’s bad? What do they say? If they’re critical of your work, do you take it personally and sulk, or do you absorb the criticism and try to learn from it?

This is a fine line. On the one hand, a writer needs a thick skin. He (or she) needs to believe in what he is doing and not get derailed by criticism. However, a writer also needs readers, and therefore needs to be producing something that other people will want to read. If someone says they didn’t like something in your work (and I’m talking here about thoughtful, well-intentioned comments, not heartless slagging off), it might reward you to consider their remarks in a positive way. You might decide you don’t agree, but it’s just as likely you’ll learn something useful.

In my experience, writing (anything, but especially a novel) is like running a marathon. You might have the will, but unless you’ve been training, you won’t last a mile. Writing for yourself on a regular basis is like weight training or practice circuits: you build up stamina and ‘writing muscles’ until you’re fit enough to take on that marathon. Writing for yourself on a regular basis also helps you to burn out all the unintentional influences your reading habits will have caused you to absorb. The more you write, the more you get stuff out of your system until you’re writing your own thing, not your version of something you once read that you liked.

Once you start listening and learning, you never stop. I had been writing for ten years (comics, and three unpublished and never to be published novels) when Black Library invited me to write for them. They wanted comics at first, then short stories, then novels. Twenty-six novels later, I may have paid my dues, but every new project brings its own lessons. Some can take you by surprise.

Creative writing classes and ‘how to’ books are, in my opinion, of dubious worth, because (as I may have remarked) there IS NO MAGIC FORMULA that can be taught or learned (and anyone who says otherwise is a dirty rotten fibber). However, classes and books are very useful in that they get you thinking about what you’re doing, and (in the case of classes) they expose your work to a critical audience. Also, many cogent, amusing and thought-provoking things have been written on the subject, by finer writers than me. I have put together some recommendations (you don’t have to agree with everything they say, but it’s worthwhile hearing someone else’s point of view).
First, google, locate, print out and digest the following:

Alan Moore’s 5 Tips For Would Be Comic Writers.
“Easy on the Hooptedoodle” by Elmore Leonard.
The Turkey City Lexicon.

After that, you may want to explore something a little longer, and I suggest Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ and Norman Mailer’s ‘The Spooky Art’ as books that, if they don’t actually benefit you practically, will at least reward the reading.

Finally, submission. I get more questions about how to submit work to publishers than anything else. There is only one basic rule to remember: investigate a publisher’s submission guidelines and FOLLOW THEM. There is no point sending a publisher something inappropriate, too long, too short, wrongly formatted etc. It will just get ignored. If there happen to be any actual publishers reading, maybe they’d like to post any submission-related advice I might have missed.

Thanks for listening. Now go and write something.