Writers Write – The Ten Commandments of Writing (Maybe)
So many writers talk more about being writers than actually do any writing themselves. For some, it’s because they enjoy the romanticised notion of being a tortured artist staring gallantly at a blank page whilst trying to arduously squeeze some iota of creativity from their wracked bodies, (apologies for all the adjectives, but really wanted to make that point). How valiant and noble are we! And, for what? The reason? Because it’s good to create. It’s powerful. It’s all-encompassing.
But there really isn’t anything romantic about writing. At least, not in my experience (twenty years as a writer, and five as an editor). I mean, I enjoy it when I’m flying. Getting me to take-off, though, is like asking me to walk across a floor covered in broken glass – surely there has to be better pursuits. But once I’m going, it’s as invigorating as exercise, as therapeutic as meditation, and as gratifying as sex. There. I said it. Somebody had to.
The problem is that it’s hard.
And as romantic as a marriage going through divorce.
Because the truths about writing are as stark and painful as love gone wrong, and just as God hurtled down Ten Commandments which were meant to govern our sorry civilisations, there really should be Ten Commandments which should attempt to do the same thing for writing.
Ten Commandments that you could maybe live to.
If there were, I think they’d be these:
1. If you’re a writer, write. And sacrifice. Don’t sit around talking about writing, about wanting to write, wishing you could write, complaining there’s no time, and all that stuff. I knew a guy who called himself a writer, had some great ideas, but never sat down and wrote them into anything. That’s not writing. That’s daydreaming. Writing requires sacrifice. Sacrifice that coffee you were going to have with a friend, or that episode of Desperate Housewives you were going to watch, or that dialysis you needed for your kidney. Well, maybe not the last one. But sacrifice. Make time. And do it regularly, because writing’s also about momentum. The more regularly you write, the easier it is to keep going; the more you’re not, the harder it is to start. This isn’t to suggest you give up the world around you entirely, but make sure you dedicate some time daily to writing, the way you would to a friend, or to a marriage, or even to dialysis.
2. First drafts are shit. Yes, they are. I see so many inexperienced writers thinking that everything they write is brilliant. And I used to think the same thing, too, when I was young and naïve. Well, it’s not. First drafts might contain brilliance, the way ore can contain traces of gold, but there’s also a lot of unnecessary crap around them. So when you write, write knowing that jotting down the last word doesn’t mean you’re at the end of a piece. You’re really just getting started.
3. Revise. Here’s something else a lot of writers don’t realise, and it’s unfortunate. I mean, builders put up a house and they’re done with it. Plumbers plumb and they’re finished. Astronauts go to the moon or wherever, and that’s about it. Writers write. Then rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite. Until you’re sick of it. Until you can’t stand the sight of your work anymore. Until you want to cower over the toilet bowl vomiting your guts out like you’ve had the biggest and most regretful night on the town of your life. That’s writing. If there’s any nifty comparison, it’s more like sculpting. The shape’s in the stone. It’s about chiselling to get that shape as right as you can. And you don’t stop until you’ve got it the best it can be, or you’ve ruined it, or had a breakdown.
4. The devil’s in the details. A lot of writers love writing the big pay-off scenes, but spend so little time on the journey there. The result is something like porn – lots of big action scenes, and little motivation. And that’s fine … if you’re writing porn, but is unsatisfying for a commercial or literary venture. Force yourself to examine every scene. Instead of just writing a great scene for Point A and for Point B, focus on the journey from Point A to Point B. You’ll find, sometimes that’s even more interesting than the pay-off. All you need to do is give it a little loving. Like porn. Well, maybe not. But there’s another cliché about writing: writing’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s true. Take your time. Nothing brilliant was accomplished fast.
5. Be open to editing. Really. No. Really. The response of some writers to suggestions from an editor is, ‘You don’t get it.’ Maybe that happens. Occasionally. But usually when something’s flagged, it’s for good reason. When I workshop, if more than two people cite the same criticism, even if I love the part they’re criticising, I chop it or change it. Bets are if two people don’t get it, more won’t either. So, be open. The other thing you have to consider is that most editors aren’t actually going to hack at your piece to destroy it. They want to get the best out of it – if not for their own sake and reputation, then at least for the posterity of whatever periodical they’re going to publish you in.
6. Friends are great … except as readers. If you’re seeking honest appraisals of your work, then don’t go to friends or family who won’t give you honest opinions, or whose commentary is about as expansive and searching as, ‘Yeah, it was good.’ That’s great in an ego stroking way but, again, it’s as gratifying as porn. Lots of pop with no thought behind it. Get friends who can be analytical and constructive. Better yet, join a workshopping group with like-minded writers. Or pay exorbitant amounts to an editor like me for appraisal.
7. There’s no such thing as writer’s block. Okay, I lie. There is. But it’s amazing what you can push yourself through if you really, really, really try. Years ago, I would start one story, then start another, and another, and so on, boasting to people that I had five or six stories going at once, like that proved how versatile and talented I was. Later, I realised the reason I started a new story was because as soon as I got stuck on one, it was easier to start something new and exciting than push my way through the mire. The truth is that if you sit there and try to force yourself, you’ll usually find a route. Even if the route is crap. Don’t deride crap. Crap’s good. It gives you something to work with, and might even contain a few gems. You can’t do that with nothing. Nothing’s nothing. So push. If you try, you’ll be amazed at how few those occasions of genuine writer’s block become.
8. Develop a thick skin – rejections are a real part of writing. I have an accordion folder filled with at least a thousand rejections. Yet I keep submitting. Like an Obsessive Compulsive. And when those rejections come, they still hurt. Even now. They hurt like somebody smacking me in the face with a frozen mackerel. But I keep going. Fatalistically even. Because if you’re going to write, you’re going to have to submit, and if you’re going to submit, there’s very good chances that you’re going to be rejected again and again and again and again. Get used it. Then keep going. The most-well known champion for perseverance is Harry Potter, which was rejected umpteen times before it was accepted.
9. Writing’s lonely – get out once in a while. Writers have the second highest suicide rate, which is a fun fact. Dentists are first. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s a guilty conscience about over-charging. Perhaps not. Or maybe it’s the practice of staring into mouth after mouth, looking at an array of teeth lined up like tombstones needing refurbishing which is depressing – it certainly does nothing for me. But at least dentists have dental nurses to talk to. And patients who can mumble. Writers have a blank page and their own thoughts, (and let’s not forget the bloody rejections!). Keep up that sort of isolation and introspection (and bloody rejection!) long enough, and some form of neurosis is sure to creep in. So, after the writing’s done for the day, get out once in a while. Unwind. Find distractions.
10. Write to …well, to write. Just me. I’m sure there are a plethora of editors and writers and literati who believe writing’s about ennobling the literary community, about suffering nobly for little gain and the satisfaction that publishing has been enriched for their endeavours, and thus we can all go pat ourselves on the back before we embark on the next fruitless crusade. Pfft. Then there are those who write because they think they’re going to get rich. Pfft some more. I think writing – of any form – is about telling a story. Doesn’t matter what sort of writing it is. Even the instructions on a box of matches tell you the story of how to use the matches. A road sign tells you the story of the road’s rules at that point. Even a politician’s speech tells you – usually obscurely – about the policies and viewpoints of that politician. So, for me, writing’s about storytelling. And with that being the case, tell that story because you want to tell that story and because you’re the only person who can tell that story. If you’re writing for other reasons, then I think they’re the wrong reasons.
Maybe, ultimately, these commandments amount to nothing much, but writing is about, well, writing, so in the end you need to find a way to do it.
And you need to find a way to do it not for anybody else, but for yourself.
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