A lot of people over the years have asked me about writing. Actually, in most cases what they've said is, "I've always wanted to write."
My internal reaction is usually, "So?"
Y'see, I too had always wanted to write. Oh yes. Always. Until one day I decided to trade "wanting to write" for "writing". Wanting to write won't get the words down on the page. Writing will.
If you're still not sure what I mean, replace "write" with "swim" and it should become clearer... If someone was constantly telling you that they'd always wanted to swim, but somehow they hadn't ever actually lowered themselves into the water, then the chances are you'd think they were nuts.
It's the same with writing. You want to write? Then write.
There are always plenty of reasons to not write. Can't think of any ideas. Haven't got the time. I'm not good enough. I'm still only learning. I can't find my pen.
Let's look at those reasons one-by-one:
Can't think of any ideas.
Really? You're a human being and you can't think of any ideas? Rubbish! Of course you can. Ever told a lie? That's fiction. Ever found yourself wondering "What would happen if...?" That's also fiction. Remember the other day when you were expecting an argument with someone and in advance you ran the conversation in your head so that you'd be more prepared? "If he says this, then I'll say that..."
You want ideas? Look around you. Read the newspapers. Talk to your friends and family. Listen to your friends and family. Think of a story you read recently but didn't really like - there's an idea right there. Rewrite the story the way you would have told it.
Pick a scenario at random and imagine that some terrible thing has happened. Now imagine a way out of it.
Imagine what you would be like if you were evil. (Or, if you already are evil, imagine what you would be like if you were good.)
What would you be like if you were someone else - someone you know? What if you got into trouble for something you didn't do? What if you got into trouble for something you did do? What if someone asked you do to something that went against your nature? Say you had no choice in the matter. How would you react? How would you get out of it?
Read the first half of a story, put it down and write the second half of the story. Now go back and write a completely new first half to fit your story.
Go to the library, pick any book at random and open it somewhere in the middle. Write down the first line of dialogue you see, then go home and write a story that begins with that line. Now write a completely different story that ends with that line.
Keep a diary. Write in it every day.
Keep a notebook. Write down every idea you have, everything you've thought of that might be a good story, or a character name, or a line of dialogue, or just a cool phrase you want to use.
And all that's just for starters... There are ideas all around you, all the time. A writer learns to recognise them, twist them around, exploit them, look at them from every possible angle.
Accept nothing at face value. If someone tells you an interesting fact, think about it from their point of view. What's their motive for telling you? Why did they choose those particular words?
Are they trying to manipulate your feelings and opinions, steer you around to their way of thinking?
Yes, of course they are. People do that all the time. I'm even doing it to you right now.
A writer learns to put himself or herself in other people's shoes, to see a story from every viewpoint.
Haven't got the time.
Remember last week when you spent an hour or two watching television or playing computer games? Why did you do that instead of writing? Because it's easier, that's why.
Set aside one hour every day to write. One hour. That's not much time at all. And during that hour, write. Don't do anything else. Don't allow yourself to become distracted. If something interrupts that hour, then make up the time as soon as possible.
Never, ever, say to yourself, "I'll do twice as much tomorrow." Because you won't. Do it now.
Don't feel like it? Do it anyway.
Really don't feel like it? Well, that's tough. Do it.
"I can't do it today because I have exams, and a ton of homework, and I have to wash the dishes / car / dog / carpet." Aw. Shame. My heart goes out to you. Write.
Do you see what I'm getting at here? A writer makes the time to write. The universe is not going to just present you with a useful slice of extra time every day in which to get your writing done. You have to find that time for yourself.
I wrote a dozen novels, three times as many short stories and hundreds of articles when I was also working full-time. How? Because I made the time to write. It wasn't always easy - in fact it was almost never easy - but I did it anyway.
Picture yourself one year ago. Think back to the stories you wanted to write then, but you haven't written them yet. It's not a nice feeling. Now picture yourself one year in the future. Be honest: Have you written those stories yet? Any of them? Even one?
If you haven't written them in the past year, what's going to change in the coming year that you'll get the stories written?
Well, something will have to change if those stories are ever going to be written, correct? And that something is you. Because you don't really have any control over anything else.
As a friend of mine once said, "If you only do what you've always done, you'll only get what you've always got."
So if you spend all your time talking about the books and stories you're going to write, then you might as well give up on the idea of being a writer because you're not going to make it.
But if you divert the time and energy from "talking about writing" into "writing" then, eventually, you will make it.
I'm not good enough.
That's the wrong attitude. If you don't think you're good enough, then you're never going to be. You have to believe that you can do it, because it's only that belief that will keep you writing long enough to learn how to do it.
Look at it like this: You're right.
If you believe you can't do something, you're right. If you believe you can, you're right.
At the most basic level writing is only words. You already know the words - you're not expected to invent new ones. All you have to do is put the words down in the correct order. And the more you write the more you learn what the correct order is.
Ever meet one of those people who just can't tell jokes? Someone who can ruin even the funniest gag? And I'm sure you've met at least one person who can have you rolling around the floor laughing at stuff that isn't really that funny?
Comedian Frank Carson's catchphrase is, "It's the way I tell 'em!"
He's right. Some people are naturally good with words and timing. Others aren't. But it's a skill that can be learned by most people - if they're willing to put in the time.
Take this example:
It's not particularly scary, is it? Now read it again, carefully. Examine the words I've used, the way I've put them together.
"I knew the house was haunted..." Well, that's a signpost: Look - a haunted house! Prepare to be terrified!
We don't need to put up signposts. The readers should discover that the house is haunted - it's not good enough that we tell them.
And there's a ghost too. We know there's a ghost because the narrator told us so.
He also tells us there's a chill in the air and that the windows rattled "even when there was no wind."
That is the key thing about writing. Show, don't tell. Allow the reader to experience the events, rather than just read about them...
As I climbed the stairs - each footfall a solid, deadened thump on the bare boards - I told myself that it was only the dust in the air that dried my throat and made me want to swallow.
A thick mass of cobwebs blocked the door to the master bedroom and I tried not to think about what had created them as I pushed my way through, the strands clinging to my hands, sticking to my hair. I didn't like spiders and I reassured myself that it was only a trickle of sweat running down my back, and nothing else.
The bedroom was empty, as I'd expected. In the old days, it was customary to burn a bed in which someone had died. But only the bed. Not the room itself
The windows had been shattered long ago, the lace curtains now age-yellowed and scarred with holes and tears. The flaking wooden shutters banged gently as though played with by a light breeze.
But the curtains did not move.
The second example doesn't say that the house is haunted, nor does it say that there's a ghost. Both are implied, but never said.
Look at some of the words I've used: "darkness", "decomposing", "shroud", "struggled", "dead", "decaying". And that's just the first paragraph.
There are countless ways of using words and phrases to give a story texture and atmosphere. So experiment: do what I've just done and write a short paragraph, then expand it, add layers to it. Smells, sounds, taste, touch - all the ways we experience the real world.
The final two sentences are an example of how to pace the text. By placing a line-break between the sentences, I've made the second one more important. Suppose that I'd left them as one sentence...
Not nearly as disturbing, is it? Breaking up the sentence gives the reader time to pause, time to take in the first part. Then the second part takes on a deeper meaning: the shutters are moving but the curtains aren't. We've already established there's no glass in the windows, so it's not the wind that's causing the shutters to move.
And for a complete turn-about, you could go back to the first sentence of the first example and change it to this:
I'm still only learning.
Let's go back to the swimming analogy: if you want to learn how to swim, you're going to have to get in the water at some point, and the sooner the better.
A good number of would-be writers never get around to writing because they're too busy attending their "Creative Writing" classes or reading their "How to Write" books. There's nothing wrong with those classes or those books, but they're not a substitute for writing.
There has never been - and there never will be - a champion swimmer who spends all of his or her time reading about swimming or sitting in classes learning the history of swimming or all the names of the different styles.
By all means attend the classes and read the books. You will learn a tremendous amount about writing from them. But classes and self-help books are tools. Like all tools the only way you'll master them is by actually using them for their intended task.
In a similar vein to this, some people put off writing because they believe they don't have a strong enough basic knowledge of grammar or punctuation, or they have a poor vocabulary.
The latter is easily solved. Buy a dictionary and a thesaurus. Next time you encounter a word you don't fully understand, write it down in that little notebook you always have with you (and you do always have a little notebook with you, don't you? If not, why not?). Look up the word when you get home.
As for grammar and punctuation... Learn from other published works. Go to your local bookstore and check out the school books - there's bound to be a kids' book on basic grammar and punctuation. Can't find one? Ask the assistant for help, that's what they're there for. Too embarrassed to ask? Well, get over it.
There is another approach... It's less useful in the long run but it'll keep you writing: If you don't know how to use a particular punctuation mark, then rewrite the sentence so that you don't need it. If you're not sure what "discombobulated" means, use a different word.
Stuck because you can't think of how to write down what you want to say? Just write it down as clear as you can and then move on - you can always change it later.
I can't find my pen.
No, this isn't a joke excuse for not writing. People genuinely do come up with stuff like that - and worse. Someone once told me that he intended to begin writing his novel as soon as his wife was able to remember the name of the shop in which she'd seen those really good notebooks.
That guy is never going to be a writer.
The dog needs to be walked. The cat needs to be fed. I have to study this for school. I need to have a bath. My toe hurts. My eyelashes are the wrong colour. It's raining. It's sunny.
All of these great excuses boil down to one simple thing: I don't want to write.
And that is the crux of the matter. A lot of people want to have written, but they don't want to write.
They want the result without putting in the work.
Now, it would be a lie to say that "proper" writers love the work more than the result. Most of us don't. We wake up in the morning and think, "Gaah! Got to get this blasted book written!" And we trudge blearily to our computers, switch them on, and start working.
Those last three words highlight the difference between writers and non-writers. Even when the going is tough and the story isn't working out quite the way we want, we sit down and we write.
This is the summing-up part:
If you've read this far and you haven't been put off the noble art of writing, then good for you. There's a chance you're going to make it!
Read books, especially books that are outside your preferred genre. If you want to write a western, read romances, and horror, and science fiction. Read the classics. Shakespeare, Dickens, HG Wells, Austin, the Brontes, Twain, Graham Green, Oscar Wilde... Don't just read westerns: you won't discover much that you haven't already found.
Never dismiss a genre because it's not what interests you. That sort of closed-minded approach will only teach you how to create the same stories over and over. Sure, there are plenty of writers who have no interest in anything other than their own genre and some of them are quite successful. But they are greatly outnumbered by the unsuccessful ones.
A writer must learn to adopt a wider view of the world. And to do that, he or she must be immersed in that world. So part of your training is to get out there, have a life, make friends and enjoy yourself. Don't completely isolate yourself from the real world because you need to get some writing done: the writing should reflect your life, not be your life.
There is an old saying: "Write what you know." Well, that's a good place to start, but that's not where it ends. You should also write what you don't know, and learn it as you go.
You can't really appreciate a sculpture by looking at a photograph of it. You need to move around, duck up and down, tilt your head left and right, lean right in and step way back.
Likewise, when writing a story you need to think like a sculptor. Craft the whole thing, not just one side of it, not just the bits that people see at first glance. Add details that might not be noticed without closer examination.
It sounds like a lot of work, and there's a good reason for that. It is a lot of work. But Michelangelo didn't create his David by scribbling the words "A muscular guy with his naughty bits hanging out" on a slab of marble.
He studied anatomy, learned how to use a chisel. Spent years practising. Knew what he wanted to create before he started.
That slab of marble could have been used by anyone else, for any other purpose. Michelangelo could have used a different piece of marble to create his masterpiece.
The marble itself isn't what makes the statue great.
It's what he did with it.
© Michael Carroll 2007