Saturday, September 08, 2012

Advice to would-be writers (1)

Although I am profoundly sceptical of the notion of teaching creative writing, it is something that I've had some experience of attempting myself: in my first career as a high school teacher and more recently in Beijing with Chinese university students. A few years ago, I was asked to deliver such a course for a bunch of American college kids studying in China for a year. That fell through, vanishing mysteriously into the ether as so many job opportunities in China tend to do; but I had spent some time sketching out what 'wisdom' I might try to impart to these students and what kind of exercises I would ask them to undertake; and I've just discovered that I still have some of those notes.

My thoughts on this area were stimulated again just the other day when an old friend told me she was interested in trying to write a book and was wondering how to go about it. This was one of those coincidences that struck me as somehow timely or significant; it goaded me into codifying the various (hopefully useful) prejudices on this topic that I have accumulated through a lifetime of writing, and teaching, and teaching writing. And now I am ready to share them with you. 
[This will probably end up being at least a two-parter. In fact, a three-parter: further instalments here and here.]

Froog's Thoughts On Becoming A Better Writer

Read more
Many writers, I know, don't like to read too much, if at all, while they're actually writing a book. That is a hangup I can sympathise with, particularly if you are prone to reading gluts of books in a single genre or by a single writer - that can imprint itself too strongly on your consciousness and skew your own writing style. When I was a boy I went through 'phases' in my reading: devouring T.H. White's Once and Future King tretralogy in a matter of weeks, reading the collected short stories of Saki one after the other, polishing off nearly all of Evelyn Waugh's novels in the space of just a few months. After one of these reading splurges I found I could mimic or parody the content and style of those works quite well - but I couldn't do much else, I couldn't stop myself thinking and writing in that admired writer's manner. So, yes, you have to be careful.

However, in general, I think the best way to improve your writing abilities is to read as much as possible: read every book you can get your hands on, every kind of genre, every kind of style, scores of different writers. I am deeply suspicious of attempts to teach the essence of 'good writing' in a systematic fashion. It seems to me that such a mechanistic approach must invariably focus on a handful of features, to the exclusion of many others, and tends to engender formulaic and homogenized styles (I feel I can always tell when someone has attended a 'creative writing class' - and it's not usually a good thing!). Most great writers, even most reasonably competent and confident writers, have an innate sense of how to write - without ever having formally studied 'the craft'. You absorb the elements of 'good writing' by osmosis - through reading a lot of good writing. There really is no other way. 

People who've been avid readers for much of their lives are thus usually well prepared to embark on a career in writing. However, many people who take up writing later in life have been only intermittent readers, have perhaps not read very much at all since their school days. Folks like this need to do some catching up, they need to start reading A LOT.

I'd even say that it is useful to do a lot of reading in your own chosen genre/subject area. Many people fear that this may stymie their originality, that if they immerse themselves in other similar writing, they won't be able to help themselves picking up certain quirks of style or adapting another writer's ideas (whether being tempted into deliberate emulation or doing so merely subconsciously). I believe it should be possible to guard against this danger, if you do this reading some way ahead of commencing your own writing, in the early stages of your preparation - rather than immediately before or during the writing itself. Perhaps in non-fiction even more than fiction (and particularly if you are thinking of entering such an overworked field as, e.g., 'the China book') it is useful to know what other writers have done in a certain area, and how they've done it; to know what to avoid, to understand how to make your contribution more distinctive (let's not get hung up on unique - hardly anyone ever manages to achieve that!), and hence more saleable.

Write more
There is no substitute for practice. Most good writers honed their skills through years of drudge-work in journalism or advertising. If you've never written much besides your school and college essay assignments and the occasional diary, then you've got a lot of catching up to do. Make writing a regular habit, a ritual in your life; try to write something every day. A diary or a blog is a good place to start; but try to vary the length, content, and style of the pieces you write; and take care to write 'properly', rather than in a chatty or notey style.

Furthermore, if you haven't done much or any extended writing before, don't be in too much of a hurry to get started on 'the book'. Take the time to build up your writing skills with daily exercises for at least 3-6 months first. You can't run a marathon without training for it first; writing a book is much the same (if you're not already a well-practised writer).

Cultivate awareness about what you read and write
Of course, doing huge amounts of reading and writing won't do you a lot of good unless you are alert enough to learn from it. When we read, we do so for education or entertainment; we focus mainly on the content, and on the feelings and impressions that content produces in us. We don't pay much conscious attention to how a writer has achieved these effects. We probably have an intuitive sense of when a writer has been particularly effective in conveying something, and we feel an additional pleasure in reading such writing, but we don't pause to consider the nuts-and-bolts of how it is done. An aspiring writer needs to start doing that on a regular basis, needs to become almost compulsive about it. Any time you find a piece of writing particularly striking, go back and read it again - and again - more carefully; analyse why it had such an effect on you; consider what might have been done differently, and what the effect of such changes would have been. Study pieces of writing at different scales: a whole article or chapter, a single page or paragraph, and individual sentences. Sometimes you can try to write a formal critical essay on such a study, as a writing exercise; or, try to rewrite a piece yourself, to see if it can be 'improved' upon (probably not; but there's no harm in trying).

Similarly with writing, most of us don't bother to think about how we write. Most of us believe that we are competent in our writing, at least at the basic level of spelling and syntax; and we are all deluded in this - the English language is so monstrously complex that nobody manages to get everything right all of the time.

Unfortunately, the era of instant communications has had a very deleterious impact on our writing habits: even e-mail encourages us to write more briskly and to mimic the unconsidered sloppiness of casual speech, with its slang, its fragmented grammar, its unconventional punctuation, and so on; even more immediate and condensed forms of communication like IM and Twitter promote the abandonment of upper-case letters and the rampant use of abbreviations. Most people - though they seldom fully realise it - make frequent and often quite horrendous errors in their spelling and syntax; instant communication tools like Twitter are making this worse.

Don't kid yourself that you can 'code switch', i.e., maintain awareness of different language situations and shift seamlessly between different levels of formality and correctness in your writing. If 90% of what you write most days makes minimal requirements on formal grammar or punctuation, the other 10% is going to be negatively impacted by that. If you want to get 'serious' about your writing, you have to shift the proportion between formal/correct and informal/incorrect writing in your daily output; use Twitter and IM less, use e-mail more - and try to approach e-mailing as you would writing a formal letter on paper. 

Eliminating 'basic' errors of spelling and syntax, errors of the kind that will make your writing difficult to read and unimpressive to a prospective agent or editor (no matter how wonderful your content may be), is a huge task for most people. Indeed, it may often require several months of hard effort just to reach an adequate (not perfect) standard in this regard. However, this bootcamp work on the basics of writing doesn't have to be done in isolation; it can be undertaken alongside your more targeted preparation for your major writing project and the more general self-cultivation of the creative or artistic dimension to your writing.

At that higher level of writing we also, alas, tend to be complacent about our competence, blind to our faults and blemishes. It is natural to like our own writing, or at least to believe that it is reasonably 'fit for purpose'; and it can be hard for us to accept that in fact it may not be objectively very good; or that, whether it is 'good' or not, not many other people are likely to enjoy reading it. The aspiring writer has to cultivate the habit of carefully re-reading everything he or she has written, and reading it, as far as possible, from the detached perspective of an imagined reader, reading with a ruthlessly critical eye. That ruthlessness is the key that very few people achieve. If you can read your own writing and say "This sucks", you will continuously improve; if you read it and say "This isn't bad", you will stagnate or deteriorate.

Practise in as many genres as possible
Consider it cross-training. In my experience, people who focus exclusively on one genre may become adept in handling the conventions of that genre, but they rarely become truly impressive writers. To do that requires an all-around writing education. 

You can often learn more by moving outside your comfort zone, by attempting to write something in a format that is quite unfamiliar and even unappealing to you. Try your hand at writing everything; fiction and non-fiction; long pieces and short ones; news items, travelogues, advice columns, opinion pieces, restaurant or theatre reviews; novellas, short stories, micro-fiction. 

I particularly recommend having a go at poetry. You almost certainly won't be any good at it; poetry is HARD, and 90% of published poets aren't worth a damn. It doesn't matter whether you're any good; you'll learn a lot from trying and failing. Poetry teaches you about rhythm and structure, conciseness of expression, allusion, and phrase-making in a way that no other kind of writing can; and yet every kind of writing can benefit from these lessons.

That's enough - more than enough - for one session. There will be some more to follow, next week some time.

I hope I may actually provoke some comments for once with this post!

No comments: