Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Advice to would-be writers (2)

Following on from Saturday's post about what I see as the four basics of turning yourself into a better writer (reading as much as possible, getting writing practice on a daily basis, tying your reading and writing together and cultivating an awareness of the mechanics of writing through regular analysis and critique, and experimenting with a broad range of different genres), here's the concluding part of my accumulated wisdom on the subject. [Well, not quite the concluding part; I came up with a final afterthought as well.]

These pieces of advice are rather more specific, and aphoristic in form; although I fear they will require a fair amount of elaboration to justify them. I suspect some of them, at least, will prove a bit controversial as well - particularly for readers from North America, where the formal teaching and mentoring of 'creative writing' and the communal support mechanism of writers' groups have become something of a cult phenomenon in recent decades.

More Froogly Advice: 8 tips for aspiring writers

Be self-aware, but not self-conscious; be self-confident, but not complacent
This is a restatement or elaboration of something I touched on in my first post. A writer needs to cultivate the ability to view his own work with a detached eye, to be alert to its flaws and foibles, and to be ruthless in attempting to eliminate them. However, there is a danger that such extreme self-criticism may undermine the writer's confidence in his work, and make him unduly afraid of the possible criticism of others, more hesitant to present his work to a wider audience. This is a fear that must be faced and conquered. A writer must try to be as acutely sensitive as possible to all the possible shortcomings of his own work, without allowing himself to become afraid of his readers' reactions. He should never allow himself to believe that his work is flawless, or nearly so (if he does, the quality of his writing will start to deteriorate rather than continue to improve); but he should always believe - by the time he comes to seek publication - that he has produced something worth reading.

Remember - you are not your audience
I think this is perhaps the No. 1 vice I have encountered in writers whose passion for writing exceeds their talent (which is the majority, by far). There is a common prejudice among writers - borrowed, inappropriately, from other areas of artistic endeavour - that one should not "pander to the market", that one should remain "true to one's inner vision" and not "compromise" that to seek a wider audience. Oh yes, all well and good up to a point. I don't favour trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator, lowering my standards to reach a wider readership. I'd like to write literary fiction (or literary non-fiction) for a narrow, discerning audience. But there is always an audience; writing is fundamentally a public and commercial act - you have to write something that someone else is going to want to read. 

By all means, writers should enjoy the process of writing. And the content of what they write will naturally be things that they themselves find entertaining. But writers must guard against a solipsistic experience of their work, where they are writing primarily or solely to entertain themselves, with no consideration of how their target audience might respond to it. Unbridled indulgence in private quirks - arcane vocabulary, elaborately contrived wordplay, intricate descriptive passages, comprehensive back-story - is likely to produce something that is hugely entertaining for the writer... and unreadable for almost anyone else.

Make it a job
I noted in my first post on this topic that many of the great writers served long and tedious apprenticeships writing journalism or promotional copy. I therefore always urge people to find ways of getting paid for their writing, or at least of making their writing useful and getting it out before the public (if you can't get work as a freelance magazine writer, you can almost certainly find some local business or charity group that you can offer your services to cheap or free - helping to produce event programmes, catalogues, flyers, and so on). 

This is valuable in several different ways. It helps you to overcome any artsy preciousness about your writing, and leads you to consider it more as a practical - and useful - craft. It opens up more contact with the outside world, preventing you from lapsing into the writer's stereotype of the self-obsessed and anti-social hermit. It relieves you of the burden of self-motivation (having to force yourself to keep putting in the hours on a private writing project that may never see the light of day becomes emotionally exhausting; having other people depend on you to produce some writing, having external deadlines to meet, can be such a refreshing change from that). It helps to wear down that damaging self-consciousness about your writing, getting you used to the idea of your work going before the public (albeit work that is fairly short and utterly unimportant to you). And, above all, it helps to cultivate the daily writing practice habit that I recommended last time; people often find it difficult to maintain such a regime if their writing is to be purely self-motivated and self-consumed; creating responsibilities to produce writing for others is great for improving the regularity of your output (and for getting you to diversify in genres).

Avoid (like the plague) writers' groups
I know a few people who swear by them. And perhaps I have had unduly disappointing experiences - finding groups where no-one really had much talent, and the meetings became primarily social get-togethers. Perhaps also I am temperamentally unsuited - too much the rugged individualist - for a culture of mutual support. But I am wary of the very idea of the writers' group; very, very wary.

I think a group is unlikely to be of much use to you unless you can find people who are: a) similarly talented (you're not going to learn much from people who can't write their way out of a paper bag; but equally you might be intimidated by people who are clearly at a much higher level than you are); b) similarly motivated (many naturally gifted writers just aren't that fussed about writing something, and many more are just enthusiastic amateurs, hobbyists with no clear goal of publication; if you've actually made a commitment to producing a book about a particular topic or story and you are determined to bring it to completion within a given timeframe... you are a one-in-a-million aspiring writer, and you will struggle to find group of truly like-minded people in your locale); and c) capable of giving astute, unbiased, and uninhibited feedback.

I think there's a particular danger that writers' groups may often just provide band-aids for the fragile ego, that they may help a writer to feel better about himself, but they won't do much if anything to help him make his writing better. If most of the feedback he's hearing is undiscriminatingly positive, it's likely to make his writing worse. This has been the situation with just about all the writers' groups I've ever experienced or heard or read about it; they became big love-ins where nobody offered any meaningful criticism at all. 

On the other hand, you may also occasionally run into criticism that is unhelpful because it is excessively harsh, spitefully motivated, poorly expressed, or just misdirected or inaccurate. Being a really good critic is perhaps an even rarer talent than being a good writer, and I don't think I've ever encountered one in a writing group.

And even if you are fortunate to have found an appropriately matched group of writers which does include some astute critics, all kinds of problems can emerge with the social dynamics of such a gathering: admiration, jealousy, irritation and a range of other factors interact with personal friendships to strain relationships between the group members and distort their perceptions of each other's work. 99 times out of 100, you're better off keeping well away from all of that.

Writing is an essentially solitary pursuit. If you can't learn to do it on your own, then you're probably not going to be able to learn it.

Be your own mentor
Most of the same problems I identified above with writers' groups also apply to mentorship. Most people, I think, join a writers' group largely in the hope of finding one or more mentors through it, or viewing the group itself as a kind of collective mentor.

I know a few people who feel they've had a very positive experience with a mentor. But I know rather more who started off enthusiastic about the notion, but found over time that all sorts of tensions arose within that relationship, often ending in a complete meltdown. 

My major concern is that there is too much of a status gap between the two parties: it is almost inevitable that the mentee will feel - at least at first - overawed and inadequate before the mentor; and it is likewise almost inevitable that excessive adulation from the mentee will make the mentor unduly self-satisfied, lead him to put on airs and graces, and perhaps even become too domineering in the relationship, or start seeking to extend his own career vicariously. None of those are healthy attitudes for either party.

As I just said above, writing is a solitary pursuit: learn how to do it on your own.

A writer needs to be robustly self-reliant, and confident in his own judgement. I don't believe that relying on the guidance of someone else is an appropriate way to develop those qualities; rather, it is likely to stunt them.

Edit rather than redraft
Of course, there will be a need to redraft something from time to time. But too many writers become obsessed with endless redrafting. It becomes an instrument of procrastination. And it is a prime means for allowing 'perfect' to become the enemy of good. Compulsive redrafters may never finish their work at all. And the manic need to keep on making changes somewhere leads them to start making changes that are unnecessary, even deleterious: their book starts becoming worse the more they fret at it. You have to learn to accept something as 'finished', to be able to walk away when it is good enough.

Worst of all, the redrafting impulse betrays a lack of confidence in your writing; and confidence, as I said above, is vital for the writer. More particularly, it suggests a lack of confidence in your subconscious. At least 90% of the writing process occurs in the subconscious mind. And your subconscious is much more able than you think. Your subconscious also learns and gets better very quickly. Learn to trust your subconscious creativity: your 'first thoughts' will be best most of the time - and subsequent more conscious tinkering with them will more often than not weaken your writing.

You should go over your writing carefully to weed out errors in spelling and syntax. You should remove any repetitions or inelegancies. You can tweak a phrase here or there. You should excise any of your trademark tics that you now notice - those features of your writing that may seem natural, and even perhaps attractive, to you but which are likely to be obtrusive and irritating to other readers. And you should edit for length, trimming out any superfluous material - however good it is, however much you enjoyed writing it - to improve readability.

But this is all editing. Wholesale rewriting, recasting great chunks of your 'first draft' is to be resisted as far as possible; it can too easily become a destructive addiction.

Focus on structure
A lot of writers like to "go with the flow", just start writing and "see where it takes them". There's more to be said for this with fiction, where strongly realised characters can "take on a life of their own" and suggest new plot developments during the course of the writing. However, you still need those strongly realised characters, and a strong basic story idea, before you start writing. And, in my experience, I would say that it is only very experienced, or uncommonly naturally gifted, writers who can excel in such an improvisational approach. For the other 95% of us, it is essential to prepare thoroughly and make an outline for the work with as much detail as possible (particularly for non-fiction, but also for fiction). This process can take several weeks, or even months for an ambitious book - don't rush it. Don't let it become procrastination, but don't rush it. Don't start writing in earnest until you've got a very clear idea of what you're going to write about, and how it's all going to hang together.

Make a connection with other aspects of your creativity
Everyone - almost everyone - has some special interest which excites their passion, and through which their creative imagination most readily finds expression. And for most people it's not writing; they come to that later in life, often because there's a particular book project they'd like to realise.

I believe that if someone's writing is going to be compelling, exciting, distinctive, if it's going to suggest an individual "voice", it has to tap into that person's primary passion(s).

I'm not thinking so much about subject matter; although, if your passion is cooking, obviously it might be a good idea to make food a central focus of your projected south-east Asian travelogue. My more important point here is that creative individuals - and we're all creative to some extent - have already developed their own ways of viewing the world, of interacting with it, of expressing their responses to it. If you're a musician, what is it about music that especially appeals to you - performance or composition, solitary playing or the buzz of communal creativity with a band, highly structured pieces or free-form improvisation? How can you bring elements of your musical experience - those preferences, those insights, that passion - into your writing? Similarly, if you're a photographer or a sculptor, or a carpenter or a mechanic - what is special about the way that you look at the world? How can you incorporate that into your writing?

I have found these maxims useful in developing my writing abilities and my confidence in my writing. I hope they might prove useful to others too.

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