As I have been sharing in various posts, I want to become a writer. And that involves a number of things: practising writing in different forms at every opportunity; writing in my preferred form more consistently; taking writing courses and reading what other, successful, writers have to say about the craft.
Some of the above were pretty obvious from the start, some not so much. The obvious was the practising and writing courses; the less obvious the reading what published writers have to say about writing. I don’t know why this wasn’t obvious at first but it just wasn’t. I didn’t really come to that realisation until I finally, after several years of stop/starting with my writing, decided that buying a writing magazine was quite a good idea. From this came the realisation that published writers can offer some very good advice and tips on writing and that a more formal writing course, such as an MA in creative writing would be a very good investment in my future.
However, the really key advice that ran through every article and book on writing was to read, read, read as well as to write, write, write.
This was an exciting moment for me as a trainee writer, because I’ve always felt a little guilty reading when I should be feverishly writing away. Now I realise that I can read guilt free as it will serve as an almost subliminal writing course in itself. So I have been reading: reading widely, voraciously and enjoying myself hugely. And what’s more, it seems that the more I read, the more I write. Who knew?
I’ve also decided to post reviews of the books which have been particularly enjoyable as well as useful to me. But that’s just the kind of crazy chick I am. 🐣
I’ve written two short stories recently and really enjoyed the experience. This has surprised me as I have always thought of myself as in it for the long haul. Any story ideas that I have all seem to be better suited to a novel rather than a brief 1000 or so words.
Admittedly, I have not ever really tried writing short stories before. I’ve always been stuck to the idea of writing a novel. I still am, but writing short stories is a great way to practise writing and is ideal when you’re busy and only have time for really short bursts of writing. I’m talking 20 minutes in a day. I’ve just published one to this blog and I’ve just finished the first draft of another one. For a would be writer it’s good discipline just to be writing.
As for the novel. That’s shaping up in my head and will be started when school finishes. I want to get stuck into it before I start the MA in creative writing in October. But for now, I’ll get on with redrafting Pear and Parsley Jam.
One of the main pieces of advise that established writers offer to aspiring writers is to read widely. As a lifelong (well, from the age of four) voracious reader, this suits me perfectly. I love the classics; I love an easy holiday read and I love discovering new writers. And since I’ve been working more seriously on my own writing, I’ve read with a heightened interest. I really enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing and since reading that I have taken note of the way writers describe characters, shape dialogue and let their characters drive the story. So far so good.
Now I am a critical reader, I’m an English teacher after all. There are times when I will pause in reading a book and feel awe at the seemingly simple way a great writer can deftly bring a character or a situation to light. There are other times when I am fully aware that what I’m reading is basic and fairly clunky but still I’m enjoying it so in my eyes it has merit. But then there are times that I stumble across something so awkward that it breaks my absorption in the story and sets my nerves on edge.
Two books that I’ve read recently contained glaring, anachronistic and just plain silly mistakes. Why? Both books were reasonably well written. Both were clearly well researched in the key areas featured in them: the art world in one, and crime and certain medical facts in the other. And yet both featured screamingly obvious errors. Errors that irritated and puzzled me. Why write a book; presumably re-write it; proof-read it and go through all the painstaking work that is involved in bringing a book to print and then simply drop the ball in terms of basic contextual information.
What am I talking about? Well both books were clearly set in the twenty-first century; one at least was obviously bang up to date. The protagonist refers to her habit of constantly checking her ‘phone to look at Twitter, Facebook and the like. Said heroine was 26 years old and much of her back story centred around 10 years before the start of the novel. The reader is gradually introduced to events that took place when she was sixteen. Now given that it is only the last few years that we have habitually accessed Twitter and Facebook on our phones, this means that she would have been sixteen around the turn of the century at the latest. So far so good. So why does she reference Debbie Harry as a lesbian school friend’s crush – another friend, in order to out her, sang ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ sat in the classroom. I’ve been a teacher for the past 15 years and I can tell you that very, very few 16 years olds would know the singer or the song. Not now and not 16 years ago. Her boyfriend of the time apparently wrote down Pink Floyd lyrics – something which seemed to mark him out as a rebel. Really? It could be that a 16 year old boy in the year 2000 was into Pink Floyd but this would need qualifying surely. Or am I just being picky? In fact the kids I was teaching back then who were into older bands were generally into bands like Nirvana or, if truly retro, The Clash. And again, if you featured a 16 year old from 2000 in your novel who was a fan of a non contemporary band, it would need to make some sense to the reader. Otherwise, like me, your reader will assume that you are confusing your protagonist’s youth with your own – which clearly was not in the same decade.
Another book featuring mobile ‘phones and various other references to a 21st Century setting had a jogger run past the heroine clutching a Walkman.
Was she being retro? We weren’t told. Just left to wonder why someone would use a Walkman in the place of an ipod or their phone. Curiouser and curiouser. There was also a 30 year old man in a corduroy suit. I’m sorry, I just can’t see it myself. Not now and probably not since the 1980s at the latest. It reminded me of a romance novel I read recently, set in the here and now in which the heroine bought the scruffy hero a velvet jacket to smarten him up. I had a velvet jacket that I used to wear when I went out. It was lovely, dark blue and very smart. I was thirteen. That was nearly 40 years ago.
It’s just very annoying. Don’t write a book set in the present time and reference things from when you were a teenager unless you explain them. Thank you very much. The end.
As I progress on my journey to becoming a (published?) writer, I feel that there are a lot of short cuts that I would like to have taken. When I say short cuts, what I really mean is reaching certain points of realisation much quicker than I have. I can’t help wondering whether being told about these things earlier – for example in a “Learning How to be a Writer” guide – would have been preferable to having to come to them by myself over the course of a long process.
So for anyone who is also moving through the maze of developing as a writer I have listed below some of the really important points in my journey that it has taken me a long time to reach:
- Subscribe to a good writing magazine AND read it. I subscribed to Writing Magazine around 18 months ago having bought a copy in my local WH Smith. I loved it and found it really useful but I didn’t read it regularly. Issues would be posted through my letter box every month; I would remove the plastic wrapping and that would be that. I kept the copies and over the past couple of months I have finally started to read them. Why didn’t I do this earlier? Not only do they feature short story competitions and details of publications who are accepting submissions but they also run a “How I got Published” spot featuring a different author every month. This has proved one of the most useful parts of the magazine for me because a large percentage of the writers featured state that they completed an MA in Creative Writing and as often as not their first published novel was the result.
- This leads me neatly to my second point – Enrol on an MA in Creative Writing. It is expensive, but for anyone who is really serious about becoming published, I think that it will be an very worthwhile investment. You can now get a student loan for an MA so what are you waiting for? For those who don’t want to commit to the time and expense of an MA there are plenty of other good writing courses out there. This is where the excellent Writing Magazine comes in useful again. Also see No. 5 below.
- Find a good MA in Creative Writing: so you’ve made the decision to enrol; you’ve looked into the funding; now you just have to find the right course for you. At first I thought it would just be a matter of finding an distance learning MA as I work full time. It is not quite that simple however. There are quite a number of universities that offer distance learning. I am in the midst of researching them now. My criteria is the tutors – they have to be published writers; the success stories of former students – I want to proof that it works; finally the fees. One of my favourites so far is very expensive. I need to weigh up the cost with the benefits. It’s no good going for a cheap course that isn’t effective.
- Finding the time to write: this is really the holy grail for any aspiring writer with various distractions such as a job; a social life; family life and so on. I have tried various writing routines and really the best one is just to do something every day. What and how much depends on the time you’ve got. Some days, like today, I will spend nearly all day writing; it is a bank holiday and my husband is away so it’s perfect. Other days, generally work days, I might only be able to spend 30 minutes; on days like that I generally work on re-writes as I find that easier to dip into. As I mentioned in my previous blog I am on my 3rd draft of a romantic novel and I find that is the perfect occupation for limited time. This is important because I feel that I am moving forward albeit slowly. It’s better to write something than nothing. On the days when I really don’t have time to write, I read – it’s as important.
- Developing as a Writer: this links to number 4 really – along with finding the time to write, you also need to find what genre suits you. If you already know that, then great. But if, like me, you’re not really sure of much beyond whether you want to write fiction or non-fiction then this is an important one. I mentioned in a previous blog that I started a writing course 14 years ago. That really does give a clear picture of how long I’ve been playing around with becoming a writer. Of course it goes back much further than 14 years but that’s just the way it is. The writing course is the Writers’ Bureau distance learning course and it is really useful for a number of reasons. The main one for me at the moment is the first few assignments are articles and they are perfect for short bursts of writing. I can draft a short 1000 word article in around an hour or so and that is great for those days when I don’t have more than that to spare.
That’s it for now: Read, Write and Research – The three R’s.
Being a writer is like being a non-smoker: Some people never smoke – they are determined from the beginning not to smoke – these are the people who write from the off.
Others come to it eventually in the same way they will give up smoking – meaning to for years and then, finally, they do it.
Then there are those who never do; they think about it; talk about it but never actually do it.