Warning: may increase your heart-rate by 5 bpm

Month: April, 2013



It’s easy to become a bit irrational about sending your story out into the world. It’s mostly done; yet if I tucked that, trimmed this, ah….and that. Before you know it you’re like an obsessive mother on your son’s first day at school, preening and fussing until he’s squirming to get out of the door and away. You can’t know that he’s ready any more than you know if your story is. Simply do the best you can and the rest is out of your control, but what is your best? Would you know it if you saw it?

Sometimes you know you’re sitting on gold. Most of the time it’s a strange ore which sort of glints if you catch it in the right light, but that could just be your eyes playing up. As Mark Twain said “writing is easy, all you have to do is cross out the wrong words”, yet in the final, final edit you realise how vulnerable the whole thing is, every word is the wrong word. Theories abound to dealing with this: get some distance for a week, even a month, then edit. Correct the most glaring errors and don’t sweat the small stuff. It will never be as ready as you want it, as it deserves.

Me? I’m still figuring it out. I do know that over-working a final draft is a bit like whitening teeth until they become a hollywood smile. Yes, all the plaque is gone, but the enamel is too, the flavour, and you’re left with something blandly machine-made. To paraphrase Anne Lammot: “getting a story finished is like putting an octopus to bed”. If you find that you’re wondering about a single word choice in a paragraph then you’re done. No reader will be that attentive. Get it out there and start writing another so you don’t obsess about whose hands it’s landed in, and whether they’re going to treat it kindly.


Writing and reality


Ray Bradbury once said: “You may stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you”. Which was perhaps a more zen approach than Hemmingway’s staying drunk on alcohol, but I digress. People assume that because writers examine life closely then we also examine reality. For me that’s not the case. I see reality as a weight in fiction, it helps makes the fantastical believable. Reality by itself is too often bills, disappointment, drudgery. You can’t underestimate the feeling a writer has when everything is working on the page; you’re creating cities, people, entire worlds, then you go back to reality and realise how little you’re actually in control of.

It seems comical to quote Nietzsche’s “when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you” when you’re discussing filling out tax returns or budgeting for the month, but there’s truth there too. Writers can find it difficult to know when to feel and when to guard ourselves; we do the first automatically because we want to sample and experience everything, but if you don’t learn to do the latter as well then life is a blunt, repetitive hammer that will smash you to pieces. Not all of us, in fact most of us don’t, work at day jobs that we love. If you step into a cold, logical, workplace environment with all your senses open then it’s the equivalent of asking a child to sit for eight hours in a featureless room. You can permanently damage your creativity if you don’t craft armour to wear during the everyday slog.

As to fashioning that armour? Let me know if you figure it out. I think mine was beaten out of a rusty plough.

Little Black Books


Writers love to watch, though you must take care to phrase this correctly ( having once said “I like to watch people” in response to a question about my interests, it felt like the social faux pas of an axe murderer ). To this end you’ll come across too many interesting people, situations, and sights to hold entirely in your head. It’s easy to let these go because they seem so small and fleeting, but it’s precisely for that reason that you should note them down. I see my notebooks the same way as the jar under the sink filled with dozens of random screws: all waiting for their place in my latest botched DIY project, short story, or the bigger construction of a novel. You need environment descriptions? Character ideas? Snatches of real speech that can prop up your dialogue like support rods with their authenticity? This material is flowing by you the instant you leave your home, be it in on your morning commute or shopping at the weekend. Don’t be furtive. Treat yourself to a quality moleskine notebook and make it something you’re proud to produce and scribble in ( though it’s wise to be more circumspect in social situations lest your friends feel like they’re on trial ).

If you limit yourself to what you can conjur at the keyboard then you’re already swimming against the tide; anxiety, fear, boredom, none of these will help you recall magical little moments. The great thing about writing is that people are only interested in the finished product; they don’t care about the sawdust on the floor or the fifteen bent nails. So arm yourself with these bullets of prose. You may never need to use them, but it feels a lot better knowing that you have material to page through if you really are stuck. Even if it’s only to convince yourself that this is why you love to write; that when we’re not tensed up and willing worlds to appear then they’re easy to see.