A writer I like very much, Matt Haig, recently made a list of thirty things he knows about writing for the Waterstone’s blog. When I saw that, I felt my competitive streak come leaping to the surface like a trout to a fly. If Matt Haig knows thirty things about writing, then surely so do I.
I feared I might only turn out to know four, and would have to crawl away with my tail between my legs. But in the end, I did manage to hit the golden number. So, among other things – a bit of a riff on language, a good dose of Prufrock, without which no writing workshop is complete – this is what I told my students today:
Writing is hard work. It should be hard work. This is the language of Shakespeare and Milton you are messing with.
The difference between writers and non-writers is that writers rewrite. Then they rewrite again. Sometimes, the seventeenth draft has to be wrangled from their crabbed, pedantic hands.
Good writing is like jazz. It has a rhythm, and a syncopation. Listen to your writing as you would listen to music. One syllable too many can throw the rhythm off.
Don’t be afraid of playing with metaphor. Be adventurous; be antic. This can bring writing alive and lift your words off the page. But don’t strive too hard for effect. The pudding can swiftly become over-egged.
Writing should be a passion. It might even be an obsession. That’s all right. You need that to get you through the doldrums. And there will be doldrums.
Don’t take yourself seriously, but take your writing very seriously indeed. You might want to keep this fact secret from your family and friends, especially if they are British. They may laugh. Or point. But you must know it, in your secret heart.
Read everything you can get your hands on. If you don’t read, you won’t write. I heard one writer, modishly successful in the nineties, boast at a literary festival that he did not read books. His name has now entirely disappeared from the bookshops. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Reading is fuel for your writing; it is petrol in the tank.
Some people say read the bad as well as the good. They say it cheers you up, because you may know that you can do so much better than this published charlatan or that bogus best-seller. I think you need to be really careful with bad writing. It can depress you and make you want to comfort eat and send your battered brain into a kind of fugue state. Whereas three paragraphs of Fitzgerald will send you racing to the keyboard, inspired by the possibility of brilliance.
Love words. Be bold with them. Throw them up in the air and let them fall as they will. If you don’t love words, you have no business writing a sentence. I’m very hard line on this.
The best piece of writing advice I ever saw, and I think it was from Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, was: allow yourself to do a really crappy first draft. This is wonderfully liberating. Nobody need ever see it. It can be as baggy and saggy and meandering and nonsensical as you like; there will be no walk of shame. Then you take the thing out behind the bike shed in the second draft and show it who is boss.
The only rule in writing is: there are no rules.
Except: you must never, ever dangle a modifier. Ever. It is not clever and it is not kind.
If someone asked me, which they have not, what the two most important things in writing are, I would say clarity and authenticity. But if that same someone asked me tomorrow, I might say something quite different.
Know the rules. It is important to know them so that you may break them. If you are breaking them through ignorance, you will end up with a mess. If you are breaking them on purpose, you are an iconoclast. If you do break them, make sure they damn well stay broken.
Grammar is important because it shows respect for the reader. Most grammatical notions are not the idiot ravings of a crazed pedant, but designed for the comfort of the reading eye. Bad grammar usually means that the reader has to stop, frown, go back and read the sentence again to make sure of the meaning. This is not polite. We are back to clarity again.
Practice, practice, practice. That is the only thing that will make the difference. I don’t know why people think they can write without practice. A concert pianist would not fail to do her arpeggios. Do your arpeggios.
Don’t talk about writing, except to other writers. It’s quite a dull subject for those who don’t do it, and if you give too much of your passion away in talk, you may lose urgency on the page.
Understand that you will fail. You will fail professionally. Books will be rejected; agents will sack you; critics will maul you. You will fail in the privacy of your own head, because the perfect book that lives there will never quite make it to the page.
Mozart can really help. If you are having a bad morning, and your brain is filled with mud, put the 40th symphony on at full blast and see what happens. There is some research to show he lights up the creative areas of the brain.
Finish. That’s another difference between writers and non-writers. Writers finish. 90,000 words is a long slog. Get good sturdy walking boots.
Find a subject you love, and write about it. Tell the story you want to read. The best way to work out what book to write is to think of the book you search for in the bookshop, but can never find. Make sure your subject really does fascinate you. You are going to spend a very, very long time with it. Someone clever once said something like: if your book doesn’t keep you up nights, it sure isn’t going to keep anyone else up either. (I should probably look up the correct quote, but there is no time. A Dear Reader will doubtless know.)
You don’t have to feel sorry for writers, but in some ways they choose a hard life. All their youthful dreams will be smashed, one by shattered one. Most of them will never win a prize, will never have a best-seller, will barely make a living. Even the ones who are successful in worldly terms will still have to face the melancholy fact that they shall never quite become their heroes. (Their heroes are quite often alcoholic, dead, misanthropic humans, so this may not be entirely a bad thing.)
Jokes are very tricky things in books, but humour is important. My theory is that only the very brilliant can embrace unremitting seriousness. In ordinary hands, a humourless book is half-dead on arrival, and will drag itself around with a lumpen, melancholy refrain.
Write what you know is slightly defeatist advice. There is The Google after all. There is the imagination. Write what you love, what you fear, what comes to you in the night and won’t let you sleep.
I’m not much for the dogmatic You-Must-Do-This. (All evidence to the contrary.) I’m more a shuffle my foot in the dirt and make a mild suggestion sort of person. Imperious advice can be confining and patronising. But if a novice came to me and asked for one single thing to help her become a writer, I would say: learn to touch type. It means your fingers can keep up with your thoughts. It’s the most useful skill I ever learnt. I use it every day and I never stop feeling grateful.
Trust the reader. Not everything has to be spelt out. Readers are clever. They can read between the lines.
There is something quite peculiar about the writing process. There are days when you feel as if you are wading through sand, when you are prodding and heaving and dragging yourself up to a respectable word count. You are almost typing for the sake of it. When you go back and re-read those words, they are often really quite good. On the other hand, when you feel flushed with brilliance, and coruscating sentences fly from your fingers, and you are privately convinced that perhaps you are Scott Fitzgerald after all, you often go back and find the work is thin and gimcrack. I have no idea why this is.
You do have to kill your darlings. Everyone says so, because it is true. I make a special dead darlings file, so the murder is less agonising. That way, they are not quite bloody corpses on the floor, but in a gentle Darling limbo, where I may go and visit them whenever I like. I never do.
Be yourself. The moment you start writing like anyone else, your words go dead on the page.
This is the serious one. I hope you will forgive me.
Writing is frustrating, often unrewarding, financially stupid, exhausting, misunderstood and bizarrely difficult. But it is also a privilege. You get to think thoughts for a living. You get to be interested in everything. No person on the bus is wasted. You may ransack your own tragedies, so at least they are good for something. No heartbreak shall go unexamined. You are also in a fine cohort. You are doing the same job as Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. I’ve said it before, and I shall say it again: you are playing with the language of Shakespeare and Milton. That is something to brighten a morning.
The course is over. My students were brave and good and willing. I sprung oddities on them, made them reveal themselves, took them, at one stage, on a forced march. (There was a good reason.) They had to listen to me repeat myself, race off on interminable tangents, and mix my metaphors, which is what I do in speech when I get excited. They produced surprising and enchanting work, and I did make them work. I even took them to see the horse. (There was no good reason.)
I salute them all.
No photographs again today. No time. Just the dear foal with her semaphore ears, playing hide and seek with her dreamy mum:
Oh, and PS: Some of this does sound rather grandly prescriptive. There is a bit of must and should. The disclaimer of course is: only if you really want to. Take what you like and leave the rest. I may sound tremendously decided and certain. In fact, the only thing I really know as I grow older is that I know nothing.
PPS. Thank you to the Dear Reader who spotted a typo in the first draft of this. It has now been corrected. My eyes were squinting too much with tiredness to proof-read correctly. It is almost inevitable that when one writes about writing, one will make a howler. The hubris gods, laughing at my puny plan.