Jumping the Gun

When we first start writing (and for some of us, after we’ve been doing it for a good while) there’s a huge temptation to show our work. Don’t worry, it’s an entirely natural thing. After all, we’ve worked hard to birth our brainchild and it’s always nice to gain some sort of recognition.

So we show our family. Then our friends. If we’re lucky enough to have caring and supportive varieties of both, our egos will be stroked and we’ll need to be careful not to strut too obviously, for fear of being cut down and served up for the next Sunday roast. But until that happens, we’ll feel as if we’re invincible.

Unfortunately, unless we’re inhumanly gifted, we’re not immune to criticism – especially of the scathing kind.

Somewhere along the line, if you show too many people, the wrong person will see your work before it is ready. Sometimes it’s before you even know what you’re writing about.

I know. That sounds completely ludicrous. How can someone claim to be a writer if they don’t know what they’re writing about?

It happens all the time.

I used to plot meticulously and I would always know what my story themes were right from the get go. As a consequence, my writing fell flat. It was contrived and mechanical and basically, I sucked. Don’t get me wrong, that approach is highly successful for many people. It just so happens that I’m not one of them.

My point is that I am often unsure of what I’m writing about until I’ve read over my first draft, let it stew for a bit and reworked it several times. Sometimes I’ll have something pretty close to what I thought I’d have. But the majority of the time, I don’t. I’ll find things in there I never even suspected.

The temptation to show people my work, even those whose opinions I highly value, is often strong during that initial drafting process. It’s largely because I doubt myself all the time. Trouble is, by showing my work too early, I get many different viewpoints, all of which are valid, but none of which really help because they vary so much in the assumptions the readers have made.

I end up becoming so conflicted about what to do that I struggle to finish the piece to my own satisfaction.

Take the sketch above. This is something that took me about an hour to complete. Now I’m the first to admit it’s no masterpiece. But for someone who has never taken a drawing class and hasn’t done a sketch of any description for twenty, twenty-five years, I’m pretty pleased with it. But I couldn’t for the life of me get a second eye to work, and if I’d shown it to anyone who understood drawing at that point, it might have been ripped to shreds. Since this was drawn for my twelve-year-old daughter, it didn’t matter. She was delighted with the idea of the eye-patch and I had a heap of fun finishing it for her.

In my experience, it’s better to finish a piece, understand what it is you think you have, and work towards honing it as much as you can before you seek advice. Sometimes it might be friends or family that give you the confidence to keep chipping away, especially when you’re feeling particularly vulnerable. Eventually it will be peers and / or editors whose opinions will help.

If you’re lucky you’ll have found a supportive group of writers whose understanding of your work and the craft itself is sufficient to give you the kind of guidance you need. Just don’t fall into the trap of submitting work to magazines, competitions, etc. until you are convinced that you’ve done the best you possibly can. Because art is subjective, your best might not be enough, but at least you’ll have given yourself the best chance possible to succeed.

When a Dog is Really a Penguin

You know there’s only a limited number of basic plot lines, right? Anywhere between three and ten-ish, depending on whose particular breakdown is currently in vogue. So why are you bothering? I mean, you won’t ever write anything original. And without something original, how do you ever expect to be published?

Let’s think about chocolate for a minute. The basic ingredients for making it are the same the world over, but we all know there’s chocolate and chocolate. The source of the ingredients makes a difference, the percentage of cocoa makes a difference, the temperature at which it is blended (and indeed, served) makes a difference. There are myriad versions of the stuff, but they’re all still chocolate.

Plot lines are no different. A monster story will always be a monster story. But if I used ten drops of ‘the essence of terror’ and omitted the ‘tincture of tenderness’ I’d definitely have something a tad more frightening than Milton the Monster.

It’s the blending, the tweaking, the coaxing, the downright pummelling of those basic plots that makes for variation. Okay, so that alone won’t make any story completely original. But that’s where you, the story teller comes in.

If I asked a room full of people to write their version of a well known fairytale, I’d have a room full of variation at the end. Yes the plot would be the same, but every example would be unique in that the language used, the descriptors, the dialogue, the style, and the combinations thereof, would be different.

Only you can tell a story in your particular way. And that’s part of what makes it original. The other is to do with perspective. It’s about which points are most salient to you, the writer.

Think about the movie Maleficent. The story here is still The Sleeping Beauty, but by giving the ‘villain’ a voice, the rendering of it is vastly different from the version most of us are more familiar with.

Perspective can also be about interpretation. The drawing above is something my daughter sketched when she was four years old. To her it shows our dog with a kid-sized football in her mouth. Turn it sideways and yes, I can see that. But I first saw it from the viewpoint I’ve shown. With my adult perspective, I see a baby penguin sitting with its feet outstretched. I can’t decide if it is listening with rapt attention, or if it is so dejected it hasn’t the energy to stand.

You might see it as something entirely different, or as nothing more than scribbles. The point here is that if I asked that same room full of people to write what they felt or thought about when they looked at it, I’d have just as many different ideas.

And perhaps that’s the most important thing here. What you make people think or feel as a result of what you’ve written is where the real originality comes in because no two writers will ever write the same story in exactly the same way.

Stop wasting time worrying about how original your plot line is. Think instead about how to make the telling of your story different.

When you’re crabby and you know it

If I ran a book of all the favourite excuses writers use for not writing, which one would come in odds-on? Think about it. I suspect it’s the same one you trot out more often than not. It’s the one you’re least likely to be challenged over because you can always make it sound so reasonable. Have you guessed it yet? Come on. You’ve just wasted a whole minute thinking about it.

Time.

The most timeless and the most timeworn excuse in the world. Can you hear yourself saying it? My job / loved ones / study / colleagues / exercise routine / hot date / hair dying / ironing (and the list goes on) took up all my spare time. I just didn’t have a chance today. But I’ll catch up tomorrow.

No. You won’t.

I’m not suggesting we all ditch our responsibilities. And of course there will be occasions when we absolutely can’t fit it in. But how many of you can say you’ve never used time as an excuse?

It’s born of the popular theory that in order to write you need large chunks of the stuff. But there’s lots of popular theories. My personal favourite is that once you hit forty-five, your age begins to count back down.

For the longest time I believed in at least one of those. I’d wait for a block of several hours. When it arrived I would place myself in solitary confinement. If I remained completely unmolested, I could concentrate. Trouble was, working two jobs and studying part-time, those chunks were so far apart that when one happened along it took forever to get back into the flow of whatever I was working on. I was a little shy of forty-five when I finally discovered that if I wrote more regularly, even in snatches as small as fifteen minutes, the story and the characters stayed with me.

The consistency saw me completing more projects in a shorter amount of that all too precious time and the regular practice made my writing improve.

Most importantly, I was no longer the snappy crab with cheeks of fluoro red, frustrated by never having enough time to write. Sure, those big chunks are great, but I no longer hold myself back waiting for them. All of which means I’m a much nicer person to be around.

Finding Magic

Writing is easy right? It has to be. I mean we’re all taught more or less how to do it in school. So when you call yourself a writer, interested people are often excited and ask what kinds of things you write. Even if you’ve just started to dabble in different forms, your answer will spark a generally enthusiastic response. A discussion of likes and dislikes is apt to follow, but eventually the conversation will end in one of two ways. You’ll either hate each other’s taste in reading material and awkwardly agree to disagree before moving on to how awesome / bland / dreadful the weather is. Or the person will ask where you’ve been published.

If you’re lucky enough to have had your work made public (online, in print, performed, whatever), you can confidently go ahead and crow. But, if like the majority of people who write, you haven’t yet found the right home for your work, you’ll likely want to die of embarrassment or go sob in a corner somewhere.

That nasty little voice in the back of your head will start yabbering away. You’re not published? You must be crap. Why are you wasting your time? People are laughing at you.

Under that kind of onslaught it’s hard not to feel like a failure isn’t it?

Don’t. Every single writer on the planet has been there, generally multiple times.

Writing is easy. Anyone can do it. These are both true. But writing well is hard – extremely hard.

What you learned in school has conditioned you to write clearly in predictable patterns. Good writing isn’t always like that. It doesn’t always follow the rules. Take dialogue. If you listen to people talking, you’ll hear what I mean. How many people speak in complete sentences, or follow a thought through to conclusion? What if someone else talks over the top of them? What if they’re arguing? Good writing shows all of that without having to state X was arguing so much with Y that neither could get a proper word in.

The point of all this is to remind you that a lot of craft goes into the creation of magic. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to established authors whose work you admire. If you’d just started painting would you compare yourself to one of the greats? Of course not. To do so would be self abuse. Writing is no different. Doing it well takes both practice and persistence. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.

To begin, I’d suggest taking a leaf out of Yoda’s handbook and unlearn what you have learned. And in beginning, remember that like any other art form, failures lead to new understanding. Let them happen and you’ll start finding magic behind the most unlikely trees.

What Will The Neighbours Think?

You’ve decided you want to write. What? Are you crazy? Don’t you know people will think you’ve leapt from the high-tower into an empty pool, that you’ve eaten the last of your remaining sandwiches, and quite possibly that you’ve hawked your bag of prized tombowlers for an idea that’s left you fog-blind? Why waste your time doing something very few people will likely see, much less like? I implore you, take that little spark and snuff it – now, before it’s too late! Scatter the ashes across the furthest reaches of your grey matter and hope the whole nonsense gets smudged into all that lovely squidgy stuff. That should do it, right? Kill off any lingering fantasies of the scribbling kind?

Nope. Sorry to disappoint. Once that brand has been lit, embers will continue to burn, no matter how far down the cerebral crevasses you’ve buried them. Ideas will lodge there, take up residence. Sometimes they’re like squatters, impossible to evict. Then what?

Science tells us the human body is a haven for all sorts of extraneous detritus. So what harm is there in allowing creativity to flourish? Will we undergo complete personality flips if we give space-time to something that might bring us personal joy and / or satisfaction? Will we neglect our responsibilities or our loved ones because we’re so obsessed we can’t see past our own brilliance? Not unless we are already those kinds of people.

So, if your synapses have been singed by even the dullest of flares, take a chance. Grab a pen. Spend five minutes jotting down an idea, a snippet of conversation, the way a scene / picture / movie / person made you feel. Before you know it, you’re doing it. Writing. Okay, it’s not a novel, or a story, or even anything that’s coherent. It doesn’t matter. It’s a start. And here’s the important part. If you’re writing – in whatever form that takes – you have earned the right to call yourself a writer.

Oh, and do you really care what the neighbours think?

Aside

Authorial Intrusions

The practice of interrupting the flow of a text to directly address the reader. An aside, a private joke, an instructional piece of barely discernible gibberish meant to point the way with the giant index finger of one of those massive foam hands.

That’s pretty much my intent here. By sharing some of my experiences as an emerging writer, I hope to help those less travelled lace up their walking boots and get on out the door. Care to join my adventure?