Monday, 14 March 2011

The path to writing enlightenment

Your writing journey probably began something like this: you started writing because you thought you’d be good at it and have something interesting to say; you stay the distance and finish your masterpiece and send it off to your first choice agent/publisher. They reject it without even reading your return address. You send it to your second choice agent/publisher - who rejects it before you’ve even sent it. After the fiftieth rejection a nagging doubt begins to emerge - maybe these agent/publishers aren’t complete buffoons - maybe I actually am just a shit writer.

And that’s when your writing journey really begins...

You’ve moved from critical naivity to critical awareness - the starting point of not just being able to say if you like or dislike a work, but why you dislike or like it. You can even respect something that you don’t like because you understand the craft and technique used to create it. You start to look at other writers’ work more critically, to understand what they do that’s good and what they do that’s bad. You join a critique group and have the same done to you - what you hear shocks and even hurts you - another epiphany awaits - you discover you need to gain critical distance from your work - because without that you can’t tell the difference between good advice and bad advice, or advice that maybe is good but you don’t want to take for artistic reasons that are all your own.

So there’s a lifetime of work in learning how to achieve critical distance and developing critical faculties so that when you look at your baby with the cold hard eyes of a disinterested third party you can not only see what’s wrong with it but why it’s wrong and how you can actually fix it.

Hang-on - how I can actually fix it?

I just wrote that damn thing straight from the heart. I pantsed my way right through it. I know it’s wrong, but now I have to know how to fix it?

And there lies the third epiphany - there is craft, there is technique, there is a science to story-telling and a wealth of material on how to do it. You begin to devour all you can read on the subject, you subscribe to writer’s blogs like this one, you even start one of your own. You become fluent in all the generally accepted aphorisms - ‘show don’t tell’, ‘write what you know’, ‘eat some food occasionally’ etc. etc. ad nauseam.

And you apply everything you’ve learned to your work - you have no telling, no backstory, galloping pace; you begin in media res, no deus ex machina - you do everything the books say, everything your crit group tells you, and you know what? It still sucks.

It’s technical but sterile, it’s all show but it’s impersonal, it’s fast paced but it’s exhausting, it’s well structured but contrived. Basically it’s as shit as it was the first time around but just a different kind of shit that was years in the making.

And you look at yourself, your work, your finely tuned critical faculties, your box of writerly techniques and tricks - and you see them for what they really are - tools, techniques, pointers, suggestions - mere devices that you can take or leave.

You have learned the tools well enough to know that they are not magic - they are just tools. You are jaded and battle-scarred but you are a writer, and you’re on the cusp of being a fucking good one. Because now you’ve got all that stuff out of the way, you can get back to telling the stories you wanted to tell when you started this stupid idea right at the beginning.

Except this time you know what you’re doing.

You must walk before you can run - but you must keep running, for you may just fly.


  1. This so describes my journey it's not even funny! And i'm sure a lot of writers out there.

  2. Oh James, I'm so in this place right now, but it's good to know that I am following a predicted road. Hope it improves along the way.
    Take care
    Hemmie :-)

  3. Great post. Am feeling this way right now: "you can get back to telling the stories you wanted to tell when you started this stupid idea right at the beginning"

  4. So true, James. We have to cram ourselves with wisdom that seems contradictory, or formulaic but is teaching us how the great writing machine works - and how to play it so that it makes the sounds we want to.
    Certainly when I started I had an idea I desperately wanted to make into a novel. I was far too ambitious for my own boots. After years of writing much simpler books, and helping others find their way, I returned to that original idea - and suddenly knew how to do it. I'd come in that big circle you talked about.

  5. You make jaded and battle-scarred so cool. Love your take on this. Glad I found your blog.

  6. Thanks you all for your comments - so it's not just me then? ;)