I started writing since I was six years old, with the first line of what was surely to be an epic saga: once a pon a time. My spelling and originality have improved since then, but in the twenty-two years since then I have made more than my share of writing mistakes. I also picked up some useful skills that made me a better writer.
7 ways I was a terrible writer:
Writing about writers. The adage write what you know is all well and good (and somewhat debatable), but writing about a writer that needs inspiration to write - well, unless you’ve managed to put an original twist on it, you may as well just type I’VE RUN OUT OF IDEAS until your fingertips bleed.
The friendship group. Why did all my protagonists have to have #squadgoals? Always a perfect mix of perky, peculiar, and pretty, it was straight out of every ‘90s romcom and rarely added anything interesting to the story. Most of my protagonists now are not very nice people so by rights they shouldn’t have many friends, but the friends they do have are, at least, realistic.
Going meta, poorly. “If this was a book or a play or a film…” translates to look how edgy I’m being: my narrator doesn’t seem to be aware they’re a work of fiction! This is amazing! Actually, it’s kind of annoying. Done well, meta references can add an interesting perspective. Done poorly, they are self-indulgent and messy.
Describing everything. Adverbs, adjectives, every piece of dialogue or action qualified and quantified. Describing what the narrator is wearing, if written in first person, is usually clunky and unnecessary. No one needs to know about your character’s love of double denim unless it’s absolutely necessary. Or what they’re eating. Or what their favourite colour is. That kind of stuff goes in your character plan and it stays there.
Hackneyed stereotypes. I wrote the sassy, promiscuous gay male flatmate well before I had even met any man who was gay, and way way way before I lived with my own gay male friend, so naturally I resorted to the stereotype. Other tropes I worked my way through include: campy, waspish fashion photographer; shrill, leopard print-wearing vodka-drinking female friend; faintly homophobic, twee, middle-class parents offering tea in floral china; and the bunny boiler who clings onto my protagonist after a one-night stand. Not all of these are from different stories...
Weird language. “You were rather chaste on our date,” said no one in the history of humankind, except the person in my abandoned novel with the terrible dialogue. (“Bloody wench,” also appears in the same chapter and has the added bonus of being a touch misogynistic.)
Lack of realism. This mostly came from sheer inexperience of life. Example: one supporting character didn’t use his English degree ‘much’ except ‘writing a column for The Times’ before becoming an insurance salesman. I’d count a column in a national paper as using your English degree a fair amount.
7 things that made me a better writer:
Planning. I was a full-on panster until a few years ago. Now I plan obsessively, with spidergrams being my preferred method. I also do a two-page numbered summary of the plot, draw out a story arc (more of a squiggle than an arc), and set out my characters’ current situation, goals, obstacles, and backgrounds. If you don’t plan, you end up with something like the TV show Lost. And no one wants that.
Observation. I tend not to write on public transport these days because this is where I get some of my best material. I don’t mean seeing someone on a train and thinking you will be the main character of my next story, Man In A Funny Hat, but more seeing how people interact with each other and trying to build a story from that. Recently I watched a man helping a woman negotiate the train with a broken foot, which gave me an idea of how to start the short story I’d been working on that week.
Reading in your genre. I’m a short story writer, primarily, so at the moment I am reading short stories. When I start a novel, I’ll be back to reading novels. Now is not the time to begin book one of a multi-part Norwegian thriller if what I am writing is a somewhat-science fiction short story collection (try saying that after you’ve had a couple of drinks) set in London.
Considering every word. I don’t write first drafts willy-nilly, as that would make a lot of work for me later, but I do make a note of things I might want to change later. It might be small details, like the number of adverbs I’ve allowed myself to use (while not the most sophisticated device, they do have their place on occasion), or part of the bigger picture, such as trying to find better ways of including essential exposition.
The writing community. I’m watching a lot of YouTube videos and reading a lot of writing blogs in the vain hope it will influence my writing in some small way. Even if it doesn’t, it’s comforting to know there’s other people doing the same things I’m doing in far more difficult circumstances, and still managing. It’s a glorious kick up the backside, especially if I’m not really feeling the writing vibe that day - a few YouTube videos later and I’m good to go.
Knowing that I am not at my best, and knowing that that’s a good thing. When I was younger, I would write a short story and think yes, this is a beast of a tale, and I am its tamer! I am fantastic! ...And this is why my early writing was awful. I used to not bother editing my first drafts. Whatever spewed from my brain the first time was the finished product. Yikes. These days, I edit.
Life experience. It’s a boring, long-winded way of becoming a better writer, but it’s true. I am 28 now, and I started writing when I was six. Those twenty-two years have been filled with all sorts of stuff - some great, some not so great, but all of it enriching and useful. As much as I would love to stay in and be a writing hermit forever, sometimes I venture out into the real world if only to see other people in their natural habitat.
As writers, we are never at our peak. There is always something new to learn, another technique to try, a voice to develop. The hardest part is writing through the thousands of words you know aren’t up to scratch, in order to find the ones that will reach out to your reader and draw them in.
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