Recently a friend asked me for some writing advice. Truth is I don’t really have any advice of my own. Writing isn’t easy, and there really aren’t any specific checklists you can follow. It can take years of work to create art, and even at its end it may never be perfect. Writing is more of a commitment than a straightjacket.
I’ve snooped through essays and interviews of my favourite authors, and from this I’ve whittled down their advice down to five convenient mottos that make sense to me.
Please yourself. If you don’t like what you’re writing, why should anyone else?
Explore every possibility. Consider that characters have minds of their own, and they might not react to a situation exactly how you might expect. Let them surprise you.
Reveal or advance. In a story, every word is important. You want to get to the point as quickly as possible, so every single sentence should reveal a character or theme, or advance the plot. Respect the reader’s time.
Kill your darlings. When an author comes up a story, it often comes along with specific ideas they want to incorporate, like a character, some dialogue, or even an entire scene. As the story develops and they don’t quite make as much sense in the story, they’re hard to let go. Kill them.
There are no rules. This is kind of a writing advice wildcard. Do what you want. Colour outside the lines, think outside the sphere, let your imagination loose. That’s what a reader really wants.
Recently I began reading the Bible, and only a dozen pages in I’m surprised by my misperceptions. I went to Roman Catholic schools my entire life so I’d read certain excerpts here and there and figured I had it all summed up. This naivety is what made me never look deeper, but now I confess I’m curious.
And indeed, there are some curious things in there.
For example. King James version. Genesis 1:26 reads, in part, And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Immediately following that, Genesis 1:27 reads, So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him.
Did you catch that? I cross-referenced this passage with another version too. In both, God refers to himself as “us” and “our” whereas when God is referred to, he is an individual. This is well prior to Jesus ascending to Heaven, so we can exclude the Holy Trinity, although perhaps the “us” in question refers to God and the Holy Spirit? The dualism is a possibility. But I don’t think so, I think it’s a concession that man created God. And I think it’s an admittance that even if man didn’t create God, man interpreted him how we could.
Currently, I’m reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and watching an excess of documentaries as I write my opus, and finding myself a great deal unable to separate myself from author. If I’m learning things as I write this story, do I have an obligation to adapt the story? I’m not sure if it would even benefit the characters, or even how much I would have to write before I found out for sure! Oh, I tell you, this writing thing is rubbish. Continued…
There are two ways to look at this.
1. I don’t consider myself a writer, though I do write. This difference isn’t a slight dissimilarity, it’s the equivalent of calling myself a cook because I can make dinner. No, there is one thing that I do that allows me to live, and it is not writing.
2. I am a writer, because wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, I think about work. Actual work, that challenges and satisfies me equally, is constantly being creative. If it weren’t for writing, I would have no shield from this world, and it would crush me.
How am I supposed to define myself in this way? Is this extension of identity reflected by what drives me or what helps me to drive?
Truth is, I don’t care, I just want to be moving.
Finished reading this Vonnegut novel a couple weeks ago. It was brilliant. I especially enjoyed how the author brought himself in and out of the narrative, interacting with the characters as though he actually were. It felt as though the story itself was written for a single reason, a confession of shame in his existence. His mother’s suicide, his own attempt, his fear of having the same bad chemicals in his brain that he gave to his main character. I wonder if he felt relief after it was written.
I hope so, but suspect not.
I am nearly finished reading Steppenwolf and finding myself understanding it at a level that I hate to confess to. It is not written in a way to easily follow, and at times I’m truly hopelessly unsure of Hesse’s symbolism; but overall, it’s painted specifically for me.
The narrator is a man hiding from himself. Despite seeming – to some – content and satisfied with everything he has, he is not. Meaning in life eludes him. He cannot identify with society. He is a prisoner in a body only associating with civilization out of habit and necessity. He does not know how to laugh, how to enjoy anything.
What I am learning from this novel is that whereas I do not understand each sentence, it is not beyond me. Despite being lost in phrasing, I am not lost of the story because I am lost in the character.
The thing about this novel is that it should be a hugely emotional story. The last survivors after an unexpected nuclear war, and how they deal with their inevitable deaths from the fallout. Its author was never a writer by profession, self-admittedly; he was a physicist and mathematician, which comes across in the writing. He goes to great detail when describing engines, weather patterns, and the functions of submarines, but when he approaches human nature, he stops. The characters in the story simply do not emote. They accept their fate mechanically, they do not linger in pity, in joy, in romance, or in anything. It is simply their existence that is sad, and even then only if the sobbing reader herself is.
I was told that it was a beautifully grotesque novel; a horrible story told epically poetic. That as the main character fell in love with the twelve-year old nymphet, the reader was equally romanced. That it was the great seduction. Even the back of the book had a quote endorsing it as the only believable love story ever written. Hardly the case.
While being wonderfully eloquent, I never believed it was love. It was a journey of distasteful imagination for the narrator, and I know this is exactly accurate because the last several chapters proved it. The last several chapters proved me right for not believing the narrator’s perversions; and in fact, it was this, the last several chapters, that made the first few hundred pages beautiful. Nabokov made me believe with absolute certainty in remorse.
Flying back home, I chatted with a couple that were beginning their vacation. The man saw that I was reading and interrupted to ask what the book was about, then after the conversation maundered to writing, he told me that there weren’t any original ideas.
A horrible thought, because after all, he was exactly right. There aren’t any original ideas; not in the context of the point he was making. All stories have beginnings and ends, conflicts and resolutions, love and death with fighting in-between. I even helped him prove his point, since Treasure Island was just a story about pirates, and pirates existed long before Stevenson wrote about them. Continued…
I am having a disjointed affair with Alice. I’m into the second novel, Through the Looking-Glass, and I’m finding it remarkably difficult to stay interested. While there are parts that I find amusing, I don’t think it’s that exceptional of a story as a whole. It feels unstructured, like a bunch of absurdities mish-mashed together, without relevance or moral. The thought that keeps going through my mind is that you don’t have to do it best if you do it first. Continued…