A google search for ‘writing tips’ provides 1.9 million results. And you can’t walk down a Twitter-street without someone proffering their #WritingTips (we’re even guilty of it ourselves). But one of the most difficult tasks is learning how to filter the good from the bad, and the useful from the not-quite-so-useful-at-the-moment.
So we asked ten authors to share an experience of counsel that isn’t/wasn’t all that constructive. (Bearing in mind that one man’s baguette is another man’s reminder of his gluten intolerance…)
Write The Book Only You Can Write!
Advice I’ve heard more than once, in different scenarios, and which I’ve always thought to be wary of, more than anything because of the scope for misinterpretation, is the idea that you must ‘write the book only you can write’. Broadly speaking I suppose, there is behind this tautology the relatively benign notion that you should write to your ‘strengths’ (another slippery conger of a concept) but too often I think writers can succumb to the illusion that Book X is the one they must write. It is The One. And so they hang onto it for too long, whether in terms of physically writing it, or pursuing its publication thereafter. There are plenty of legitimate examples of such tenacity paying off, of course, but as dismaying (and habitually necessary) as it is to admit defeat in a given project, with that capitulation/emancipation comes access to one of the few consolations the living, failing scribbler can reliably know: the next thing can, or may, or might be better.
Play The Game!
While in the midst of my dystopian publication nightmare, a—considerably more successful and critically lauded—writer went to pains to impress upon me the paramount importance of choosing single word titles because ‘that’s what’s in fashion now’ which, for me, displays a combination of such industrial-strength savvy and soul-crunching cynicism that I’ve never since been able to pass a display of their impecuniously-titled novels without a rush of infuriated blood to the head.
Don’t Be Selfish!
‘Don’t be selfish’—that’s one you hear a lot, especially growing up from parents, guardians, teachers and so on. It’s terrible advice for writers though. Writing practically demands that one exhibit a high degree of selfishness. Not I hasten to add with regard to money, prizes and acclaim but when it comes to time, that most definitively finite of commodities. Can you taste it in the back of your mouth? The almost tangibly metallic tang of wasted time as you sit there reading this blog? Writing, especially for those of us not in the position to go at it full-time, requires a maniacal degree of possessiveness about your every spare quarter hour. It means letting down and fobbing off lovers and dependents, cousins and confidants. You have to master the gentle art of inflicting disappointment.
Be More Specific!
I used to be part of a writer’s group back in Canada—myself, four other women and one man. One evening, I brought in a poem, ending on the lines:
I confess that I laid myself down then
like a dog, for love
The women ‘got’ it. Understood what I meant by ‘like a dog’. The man kept asking ‘how, like a dog’ exactly? He wanted me to make it explicit, to take away all the ambiguity—which, to my mind, and to the other members’ minds—was the reason the poem worked. He went on—‘was it salivating’, was it ‘hungry’ etc. And everything he suggested only served to lessen the impact.
Needless to say, I did not take him up his advice—I left it. I know what ‘like a dog’ means to me—and it may or may not have meant the same thing to the other women in the group. I wouldn’t dream of taking the pleasure that ambiguity, when used well (and I am going to go out on a limb here and say that in this case, I’ve used it well) affords a reader to come to their own conclusion as to what dog-like thing love can sometimes turn us into. It is different for everyone. Making something like that explicit makes assumptions about love, the experience of it, not to mention the reader/audience. Now, this is not to say I am advocating for more ambiguity in poetry—it is a difficult thing to use and use well.
But in this poem’s case, I think it works because of that metaphor. Gauging by the man’s reaction, I think, yes, in this case, the use of ambiguity is perfect.
Stay Clear Of The Following Things!
When I was nine, our class went on a trip to Clara Lara Fun Park. Before we went, my mother took me aside and told me to stay clear of any water. Of course she wasn’t to know that every activity in Clara Lara was based around water. Being a literal kind of a child I dodged the rafts and the water slide and the swings dangling above the lake. I spent my day continuously walking back and forth under a tunnel, the only dry place in the park.
If my mother had seen Clara Lara for herself I’m sure her advice would have been different. ‘Don’t drown yourself!’ or ‘Don’t drown anyone else!’—or some other equally useful tip.
I guess the same concept applies to writing—the whole idea of taking inflexible advice before you fully understand where you’re going, before you are 100% sure what your novel is going to be about, before a word has even been written.
e.g. Do not use flashbacks. Do not use mannerisms in your dialogue. Do not write a novel over 100,000 words. Do not have a domestic pet as a central character!
For me, writing doesn’t work well with limitations. Writers have the luxury of making mistakes. We have been given the gift of editing. And I prefer to leave the editing until I actually have something to edit.
Do Something Else Instead!
—Nuala Ní Chonchúir
People love to advise writers. I get the following said to me: (1) ‘You should write in Irish.’ (2) ‘Write a book for children!’ and (3) ‘Write one of them chick-lits and earn a fortune.’
No, no and no.
I tried (1) — I wrote a few poems in Irish but my heart wasn’t in it; I don’t think through Irish so find it unnatural to write in it.
(2) I was commissioned by a publisher to write a kids’ book, but I just couldn’t muster interest in the project so it didn’t get very far.
As for (3), I don’t read chick-lit so wouldn’t have the first idea how to write that kind of book.
We write what we write and it’s distracting and time-consuming to follow other paths. I’m happy where I am, and I will only veer away from that if an excellent opportunity—one that I am fully enthused about—comes up.
Quit What You’re Doing!
Ages ago, an editor urged me to leave behind the motifs that recurred consistently in my fiction at the time—sexual obsession, strippers, earnest young literary men with porn fixations—and represent the day to day experiences of people from a similar social background to my own. I briefly gave this a try, but found, as I have found with so many things in life, that I just couldn’t be fucked. What is clear to me now is that, as an artist of any kind, all you really have are your obsessions, fascinations and perversions, and the way to artistic self-definition is to be trenchantly faithful to them. All the rest is dreary obligation: in other words, community service.
Three Classic Pieces of Advice!
1) Write What You Know!
This one makes my soul shrink. Write what I know? What do I know? Oh hell, I’m so limited! If I write what I know—my books will be minuscule novellas of doom. Not even doom, my life’s too dull for doom… I wish I was a Parisian. Maybe I should learn—I don’t know—to trapeze before I even think about starting to write. I’ve never bungee-jumped or taken acid at an orgy. I’ve never even been invited to an orgy. I prefer, ‘Write anything you damn well like…’ That’s different. That I can do.
2) Find Your Voice!
This one irritates me. By listening to my characters, I hope that each piece of work, each novel, each story, will have its own distinctive voice. I know it’s not a completely rational response, but I don’t even like the sound of this advice. And years since I first heard it, I still don’t know what it means. Find what voice? What’s to find? Don’t I have a voice? (Or am I channelling Victor Meldrew’s here?) And, why does a writer need a Voice with a capital V? Doesn’t a writer give voice to her characters? Aren’t they the important ones?
3) You Need A Room Of Your Own! (Sorry Virginia!)
Who doesn’t want a room? Make mine a red boudoir, with a coffee maker, a balcony and an open fire. But for now, and the foreseeable future, I don’t have a room and I’m getting along fine. So, don’t wait till conditions are perfect, or even half-perfect. Don’t wait for the room, the cash, the time, the space or the ‘inspiration’ … write on loo roll if you have to. Use spare minutes. Writing can be done anywhere, almost. After all, when De Sade was stuck, he used his blood as ink and the walls of his cell as parchment… you and I don’t have to stretch that far (unless we want to) but let’s not wait for that illusive room. Life’s too short, there’s work to be done.
Have Something To Say!
I’m not sure if anyone has ever said this to me directly, but I regularly enough come across the advice that a writer ‘should have something to say’, which I think is terrible guidance. Writers who write because they have nothing to say are my favourite kind. If you’re uncertain about your place in the world, about how you feel about the world, then that’s the best starting point of all. In the process of figuring it out, you’ll create something valuable. Revel in the noise-making, and in the feel of the words under your nails, and don’t worry about what you’re ‘saying’. Let others decide on that.
Wait Your Turn!
—Sarah Maria Griffin
During my MA in Writing, we had a guest speaker in. She was a poet. At this point I was twenty-two and absolutely tenacious, I really wanted to get my start. I asked, during the Q&A at the end, how does a person go about getting a book of poetry in the world? I mean, it’s a green question, sure. I was only a bit more of a kid than I am today. I honestly wanted to know, because it’s something I wanted to do. Make a book.
She replied, slightly scornfully, that one usually had to be asked. It wasn’t as simple as just going and getting a book put out there. You had to wait. You can’t really just go and do it. That’s not done. You had to be asked for a collection, you didn’t just make one. I took this to heart pretty badly and felt embarrassed for quite a while for even imagining that I was someone who should even be considering putting a book out in the world. This moment was gatekeeping at its finest, and it’s a terrible thing to tell any young writer.
Stop telling people to wait. Tell them to work hard, make good art, and wake up fighting. Tell them to staple together a chapbook and sell it five quid a pop—like a musician would with a home-recorded EP or a mixtape. Tell them to write query letters and go to readings and meet people and make friends and network and write and write and really, really, wake up fighting and make good art. Don’t tell them it’s not as simple as going and making a book. It’s exactly that simple.
Colin Barrett’s debut collection, Young Skins, is published by The Stinging Fly in Ireland and by Jonathan Cape in the UK.
Niamh Boyce’s debut novel, The Herbalist, won the 2013 Bord Gais Irish Book Awards Newcomer of the Year.
Gavin Corbett’s second novel, This Is The Way, won the 2013 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year.
Rob Doyle’s debut novel, Here Are The Young Men, will be published in May (Lilliput Press). His review of Markus Werner’s Zúndel’s Exit appears in our current issue and can be read here.
Sarah Maria Griffin’s poetry collection Follies was pubished by Lapwing Press. Her latest book, Not Lost: A Story About Leaving Home, is published by New Island.
Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, is published by Galley Beggar Press. The novel won the Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction 2013 and is currently shortlisted for many more awards.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s second novel, The Closet of Savage Mementos, will be published in Spring 2014 by New Island. Nuala guest-edited the fiction in our current issue.
Billy Ramsell’s second poetry collection, The Architect’s Dream of Winter, is published by Dedalus Press. His essay on Patrick Galvin appears in our current issue and can be read here.
Daniel Seery’s debut novel, A Model Partner, has just been published by Liberties Press.
Dimitra Xidous’ debut poetry collection, Keeping Bees, is forthcoming with Doire Press. Dimitra is the featured poet in our current issue.