Diving In: Writing and How to Get Started

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I read so many pieces of writing advice about planning your work, plotting and figuring out each chapter before you begin but I would like to propose just diving in. Some of my best work has been a blind journey into a world where there is no clear plot or outcome from the beginning, and in many ways it provides a freedom to explore and to let a story unfold.

E.B. White in an interview with The Paris Review on writing once said that,

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

I think he had a point in that we often wait, procrastinate, ponder, ruminate. Add any other word that fits and you have a writer who is too afraid to begin. The problem is that time is short and every day that passes is an opportunity for you to delve into a new world of words. I say this to encourage rather that to thwart the plans of those who truly like to plan. But I know that there are those who also wonder whether they can write if they don’t have a plan, an MA in Creative Writing, a bestseller to their name or any other reason to add to the list. Diving in can bring with it a freedom from the confines of your own expectations.

Imagine diving into a huge pile of leaves. There is something in us as adults that stops us, tells us it’s not the done thing and that it’s for children. Imagine the freedom of just plunging onto a freshly swept pile of autumn leaves. Then imagine putting fingers to the keys or pen to paper and writing one word at a time until you find yourself in a world entirely unexpected and intriguing, a world where the rules have changed and where new characters appear. For me this is part of the excitement of writing, and part of the freedom.

Dive in!

Photo: miquilter.blogspot.com

If The World Stopped Reading I Would Still Be Writing

Waterfall in the Rosenlaui ravine (Switzerland...
Waterfall in the Rosenlaui ravine (Switzerland) Français : Une cascade dans le ravin de Rosenlaui, en Suisse. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hear many authors complain of time constraints, low income from books, isolation from a workplace or other people, writer’s block and many other issues and, while I understand these, I also want to scratch my head and ask whether writing is the best use of their time. Writing IS hard and it IS time consuming but here’s the truth: If the world stopped reading I would still be writing.

If people no longer read books, my fingers would continue to hover over the keyboard each morning in quiet anticipation, waiting to tap out new sentences and create different worlds. I wrote travel diaries and poetry long before I began to write my first novel. I didn’t write for people to read these, and I hope they never will, I wrote for my own pleasure.

I love writing. My mind is constantly churning over ideas, my eyes and ears observing the small details of each day, absorbing conversations and snatched moments of intimacy between other people: a hand on a shoulder, a kind expression, an angry response. All of life and its rich experiences feed into my subconscious to be unearthed when required.

I store up a bank of thoughts and ideas continually. They may come from a painting or a rock concert, a quiet conversation or a crowded street, a film or from the strings of a violin in an orchestra, an early sunrise or a pain-filled conversation. These experiences shape me but they also shape my writing. We are influenced by what we read but much more so by first-hand experiences. Much of my writing has been fueled by travel to foreign lands and I currently live abroad. The richness of different cultures has expanded my vision of life and people. My words are fueled by the relationships I have and by the chance encounters and words from the lips of strangers.

I need to write because it is how I find meaning in life. It helps me to communicate on a much deeper level than any spoken word. I love the nature and impact of words and the way sentences can repel and attract; reel a reader in and push them back. I get a thrill from the details of a scene or from a wild response from a character. I inhabit the minds of other characters with the buzz of a homicide detective close to finding the perpetrator of a crime. I feel the emotions of injustice, loss, elation, fear and longing, all through the mind of a fictional character placed in an unstable situation.

The ability to change a person’s mind or to open them up to a new world or a new thought is unmatched, other than through a work of fiction. I know that there can be dry periods and difficulties with a plot or in editing a manuscript, but these are my overriding thoughts on the craft of putting words to paper. I understand that there are times when you want to give up or if you wonder what you are doing or whether the path will lead you into brambles or into a deep ravine. This is often temporary and it is important for me to focus on the positives and on the reasons for writing in the first instance. The privilege of hearing a reader say that they loved your story and couldn’t put the book down is wonderful, but the truth is, even without it I would keep writing.

Blogging for Writers

blog

My earlier post about blogging received a huge amount of interest and it appears to be a subject close to the hearts of many readers. I promised to come back to it, so I’d like to start with a post on blogging for writers. I’m aiming to look at blogging for readers in a separate post.

Many people warn against blogging about writing, or blogging at all if you write fiction. I would disagree, for the following reasons:

I have gained a huge insight into writing and publishing from a range of authors who blog about the process of writing, editing or publishing. I have learned about both self-publishing and traditional publishing. Some agents and agencies also blog and their comments can be really helpful in finding your way through the rabbit warren that is the publishing industry.

Drawing in other writers who understand the process, and can support you, is essential. I would go so far as to say it as essential as gaining readers. Writing can be an isolating business and blogging can help you to connect with others with a certain level of freedom. I have gained so much from the comments on this blog from other writers, and by following blogs written by writers.

It limbers you up and keeps your words flowing. The process of writing for a blog is very different to the process of novel writing and it can teach you things that you won’t necessarily learn from writing your manuscript.

Reader responses are immediate and interactive. I would say that this is one of the biggest joys of writing blog posts. I really enjoy the comments and suggestions. I like to meet new blog readers and discover new blogs and books. The debates which are sometimes struck up from a particular topic can be really invigorating and will challenge your various perceptions.

Although you can blog about your subject area – crime, if you are a crime writer; relationships, if you write women’s commercial fiction; a specific area of expertise if you write non-fiction – I find that blogging about writing helps me to formulate ideas and to share what I have learned with others who are travelling along the same path.

I find that readers are also interested in finding out about the writing process and I receive emails from people who are just starting out or who would love to write but are nervous about putting their ideas down onto paper. Some readers are just interested in how writers tick and like to know what goes on behind the pages.

Any thoughts? Do any of you find blogging about writing helpful?

Author Interview with Matt Haig

The Humans
From your experience of journalism, as well as novel writing, has one fed in to the other in any way?

Journalism teaches you to be economical with words. It tells you not to be too self-indulgent.

What do you most like to read and are there any books you have read recently that have stood out or changed you?

I read all kinds of stuff. I have been re-reading Graham Greene recently. I studied him at university. Did a whole module on him. I think, from the outside, my books are nothing like his, but I consider him my greatest influence.

What have been the most difficult things to write about and why?

There is some mathematics in my new novel, and I had to look like I knew what I was talking about, so I researched, and I quickly saw how so many mathematicians go crazy.

You have said that The Humans, your new book, is the one work you would most like to be remembered for. Although you have written several other books, what has given you confidence in this project in particular?

Because I totally cut loose. A part of me used to play the game. You know, I used to be trying to be highbrow, or taken seriously, and that somehow got in the way. With this, I knew it was probably going to be published whatever (as my last book did quite well) so I just went for it. Comedy, science-fiction, sentimentality – all those illegal things.

What advice would you give to new writers on their path to publication?

Be brutal with your writing. Don’t let yourself have it easy. And then be persistent, and thick-skinned, for everything that follows.

What do you enjoy doing outside writing and reading?

Being with my kids, toast and peanut butter, running, holidays. I am not into fancy things, but I am into fancy holidays.

If you could meet any well-known figure, living or dead, who would it be and why?

Emily Dickinson, without a doubt. Amazing mind, intriguing person. She’d be too shy to open her front door though, so that’d be a problem.

Matt Haig

Matt has written novels, screenplays, children’s novels and worked as a journalist, collaborating with The Guardian, The Sunday Times and The Independent. He has won a range of awards, including the Yorkshire Young Achievers ‘Achievement in the Arts’ Award in 2009, and his novels have been translated into 29 languages. The film rights for his first novel, The Last Family in England (2004), have been sold to Brad Pitt’s production company. His previous novel, The Radleys, won an ALA Alex Award in America, has been shortlisted for the Portico prize and nominated for the Carnegie Medal. It won the TV Book Club Summer Read. He was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire in 1975. Since then he has lived in Nottinghamshire, Ibiza and London. He studied English and History at Hull University and then did an MA at Leeds, and now lives in York with author Andrea Semple and their two children.

www.matthaig.com

First Drafts

writer's notes

The previous post about blogging received a record level of traffic and an unprecedented response, given this blog’s short life span, so I’ll come back to it and write more on the topic soon. It is clearly a subject that people feel strongly about and I had not realised the level of passion and dedication behind so many blogs.

First drafts is the issue I’d like to tackle today.  I am in the stage of the first draft of my next novel and I have been thinking about the changes through each stage of writing up to final publication. There is something unique about a first draft; a freshness, an expectation, a certain level of hope.

The first draft is the place of mountain peaks and valleys, it is the place of the Eureka moments and the what ifs, it is the place of ‘first thought’ excitement and of apprehension, the place of originality and of doubt.

In writing your book for the first time, before you go through rounds of editing and rewrites ad infinitum, there is an enthusiasm about where you will take the reader, in fleshing out your characters and plot, in travelling to new places. There is also an apprehension surrounding your words; questions, doubts, fears. Will I be able to keep up the tension and the pace? Will people want to read it? Will I be able to finish it? Is it going to be too long/short? Did I choose the wrong topic/genre/setting? Do the scenes link up? Is there enough cohesion and consistency?

There are endless questions that seek to counter balance the moments where you get lost in the the sentences, your fingers running away with themselves, tapping furiously at the keyboard and you forget to eat.

What is it about first drafts that make them so enticing, yet so difficult to wrestle with? Give an artist a blank canvas and paints, give a singer a microphone and close them in to a sound proof recording studio, give a dancer a stage and a preview audience. There will always be fears surrounding your ability, your audience’s reaction, the longevity of your career (if you are thinking long-term). All art forms are highly subjective, creating a range of responses. I recently scanned some well promoted and popular books, only to find a great and confusing diversity of reviews. This, I think, reflects the fact that no two people will love the same books, music or art. Although there are varying levels of skill among writers, the result, as the publishing industry well knows, can be unpredictable.

How, then, do you wrestle with the first draft to produce your best work? I have struggled with nagging thoughts of what people will think when they read it, much more so now than with any of my short stories or my first novel. I think it is partly down to the fact that there is more pressure with each book that you write to make it better than the last, to keep up reader interest, and to prove that you want to be able to keep writing. There are several people in publishing who are waiting to read my current novel and, whilst it is encouraging, it is also nerve-wracking. When I self-published my previous novel I had complete control over the process and the outsourcing; the deadlines, the cover design, the editing, and it felt safe in many ways. Now I feel a sense of pressure and, sometimes, of impending doom. I have felt paralysed by the need for the first draft to be perfect and to be commercially viable. The truth is no first draft will ever be perfect and nobody can predict what will sell.  Whilst I have been surprised by the sales of my first book, I am under no illusions about the state of flux in which different types of books remain.

My response  to these doubts when they creep up on me, as they always will, is to write as though noone will read it. That’s it. It’s really that simple. Write your book without wondering how good it will be or if it will sell. Imagine that it will never be read and write it for yourself. You do need to be aware of your audience when planning, but I have found that since I made the decision to stop thinking about reader response and beyond, I have moved from writing around 500-800 words a day to up to  2,000 or 3,000. I know it won’t happen every day but it is liberating and freeing. So, here’s to days of carefree writing before you apply a scalpel to the parts that you won’t need, before you carve and sculpt your work. Here’s to writing for the love of writing.

Photo credit: A Leonardo da Vinci notebook with diagram of a potter’s wheel, c. 1508-1509. Flavorwire