There are no rules...
1) YOU CAN’T JUST GET ON A BIKE AND RIDE IT DOWN THE STREET
If you’ve never learnt how to ride a bike, you wouldn’t expect to climb onto a saddle and sail off down the street. If you’ve never learnt to play a violin, you’d be unlikely to pick up an instrument and reel off a Bach concerto. If you’ve never learnt to swim, jump into the sea you’ll probably sink.
Okay, I’m stating the obvious. But why is it that people seem to think that with writing it’s different? They imagine they’ll just sit down and write something outstandingly perfect? The next Booker-prize-winner? The truth is, writing involves a lot of hard work. A lot of practise. Numerous failed attempts. A huge amount of struggle.
Don’t think you can skip this step.
I’m not trying to scare you off. I promise. Quite the reverse. I love to write, I love it with a passion, but the simple truth is that I also find it one of the very hardest things to do.
So, if you’re ever feeling discouraged, lacking in confidence, or just finding it difficult, please simply remind yourself that all of this is part of the process and it’s how you learn how to write. Keep at it.
2) I PROBABLY DON’T NEED TO SAY THIS BUT... READ LOTS
I was one of those nerdy kids who used to get excited about going to the library. I would take out a stack of books that I’d plough through before the following week’s visit. After I’d read all the books in the young people’s section, I set to work on the adult shelves; before I was barely even teenage, I’d encountered the Brontes, Antonia Frost, Solzhenitsyn, Muriel Spark, Alison Lurie. I didn’t have anyone telling me to read these books, I just picked them by myself, mostly because I liked the covers or the titles caught my imagination.
This voracious appetite for reading in my youth was no doubt my impetus to later write books of my own. All that reading gave me the confidence to experiment with style. I was reading for pleasure, sure, but a part of my brain was also working analytically - how did a particular author carry off what they were trying to do, what techniques did they employ, what was new to me, what could I take from them?
I firmly believe that the more you expose yourself to the work of others, the better you’ll grasp how to do it well (and also, perhaps, how it can be done badly). Short stories work particularly well for this because you can read them in one sitting and then really analyse how the story works. Try getting hold of anthologies, or magazines that publish fiction and identify the stories you like. You’ll find the authors who most inspire you, but a handful that I can recommend include: Alice Munro, Yiyun Li, Truman Capote, William Trevor, Z Z Packer, Raymond Carver, J D Salinger, Tobias Wolff.
Post script: sadly, I learned just recently that my local childhood library in Blackheath Village was a victim earlier this year of council library cuts - without that library I probably wouldn’t be the writer I am today.
3) NOTES, RESEARCH, AND MULLING TIME
Once or twice a story has come to me fully-formed. Almost as if it has just blossomed in my head overnight and all I have to do is write it down. Free came to me in a semi-dream, for example and When The Wasps Drowned took less than a week to complete from start to finish. When this happens, it feels something like a miracle.
Unfortunately, such cases are rare.
Mostly, I’m a very slow writer. I will often be thinking about a story for months, if not years, before it reaches a state that I’d call finished. I call this mulling time. For me, the mulling is an important stage of the process and it can’t be rushed. That’s not to say that I’m exclusive to my stories. I’ll often have several mulling at once. They come in and out of focus, but it feels like a part of my brain is always still whirring away on the ones in the background.
For most of my stories, I also write a lot of notes. Pages and pages of notes. Information and facts that will probably never make it into the story, but in the writing of these notes I often discover what my story is about and where it’s going. Sometimes I fill in lengthy profiles for my characters. Sometimes I’ll just start free writing and see where it takes me. Knowing all of this background to my story and my characters is what brings them alive for me. It allows me to identify what is important.
Another thing I do a lot of is research. Don’t think that just because a story you’re writing is 'short' you can get away without doing the research. I like to write about places, times, and people I don’t know very well, and I think one of the reasons why is because I love having an excuse to find out about new things. Again, libraries are a great resource. So is Google. Not to mention finding people you can interview or visiting the places you want to write about (if you can manage to do so). This is another reason why my stories take me so long, because I want to know everything about the world I’m writing about. When I was writing The Parrot Jungle, for example, I went on the internet and printed off driving directions mapping the whole route my characters drove from Arizona to Florida, I researched what plants might have been growing in Liza’s front yard, I even identified the exact shade of mint green for Johannes’ Karmann Ghia.
That’s not to say you should feel bound by your research. You’re writing fiction, feel free to take or leave the facts as suits you. When I was working on The Numbers, for example, my island was inspired by the islands of the Outer Hebrides. I read about how extremely religious the Hebrideans are, but I made a conscious decision to make my islanders godless, specifically because I wanted to emphasise the fact that they had almost no influence in their lives from the outside world. I know that sometimes disregarding the facts will annoy readers who want everything to be exactly as it is in the real world, but hey, they can go read a history book or an encyclopedia. You’re at liberty to use your imagination!
Essentially, what I’m urging is for you to give yourself the time and space to live with what you’re writing. Don’t feel that it has to be written in a single sitting. Enjoy it. Your work will be all the richer for this approach.
4) WHO ARE YOU WRITING FOR AND WHY?
Oftentimes, when I’m writing those notes I mentioned in the above point, they will begin with the words, ‘This is a story about...'
This is a good exercise for yourself when you’re writing. Try to identify in a sentence or two what it is you are aiming to write about. What is it that you are trying to say? Knowing this will help you to focus and will ensure that your work has substance. Keep this sentence in mind when you go back to the piece and you’ll find you have much greater control over what it is you’re doing.
That’s not to say that you always know everything that you’re writing about - you might surprise yourself. I did. When the stories in my collection all came together, I realised that one of the themes I’d been writing about over and over again without even realising it was protection. This rather unnerved me at first because it struck me that this book that I’d thought wasn’t at all about myself was actually much more revealing of my subconscious than I’d ever intended. But it also taught me a lot about why I write. I write to make sense of the world.
Once you know what it is you want to be writing about, you’ll find it a lot easier to turn to the editing of the piece. That’s when you will begin to shape it and hone it. You’ll probably find that there is a lot that is extraneous, especially if you’re writing a short story. Economy is a necessity of story writing. Once you’ve finished a draft, you might want to look again and try to identify what can be pared down. How can you say what you want in as few words as possible? Always trust in the intelligence of your reader. You don’t need to spell everything out for them. They will be able to fill in the gaps. Allow for their interpretation. This can be disarming for you as the writer because it relies on you relinquishing control, but the end experience for the reader will be far more satisfying if they feel that they are involved.
Aspire to emoting reaction in your reader, be it laughter, tears, or surprise. You want to make them think. You want your story to stay with them after they have finished the final line. You want them to feel that you have told them something they didn’t already know, or that you’ve helped them to understand the world a little better. You want to entertain them. Make them believe in your characters and scenarios because this is why they will care, but don’t be afraid to surprise them and to do the unexpected.
5) THERE ARE NO RULES
There is one maxim that I always swear by when I teach creative writing and this is that THERE ARE NO RULES. No one can tell you how to do it! This is what makes writing constantly exciting, exhilarating, and challenging. You can read a score of ‘How to’ books, but only through practice will you work out how you write.
You might find you work best in cafes. You might like to start at the end of a story and work backwards. You might need to plan everything in advance. You might find your mind is most focused first thing in the morning. You might want the support of a writing group. You might have a phobia of the letter h.
Whatever works best for you is the right way for you to work.
So please, feel free to disregard any of the suggestions I’ve given above if they don’t seem appropriate to you. Try out any that you think might be helpful.
All I can do is urge you to write because you love to. Experiment, challenge yourself, try out wild ideas. Remember: THERE ARE NO RULES.