Friday, 29 July 2016


When it comes to possessing skills we all start at zero. True, some people start with a better zero than others, which is what enables them to eventually rise to loftier heights than the rest of us mere mortals (I'm a-lookin' at you, Mr Stephen King) but other than that no-one pops out of the womb fully-equipped with all the necessary knowledge and experience to be the best they can be. We all gotta try and fail and learn and then try and fail and learn again, in a never-ending cycle until... well, there is no 'until,' actually. Oh wait, yes there is - it's 'death...'

But it's not all bad; in between the try-fail-learn cycle there will also be try-succeed-learn cycles too - and hopefully there will be enough of the latter to make the former feel worth enduring. This is true of most skills in life, whether it's a sport or a humanitarian or creative endeavour, and it's definitely true of writing.

however, the period of time between someone first saying "I want to be a writer" and becoming a successful author is glacial compared to, say, learning how to use Microsoft Office. Even the so-called 'overnight successes' like E.L. James actually weren't, in spite of what the hype tries to claim (you'll never convince me a woman who worked her way up to an executive position in an advertising agency had never written a single creative thing before embarking on her Fifty Shades.) And the learning process never stops. It shouldn't stop, because the day you tell yourself as a writer "Well, that's it, I know everything I need to know about writing now - there is nothing more I can learn" is the day your writing peaks as high as it will ever go - and the only way from there is down.

So what can we do as writers to keep on learning? How can we keep on improving?

1 - Write. A Heck of a Lot.

Well duh, is the entirely reasonable response to this one.... isn't it?

You'd be surprised. This is because what constitutes 'a lot' varies wildly between people. Many writers - properly famous and respected writers - have talked about how many words the average writer needs to have written before they become 'good,' and the ballpark figure is usually around a million words. They've certainly achieved that, but how many other writers have? What about the ones who punch the self-pub button on Smashwords or CreateSpace for their first draft versions of 30-page 'novels?' Or the 'aspiring writers' who've been trying to write the same novel for the past twenty years of their lives because they can 'only write when they feel inspired?'

Don't get me wrong - if any of you out there fall into either of those categories this is not a snarky dig at you. I'm simply giving you the maths; if it really does take a million written words to become a 'good' writer, you are, by definition, going to take longer to hit that target. Someone who writes every day - whether it's for a full-on, working day or even just a quick half an hour in their lunch break - even when they don't particularity feel like doing it, is going to hit that million-word target sooner than the one who has to wait for the right 'mood' or motivation' to strike before they can put a word to the page. As is the writer who rewrites and edits the heck out of their first draft to make sure it's the best it can be before they put it out there for public consumption, rather than hitting that 'Publish' button three seconds after they've typed 'The End' on their virgin manuscript.

When I look back now on some of the abandoned novels and short stories I wrote twenty, ten - even five years ago, I can see how much I've improved since then. Heck, I'm damn glad I never published any of that stuff, even though I probably thought it was pretty awesome at the time. It's the best proof you'll ever get that you've levelled up on your writing journey, and the only way to get further on that journey is to put the petrol in the car and drive. Every day? I find it helps me, even if it's just for half an hour and not necessarily on my work-in-progress - even a quick poem, journal entry, book review or new story idea counts. If that really isn't possible for you (and it may not be, what with full-time jobs and homes and families to run) then I'd suggest at least a regular schedule - knowing in advance that you can and will write for, say, an hour on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays does at least build a sense of commitment that becomes easier to stick to the longer you do it.

But if you only ever write when you're 'feeling it' - waiting for those moments when inspiration strikes like lightning from the Gods of Creativity... well, you're going to waiting a long time for actual results. If you want to be a successful writer, the idea that writing should always make you feel happy and be a purely pleasurable activity is a myth, I'm afraid. Ask any published author and they'll tell you writing feels like work a lot of the time - that it should feel like work. But if it's work you truly believe in, you'll love it. Even when you hate it.

2 - Read. A Heck of a Lot.

How many of you out there have heard at least one of the following statements from wannabe writers:

1 - "I don't have time to read. I'd rather spend that time writing instead."
2 - "I'm afraid that if I read too much I'll just end up copying other writers instead of developing my own style."
3 - "Reading is boring. That's why I started writing in the first place - to write something people like me would actually want to read."

I'll bet you have, because there are genuinely people out there who think that way. The first two I can sympathise with. There's a logic to thinking the best way to improve your writing is by clocking up the hours and 'finding your own voice' - mainly because it's true. But your creativity is also like a bank; if you only ever make withdrawals and never deposits... well, you're going to drain your account eventually. If words and ideas are your currency, surely it makes sense to keep your bank topped up? Stephen King put it best "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the tools to write."

The good news is, you don't have to trawl your way through all 'the classics' to consider yourself well-read. Nor is there any point in forcing yourself to read something you hate, just because the Literati have marked a particular book as a 'must-read' for 'anyone who's serious about writing.' Non-fiction counts as much as fiction - in fact, I'd argue it's even more valuable if you want to write in specialised areas like historical fiction and sci-fi, where research is essential (this also means magazines have the advantage over books, since the information in them is far more likely to be up-to-date and therefore accurate.) And of course it makes sense to read other books in the genre you want to write in, if only to be aware of what's already been done to death.

If, however, your reason for not reading is number 3... well, you'll certainly end up writing stuff people like you will want to read. But - how can I put this gently? - you're the one seeing a problem with what's already out there, not the bajillions of readers who are quite happily reading all this stuff you find 'boring.' Your 'niche' might end up being smaller than you think.

3 - Spy on People. A lot.

Not literally, obviously. Well okay, maybe kind of literally - just stop short of anything that might get you arrested (installing hidden cameras and bugging phones is a bit of a no-no, for example.) You want to write great characters, you have to find out how real-life people work, and you can only do that by spending time amongst them, watching them and listening to them. Friends and family are great, but when you interact with them both you and they have an agenda. They know you, so they know what bits of themselves to hide from you to make the conversation go their way. Total strangers on the other hand, who are interacting with other people and not you, and therefore don't care what you think of them...

This is where it pays to hone your eavesdropping and people-watching skills. Some of the greatest stories ever written have been as a result of the author overhearing a snippet of real-life conversation or observing some real-life moment between strangers.

4 - Expand your vocabulary. A lot.

Relax, I'm not suggesting you chomp your way through a Websters. In fact, please don't do that. The popular idiom about not using a fifty-dollar word when a five-dollar one will do is sound advice; no-one wants to have to keep referring to a dictionary to understand what they're reading.

I am, however, suggesting you make friends with a thesaurus; a dead-tree copy is great, an online one even better. Having twenty alternative words for common ones like 'walked' and 'looked' is a godsend for any writer avoiding the dreaded repetitive sentences, not to mention for finding the right alternative to that word that sort of means what you need it to mean but not quite... There are also some great books out there filled with descriptive and emotive phrases and action beats, for when you can't picture the body language a character might use when they're irritated, for example (Master Lists for Writers by Bryn Donovan and The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi are two great resources.)

And expanding your vocabulary can also include slang - not so that you can use it in your own work, but so that you know when - and indeed if - you should use it. Some slang dates quicker than others, is regional rather than universal and only used by specific generations, and if you're not aware of the conventions around that you can end up looking like the embarrassing youth club leader who tries to get 'down with the kids' and just ends up alienating them.

5. Question EVERYTHING. All the Time.

Multimedia these days is flippin' amazing. News is flung at our eyeballs and earholes every second of every day, whether we ask for it or not. Google, Bing and dozens of other search engines will answer every question you could possibly conceive, and plenty more you couldn't. Information is everywhere.

Just one problem: a huge proportion of it is garbage.

If you have a daily newspaper - or even one particular one that you either buy regularly or actually have some sort of subscription to - you are not learning about what's going on in the world, you are being told what to think about it by whoever is editing that newspaper (who is probably in turn being told what to tell you by the owner of that newspaper.) Same as if you only ever watch one news channel, or go to a select handful of websites for particular areas of interest. ALL media is run by corporate businesses who have a vested interest in selling you something - whether that's a product or service they happen to provide, or an ideology they want you to believe because it benefits them. The recent EU referendum here in the UK is a perfect example of this. The vote went to the Leave Camp because many of the owners of our newspapers wanted to leave; Rupert Murdoch certainly did, and he owns two of the biggest-selling newspapers in the country (The Sun and The Times) along with the BSkyB tv channel. Others who were very clearly pro-Brexit were The Mail (a bastion of bigoted and xenophobic thinking at the best of times) The Star (ditto) and The Telegraph. In short, a huge proportion of the British public were brainwashed into voting Leave, because that was the mantra being thrust in front of them every single day by their newspaper of choice.

This is what happens when you just absorb the first piece of information you hear on a given subject and don't bother to see if there is anything out there that contradicts that information. It's why people rant on forums quoting random 'facts' they read on Wikipedia as gospel, when that very 'fact' was most likely typed in by Some Drunk Dude who had a spare twenty minutes to kill and fancied a giggle (because that's how Wikipedia works - anyone can edit it.) And it's how many a writer throughout the years has been horribly tripped up by something they wrote in their novel because their 'research' for it consisted of one five-second Google search, and hordes of angry and better-informed readers have left ranty reviews pointing out the glaring inaccuracies.

On the other hand, questioning a piece of information and searching for the opposing view is the very thing that has spawned countless brilliant stories over the years. Wicked would not exist, for example,  if the author Winnie Holzman hadn't asked herself what the witches' take on the events in The Wizard of Oz might be. Animal Farm would not exist if George Orwell hadn't asked himself "could Communism work as a political regime?" In fact, you could argue that every story that begins with a 'What if..?' scenario is an example of the author hearing an idea or point of view and then, rather than simply accepting it at face value, testing it to its limits to see what happens. Even if the conclusion they eventually reached matched that in the original information, they still did it by taking it as far in the opposite direction as they could first - and in the process, created a story.

6 - Life your live. All of it, all the time.

You know why teenage writers sometimes get so annoyed with middle-aged-and-beyond writers? Because we have this tendency to tell them things like "when you're older and have had more life experience, you'll be able to write with more authority about [insert real-world tribulation here.]"

Mmm yeah, sorry about that, all you youngsters out there. I know it sucks when we do that. And there are many times when we are wrong to do so - a sixteen-year-old who grew up in a south London council estate is going to have a darn sight more experience of the harsher aspects of life than a middle-class thirtysomething who went to Cheltenham Girls' College and is currently writing her novels from her converted barn in the Cotswolds, for example. So when I talk about 'living your life' I'm not simply talking about racking up the year-count. That alone does not fill your life-bank with writeworthy 'experiences.'

You know what else doesn't? Watching television. Playing computer games. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying don't do those things. Just... maybe don't do so much of those things so often. Don't make them your primary sources of entertainment in life. And don't - definitely don't - mistake anything you see on tv or play through in a computer game as an acceptable substitute for the same experience in real life. Watching Michael Palin travel Pole to Pole on tv does not mean you've experienced a little of what it's like to do the same thing - you haven't, you've just watched someone else do it. You still have no clue how it actually feels for you to do it yourself.

So don't cloister yourself away for years in some seat of higher learning, taking creative writing course after creative writing course in the belief that this alone will make you 'a better writer.' Get a job or two - even if it's just a part-time one. Bonus points if you get at least one crappy one you hate so much you eventually end up quitting. Go to a club or two. Get drunk at least once in your life, just to find out what it feels like. Travel - see as much of the world as your budget will allow. Stay in a one-star motel at least once, as well as a five-star swank-pad. Heck, do that Gap Year Thing in ratty hostels with toilets that are little more than holes in the floor if it floats your boat. Try weird food, meet eccentric people. Once in a while, do stuff that scares you. It's all gold for the Creative Bank - y'know, along with all that reading and writing you're doing.

Well, these are my starter for six. What would you add to this list? I'd love to know in the comments below,

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