So. You want to be a writer. You’ve looked in detail at the alternatives – the refined meals in the company of elegant people; socialising with high society; going places; doing things; paying bills; eating food not made in a tin can – and you’ve decided it just ain’t for you. You’re the next Carver, the next Atwood, the next Tolstoy. You look down on EL James and nod seriously during long debates about the use of the semi-colon. You enjoy – perhaps a little too much – the smell of books; and you get a strange feeling every time you hold a pen to paper, as though in that moment you could sit there for eternity, crafting words from your imagination, pouring your thoughts out onto the page. And because of this, you’ve concluded that you’re ready to get writing.
Ah! But there’s a catch, isn’t there. Whenever you sit down, clear a desk, plonk that picture of Hemingway holding a gun in front of you for ‘motivation’, and get ready to write, you find yourself with a sudden urge to do the vacuuming, or take a stroll around the local park – complete with drug users squatting beneath a children’s slide – for ‘inspiration’. It’s time to admit it; you’re stuck. You’ve caught the most dreadful lurgy of all! Writer’s block.
Though not as terrifying an ailment as housemaid’s knee, hearing the diagnosis can hit even the most enthusiastic aspiring writers hard. But fear not. As with so many maladies, the first step to recovery from WB is acceptance. They even do WB Anonymous meetings now, we hear.
But how does one recover from WB? Aside from the well-known prescription, ‘Read; write; edit. Repeat’, we think it can prove pretty valuable to hear from writers themselves on how they actually go about doing this so-called ‘writing’.
To such ends, we’ve very kindly gathered a set of #WritingTips: from writers; for writers. We hope you find them useful!
Writing isn’t about getting laid, all right? Stephen King
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
The nitty gritty from Cormac McCarthy
“I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.”
Stop while the going’s good! Hemingway
“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.”
“I don’t really know about [the value of being taught creative writing] to the student. I don’t mean it’s useless. But I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to teach me how to write. That’s my own taste. I prefer to stumble on it. I prefer to go on trying all kinds of things, not to be told, This is the way it is done. Incidentally, there’s a story I like about a very distinguished writer today, who shall remain nameless, who had been taught creative writing in his younger days. The old man who taught him was reflecting about him one day: I remember his work was so good that I said to him, Don’t stop writing, never stop writing. I wish I’d never told him that. So I don’t know. I teach literature. That’s easy for me. Take someone else’s work and talk about it.”
On revisions and the rhythms of a story – Alice Munro
“I’ve often made revisions at that stage that turned out to be mistakes because I wasn’t really in the rhythm of the story anymore. I see a little bit of writing that doesn’t seem to be doing as much work as it should be doing, and right at the end I will sort of rev it up. But when I finally read the story again it seems a bit obtrusive … There should be a point where you say, the way you would with a child, this isn’t mine anymore.”
Be practical – Margaret Atwood
“Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.”
Don’t worry about swearing – James Kelman
“People can use swear words to emphasise the beauty of something – so it’s not really a swear word at all. If you say something is ‘fucking beautiful’, how can it be swearing, because you’re emphasising the beauty of something. If so-called swear words should only be used when appropriate, well what do you mean, ‘when appropriate’? I was in my 20s before I even realised the word ‘fuck’ had to do with a sexual act for some people. It was never used in that way for myself, and none of my community used it in that way.”
Don’t start out writing novels (they take too long) – Ray Bradbury
“The best hygiene for beginning writers or intermediate writers is to write a hell of a lot of short stories. If you write one short story a week, doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing. And at the end of the year you have 52 short stories. And I defy you to write 52 bad ones.”
Trust in your ability to say what you want – Kafka
“I am not of the opinion that one can ever lack the power to express perfectly what one wants to write or say. Observations on the weakness of language, and comparisons between the limitations of words and the infinity of feelings, are quite fallacious.”