Some Advice on Being a Writer (part two)

by Victoria Madden

Part One

In my experience, most of us who want to be writers are initially held back, either by the paralysing sense of our own inadequacy or by the lurking fear that we might not be any good.  No one ever seems to pause in this squelching about in self-doubt and ask themselves what this really means.  To what level are we aspiring anyway?  What stage are we actually at in our writing careers?  Not any good in what sense?

As I (finally) know – after many years of struggling and furious incomprehension – good writing is not only something that can be learnt, but Writing itself takes many forms, far beyond the Novel: elevated to the status of the Holy Grail by most of us would-be authors, and just as elusive.

As a child I wrote an un-self-conscious stream of short stories for English; plays, in the fond illusion that my friends were going to act them out; and numerous outlines for books I was going to write some day, many of them part of a series.  I seemed to be aware, though, that that day was not yet, because I made no attempt to move beyond a few, short, disconnected chapters: most of my energies went on working out the plots, and detailed descriptions of the characters and their doings.

I wrote poetry as a teenager (who hasn’t) and, in the pre-self-conscious period, became quite good at it: I always opted for the poem, if given a choice for English homework, because I knew I could knock out an extended metaphor in five minutes.  (I came to the rescue once of someone in another class and produced something just before the bell went. It ended up on another teacher’s wall; I think she was rather embarrassed.)  As an adult I rarely write poetry, unless in moments of despair at the world when no other words seem adequate.  Sometimes interaction with others will light a spark – I hung out with a very creative chap for a while and wrote a series of poems from his perspective, which was an interesting experience.

It was only as I grew up and started wanting to emulate the authors I admired, when the longing rose within me to write ‘like that’ after finishing a particularly good book, that I started to falter.  My first attempts were little more than clumsy pastiches of my favourite novels and I was painfully aware of the discrepancy.  I made half-hearted attempts to write my own work, always conscious of the looming colossi in whose shadow I futilely laboured, and (as you’d pretty much expect!) became completely demoralised.

Workshops, which are always a good idea as long as you find one that’s right for you, didn’t help much either.  I’d gone in the hope of clawing back some of my earlier, youthful skills, but the things they told me didn’t resonate and I couldn’t understand why I was struggling so much.  I knew I could write, but what I wrote was awkward and stilted compared to the others in the class; and I felt a barrier to which I was completely unaccustomed in attempting to express my thoughts.  Where I did succeed, was in short, wry, observations of a scene or situation and sometimes the odd telling phrase – but attempts at writing an extended narrative or descriptions of scenery or someone’s state of mind, bored me rigid; I wanted to get on with the plot.

(The short story, incidentally, is excellent training and where many nineteenth and earlier twentieth century writers cut their teeth.  I wrote a lot of these at one point as exercises for a Chap Who Knew; he gave me some invaluable tips but was puzzled by the (very) slightly surreal elements in one or two of the later stories.  After a while I felt he didn’t seem to get what I was trying to say – and became disheartened again.)

In the years of wanting to be a novelist I met a chap whose friend wrote Mills and Boon stories under a female pen name and apparently made a packet.  It seemed like good practice and at that time I seriously needed the money.  I sent off for their guidelines and went down to the local library.  I still remember being slightly taken aback at the sight of a long, low bookcase in the middle of the room that was completely packed with Mills and Boon novels both sides.  But they were obviously popular and apparently there was money to be made so I got them out, eight at a time, and read them diligently, taking notes and doing little synopses.

After a while, I was skimming through the books in a slightly bloated fashion and the notes got sketchier.  Perhaps I read too many of them because by the time I sat down to write my own version I was thoroughly sickened of the whole affair.  I had great fun working out the intricacies of the plot, essentially a detective story involving art theft, and writing an outline; but I set it in a foreign country I’d never visited, using the photographs in the DK travel guide to get the right atmosphere, and when I started trying to write the actual story my descriptions were stiff and clunky and my dialogue unrealistic.  My dislike of the whole process was evident in my writing: my characters were two-dimensional cut-outs, in whom my lack of real interest was obvious, and that I pushed towards one another unavailingly.

I remember trying to write a scene where the heroine is attracted to the hero for the first time in the style of the stories I’d read and thinking ‘I just cannot do this; it’s just embarrassing.’  And this was in the days where there was little sex involved.  I gave it up in disgust, both with myself and the genre, somewhere around this point.

The only bit that had any real zip to it was a caustic description of a disorganised work meeting somewhere at the beginning, which I’d based on my own experiences and observations.  It’s been said a million times in advice on starting out, but it really is true – always write about what you know.

I gave up trying to write anything after that for a long while and gave all my energies to writing reports for work – but then suddenly found my niche, quite by accident, in scriptwriting.  A friend had gone on a series of workshops and showed me the script he’d produced at the end of it; it looked like a fun thing to do, so I went on one myself.  To my surprise, I found I had an instinctive understanding of how to get my character’s backstory into the opening dialogue; could create characters themselves at the drop of a hat; and that the laborious process of creating a detailed outline, viewed as necessary but tedious by the rest of the class, played to all my strengths.  It was both epiphany and a huge relief: I immediately gave up all thoughts of being a novelist and started focusing on script-writing workshops instead.

Script-writing is character driven.  You have to know your characters inside out, invent back stories for them with details that may never come out in the film itself, then decide on their journey (this is the film).  If you’ve done your job properly the script will pretty much write itself.  In fact it might write itself in a direction you hadn’t initially intended because your character just wouldn’t behave in such a way.  (Pratchett makes the power of the story a plot device in both Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad.)

Script-writing is also formulaic: pretty much every film is based on a handful of tropes and a pre-defined arc, determined by what experience has shown people find most satisfying.  Even the length of a film (standard 90 minutes) is dictated by the average person’s attention span/period of time between needing the loo when slurping large fizzy drinks.  It’s actually very similar to writing a job application – you get your plot points in the same way you get the required skills in – and it fits with my abilities exactly.

Writing this article has made me realise that the signs that I wasn’t a novelist and that scriptwriting was my particular niche were there early on.  It was always devising the plot and creating the characters that was the focus of my energies in all my previous attempts to write a novel: once it came to turning the detailed outline into chapters of a book I quickly lost interest and struggled. Most of the actual writing I did took the form of stand alone ‘scenes’ between the characters rather than a narrative linked by descriptions.  It seems ridiculously obvious now.

I suspect many aspiring writers get sucked into the same mindset as I did: that to be a writer they must be a novelist; and then struggle and give up when they should just explore a different area of writing.  I think that for a large number of people, and particularly the literary Establishment, novels, especially serious novels, are the upper echelon of writing and anything else a poor second.  Humorous novels are a case in point: although allowances are generally made for the knowing smile of satire, out-right humourists, even Wodehouse and Pratchett, are often relegated to the not-quite-real-novels sections in bookshops.

(Where Wodehouse found his right niche, polished it and excelled, I always felt that there was a laziness about Pratchett’s style of humour; it frustrated me intensely that he was, to some extent, coasting on his abilities, and never pushed himself out of his comfort zone.  I had a very strong feeling that he was capable of something outstanding, that was hinted at now and then but never materialised; not through any lack of ability on his part, but seemingly of lack of will.)

My latest incarnation as a writer is through blogging, another form of writing that doesn’t seem to be taken seriously by many people. Perhaps it’s because it’s seen as an electronic form of the vanity press: anyone can write anything without anyone else setting editorial standards; but most of the sites I’ve discovered (the latest, Miss Darcy’s Library, has me constantly sighing for my own little flat in Paris and a similar lifestyle) are exemplars of good writing.

I see a blog as an electronic magazine column, with the occasional ‘internal memo’ thrown in, and apply the same standards of writing and look for the same qualities in someone else’s piece, that I would if at work.  It has its own rules, in the same way as any other form of writing, which I’m gradually learning, and it has been absolutely invaluable in helping me develop a ‘voice’.  To some extent, it appears to be the modern replacement for the short story or essay in developing a style for a writer – I agree with the writer of a newspaper article who argued that Orwell would have found a home on social media today.

Reading other like-minded blogs and commenting on them is a useful way of engaging with your potential public, seeing what works and what doesn’t, honing your communication skills as a writer.  It is vital though, as I have learnt to my own cost, to remember a phrase I have borrowed from Honoria Plum: ‘Stop.  Think.  Respond’.  I fired off a comment, late one night, congratulating the writer of a parody on Shakespeare’s ‘Exit pursued by a Bear’ scene in The Winter’s Tale on how well he’d achieved the Wodehouse tone.  It was only as I pressed ‘Send’ that my tired brain realised the last line had been a credit – and that it was in fact by Wodehouse himself.  (I had even, as I recalled to my chagrin, suggested that the writer of the piece had made a better job of it than Sebastian Faulks and should attempt a Wodehouse novel himself.)  Oh, dear me!  Stop.  Think.  Respond.  A lesson, perhaps, for much of Life.

Part Three