Until September 30th 2018, I offer 'Dear Writer Girl', a weekly blog series where I answer 'how to' questions about writing, from the public at large. Come back every Sunday to check out the latest 'letters'!
Anyone can ask anything about writing fiction, but I don't take any responsibility for what happens after I answer. This is not magic. The views here are my own, based on thirty-plus years of facilitating other writers as a newsroom, magazine and anthology editor, teacher of creative writing, and as a writer myself, but I know exactly zero about what is best for you as an individual writer. Everyone has to develop their own process, and my suggestions may not work for you.
Or maybe they will :-)
If you'd like to ask a question, tweet @leoneross and hashtag #dearwritergirl
PS. Don't write and ask me how to publish. I don't know, and I will ignore you.
PPS. Questions may be slightly edited for clarity or brevity.
I hope something resonates with you this week!
Dear Writer Girl,
When writing, is it best to begin with character or with plot?
This is one of those terribly earnest questions that smells like you might just have been reading too many 'how to write' books. It's a bit like 'show don't tell' or 'write every day'. These ideas have become received wisdom, so they're rarely interrogated or refreshed. Some people try very hard to obey them without question, for the best possible reasons.
All as a way of saying, I don't know where you should begin -- what do YOU want to do?
I'm not just passing the buck, I promise. It's just that if I was to tell you that you have to begin with character -- because people are the life blood of fiction and when we care about people in a book it stays with us until we take our last breath ["Damn, do you remember how we cried when Jo died in Little Women?"] -- that would probably sound like a familiar idea. Many of us have read that stuff in a 'how to write' book. But if I said whoa, hold up, your characters must have a strong foundation of action and movement -- we must see them doing things, your themes must be dramatised because readers care about a book when characters are in trouble -- so actually, you need to start with a good, strong plot, that idea might be familiar to you, too.
These ideas have plenty of merit. Hell, I teach those ideas myself. In one form or the other. But none of that really answers the heart of your question, which I suspect is: writer girl,tell me how to be the best I can be. I can't tell you what's best for you, but I can proffer some questions to ask yourself, and I can share my own process.
I start writing from an 'ooh' moment. And an ooh moment can be plot-based or character-based or something entirely different. I hope you know the feeling. It's that first tingle of interest and excitement, and it can happen anywhere and any time. Yesterday I I had a 'character-based' ooh moment. I saw a little girl, no more than eight, walking by herself through the park, bright new sunny day in London, singing 'haaaaa-le-luuuh-yaaaah' in this utterly lugubrious voice, plaits bouncing. I loved the contrast between her smallness, the bounce in her step, and that bass in her voice, the melancholy and age of the word she was singing against how shiny-new she was. I loved that she didn't know any more of the words. I loved her confidence: like seriously, kid, where are you going by yourself, singin' hallelujah? She made me curious about her life. Did her mamma teach her that? And does she take good care of her? And what kind of woman will she become, singin' hallelujah? I wanted to capture that moment, like a snapshot. I wanted to freeze that glorious contrast between youth and solemnity because it ticked me -- freeze it to show other people. I felt happy, and excited. And something could come of that joy and curiosity, y'know? A story. That began with character, and would fast need a plot...
'Ooh' feelings can also be long-term and vague and plot-based. For years I've been thinking of writing a novel or a story about what it is to grow up with activist parents (I did). For years I have been thinking of writing a story or novel about being a young black journalist in London working in the 90s (I did that, too). In both cases I know where the story is set and have some vague notion of plot (AKA 'what happens'). I know that the first one involves the CIA and demonstrations and the Caribbean; I know the second involves a newsroom and the daily challenges of that space, and a composite cast. Even though I'm known for my characterisation, when I think about these ideas I have no clear sense of individuals who might populate these places and plots. I'd have to get to that. I'd need some breathing, complex, human beings to go with the inherently tense circumstances. But it's the circumstances that feel like the spur to action - in this case, a sense of plot has come first. I can see demonstrations in my head and taste the tear gas. I can see editorial arguments and decisions to keep juicy gossip off the record and people having sex in the open-plan office. Action and plot.
Once I wrote a story based on a random idea of a hymen coming loose and blowing down the street and it made me giggle and I couldn't get it out of my head so I wrote it. Image-based ooh moment.
Once I wrote a story based on the particular muddy colour of a puddle. Hangin'-around, dreaming-by-puddles ooh moment.
So. It doesn't matter. I think what matters is that you live a life that maximises your opportunity for ooh moments. Go do shit: go for walks, for runs, to clubs, to the beach, to the local zoo, to a museum, and especially places you've never been before. Consume art. Intend to feel shit deeply: plunge yourself into emotional experiences and let yourself bathe in the rich opportunity this life offers for the feels. TAKE RISKS. Ask yourself difficult questions about what you believe, and what's important to you and what terrifies you and what your prejudices are and what makes you joyous. All these are opportunities for ooh moments, wherever that feeling begins. At some point, you will have to attend to characterisation, and at some point you will have to attend to plot and at some point, you will have to describe something and at each stage of the game you will have to ask yourself what word you want to use next, and at another point you will have to put the thing down to let it rest, and then come back to it and ask it what it's for, its purpose, and whether the word-soup you have created has addressed that purpose.
You have to do it all, anyway. There is no bad way. Just a Joseph way of doing things. The answer to your question lies in you taking action.
Dear Writer Girl,
How to keep on writing when a part of you feels like you should give up on being a writer?
1. I feel you. Here is a hug.
2. Writing is shit and will often make you feel stupid, inadequate and wrong.
3. Comparing yourself to other writers will shrivel your soul. Stop, if you're doing that.
4. What exactly do you think 'being a writer' is? What criteria have you created for your own success or failure? This is important because if you can work out what expectations you have set for yourself, you can interrogate those expectations. Asking yourself if they're reasonable is really important.
5. For example, I suggest giving up on making lots of money or fame from it. Seriously, it will make you feel better. Our present neo-liberal, austerity-bound, out-of-control capitalist nightmare doesn't really support this writing lark becoming a career that pays the mortgage. If you think 'being a writer' is 'being Neil Gaiman' there's a problem. The vast majority of writers do not make a living from it. I absolutely don't and never have done. And for a long time I thought I was a failure because of it. These things can become a vicious cycle that means you berate yourself for something that was always unlikely, anyway. I don't mean you shouldn't be ambitious. I'm just saying banking on that can make you feel really bad.
6. Reconfigure your criteria. I think that writing for the pleasure it gives you must be at the heart of your endeavour. Take the pressure off yourself - write because it makes you feel goooood. Writing to become better, as a wordsmith, is also a right and proper goal. In order to do that, reading reading reading reading reading reading is key - but not any old shit. Study the best stuff. Attend to your craft. Fix your grammar. Kill the cliches. Kill the adverbs. Give the thing a beginning, middle and end.
7. Publishing is also a worthy and reasonable goal. But many people need to adjust their idea of what success looks like. Being a writer does not have to be a six-figure book deal with one of the big five publishers. There are literally thousands of online and independent and mainstream publications. Instead of musing on failure, work harder. Set yourself weekly goals, whether that is word count or research. Set yourself monthly goals: send out your material, get rejections and then send it out again. Set yourself annual goals: a writing retreat, a writing course, a certain number of stories finished and polished. Enter competitions. Find publications that want stuff like yours, read them carefully and then send them stuff. Google 'calls for fiction submission'. Find community: online writing groups, or cheap classes or people with like mind. Just be careful - there are idiots out there who think they know what they're talking about and don't. So make sure you read the work of a writer/teacher who purports to instruct you; set clear guidelines for workshop spaces. But connecting with other people to talk about successes and craft and fears and joys can be very good for the often-solitary writer.
8. You don't actually have to write. You could just give up. Fight me.
9. How does item 8 make you feel? Secretly relieved? Tired? Appalled and defiant? You might need a rest from your own internal judge saying you're crap. You CAN stop writing for a while. Just stop. Turn back to reading. Command your friends to take you out or come and see you -- choose the ones who will bring jerk chicken with them. Or really good cheesecake, the squidgy baked kind. Dance. Breathe. Move your body. Kiss somebody.
10. Losing faith in the creative process can often mean something else is happening in life. It's not that you lack the will or heart or ability to write. Maybe you're tired. Maybe money and time are in short supply. Maybe you're changing. Find out what the thing is. Try to fix it, tiny bit by tiny bit. Be gentle with yourself. And when you're ready, return to the page, look up and out, and say what you see. Right now, there's an 11-week kitten running back and forth on my orange and yellow rug. She's like one of those cartoon characters that go ZING and move so fast you can hardly see them. There's a white fan pointed at my head and a can of Mint Fresh odour room freshener and it's 3.30am and the August calendar is swaying gently under the fan and suddenly, all is well with the world, I am cozy and safe and damn, look here, look, look, I'm writing...