Want to be a writer? If you do, you’re not alone. “Everyone has a book in them,” said Christopher Hitchens. But he added: “In most cases that’s where it should stay.”
If every other person wants to write a novel, then pretty much every journalist wants to write a novel (if they haven’t already done so). It’s a bit of an occupational hazard.
I have some pretty high-achieving friends, in that regard. But in general, having a story inside you does not necessarily mean it should be allowed to come out. Nor does having the ability to write well in one medium guarantee that you can do so in another.
Despite writing numerous newspaper articles during my journalist years, the number of ‘proper’ short stories I’ve done since leaving school has been pitiful. Two, at the last count.
But the feeling that it’s something I should be doing has been nagging at me for quite a long time. So, when An Lanntair started a creative writing course led by acclaimed Canadian author Heather Birrell, I thought I’d go along. It would either be the catalyst to finally get me started or allow me to put the idea to bed forever.
The first night didn’t go well. I took part in a free writing exercise — you write continuously for five minutes and don’t cross anything out — and thought I had done okay until I listened to a couple of the others who had volunteered to read theirs out. I realised how bad mine was. It was garbage. And I’m not just saying that. I cringed massively and decided I couldn’t bear to ever go back.
But, as fate would have it, I bumped into Heather a week later. When she asked if I would be going back to class, I told her it was unlikely and was honest about the reason. That’s when she gave me her first piece of valuable advice.
It was that people who already write, like those in public relations (me), can be the hardest on themselves as students but you have to give yourself permission to fail. “When you get good at something,” she said, “it sucks to go back to the beginning.” It hadn’t occurred to me, until then, that I would be going back to the beginning.
I did go back to class and since then have benefitted from a lot of Heather’s wisdom. Here, in this video, she discusses her own top tips for people wanting to write. They are…
- Marry someone rich(!)
- Protect your writing time and space
- Value your work for the work itself (it’s not all about publishing)
- Chocolate (or your stimulant of choice)
- Each work is a new journey
- The importance of not becoming thick-skinned
In addition to Heather’s six, I’ve got a further nine, picked up from this course.
7. Sometimes you need to just be practical
Not every sentence has to be full of luminous prose. Sometimes it can be purely transactional. If you need to get your character from one room to another or you’re trying to keep the dialogue flowing, then you can just say “he walked out the door” or “he said”. It may feel mundane, but it keeps things moving along sensibly.
8. You don’t have to start at the beginning
Maybe your first few paragraphs — or first stanza or chapter — can go. This is something that can create a greater sense of immediacy. It’s something I’ve actually always done as a journalist but I’m more conscious of it now. I very rarely start with the first line. I always start somewhere in the middle — start anywhere you can basically; just find your way in somehow— and my last line is always written before the first.
9. We find the universal through the specific
Sometimes, if something is deeply affecting, we are inclined to tell it in abstractions, in big ideas, but these can shut out the reader. I realise this is something I search for: universal truths about the human condition that are present in individual stories; that thing that is essentially Hebridean in the way we respond to music, the weather, the sea, the sky, the land around us and the way we express the art within us.
10. Inappropriate imagery
Don’t use an image just because you came up with it, warned Heather. It might not ‘fit’ the world of the story or the poem. Don’t force it, just because you think it’s clever. I have to work on this. I like a metaphor and I’m loath to leave it at the roadside (see? I can’t help it) if it can come along for the ride.
11. Use a stranger’s time in a way that he or she will feel was not wasted
This one’s courtesy of Kurt Vonnegut Jnr, who knows a thing or two about writing. It basically refers to plot and it’s my major stumbling block. You can turn out reams and reams of luminous prose to entertain yourself but even the most prosaic writing needs the backbone of a story for the sake of everybody else. Plot is King.
In the same vein, look after your reader by being as straightforward as possible. Don’t be overly mysterious and do give the reader as much information — and as much of yourself — as possible.
12. Try to own it
A good tip from Heather, to make this easier, is to depersonalise the writing thing by saying “I write” rather than “I’m a writer”. Saying that it’s something you do – not something you are – lessens those feelings of pretentiousness. It also means you are less likely to miss your moment, like one of my writing class friends once did.
Kathleen Ferdinando is a kiltmaker (she owns Celtic Clothing in Stornoway) by day but writes children’s stories by night. A few years ago, she was on a flight to America and busy writing in her notepad when the man beside her asked what she “did”. Feeling self-conscious, she said “I’m a kiltmaker” and left it at that. As it turned out, he was a children’s publisher, on his way to LA for work.
“That stayed with me,” she said. “I missed a golden opportunity but I couldn’t take back what I had said. I was shy about my writing because I didn’t have the confidence in what I was doing. I was my own worst enemy but this course has helped me. I think I can actually do this now. I never viewed myself as a writer — I always shied away from saying that — but know I feel that I can actually say ‘I write children’s stories’.”
13. Give yourself permission to fail
The first point I took on board and so, so important. It doesn’t matter if you’re rubbish — especially at first. Give it a really good go before you even think about giving up. You wouldn’t expect to be able to play like Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton after a few weeks of playing guitar. You have to practice your art. Practice, practice, practice, practice.
14. Short stories and essays (or blogs) have common ground
To Heather’s mind, creative non-fiction (essays) and short stories sometimes come from the same place. The word ‘essay’ comes from French and means ‘to try’.
She said: “I think of short stories as trying to figure something out — there’s an element of argumentation, to amplify a theme of some kind — and the same thing happens in an essay. The best essays don’t start out with the writer having all the answers. The writer takes you on this journey where they’re trying to get to the bottom of something and sometimes they get to the bottom of something and sometimes they don’t.”
I get that with blogging. I’m usually trying to work something out. I don’t have much in common with Stephen King — I haven’t quite sold 350million books — but we are on the same page when he says: “I write to find out what I think.”
15. Recognise you might need to do some work on yourself first
Out of all Heather’s advice, this might be the one most pertinent. Every person on the planet has their issues to deal with and I’m no different. But sometimes, if you’re trying to write, your troubles can cause you trouble.
“I think you will find it a great unblocker if you write about some of these rich, difficult moments in your personal history,” she wrote in an email. “They might become fiction, they might not, but writing about them will help. It’s scary, but good. Trust me.”