I've been writing for a long time now, and inevitably have made many mistakes along the way. I don't mean stuff like using too many adverbs, or characters changing eye colour half-way through a story, (though I've made plenty of those mistakes, too), I mean mistakes in how I approached my writing and built on success.
So here are the things I've done that I wish I hadn't:
1. Writing a whole novel longhand
I'm an old fashioned type of writer in that I find my thinking flows better when I write longhand. All my notes are written longhand, and every short story starts life as a first draft in handwriting (sometimes fountain pen, sometimes pencil, sometimes purple felt tip, depending on my mood). And every novel is planned out longhand, then I write straight onto my laptop with my notes beside me.
It's a system that works for me, so what was I thinking when I decided to write a complete novel in longhand? Sheer madness. I have huge lined notebooks filled with writing, 100,000 words in total, some of which is illegible because when I write I write; the words fall over each other and come out as a scrawl.
I tried to type out this novel and gave up. It was too dispiriting. I also tried to dictate it using voice recognition software, but I didn't have the patience to train the software and it wasn't expecting the er...gritty nature of my writing. And so the book languishes in an unfinished, unloved, and incomprehensible state.
2. Not following up on success
When I was new to sending work out for publication, I was very bad at following up on success. I'd send a story to a magazine, get an acceptance, and then wait several months before I sent another one. I felt as though I didn't want to bother them again too soon.
I know now that what I should have done is immediately write another story and send it in, reminding the editor they'd just accepted a piece from me. In waiting, I let the relationship go cold, so each time I sent in a story, I was starting from scratch. Having a relationship with an editor doesn't mean that they'll accept everything you send, but it often means they give you some feedback if they reject a story, or let you know what kind of material they're short of. Invaluable industry insider information, in other words.
3. Giving up too soon
I recently counted up how many full-length novels I've written in total. It came to 15. Four have been published, and another is with a publisher, but that still leaves 10 full length novels (including the monster in long-hand) that are hanging around doing nothing. Some of them are definitely apprentice pieces - novels I wrote to learn how to write novels - and should never see the light of day because they're not meant to. You don't show the world the scribbles you do when you're learning to draw.
But some of them are not apprentice pieces and have been sent to agents, publishers or competitions at some point. Where I went wrong was I didn't send them out enough. One novel got great feedback from agents and publishers, though was never published: what I should have done was take heart from this and keep on sending it out until it had been to every single potential publisher or agent. Apparently the book 'The Zen Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' went to 99 agents and publishers, and only went to the final one, which published it, because the author wanted to make it a round 100.
Sometimes writing really is a numbers game.
4. Telling other people what I was writing
I put my head in my hands when I think of the times I've shared my precious, fragile ideas with someone who then reacted in a sarcastic/ non-committal/ hurtful way and the blasted idea popped and was gone. These people don't have to be your worst enemies, either, they're often the very people who you think would support, encourage and nurture your writing ambitions.
Ideas are fresh and full of energy when they're in your head. They're also pretty good once they're on paper and you've rewritten them a few times. But when they come out of your mouth for an audience that doesn't understand, and frankly, has their own issues with your writing, then they fall stone dead.
If people ask me about my writing now, I do a little mysterious smile and say, 'It's fine, thanks', then change the subject. They can read it when it's ready (i.e. published).
5. Not resubmitting
Similarly to the first point, when I started submitting writing I tended to think if a story or article wasn't taken up by the first magazine I sent it to, then it was rubbish so I abandoned it and wrote something new. When I started entering writing competitions, I found to my astonishment that a story that has gone absolutely nowhere in several small competitions is perfectly capable of winning a big competition, and that if a story is rejected several times it doesn't mean it won't find a place somewhere, some time.
I make out an index card for each story I write, including the title, word count, and where I've sent it. This helps me to keep track of where I've sent it. I often also pencil in a number of alternative places to submit it if it gets rejected. This isn't looking on the black side and expecting it to be rejected, but a way of saying to myself that there are plenty of opportunities for each story, and a knock-back doesn't mean the end.
Over to you - what's the most important thing you've learned about your writing? Let me know in the comments below.
Many years ago, I read an article about the joys and perils of writing groups. I can’t remember the name of the author, or where I saw the article, but it has stayed with me, because it illustrated its point using a story.
It goes something like this. A writers’ group met every week; each week they were given a theme to write about, then they brought their work for comment and critique to the next session. One week they were given the theme of ‘a chair’. They all wrote a story about a chair and read their work aloud at the next meeting. All but one of the participants wrote a story about a rocking chair on a porch: stories that were sentimental and twee. One person wrote about the electric chair, and the story was full of compassion and redemption. The other members of the group turned on the author and castigated him for writing about such a horrible topic, but it was the electric chair story that went on to be published, not the rocking chair stories.
This anecdote was told to warn people that writing groups can have their downsides, but to me it has two further messages for writers:
• Stick to your guns
• Be different
There are many writing competitions that ask for submissions on a theme. How do you avoid the twee and hackneyed (the rocking chair) and find the original and bold (the electric chair)?
Write then Discard
Firstly, write down everything that comes to mind when you think of the theme. Chuck away all your first ideas, as they will be the obvious connections and the ones that the majority of people will write about.
Keep on brainstorming, looking at the theme from different angles, asking questions, and turning the obvious on its head. Keep going until you’re out of ideas.
Quieten the Chatter
If you find it difficult to do this, it could be that your conscious mind (the bit that’s coming up with easy, obvious ideas) is holding sway and needs to be quietened down so your subconscious can come up with more tangential ideas. There are a few ways to let your subconscious come forward:
• Sleep. This technique was used by Milton to write Paradise Lost: he would awake in the middle of the night and dictate 30 or 40 lines of poetry to his wife and then go back to sleep again. If you value your marriage, I don’t recommend his technique, but you could set an alarm for 20 minutes in the afternoon and have a catnap. Start writing the moment you wake up, before the conscious mind has time to interfere.
• Meditation. This isn’t about thinking about nothing, but about quieting your mind so you can calmly watch your thoughts and let them go. Even simply sitting still and counting your breaths will help to numb the chatter.
• Doing stuff with a rhythm such as walking, swimming, cooking or sewing. These activities provide a space where your subconscious can do its thing and push original ideas to the front of your mind.
Go For It!
Once you’ve quietened your conscious, brainstorm as many ideas as you can, digging deeper into the theme until you find an angle that makes you stop and think, “Hey!” Explore that idea from different angles, playing with character, voice and setting, until you get a fizzy, excited feeling and the urge to start writing. That’s your story.
Once you’ve written the story, check that it still reflects the theme. Stories can go off in directions of their own sometimes. If you don’t think you’ve captured the theme adequately, simply send the story to an open competition and have another go at the theme.
Judges often comment that story entries are very dark, and that few humorous stories are entered in competitions. If you can write humour, your story will stand out from the pack. And if you can dig a story out of everyday situations, even better. It’s tempting to throw yourself at the big themes (cancer, miscarriage, death, war), but these get repeated time and again, so find the story in something ordinary and make it extraordinary.
How To Do It
Here’s an example of how I might tackle a short story on the theme of ‘death’.
My first thoughts would turn to the hackneyed and (dare I say it?) done to death: cancer, suicide, World War I. After that it might be widowhood, murder or euthanasia. Notice that these are all ‘big’ themes, and over-represented in competition entries. So digging a bit deeper, I might think about the people who deal with death every day: undertakers, morticians, florists, stone masons, and nurses. And does the death have to be of a person? What about the death of a pet? What about pet cemeteries or taxidermists? Could it be about the death of a language or a way of life?
How would humour work in a story about death? Again, try to avoid the obvious and the temptation to make it blackly humorous, and explore instead if there is a way to tell the story with gentle humour and compassion.
A unique slant on a given theme, told in a compelling and original way – that’s the ‘electric chair’ way of storytelling. Give it a go and let me know how you get on.
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.