The Write Stuff: It's An Obsession

By David Flin

Rodin's Study for Obsession

Writing, like many professions, is not a fair profession when it comes to payments and rewards. As a very rough rule of thumb, around 1% of writers become rich; another 9% make a modest living; and about 90% make trivial sums of money from writing. Unless you are both very skilled and very lucky, you’re not going to make a fortune writing words for people to read.

If writing isn’t fun, you’re doing something wrong. Sure, it can be really frustrating, and all the rest, but the vast majority of writers find that writing is like a drug; they can no more stop trying to put ideas into words than they can stop breathing.

Every so often, I come across people who claim that when they write, they go through hand-wringing and hair-pulling frustration, and they have to force themselves to sit and type, hating it, blood-stained fingers, and complaining all the time. My advice for those who fall into that category is straightforward: “Do something else.”

Seriously. If writing isn’t fun, do something that is fun. If you’re not enjoying writing it, you can be certain no-one is going to enjoy reading it. It can certainly be frustrating, but at the same time, it needs to be fun. The chances are that you’re not going to make significant money from it, and it’s best regarded as a hobby. If you’re not having fun doing your hobby, then you’re doing something wrong.

And if you are one of those lucky people who do make good money from writing, then what can be better than being well-paid to have fun?

Quantity gives quality

I’ve said it before, and doubtless I will say it again, but the only way to become really good at writing is to write a lot. Practise makes perfect, according to the proverb. Well, there’s no such thing as perfect writing, but practise certainly improves both quality and speed.

One of the more depressing things in life are creative writing courses. There are half-a-dozen earnest young people, with pristine clean notebooks, three carefully sharpened pencils, one in hand, listening intently for the words of wisdom to the teacher, hoping to discover the secret to writing. They look astonished and horrified when the secret to writing is to write a lot.

There’s no great difficulty in understanding how to improve the quality of your writing. Practise. If it’s fun, that will be no hardship, and if it’s not fun, then you’re going to have a problem. There are any number of little tricks and techniques that can be used; certain guidelines (like not making sentences too long – you’re not a punishment-inclined judge) that can help, but in the end, it’s all down to practise.

One of the author's first printers

This is where short stories or vignettes come in. They are, by definition, short. It’s fairly easy to write one a week; 2000 words in a week is no great hardship. After a year, you’ll have over 50 stories. Of these, some will be ordinary, some not so good, some better, and some pretty good, and there may well be one or two that are very good indeed.

One short story or vignette a week is easy. Writing a novel is intimidating, and it is hard work. Don’t start with a novel. For a start, getting feedback on a short story is quicker and easier. Novels can also fall into times when the author feels that the story is starting to drag, and enthusiasm can start to wane.

I’ve no idea how many part-finished novels there are out there, but I’m willing to bet that it’s in excess of the number of finished novels. A novel can be hard work, and 100,000 words is a lot. Writing a short story will give many of the skills you need for longer writing.

There’s another trick one can pull with vignettes. They can often be stitched together to make a longer story. That’s how Six East End Boys started life. Initially, I had some ideas for characters, and the first six chapters of the novel are the vignettes I wrote to develop the characters. Each of those chapters started life off as a means for me to get the personality of each of them fixed and settled in my own mind. Once I had done that, and written a scene with them together, things just came together. The story was put together in odd moments, so many of the chapters were written as vignettes, where I had a start point, the end of the previous chapter, and I had a pretty good idea where the vignette would end. Within a surprisingly short time, I had a novel.

Writing a novel in this way, starting off with a vignette, means that you get to the heart of the story in that vignette. All novels should have a big truth to them, the central theme of the story. Get that big truth, that central theme, fixed, and all the other truths will accumulate around it. Secondary themes, and character insights, and all the other aspects of clever writing will start to naturally accrue once you have your central element, your big truth.

Returning to the example of Six East End Boys, the central theme, the big idea of the story is simply that Justice has to apply to everyone. If some people are above the law, or if other people are outside the protection of the law, then whatever you’ve got, it’s not Justice.

There was a corollary that came out of this: Redemption is possible, but it comes with a price.

Once you have your big truth, it provides a framework for the rest of the story. It’s all part of having a story to tell. However, there’s a difference between having a big truth, and writing a cautionary story.

The problem with a cautionary story is that the moral the story is trying to get over generally gets in the way of the story. The key part of the story is the story. Once you start preaching a message, then you’re going to lose most of your potential readership.

Don’t think too much When writing, don’t pause to think for exactly the right word. The flow is critically important. The faster you write, the more accurately you capture what you’re trying to say. If you hesitate, you lose the thread, doubt creeps in. A writer’s style is all about getting the personality of the writer into the written word, and that comes with fluency.

Worry about tidying up later. The flow is where the energy of a story comes from. The longer it takes to write, the less good it is. I’ve found that whenever I write a piece very quickly, it rarely needs much work to tidy it up. A few spelling corrections, sometimes the restructuring of a sentence, and quite often breaking up a sentence into smaller chunks. In general, however, the structure of a piece remains untouched when it has been written in the white heat of inspiration.

You want the reader to have the desire to keep turning the page, to find out what happens next. You want the reader to have a feeling of energy in reading, and you have to try and convey your enthusiasm for telling the story to the reader. That can only come when you’re putting enthusiasm into the words. Tell the story, and tidy up later.

Write for enjoyment Some authors will tell you – at length – how hard writing is, how much effort they have to put into it. Don’t listen to them. The SF writer Ray Bradbury said that the only worthwhile things that were written were because the author wanted to write it. He said: “If you write for money, you won’t write anything worth reading. Write because you love to do it.”

If it’s not fun, you’re doing something wrong. Despite what some people might tell you, writing isn’t a serious business. Just have fun doing it. Your writing will be a lot better for it.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow