Writing about Hilary Mantel and sharing her wisdom about writing has made me think about all the advice for writers that is available. There is an abundance of it out there – books, articles, on-line courses, interviews, blogs, more books… it is endless. Pinterest is bursting at the seams with it – a rabbit hole I can all too easily disappear down. For someone desperate to write and be published, it can be very distracting.
Obviously, I have read my fair share of it. I find it breaks down into two types. There is the practical ‘Nuts and Bolts’ type, which is literally How to Write: how to structure a plot, how to create interesting characters, how to beat writers’ block, how to finish a novel. In the past, I have found some of it useful. When I was seventeen, I found a book in my college library that was specifically about writing a good plot. At that point, I had written two and a half novels (my ‘juvenilia’) and thought I already knew everything, but reading this book was a revelation to me. I don’t remember exactly what the book was, but it gave me two rules that I stick to religiously.
1. Don’t switch viewpoints. When writing in the third person, stick to one character’s perspective to tell the story. Don’t tell the reader what one character is thinking, then switch to another character’s thoughts and feelings when it suits the narrative. If that second character’s thoughts and feelings are important to the plot, then you have to find a way to tell them through the first character’s understanding. To me, this is a fundamental rule. Obviously, not all writers agree with this, and I do come across it in fiction, but not from the writers I really admire – just saying.
2. Don’t put Bambi up against Godzilla. Your protagonist has to stand a chance. It makes sense. I once read a science fiction novel by Iain M Banks, which I was enjoying until he killed off ALL the main characters in the final chapter. I had never felt more cheated, and I have never read any more of those books.
Those two pieces of advice have served me well over the years and I recommend them. If you want more advice on how to write a novel, just type it into Google and you can spend the next year reading it. These days, I’m looking for spiritual guidance rather than How To guides. This is the type of advice that comes from established authors, preferably the ones I admire the most. I like to think of it as ‘mentoring’ rather than advice. Luckily, it is also quite easy to find. Besides writing successful novels, the best authors are often called upon to share their writing wisdom. Some of this is the practical day-to-day stuff, such how to stay focussed, or how to avoid getting stuck in a novel that isn’t progressing. It is reassuring to know that even the best authors sometimes have these problems too. But I prefer to read about the mysteries behind writing, the magical alchemy that takes an idea from someone’s mind and turns it into a fully formed novel. Those words from Hilary Mantel – a book grows according to a subtle and deep-laid plan. At the end, I see what the plan was – this is what I love to read, because it resonates with the process going on in my own head. Yes, it is blatant self-validation, but sometimes that’s necessary too. It makes me feel like I must be doing something right. After all the rejections, I really need that. And after all the advice on how to write a pitch for an agent, I also need to remind myself that writing is a mysterious joy that I love doing, not just a business pitch. In researching quotes for this blog, I have refreshed my soul and found new inspiration. This is the advice I want to share, some of it practical, some of it more motivational.
“Forget about inspiration and get into the habit of writing every day. Habit has written far more books than inspiration has. If you want the Muse to visit you, she needs to know where you are: so stay at your desk.” Philip Pullman
“Get disciplined. Learn to rush to your laptop and open it up. Open the file without asking yourself if you’re in the mood, without thinking about anything else. Just open the file: and then you’re safe. Once the words are on the screen, that becomes your distraction.” David Mitchell
“Neglect everything else.” David Mitchell
“Write more. And remember that everyone who writes anything good wrote a lot of bad stuff first.” Neil Gaiman
“Don’t obsess over your first draft…. No one is ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft…. For now, just get the words out. Get the story down however you can get it down, then fix it.” Neil Gaiman
“Any form of human creativity is a process of doing it and getting better at it…[Writers] don’t usually peak in their 20s. It’s usually quite a lot later on. Why is that? Because writing is about people and story is about people, and you know more about people and their stories as you get older … you see more and you experience more.” Margaret Atwood
“A good day is when you’ve written a good sentence.” Anne Fine, as quoted by Kate Atkinson
“Respect your characters, even the minor ones. In art, as in life, everyone is the hero of their own particular story: it is worth thinking about what your minor characters’ stories are, even though they may intersect only slightly with your protagonist’s.” Sarah Waters
“Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones.” Roddy Doyle
“But when people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no! I always was a writer.” Ursula Le Guin
“It’s a mysterious process. Of course, part of me must be making them up. But it doesn’t feel like making up – it feels like discovery … It’s a curious business and I’m not at all sure about it, but I don’t want to be sure about it really. I like being in a state of doubt.” Philip Pullman
“I do believe writing for a writer is as natural as birdsong to a robin.” Sebastian Barry
If I had a notice board in front of my desk, I would turn these quotes into posters and stick them up, to remind me of how and why I write. And maybe there is a purpose to it beyond self-validation. The advice from David Mitchell has been particularly helpful recently – and not just making me feel better for having a messy house! Making the effort to open the file and sit in front of it has been very productive – I’m actually at Chapter 20 of my latest novel and steaming towards the climax. Stay tuned for exciting news!
I hope this helps other people too. If anyone reading this has some different quotes from writers that inspire them, I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a quote from the booksellers Waterstone’s – not necessarily advice, but certainly motivational.
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