What I’ve Learned … On Writing

A couple of months ago, I was asked to do a talk on songwriting (yeah, I know!) at Liberton High School. It made me think a bit about writing generally, and what guidelines (and I put them no higher than that – certainly not rules) might be useful for the young folks. So here’s a written up version of what I think might have learned so far:

Know the rules before you break them.

The world is full of writers – often, but not always, young – who tell you the reason their 13,000 word ‘thought provocation’ doesn’t have any discernible plot, characters, dialogue, or internal logic is because they want to be ‘transgressive.’ That’s fine, but if you don’t know why most conventional writing keeps to those conventions, you might find some difficulty getting anyone to publish it. Or indeed read it. James Joyce published Dubliners, a collection of some of the best conventional short stories ever, before he moved on to Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. Just saying.

A blank page is not a piece of writing – get something down. Anything.

Ah,  the tyranny of the blank page! You’ve got a great idea, but you just don’t know where to dive into it! Feel the fear and do it anyway, prepared to find that the first paragraph (or verse, or stanza) is a bit random. In fact, the second one might not be so good either. But once you’re off and running, things will start to flow.

Unless they don’t of course. In which case, don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead:

Find your own inspiration points.

You might find you operate best sat at the kitchen table with the dishwasher and washing machine on, the kids running round you yelling at each other, the telly blaring, and your eldest scraping away on her violin upstairs. That really might work for you. If it doesn’t, what does? Do you write best in peace and quiet? Are you a lark or a night owl, when it comes to getting things done? Do you need an hour or so to really get going, or do you work better in short bursts?

Remember, too, different times might work for different writing tasks. First thing in the morning or last thing at night, that screen door between your right hemisphere and the snake-infested jungle of your subconscious is likely to be most ajar. Words, ideas, scenes, music might come tumbling in. Later on, when the bossy, critical left hemisphere takes over, you might find editing easier.

My point is, it’ll be different for everyone, and you have to plan and make time for an effective writing schedule if you’re serious about this. Have a notebook by your bed. Lock the kids in the living room. If, like me, you find a lot of ideas come when you’re on holiday, explain to your ever-patient spouse why you’re scribbling away in a notebook instead of admiring the outstanding rugged beauty of the Peak District. Or whatever.

Nothing’s new under the sun, but at least try to make it look that way.

In 1965, in the sleeve notes of Bringing It All Back Home, Bob Dylan wrote: ‘the Great books’ve been written, The Great sayings have all been said…’ Leaving aside the one or two memorable lyrics your man himself has squeezed out since then, just consider how big a library you’d need just to encompass all the stuff written down since then.

So, chances are, a similar set of words might have been used in a similar combination before. Your plot might be a bit like another thing some guy wrote that time. You might even be consciously referencing some past great work, setting RLS’s Treasure Island down in a post-singularity future, to give a random example.

None of that gives you the excuse to be lazy. Telling description can bring a passage to life. ‘The sky was blue:’ boring. ‘The sky had the quality of an ugly bruise:’ possibly; maybe a bit too much? What quality do bruises have? ‘The sky was like a two day old bruise:’ maybe? I had no idea I was going to write that when I started the paragraph. I suspect it’s a darling I might otherwise murder (see below).

My point is, there are about a million other ways to describe a sky. Why not try to be original? Remember, the trick is to keep going. You can always come back to it later. Just try not to sound like everyone else. Moon has been rhymed with June so many times in songs, it’s become a cliche. Not so much baboon.

Know your vocabulary.

Writing in English, you’re using the ultimate mongrel tongue. Used initially by a few thousand Friesians (that’s the people, not the cows) Anglo-Saxon got lucky when some of them sailed to England, rubbed along with their Celtic and Norse neighbours, and then got stamped all over by their French-speaking Norman conquerors and Latin-literate priests. Later, it got exported around the world and had a promiscuous old time with just about every other language it met. If you’re interested in its origins, I thoroughly recommend Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English, which sets all of that out in much more lucid detail.

The key thing to bear in mind, for me though, is that English has, at the core of its DNA, twin strands of Latin and Anglo-Saxon. The Anglo-Saxons gave us ‘sheep,’ ‘cow,’ and ‘pig.’ The Normans, who sat in the castle and got to eat all of these, gave us ‘mutton,’ (mouton) ‘beef,’ (boeuf) and ‘pork’ (porc). More than that, the priests – who, remember, were also the first lawyers, through the canon court system – have left a legacy of Latin derived vocabulary as our language of power, authority and intellectual weight. In other words, our big words.

So ‘power,’ ‘authority,’ ‘intellectual’ – all Latin-derived. More basic concepts like ‘big,’ or even ‘words,’ Anglo-Saxon. If you want to sound all fancy and intellectual, you instinctively reach for the Latin DNA strand in your sentences – and the minute you do, something dies in terms of readability and emotional punch.

Bragg talks about Churchill’s famous speech to the House of Commons on 4th June, 1940. France was about to give up; the British Expeditionary Force had just escaped from Dunkirk; and Churchill, who had only taken over as Prime Minister on 10th May, had to ready the House (and the British public) for a long struggle against a strong enemy.

The peroration – a fancy Latin word for the end of the speech – is actually littered with Latin-based words. However, the money shot, as it were, was this passage:

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…’

Churchill, who was a writer before he was a politician, knew what he was doing. The only word that isn’t of Anglo-Saxon origin in the passage, is surrender. Which is French.

No matter what kind of writing you’re undertaking, always, always think about a shorter word to describe the same thing as the one you’ve just written. It’s usually be Anglo-Saxon in origin, and, importantly, it’ll usually be the word we learned first as a child. Ipso facto, as we non-canonical lawyers say, easier to understand, and speaking to us more directly.

Notice, by the way, how I Anglo-Saxonised the paragraph beginning ‘Bragg talks about…’? No? Ach, I’m wasted here.

Write with economy – tighten everything!

So, we all know the basics, don’t we? Show don’t tell. Use fewer adjectives than you think you need, and almost no adverbs. Thing is, in our enthusiasm to get to the end of the page, we often forget, no matter how experienced we are as writers. There’s always a tighter, more focused form of words, with less subclauses, pauses and repetitions than you had in there first time around. And second time around. Trust me. That goes for poetry too. Do you really need that ‘the’? Does the last line add anything? What about the first sentence? Necessary or throat clearing?

See also below: murdering darlings and spending time apart.

Murder your darlings. Really.

I’m still kind of infatuated with that phrase I came up earlier, about the sky being like a two day old bruise. It’s original, right? At least, I think so – it may be someone else has said something similar before! The very fact I like it, though, makes me suspicious. Sometimes you’ll get to the end of a piece of written work, and think it contains some of the best writing ever. And you might be right.

But really? The fact you’ve told yourself that it contains ‘some of’ your best work’ kind of suggests to me it’s maybe a teeny bit uneven? Or take that first line again. You had it in your head long before you wrote the rest of the song/poem/short story/13,000 word thought provocation. But now you’ve written the rest, is it actually the best first line for all the rest? The knife glitters in your hand. Do you have the strength to plunge it in?

There’s a pretty good article about how to despatch your darlings I found after about thirty seconds’ searching. I’m sure there are others, but this one makes some telling points.

Absence makes the eye more jaundiced. You and your work need time apart.

Remember the old advice about putting your masterwork away in a drawer for six months? Ever do it? Me neither. However, it’s amazing what faults you can find in what you thought was perfect. Wait till the morning, when the passion of the night before has faded (yes, I’m still talking about writing here). Better still, give it a couple of days. Your poem’s texted you a couple of times, wanting to meet up – do you still feel as keen?

You arrange a coffee with your poem. It’s still attractive, there are certainly some great lines in there, but … you’re just not so sure any more. It can change, it tells you. It can be anything you want it to be. Sure, it could do with losing some verbiage. It’ll be your perfect one (I’m going to stop this analogy now, before it gets any more creepy).

Just how much you can keep changing your work, of course, might depend on how quickly you get it published. There’s certainly a few stories of mine could do with a bit of tough love even now, despite being out there somewhere. Read the interviews I’ve done with songwriters, elsewhere on this blog – most of them keep editing their work with every other performance.

Of course, I’m going to break this rule now for this piece, because I’m wanting to put it up on the blog tonight. A successful fantasy novelist of my acquaintance told me once he had to do an all-nighter on one of his novels, finishing the last 10,000 words before the deadline in a single go, with no time to revise it. Terrifying, huh?

To be fair, WordPress tells me I’ve revised this piece seven times. I’ve built it up over a number of days. It’s also fair to say, though, that I’m blinder to the faults of the last section (from writing with economy onwards) than of the bit before that. Which is a way of saying, build in time for a trial separation before any make or break moment in your relationship.

And yes, I’m still talking about you and your writing. I don’t do a heartbreak column.

Great work rarely happens in a vacuum.

If you look back at almost any major artist, you’ll find he or she was part of a wider movement at the time. Not always, but almost always. Often the wider movement happened somewhere romantic like the Left Bank of the Seine. Or Shoreditch.

In music and songwriting, the community became a virtual community when radio technology advanced in the Fifties and musicians in the States, especially, started to hear what other parts of the country were producing. Dylan? Ever heard of Greenwich Village? Later, of course, he was able to hang out with other Sixties luminaries like the Beatles and the Byrds because jet travel became the norm.

Which is a long winded way of saying the starving artist in the garret usually knew a couple of guys two garrets down, and even if they weren’t doing the same thing exactly, it was close enough for jazz. If there’s a local writers’ group that works for you, join it. Join one online. Read books about writing till they come out your ears, but don’t ever pass up the chance to share ideas and collaborate with others. Editors don’t have a lot of time to edit these days. A critical friend can be invaluable. Even if you don’t agree with everything they say, listen to your gut when they’re saying it. Has the tiniest sliver of doubt crept in about your 13,000 word thought provocation? They could have a point, you know.








Anything below this point is advertising from wibble from WordPress. Which is okay, I guess, since I get to ramble on above this point for nothing.


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