For the writers among us

A few thoughts and observations on that demon that haunts us ink-stained wretches:

“… writers don’t like the actual writing bit.”

“Being literate as a writer is good craft, is knowing your job, is knowing how to use your tools properly and not to damage the tools as you use them.”

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” Douglas Adams, (1952 – 2001)

The above three quotes are from Douglas Adams, best known as the author of the five books of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. (I know, but that’s how he described it.) And from personal experience I can say that first quote is spot on. As well, I have written many short stories that prove the third one as well.

As for the second, that would be for the reader to determine. I like to think I write well, and use, but not abuse, the English language properly. One piece of advice I was given is “write the way you speak.” In other words, if you don’t commonly use “ten dollar words” in your daily vocabulary, don’t use them in your writing, even if you can get them half-off. You’ll sound pretentious and will probably use them wrong. My writing always uses the vocabulary and speech patterns I use in everyday communication and people have told me that when they read my stuff, they can hear my voice reading it in their minds. I consider that a compliment. The only time I vary from that is if the character requires it.

There are several other “rules” of writing that make little sense to me at least, such as “write what you know”. That may be fine if you’re writing a technical piece, but doesn’t necessarily apply if you’re writing fiction. When it comes to my fiction, many of the stories start with me asking myself “what if …?” then answering the question. How bleak would the literary world be if authors only wrote what they know? We’d have been deprived of works like J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series as well as many books that are now considered classics.

“Write what you know.” I’m a blogger – sporadically recently because there are things going on that interfere with the writing as well as Douglas Adams’s first observation – and my blogs are usually about things or events that either interest me or incense me. And given the newly elected government in Ontario, I think there’s going to be a few things that incense me. In my more honest moments, I frequently describe my blogs as “rants, raves or reasoned discussions – reader’s choice.”

One thing I read somewhere (I think it was a writer I friended on MySpace years ago) was that in order to be a writer, you must write 600 words a day. What that writer didn’t add was that it must be six hundred words you want to keep. I don’t agree with that word count. You can only write so much and if only 10 words will come that are “keepers”, then that’s ten words you don’t have to worry about later.

Many people who don’t write and don’t understand writing will often joke about the process and sometimes point to the hoary opening “It was a dark and stormy night” as an example of writing. Actually, I used that twice in one story just to see if it was possible to use it without seeming trite. Here’s what I came up with:

It was a dark and stormy night – a real nasty one – the kind I’ve come to dread ever since that night. I was sitting quietly, enjoying my beer, when I noticed the guy staring at me. I ignored him as I do anyone who is rude enough to stare. Then I sensed him coming over.

After a bit of small talk, he stopped talking and just looked at me. I looked back. “What, you want to hear about the time traveller?”

“If you wouldn’t mind telling me,” he said, signalling for refills for both of us.

I thanked him, then said, “I don’t mind telling, if you don’t mind listening. All I ask is that you don’t interrupt too much, because I don’t really like talking about it.”

He agreed and, after a sip of the beer, I started.

“It was a dark and stormy night “ I stopped as I saw him glaring at me, then I said “I know, I know – any story that starts that way has to be pure bull, right? Hear me out, then you tell me.

In the introduction to this piece I wrote “I planted my tongue firmly in my cheek and here’s the result”. I know it’s hard to tell from this short intro, but what do you think? Did I pull it off? If you like, I’ll post the entire story later this week.

Okay, let’s try to get serious for a few minutes here. Writing is, by its nature, a solitary pursuit. When you’re working on a piece, be it fiction, a blog, essay or factual, most writers don’t want anyone around to derail their train of thought. I usually have classical music playing quietly while I work. In one short story, I destroyed an entire planet with “Ride of the Valkyries” in the background. Yes, some writers say that so-and-so is their muse, their inspiration, but that doesn’t mean that muse has to be present all the time. I’m fortunate in that respect as I live alone so there are minimal interruptions.

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” Very true. I can’t count the times I’ve started writing something with a plan in mind only to have the characters dictate what happens through their actions. I usually just leave it since on the occasions I’ve tried to bring the story back to my vision, it didn’t work as well.  And yes, it can happen that something you’ve written will send a story off in a new direction rather than following your roadmap. I think it works this way: You write something and your mind picks up on that and asks “what if I follow that line instead?” That is what I mean by the character dictating the ensuing actions.

It seems that many good writers are also voracious readers. Not to see what the “competition” is doing, but simply for the enjoyment of the written word. No, the excuse that it cuts into writing time won’t work. Without some kind of break or diversion, your mind goes stale and your work will suffer.

And, I think I’ve done it again – started off with one idea in mind, but ended up somewhere else. I could have probably spent much less time writing this if I’d simply said “write about what interests you; write it with passion and in cohesive sentences and the readers will come.” To finish off, a quote from Robert A Heinlein (1907 – 1988), the great science-fiction writer “You must write.”

Enjoy your day and remember to hug an artist – we need love too.

Cat.

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