This week, some writers gathered in a coffee shop. The conversation ranged across perspective, transmedia, ultimate audience, validation, voice, and whether or not the barista was a Jedi. During a fascinating discussion about aims and inspirations, I had a moment of ooh.
As always, I participated in the conversation as if I knew what I was talking about. Then, as the clouds of steam parted, I realised I actually did. Ooh. How did that happen?
It happened because I learnt from others. Due to the steady, informal bettering of my writing comprehension, I don’t even realise how much I’ve learnt. So I went back through critiques of my work, notes on workshops, advice I’ve adopted and all those Post-It Notes of the Mind, which gradually assimilated into know-how. And I asked the other Triskelites to do the same.
Here we collate a selection of precious personal nuggets and Triskele treasures to share with you. It reassures us of how far we’ve come, and reminds us how far there is yet to go.
Read. You’ve got to read to write. If you’re a writer who claims not to be an avid reader, then I’ve got a very special word for you, and it’s not a good out loud one. Dan Abnett
What to write. If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it. – Toni Morrison
Lose inhibition. To make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, first you need a sow's ear. – David Michael Kaplan
Write. First drafts are to fill the reservoir, which I then go fishing in. – David Mitchell
Who to write for. The reader. Literature is a gift, so I write for the most intelligent, sensitive, enquiring, open-minded reader there is. – Christos Tsiolkas
Observe. Fiction is an accumulation of detail which yields meaning. Life is a series of details and is born of who you are. Get out there, get out of yourself. A cornerstone of writing is empathy. – Bret Lott
Move in. The author needs to inhabit the character rather than writing from on high. That individual’s actions in order to achieve his/her desire must make sense for that person. Many writers make the mistake of lobbing obstacles at the protagonist. Real pity is aroused by seeing the character as undeserving of suffering. – Sam North
Point of view ... like perspective in a realistic painting – it changes the size and shape, the nature and identity, of characters, objects and events in accordance with their proximity to the viewer … an audience member needs to be told whom to attend to and empathise with. – Jane Smiley
Develop your style. Style is diction; style is cadence; style is syntax; style is word choice and the spectrum of a writer’s vocabulary; style is length of sentences and the careful placement of different length sentences into a paragraph in the way a master stonemason would set stones into an unmortared wall meant to last for centuries; style is repetition and knowing when not to repeat; style is omission; style is misdirection and subliminal suggestion; style is specificity set into deliberate vagueness; style is crafty vagueness set amidst a forest of specificity; style is the motion of the mind at work; style is the pulse and heartbeat of the narrative sensibility; style is balance; style is the projective will of the writer creating a portal of access to the receptive will of the discerning reader; style is the sound our words make on paper. Style is goddamned hard. – Dan Simmons
Listen. Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Stephen King
Work your words. You are an excellent wordsmith, however, why use twenty words when two will do? When I read your writing it's like it's covered in a veil, a fine mist and it makes me want to scream. If you could erase that mist, polish those words until they shine, your writing would sparkle like a diamond. – Critique Circle
Rewrite. Ensure every scene, every line, every word earns its place. Check that every line, paragraph and chapter ends with the strongest word. – Janet Skeslien Charles
Subtext and imagery. In skilful hands it’s poetic. The small boy stealing a carved acorn from The Hundreds in The Little Stranger, the young lass with dextrous hands sewing fake pelts onto dogs in Fingersmith. The curtains and layers of disguise in Tipping the Velvet. The work of Sarah Waters
Use the reader. This may be the first book you’ve written, but it’s unlikely it’s the first book your reader has ever read. Use your reader as a resource. Use their expectations – meet them or subvert them. Use their imaginations by describing sensory, sensual experiences. Patricia Duncker
When to stop. Every work of art is a solution to a problem. How to say a thing. A work of art is never finished. It’s just abandoned. John Banville.
Distil your story. Story elements are character, situation, objective, opponent, disaster. Write the story question: TWO sentences – one statement which establishes character, situation and objective. One closed question which nails opponent and disaster.
When humans start growing to twelve-foot high, John Storm wants to find out why. But can he defeat traitors in high places who would kill him and fake an extra-terrestrial plot? Dwight V. Swain
Know yourself. If you can write just badly enough, you can make a lot of money. Flannery O’Connor
Collaboration. More fun, less lonely but also more frustrating. This to me is like the question: are you more yourself when you’re alone or talking to a friend? You’re always yourself, but different kinds of self at different moments? I’m always working, but differently, not better or worse. Naomi Alderman
Know your market. There’s confusion between literary merit and saleability. You may be rejected because your agent/publisher can’t see how to sell your work. Define your bottom line as a writer. Do you want your book to find an audience? That’s always possible. The old models are no longer working, so it’s time to create ones. For most books, there is a readership. You just need to find it. David Applefield
Protect yourself. While writers’ platforms are essential, “protect the instrument”. Make a conscious choice to switch off and use your writing mind. You are a writer. Spend three days away from the internet. Protect yourself from that intrusiveness and the anxiety it creates. Colin Harrison, Simon & Schuster
Feel free to share your best writing tips – we’re all still learning ...