Writing Advice from Glen Kohler
Let’s start with the most important piece of advice that you will ever be given as a writer: Good writing depends on practice. Like any other hobby, the more practised and conditioned you are, the better you perform. At one point we have all had to deal with that terrifying confrontation with the blank page. We have all had to find a voice to carry our thoughts, feelings and ideas with flair and eloquence. The blank page taunts us. What if it comes out wrong? What if what we write can be construed differently than we intended it to be? What if our writing comes across as childish or naive? What if we can’t actually write? Suddenly we are remembering all the great works of literature we have read. We have lots of ideas and little confidence in our own ability to express them. What is the point? Everything has already been written before. It has already been said. The pages and pages of words, the characters, the settings, the ideas that drove us to write begin to shrivel up and wither away. The whole project seems pointless, impossible and the once burning desire to write becomes little more than a dimly glowing wish.
The only way to overcome this problem is to write. We are all familiar with the concept of an athlete hitting the wall. The blank page is a our wall. To break through it, you must write. Get some material down on paper, however rough and ready. Start with notes, a few fragmented paragraphs, half sentences, push through the stuttering and you will find yourself writing whole sentences, paragraphs and pages. More often that not, the first hurdle that a writer has to overcome is their own self-consciousness about the process of writing. This hurdle can take a few pages to clear. Think of it like an old car that hasn’t been run for a while. Initially the journey will be start-stop and the car will shudder and shake under the strain but eventually it will get itself into a routine. A little oil and a bit of care will ease the joints and the repeated action of the crankshaft will push the pistons and make them slide a little easier with each rotation. All writers need to be prepared for this. One of the worst things you can do is convince yourself that you will write a masterpiece on your first try. You are engaging with something unfamiliar and, take it from me, you won’t be winning any prizes for your first efforts.
If you are serious about being a writer then you will need to learn your craft. It may seem pointless but you should start out with simple things. I recommend you try something you are familiar with, like the face of someone you are fond of and see on a regular basis, the last phone conversation you had, the discussion you had over a few drinks, your favourite television show, band or song. Give yourself a subject and write about it. Try not to stop or correct yourself. Just write for five minutes on that subject. Just generate a few pages, a few hundred words.
Then, most importantly, read it back to yourself.
This is possibly the hardest part of starting out as a writer. The first time that you read your own work is, in many ways, like the first time that you hear your voice on a recording.
Do I really sound like that? Oh, I didn’t know.
You might be embarrassed. You might be disappointed. It is important that you don’t stop or allow this initial encounter with yourself to put you off. This is a rite of passage for any writer. I was once told that good vocal recording, either speaking or singing, requires you to listen to your voice over and over so that you can learn to control and improve your pitch and delivery. The same is true of writing, so to speak. You need to learn to read through your writing. You need to be able to identify those sentences that can be improved, expanded on or even cut. This is how you will develop a sense of your own fictional style. You will only have the confidence to write a story when you have a sense of your own voice. It is only through writing that you will find that voice.
Your voice should be similar to the way you speak, a little more structured and polished perhaps, and it is as unique to you as your fingerprints. Voice can be interpreted as perspective or personality. It is not to be mistaken with stylistic effect which is a skill you can develop. Something that you wrote a few years ago should still sound like you now because the personality of the work, your personality, is unlikely to have changed dramatically over that time. It can be difficult to appreciate this without input from other writers which is why creative writing groups can be very useful for new writers. If there isn’t a group near you, or you don’t feel ready to take that step, consider your bookshelf or those in your local library. Every one of those books has a unique voice. They are all clamouring for your attention. They have their own accent, cadence, interests and points of reference. Don’t try to emulate those voices, you need to develop your own language and find your own stories. That is how you find your own fictional voice.
Once you’ve put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, you should try to write every day. Set yourself an achievable target. Don’t rush into that novel unless you are sure you can finish it. If you can’t think of anything to write then try choosing a concrete subject. Describe your writing workspace, the view from the window, a photograph that grabs your attention or a fictional retelling of a newspaper story. When you are doing this try to look for the important details and don’t overuse adjectives – when you are qualifying a noun make sure that your writing is benefiting from its use. If you find that you are overusing words then use a thesaurus or dictionary. Words are to writers as paints are to painters. You need to have words at your fingertips. This means you should make time to read from as many different sources as possible. Read fiction and non-fiction, novels, poetry, biographies, instructional manuals, magazines. If you come across a word that you don’t know then put it in a notebook and use it in your next piece of writing.
Notebooks are a key component of writing. If you don’t have a mobile phone or tablet then buy yourself a good quality notebook and a few good quality pens. Once you have somewhere to put your thoughts and ideas, go and sit in a park, a library, a coffee-shop, a cafe, a museum and write for an hour or two. If you can’t think of anything to write then use your surroundings as inspiration.
Remember that good writing is about practice and discipline. You want to be prepared, supple and articulate, and this will only happen if you get yourself into a pattern of behaviour that supports your writing. We have all had days when we have found it hard to pick up a pen or turn on the computer and these are the days that will matter most. If you have to trick yourself into writing then do it. I know writers who like to finish their work mid-sentence or mid-paragraph to help them get back into the train of thought when they return. Myself, I like to read the last two paragraphs of yesterday’s work before I start my daily writing. Writing creatively requires that you develop these little habits and behavioural patterns. As new writers, it is often easy to become obsessed with understanding how other people write, as if their behavioural patterns may shed some light on how to do it ourselves. These habits are idiosyncratic and may not work for you. Try them, by all means, but don’t become so fixated on becoming a writer that you forget to do any writing.
One final piece of advice, go easy on yourself. Don’t expect to write a whole novel in one sitting on your first try. If you get stuck in the middle of a piece of work, be prepared to set it aside and come back to it later. Make notes on your story, your characters or your setting. Though it may feel like treading water, they can be an essential step in the process of developing a sense of what you want to say. You can never be certain what will shake your story free and the added layers of character and setting should help make your narrative more immersive and convincing.
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