We love writing, but sheesh, it can be hard sometimes. Whether you’re writing your first story or your 50th, whether you’re 10 or 100, we all get stuck now and then. So we thought we’d ask a few of our favourite writers for some advice about the writing game.
LISA HOLZL – Arts and Writing
Approach writing like you’re making a collage. Write ideas or words down on small pieces of paper or post-it notes. Try dropping them to see how they land or put them on a table and close your eyes. Pick them up one by one, put them in a line and see what it says. You can find out more about Lisa and her book at this website.
AMBELIN KWAYMULLINA – Aspire to Greatness
Aim to be as good, or better, than the best writing you’ve ever read. None of us wants to be just okay at something we really love, do we? We want to be great. So aim to be great. If you’re anything like me you’ll feel you never quite get there, but what matters is that you try.
Edit, edit, edit.
You’ve got to go back over your work. A LOT. No one writes something perfect the first time round. For example, here is the first draft of a sentence from my book, The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf:
‘Fell back world dissolved intoa series of impressions.’
Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? Here’s how it ended up in the finished novel, after I’d edited it:
‘I slid to the floor, the world dissolving into a series of fragmented images.’
Show, don’t tell
Try to show your reader what is happening or what things look like, rather than telling them in a long, boring description. For example, here is a description of a wolf that’s a bit dull: ‘The wolf was big and grey, with pale yellow eyes.” It’s usually better if you can put description like this into the action of a book, maybe something like this: “The huge grey wolf leapt from the shadows, his pale eyes gleaming in the moonlight as he charged towards me.”
NATHAN LUFF – Setting the Scene
Don’t start your story by giving us a heap of information about the characters or the setting. Start your story right when something exciting or unusual happens – if in doubt, add a fire-breathing monkey. Once I’m hooked, you can feed me the other descriptive information I need in small doses. To find out more from Nathan visit his wesbite.
MARKUS ZUSAK – Writer’s Block
I’m either perfectly qualified for this, or the least qualified person you can imagine: my new book is running four years late. That said, if nothing else, I can offer a cautionary tale about how not to deal with writer’s block. Here are five small thoughts.
First: Surfing is not a solution.
When you go surfing, people say that the motion, water and relaxation will help you work things out with the book. It doesn’t. Strangely enough, 99% of the time, it’s working on the book that helps with working things out with the book. Surfing more only means you get better at surfing, and thinking more about surfing. And checking Coastalwatch. And the tides. Also, when you get home from the beach, you’re often physically tired – even sleepy – which leads to point #2.
Second: Writer’s Block isn’t cured by sleep.
Sleeping really doesn’t help. Oh yes, there’s always that lure – the idea that everything will be all worked out in your head when you wake up. The novel will have ironed itself out in your sleep…but oh no, it doesn’t. What happens is this:
You wake up.
You feel terrible.
The book is still a mess.
And now you feel guilty for sleeping when you should have been working.
Sleep is a disaster.
Thirdly: The Lawnmower is not your friend.
Your backyard doesn’t care about your book, or reward you for time spent in the garden when you should have been working. Actually, the garden loathes you for this. It thinks you’re pathetic. It wishes it could spit on your shovel to voice its disgust.
Then again, you don’t need its disgust.
You have enough of your own.
Fourth: Friends are the enemy.
Your friends can’t help you.
Not only do they have no idea what you’re trying to do, they really don’t care. They don’t. Okay, they do, but in comparison to the love and hatred you feel for the project, they don’t come close to caring even a hundredth of the amount you do yourself. After all, it’s your book. It’s your problem. No-one else’s.
Fifthly: Fifthly, at first glance, looks a lot like filthy.
Here, I contradict myself.
This point isn’t about what not to do, as promised above, and there’s good reason for that, and the reason is this:
Even in the darkest hour of the darkest day, sometimes you have a moment in which you say, I quite like that sentence, or I like that thought. For me, right now, perhaps in my own juvenile way, I have enjoyed using the word ‘fifthly’ and its possibilities. I’ve remembered why I write in the first place; it’s loving words and what they can do. And that’s my own reminder of what to do with writer’s block: remembering why you write. That, if nothing else is the key to open the door again. Going back in is the hard part. But you have to.
GARTH NIX – Some advice about writing.
There are many, many different ways to write stories and books. Often you will see advice from famous authors saying “this is the way to write” or “don’t do these things”. But this advice might or might not work for you.
You need to experiment with different methods of working, and with different ways to overcome typical writing problems. Read the advice, think about it, and try it out. If it works, that’s great. But don’t get dispirited if someone’s particular technique, method or writing philosophy doesn’t work for you.
The only advice which I do think always holds is that to write successfully you need to actually sit down and do it. Though you could stand up and write, of course. Or walk around the room and dictate to your computer’s voice recognition software. Or even hang upside down from monkey bars and write longhand in a notebook…
There is no “One True Path” to follow to write a story or book. To find your writing path, you need to spend some time exploring where it goes, and how you will travel along it.
ANDY GRIFFITHS – Writing Practice
If you wanted to be a really good tennis player, would you expect to get better without practising? If you wanted to be a really good football player, would you just turn up to the match each week and expect to play your best without attending training sessions during the week? And if you didn’t practise or attend training, would you even expect your tennis/football coach to give you a game?
Unless you’re completely delusional I expect your answer to all of these questions would probably be no. And yet many people sit down to write a story—an activity easily as challenging as tennis, football or any other sport you care to name—without doing any practice whatsoever.
If you want to get better at writing there’s nothing better you can do than pick up a pen and start practising writing.
As often as possible.
You can’t do too much writing practice.
If you’re writing quickly you don’t have time to worry about whether what you’re writing is embarrassing, silly or has the potential to make you look dumb. You can worry about that later during the editing process. The point of writing practice is to train yourself to get it all down on paper first and not to censor yourself before you’ve even written a word.
It doesn’t really matter what you start writing about. Just write quickly without stopping and after a few minutes the words will start coming. Your job is just to keep the pen moving—let the writing go where it wants to go. Don’t judge or censor it—just keep the pen moving.
You can simply start by describing the place where you happen to be. Describe the people. You might write about a time you were nasty to a friend, the time you kicked a goal—or even better, the time you didn’t kick a goal—the time you stole something, a time when you were really scared, the dumbest thing you’ve ever done, the time you climbed a tree and couldn’t get back down.
You might like to simply start with ‘I remember …’ and keep writing.
I began my own writing practice many years ago by getting a cheap exercise book and writing down every significant memory I could think of. I gave each one a heading and wrote down as much detail as I could remember. Invariably this would lead me to recall other memories that I’d long forgotten. So I’d make a list of these and use it for the next day’s writing practice. The next day as I’d attempt to write all of these memories down I’d discover even more new memories, and so on and so on and so on.
In the beginning try to do it for five minutes at a time. Set a countdown timer so that you’re not distracted by trying to find out how much time you have left. Turn the computer off. Turn your phone off.
At first writing for five minutes non-stop might seem hard, but if you let yourself sink into it you’ll soon find that you don’t want to stop writing after five minutes and that you can write for ten minutes.
The more you write the more you’ll find to write about and the stronger your concentration will become and the longer you’ll be able to write until you’ll find yourself doing an hour or two of writing a day.
This is good! You are now on the path to becoming a real writer and not just somebody who tries to write a story every now and then. You’ll generate huge amounts of ideas for stories along the way—and there’ll be plenty of time to develop them more fully later—but when you’re doing writing practice the main point is to keep the pen moving. You’re just practising it for the sake of practise.
One of the most important benefits of writing practice, however, is that the more you write the more you’ll begin to discover your own unique writing voice—the voice that sounds like you and nobody else. Although much of what you write might not seem that great or special, every now and then you’ll write something that really stands out—something worth expanding on.
Although I started out with the intention to be a ‘serious’ writer, early on in my writing practice I found myself continually writing about various practical jokes I’d played on people and that other people had played on me.
I remembered how much my friends and I loved yelling, ‘Just Tricking!’ every time we played some dumb joke on each other.
After a while I decided to expand on this by using my writing practice time to write down instructions for how to play various practical jokes, and what to do when they go wrong. I ended up writing two hundred of these practical joke instructions.
Then it occurred to me that it might be fun to write about a character who plays practical jokes that always backfire. These stories eventually grew into the book, Just Tricking! and twenty years later I’m still writing books with ‘Just …’ in the title. It seems obvious in retrospect, but it didn’t seem that obvious to me at the time and I wouldn’t have found any of it without writing practice.
So, what are you waiting for? Grab a pen, a cheap exercise book, a countdown timer and start your writing practice today!
More info and resources at www.andygriffiths.com.au
PETER FITZSIMONS – Editing
The best advice I ever came across on writing is this: “The art of writing, is the art of rewriting.” That is, whatever you write can always be vastly improved by reworking it, refining it, revamping it. Ever and always, when you finish something you have written and immediately re-read it with the “warm eyes” of one who knows exactly what they mean to say – because they wrote it! – it will read very well. But now, with “cold eyes” – say the next morning or the next week – if they read it one more time, they will see all kinds of ways in which to improve it. Good luck!