Write Hard

The internet in general, and social media in particular, have brought home to me what should have been blindingly obvious all along: a lot of people are writing.

They’re writing blogs. They’re writing tweets (and  don’t knock those – there are people out there who can conjure worlds from 140 characters, something I didn’t believe was possible until I joined up.) They’re writing novels and self-publishing them. They’re organising into writers’ groups and having apocalyptic arguments about nitpicking details of genre. They’re writing criticism of books and film. They’re all writing.

I’ve always been of the opinion that you can’t teach someone to write. I think everyone can write, but I don’t think you can teach them to do it. You can teach them how to write better, you can teach them techniques and tricks of the trade and all that show-don’t-tell stuff, but that’s not teaching them to write. The actual where-the-rubber-meets-the-road, sitting-down-and-actually-doing-it stuff can’t be taught. Because all the courses you’ll see advertised omit a single very important fact.

Everyone writes differently, and there’s no right and wrong way of doing it.

I suppose it’s fairly common knowledge that I’m officially The World’s Idlest Writer. If I manage to produce three or four short stories a year, I’m doing well. I have no idea why this should be. I used to write every day, sometimes all day. Even when I was working as a journalist and spending eight hours a day in front of a monitor bashing out articles, I would still come home and do a few hours of fiction. Possibly that went by the board when things began to get frantic in my final couple of years at the paper and all I wanted to do was come home and lie down and sleep, I don’t know. And I have no idea why, for the past two years when I’ve pretty much had nothing else to do, I haven’t written more than I have.

Whatever. These days, I write when I want to, and I want to less than I used to. I’m not sure if I can even honestly call myself a writer any more. Maybe I’m just a bloke who writes sometimes.

This is not true for other writers. Obviously, for a lot of people it’s a job and it needs to be treated that way. How they approach that – writing solidly up till lunchtime and then doing other stuff in the afternoon, sitting down to write after lunch, writing only after dark and into the night – is entirely up to personal choice. But it has to be taken seriously, and it has to be done whether they want to write or not. This is actually hard graft. It’s not romantic, and for the most part it’s not very well-paid at all. It’s one person with a typewriter or a PC or a laptop, sitting on their own making stuff up, for hours on end, often with no guarantee of financial return at the end of it. Really, there is no such thing as Writing For Fun And Profit.

I suppose exercises like NaNoWriMo and its baby brother JuNoWriMo help people get into this kind of mindset. In the past I’ve considered trying NaNoWriMo, just as an exercise, but its target of producing a novel-length piece of 50,000 words in a month would be impossible for me. I just don’t write that way. Similarly with JuNoWriMo. I follow them on Twitter, and I keep seeing tweets calling on participants to take part in half-hour writing ‘sprints’ or exercises in dialogue or action. That would just make me angry, I’m afraid.

This isn’t to say that I can’t do stuff when the spirit moves or the situation demands. The most recent thing I did was a story for a shared-world anthology called World’s Collider. I was invited to submit something at a late stage because someone had dropped out and I knocked a 5,000 word story together in two days, the fastest I’ve ever written. But that was easy. I was given the characters, a background, a story outline. All I had to do was fill in the blanks. Starting cold, with virtually nothing, is a lot harder. The story has to grow, you have to tune yourself in to it, you think of cool new stuff to add and find yourself having to rewrite other stuff to accommodate it. It takes time and it really isn’t an easy ride.

But that’s my point, really. You can teach a person how to write, but you can’t teach them to write. Something like NaNoWriMo will, I suppose, help to ingrain a certain work ethic, but writing goes on first inside your head, and you can’t teach that. It’s more a way of looking at stuff than a technique, and I think it may be different for everyone. When I started my novella ‘The Push,’ I had only a couple of bits of exposition – I think mostly I only had the first couple of pages – and a vague idea of what it was about. And bit by bit, I told myself a story. And when other stuff occurred to me, I bolted it on. And if it didn’t work, I unbolted it and threw it away. It took a very long time. I don’t think you can teach that kind of thing. You can tell people about it, but it doesn’t make any sense unless they experience it, and most writing courses don’t allow that much space. Anyway, if you want to make a living out of writing it’s not really a very productive way of going about it; much better to advise people to plot and outline and then write every day, rather than just stepping out into thin air with a couple of lines of dialogue and a description of a dog and seeing what you come up with. It’s fine to do that as an exercise, but as a template for writing it doesn’t pay the bills.

So. Yes, I know, I’ve been rambling again. I do think writing courses are useful things – I did one last year and out of it came a short story which sold to an anthology, went on to be longlisted for the BSFA short fiction award, and is in the new Year’s Best Science Fiction collection, so I’d be an absolute git to disrespect writing courses. But they can only go so far. They can teach technique, but what goes on in your head when the story actually starts unreeling can’t be taught. It’s an enormously intimate thing and it sounds daft if you try to explain it to someone who doesn’t write. It has to do with the way you look at the world and the way your brain makes connections, and you can only get that with practice.

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