This fiction writer’s path: five things learned along the way

 

 

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1) Swimming not drowning: there will be (many) false starts

I associate intending to be a writer with learning to swim. I was ten, in my last year of primary school, when I told Mr. Williams, my very Welsh head teacher, that I meant to be a writer. I said it with great certainty, and he listened in all seriousness. He was someone I trusted implicitly. He was also the person who taught me to swim, and to me, decades later, the way he did it still seems a little miracle.

There were several non-swimmers in the senior class and one day Mr. Williams decided to remedy this life-threatening deficiency. Once a week for several weeks he drove us to the swimming pool in the school minibus. He made no concession to the occasion and still wore his smart grey headmasterly suit. Looking back, he probably did this on purpose. It showed he meant business and we were not there to play. The suit’s material had a soft metallic sheen and probably went by the name of Tricel. It somehow had a part to play.

After a couple of trips to the pool I had fully grasped the mechanics of swimming, but was unwilling to give up my rubber ring. Mr. Williams, however, was determined. He told me to walk twenty paces into the pool’s shallow end. He told me to take off the rubber ring. Then standing at the pool’s edge, he squatted down so low that his trousers strained across his knees and shone like silver. His eyes levelled with mine as I stood there – in the water – shivering – without my protecting ring. He told me to swim but I kept standing and staring at his knees, feeling silly and helpless. Then suddenly out flew his arms in a welcoming embrace. ‘Come on,’ he cried. ‘Swim to me. YOU.CAN.DO.IT.’ And such was his look of unconditional expectation that I took to the water and swam.

And the point of this story? Becoming a writer/maker/artist means learning to  grow and nurture your inner Mr. Williams. Along the creative path there may be few external expressions of encouragement. But without the deep-down core of self-belief you will not have the resilience to stay the course, bear the disappointments, handle the rejection slips, or to toil and toil alone for the days, months and years it will take to learn your craft. All of which is not to discourage, but to say that you really have to want to do this.

2) Having formed your intention, do NOT wait for inspiration to strike: you can wait till the crack of doom

Of course learning to swim is not the same as being a good swimmer who can swim fifty lengths with ease and feel quite at home in the water. To become a skilled artisan of any kind, there is the long haul of apprenticeship, probably one that will never end. I, though, and like many would-be writers, went for years, carrying in my head the apparently foregone conclusion that one day inspiration would strike and I would begin to write my own stories instead of reading other people’s.

It rarely, if ever happens this way. Besides which, inspiration is only the starting point, the ‘ah-ha’ moment when your attention fixes on an overheard conversation, or collides with a character on a bus, or gets hooked on some bizarre news event that starts you asking the kind of questions that kick off the story-making process. Mostly, though, you need to seek it out. Because the fact is, even if you are not actually writing, you must be doing the internal work, mentally exploring the stories that you might one day tell, gathering material, keeping watch, feeding that tiny flame of an inkling that says ‘I do have a story to tell’. ‘I do have something important to say.’

Inspiration, then, does not arrive ‘out of blue’ or occur in a vacuum; it needs one, two or several things to rub together. You could say it’s a bit like the slow-going process of rubbing dry sticks together, and trialling likely bits of kindling to get a fire started. In that initial whoosh of a blaze taking hold all is very exciting, but it is only the start. Now the hard work really begins – keeping the fire going, finding suitable material that will burn well – fast or slowly or long enough to cook your dinner. In other words, flash-in-the-pan, quick-fire notions (inspiration) are the easy part. Thereafter comes the sourcing of materials, planning, construction and general project management. You can only truly learn how to do this by doing it. So how to begin?

3) Do not fall into the trap of thinking that reading other writers will drown out your own small voice before you even start: read, read, read…

As an adult, my writing work was largely academic: dissertations, reports, preparing educational materials in various museums. Somewhere along the line I stopped reading fiction; I feared that to do so would distract me from finding my own inspiration, my own voice, my own stories. I have met other beginner writers who said they did the same thing, and especially when it came to books that they thought might ‘compete’ with their own ideas. Yet not to read widely is another form of writer’s self-sabotage. Writers need to read anything and everything they can, and across all genres, and they need to read with attention and discernment. For instance, you can learn a huge amount about story construction by studying an infant’s picture book that contains only around 30 words (Pat Hutchins Rosie’s Walk).

In fact some of the best-crafted storytelling on the planet is for young people – and here I’m thinking of writers such as Richard Peck, Sharon Creech, Robert Cormier, Kate di Camillo, Geraldine McCaughrean, Philip Pullman, Jennifer Donnelly, David Almond. Reading good books with all senses attuned is akin to having mental conversations with other writers; far from swamping your own style/voice/subject matter, listening carefully to what they say and how they say it can help release your very own form of creative expression. This is not about copying ; it is about finding your own truthful response to other writers’ work. Writing a book or a story or a poem is not a contest with anyone else. It is your book, story, poem. Only you can write it. And if in doubt, think ‘Mr. Williams’. At some point you have to get in there and swim.

But of course, having joined the fray, then comes the endurance testing and training, the honing of skills, and goal setting.

4) Being a good writer is not the same as being a good storyteller

Some people are natural storytellers, and especially so when they come from families or cultures where oral storytelling is still practised. Even so, and no matter how you treat them later, it helps to learn the storytelling basics: the beginnings, middles and ends of a story, their possibilities, the ways to build tension and interest, how to manage revelation, crisis and resolution, what it takes to create believable worlds (real-life or science fiction), to breathe life into characters who will then ‘speak’ to readers, to make effective and affective use of language.

All these skills can be learned to some extent by much well-directed reading, including studying a few how-to-write books on the way. But taking out a subscription to a good creative writing magazine or attending a class are the more interactive and less lonely options. The disciplines of entering magazine contests or doing class exercises – reading others’ work with interest rather than envy, writing to deadlines, word counts and prescribed themes are all worth cultivating. They all build the kind of writing muscles you need to best deliver ‘the what’ of the creative process – the  story.

5) Writing fiction does not mean ‘making things up’; it is all about building convincing worlds.

This is something that is easily misunderstood, and it took me some time to grasp explicitly. Fiction reveals imagined worlds and their inhabitants in ways that are truthful in. Integrity and authenticity are key objectives. The setting may be a medieval Russian monastery, a London secondary school, or a planet with two suns, but it must ring true for the reader. Its special characteristics will add depth and texture to the narrative, but above all, they will be dynamic – informing, shaping, adding drama to the characters’ behaviour/situation/dilemmas. This requires considerable research and construction work by the writer, but with the caveat that, at the end of the process, only the writer ever needs to know all this stuff. The reader wants only the most telling details, the ones that, like literary hyperlinks, will take them straight into that special place and engage them wholeheartedly with the characters’ lives. (A fine example of this is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall where she uses historical, social and political contexts to reveal the life and times of Thomas Cromwell.)

To achieve this level of ‘reality’ requires the writer to have strong reasons for telling a particular story. As I’ve said, creating a story from start to finish requires drive and stamina. Passion, pain, compassion and anger are great spurs, but their energy needs to be channelled judiciously. (No ranting or heavy-handed moralizing required and the writer’s self should keep well out of the way). The research part of the project may also demand a whole new reading schedule (encyclopaedias, atlases, internet content, telephone directories, newspapers etc) and, where possible, physically immersing yourself in the places where the story is set.

This is all about knowing your territory as an expert guide would know it. Only then can the alchemy begin. Or perhaps shape-shifting is a better analogy. Because this is one of the most important of all the things I have come to learn from the practise of being a writer: the writing must come from the inside out; writers must inhabit their character’s minds, shoes and underpants; whatever it takes to get inside their skin. For me, this usually means starting with the feet rather than the knickers department. When I wrote about a street girl called Jessicah, she was conjured by a ‘feeling’ in the balls of my feet as she tramped in thin-soled shoes through the African highlands. Years later I can still summon that particular sensation and know it is Jessicah, and start seeing the world again through her eyes. All of which is very strange when you think about it, and probably the reasons why most writers keep writing. For the final truth is that even well-published writers struggle to make a living from book sales alone. Writing then, first and foremost and anyway, has to be done for the love of the thing.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

 

Tish Farrell writes short fiction to entice unkeen teen readers to read in the Shades series at Ransom Publishing. She also writes for Heinemann Junior African Writers, Zimbabwe Publishing House and Phoenix Publishers East Africa. Her short story Flight came third in last year’s International Bath Short Story Award.

 

Writerly Reflections

57 thoughts on “This fiction writer’s path: five things learned along the way

  1. Lots of good advice, Tish. As regards characterisation, it reminds me of something Beryl Reid the actress and comedienne said. When getting into character, she always started with the shoes.

      1. Absolutely. 🙂 This past weekend was the first sunny and warm weekend in months. It is wonderful to see the light falling on trees, the pavement, the buildings, the windows, people. How about you?

      2. Yes indeed. We’ve had some sun for three days now. It’s even warm. Wayhay. I’m off in a minute to my allotment to sow some parsnip seeds. I think there must be something in the soil up there: it’s been making me very excited!

    1. Thanks for you comments, Cricketmuse. I’m never sure whether it helps others or not, spouting about one’s own stumbling blocks. I suppose I was responding to the mass media that tend to give the impression that being a writer is some sort of celebrity activity wherein you gather attention and large sums of money by putting out books at regular marketing intervals.

  2. This post has great wisdom & advice! I almost waited until the crack of doom before I tried my hand at fiction – just because I waited for the great inspiration to hit me 🙂 Thanks for sharing your learning, it’s very valuable for “green hats” like me!

  3. Finally, a list that makes complete sense and does not just order you around! Thank you for compiling such a vivid list. Its time I woke up the Mr.Williams in me! 🙂
    Love your blog. Will definitely peep in often!
    Cheers,
    Sumithra.

    1. I’m glad you found the post useful. One never does know when one starts writing this kind of thing. I just felt that writing from where I had been/where I am, might strike some fruitful chords.

  4. Bonjour Trish

    This rings true to the wannabe writer trying to break out of my photographers dark room. I am no raconteur and send people fast asleep within seconds of starting my witty story or amusing anecdote. However with the written word l seem to be able to weave enough interest for the reader to actually, occasionally, turn to Page 2. Your words are often magical and conjure the magic of the people and places you write about – a rare gift indeed – thank you for sharing a few of your secrets with us, l for one, need all the help l can get.

    Regards

    Dan

    1. Thank you for your very kind words, Dan. All I can say about writing when it comes down to it, is keep doing it. It is hard work. Words can be such lumpy things, and making pictures can often seem more satisfying. All the best on all creative fronts.

  5. Great points, Tish! Thank you for sharing your insights #4 Most people probably think a good writer is the same as being a good storyteller…

  6. Once I wanted to be a writer…but found that poetry suited me best. So many useful things put together here…Now my daughter is a writer instead. I believe many aspire to be but few have the rreal talent. I did not.

  7. I popped back for a second read of this – love motivational pieces on writing – and realised I had not left a comment. I really thought I had, you know. Too much Jo’berg sun!

    I always find writing the initial draft the ”easy” part. It is the endless hours spent proofing, editing and proofing and ..proofing. and…
    Quite!

    1. Too much Jo-berg sun indeed. Envy, envy. I wish I was good at doing initial drafts. I just go straight for the finished thing which is a BIG mistake and leads to too much stalling and fiddling. Cheers anyway, Ark, and thanks for coming back to read AGAIN. I’m most impressed.

      1. The ideas so often arrive like a damn sleet storm that come out in a frantic deluge of writing. And then…exhaustion.
        After this, the drudge (real work) starts.

        I bookmark all the important ( and posh) posts and pop back every now and then.
        And by the way, the photo is smashing.
        Where was it taken, please? And is the shot ‘doctored’ in any way?

      2. I did manipulate the shot a little, but not too much. It’s the Linden Walk, just across the road from my house – an avenue of 150 year old lime trees, some planted by Dr William Penny Brookes, the town doctor and apothecary, who invented the modern Olympic Games in Much Wenlock in the 1850s. These modern Olympian games were held in the field beside the Linden Walk, and were quite famous in their day, with athletes coming from across the country, and a special train bringing in spectators (the GWR railway used to run Olympian specials that arrived on the other side of the Linden Walk). Baron Coubertin then came along for a few visits in the late 19th century (charged initially with picking Brookes’ brains about improving the fitness of the French army) and nicked the notion, thus eclipsing all Dr Brookes pioneering work on the benefit of physical exercise. After much lobbying, Much Wenlock did get some grudging recognition by the current Olympic Committee, hence the hideous Wenlock mascot in the last games. It’s quite a story really. Penny Brookes designed fantastic medals for the winners, though I think his wife had to foot the bill for them since she had all the loot. I think I need to do a post about this now.

      3. I love quirky bits of history, and I’ll bet you are a goldmine, Tish.

        That you were able reel off that compact history lesson is evidence of this.
        Good stuff.

  8. Mr Williams sounds amazing – you don’t get many Heads these days who get involved with the students – they seem to be all rather busy keeping on top of figures and league tables which is terribly sad. Welcome back Tish – I’ve missed your posts!

    1. Thanks, Selma. And nice of you to miss my posts. I have been posting though. A few since this one, including one on Elmenteita which might be of interest! 🙂 BTW, that Swiss chard tart recipe of yours looks delicious. Was looking at it earlier. If you go to my latest post, you’ll also see my Swiss Chard in the allotment.

      1. HI Tish – I realised after I commented that you had been posting – I must have missed them in the Reader. I will save them to enjoy later on!! I did see that you were growing Swiss Chard and thought how lovely!! What you do with the comfrey is quite something!

  9. No. 2 strikes me (pun intended). Momentum, synergy, the more you do most anything, the more and better you do it – just as the less we do, the less we do. Thoughtful post. =)

    1. Thank you for your comments, Holistic Wayfarer. It’s interesting how many writers have ideas, and then find a million ways to avoid putting them into practice. Taking action in the first place seems to be the biggest step of all.

  10. Thank you so much for this post, I don’t know how I missed out this one earlier.

    The points you have mentioned here from your experiences are really going to help me a lot.

    I am at such a juncture in y career that I need some inspiration to move forward and this post is surely going to help me.

    Thanks a gain, Tish 🙂

    1. You are more than welcome, Sreejith. It is not an easy path being a writer/artist: you can exhaust yourself with all the trying and be distracted by all the media hype that surrounds best selling writers. I have found that asking oneself questions out loud about whatever is stuck can often help produce useful answers. Whereas mulling things round in your head for years does not. Good luck on your path.

  11. You understand the magic held in well written/ illustrated children’s book. I have quite a collection of them, too. (Rosie is a good one)
    Somewhere in every writer’s life there must be one person who looks them in the eyes and says “You can do it” – then the writer must hold that memory and apply it frequently.
    Nice post. Solid advice.

  12. that photo is soothing and beautiful!

    you’ll smile to know that i loaded the string of posts on your mainpage and look forward to reading the queue when i get home! there’s so much to enjoy, but the only negative part is that i won’t be online to give instant comments!

    thanks for sharing all that you do and for taking time to support others as well!

    lisa/z

  13. Fascinating stuff, Tish. I’m glad I took the trouble to delve back a little. You must currently be engrossed with research/promotion and following your craft. 🙂
    A part of me yearns to be a writer but I would have started long since, wouldn’t I? I’m not an ideas person, just one who loves to play with words.

    1. Never too late to start, Jo. Lots of writers don’t get going until their latter years. If you have a story to tell, and I think you have plenty, then fire away. In fact, you have the proof of your popularity on your blog. People go there for the words and the company, not only the photos. You have an engaging ‘voice’ and that counts enormously.

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