A week ago, I returned from the 3-day 2014 Surrey International Writer's Conference (SiWC14).
It changed my life.
Many of you have asked me for details on what I learned; a Coles Notes on writing, so to speak. There is too much to share in one post, so I've decided to begin with a high-level, three-pronged pep talk, which will be peppered with advice (appreciate the alliteration and culinary allusions). So here it is, in three segments: Stop Cringing, Start Writing, and Get Lost.
One of the benefits of a writer's conference is meeting so many other like-minded individuals. Don't get me wrong: we're not all kindred spirits. Some of the individuals I met were only relatable to each other by the amount of hours spent scrawling on paper or clacking a keyboard—in all else, they were as different from me as a peanut is different from a feather. Nevertheless, everyone present loved to write, and wanted to become better known for it. Except for one.
On the Saturday, I met a lovely young girl at my lunch table, who I'll call Katie. Katie was in high school, and sylph-like in her shyness and simple movements. She listened to me talk about my own work with another writer, darting sidelong glances and nodding to herself at our conversation. As she opened up hesitantly to my questions about her own writing, she told me that she'd been working "only on a couple of short stories", and "they're not really ready to be read yet." Her proud father sitting beside her piped up and said, "Nonsense. You were here two years ago, and the author you got to review your work said it had huge potential! It was fantastic praise!"
Katie shook her head with an uneasy smile. "But I wasn't ready for that!" she exclaimed. "'Huge potential?' I don't want huge potential! I just like writing!"
"Wouldn't it be great to share your writing with others, though," I asked her. "I know they're telling us here to write first and foremost for ourselves, but our gifts are meant to be shared." Eyes glowing thanks at me, her father turned to Katie and seconded my encouragement. Katie considered my words, but it was clear her confidence had a ways to go before she would be prepared to openly promote and share her work.
I wish Katie every success in her writing, and I hope I'll be able to read some of it someday.
I'll give Katie a few years, and plenty of grace. She was brave to come out amongst a crowd of what must have felt like giants; to feel so much younger and inferior in experience than everyone else. She'll get there. For the rest of you, my writing friends, I'll speak more plainly, because these words were the same I finally told myself. Stop cringing! Stop worrying if your writing talent or what your writing produces is good enough!
What defines "good enough"? Does "good enough" equate with unanimous praise and international success? No one has that. Even JK Rowling and George RR Martin have scathing critics. You won't please everyone. So why not take joy in yourself, and give a little pleasure to those around you?
Since I've started actively sharing my writing journey with others, I've heard:
"How cool that you're writing a book! I've always wanted to write something, but my grammar sucks..."
"I've got a few ideas for some stories! I've never written them down or anything, though..."
Never mind trying and failing: are you afraid to even try? How silly! Many writers have said it different ways, and all iterations are true: "You can't improve what you haven't written." If a good idea is in your head and not on the page, it isn't anywhere. Stop cringing, and start writing.
Hannah M., one of my reviewers (or "beta-readers", the official term I've learned recently), gave me a postcard from one of her travels. It's a stylized picture of a letterpress print plate—like those for the first inside page of an old hardcover book. In the centre is a silhouette of Jane Austen and a quote from a letter she wrote on October 26, 1813:
"I am not at all in a humour for writing; I must write on till I am."
These words were so powerful, I framed the postcard and it sits right beside my iMac on the desk.
You have to start writing, never mind the excuses. Pick one thing, and do that. One poem? One journal entry about something interesting that happened recently? One short story? One paragraph? It doesn't matter what that one thing is, just do it. Make sure you share that writing with someone. If you have doubts about sharing, stop reading and refer to the above section "Stop Cringing".
Set yourself up for success. Have something salty or sweet handy (dark chocolate with salted caramel is the best of both worlds), be fresh of mind and fully hydrated in a quiet, comfortable setting, and start writing.
Peter Rubie, one of New York's top literary agents who has been in the writing industry for decades, said something very pithy during one of the SiWC14 conference sessions:
"Don't be apologetic about what you haven't done yet, so long as you're actually doing it."
So, if you are writing, there's nothing to be shy about or sorry for. You are doing the right thing! Don't stop.
I'll share more specific tips and tricks in future posts, but the primary piece of writing advice I can give you is this: start with the characters. Who do you want to write about? Who are these characters? What is their story? How do they grow? Readers don't want to know what happens next: they want to know to whom it happened.
Once you figure out who you're writing about, get lost.
I have your attention, don't I? I meant the phrase in both the social and literary contexts. To "get lost" from a group of people is to leave them and go somewhere else. This time, I want you to get lost of your own volition. Don't wait until you've become so annoying that someone banishes you from their presence. By the way, should that ever happen, leave and write something scathingly hilarious about those people. Then share that writing with someone. See? Even social rejection can lead to writing.
Most writers are introverts by nature. I am. It's possible to be inspired by others, but hard, when distracted by others, to write inspiringly. Carve out time by yourself.
Get lost in your writing. Immerse yourself in your product, and ways to refine your craft. Do this unabashedly and wholeheartedly. To mash two fine quotes of Professor Bhaer's from Little Women:
"You must write from life, from the depths of your soul...there is more to you than this, if you have the courage to write it."
Dean Koontz, author of many best-selling novels, also wrote the handy guide How to Write Best Selling Fiction, which I highly recommend and have if you would like to borrow it. There is a wealth of information on Google. Find some reputable-looking individuals and read their advice.
For myself, I've noticed that my writing finds a sweet spot after about 4-6 hours in the chair.
My chair, by the way, is straight-backed, poorly padded and relatively uncomfortable. This keeps me from getting too complacent as I write, since my attention can't really wander if my leg is falling asleep. This bad-chair-approach isn't for everyone. But I digress.
Don't get me wrong, 1-2 hours of writing can be very productive. But other writers will also attest that getting in "the zone", where the "juices are flowing" and "it just comes to you", is where the real magic happens.
It's from those day-long writing sessions that I've written my best scenes; the ones that my reviewers ask me, "How did you think of that? I loved that line/that scene!" My answer is usually the same: I didn't think of it. I'd been writing for a few hours, and when my fingers and mind paused at what came next, the story wrote itself.
So, when I tell you to get lost, they are the best two words I have for you.
Anyone a Patrick Rothfuss fan? His character Kvothe, from The Kingkiller Chronicle (thanks for the recommendation, Brad J.), is known for speaking pithy sayings that are precisely seven words long. So here are my own seven magic words:
"Stop cringing, start writing, and get lost."
Let me know how it goes.