Wednesday, 29 January 2014

8 Creative Writing Tips That I've Found Useful, And They're FREE

The first would be to get a number and the word FREE into the headline if you're writing a blog piece.

Sorry. Here are five things my agent, editor and various friends have told me over the years that have helped me find my way out of muddled manuscripts and perfidious plot-holes:

1. Think of the outline as an underpainting

I do a bit of life-drawing and painting on the side, and one thing all art teachers will tell you is the importance of making a rough plan before you fill in the details. If you draw a perfect ear, a perfect hand and a perfect foot but get the person's basic position, proportions and angles wrong, your portrait will look rubbish. However, if you get the overall shape right, viewers won't mind if there are a few rough bits. The eye just kind of fills them in, just as we can usually still recognise a word even if the consonants are mssng.

Your underpainting could be an outline, or it could be a single sentence, a premise, a summary. It could even an image or a series of images that represent the beginning, middle and end. It's different from a hook, because you're not going to use the underpainting to sell the book. You're just going to use it as a guiding line to remind you what the book is *about* when you're in the middle of the third re-write. This is particularly useful in combination with 5.

If you hate outlines, take a look at 5 and 6.

2. Write every day, even if you're not feeling inspired; it trains a muscle that comes in handy when you do feel inspire

I think Agatha Christie said this.

3. Read your work out loud

Last night I went to Short Stories Aloud, a great event in Oxford where they get a trained actor to read your short story. Melissa, the woman who read my short story ("Impasto"), did a fantastic job. However, as she was reading the story, I kept thinking, I could actually cut this bit. And that bit. And that passage could go, too. There wasn't anything wrong with those passages, but they weren't essential, and in a short story it's all about focusing on the essentials. 

When you read out a story (even just to yourself) you'll also notice repetitions and problems with rhythm. An editor at the event told me she does this even with marketing copy and strap-lines.

4. Great literature is better than how-to books

How-to books on structure and technique can be useful, but the best exercise is to re-read a novel or piece of non-fiction you love several times and figure out why it works. Read actively and take notes or underline passages you find helpful - useful points on dialogue, managing tension, characterisation etc. A lot of technical problems have been solved by other writers over the years (centuries) so you might as well see how they did it. Plus it's more fun than reading a manual.

5. Visualise the whole book

This comes courtesy of my friend Jonathan. I was telling him about my idea that a novel should be a cohesive whole, cast from a single mould; what in German we call a Gesamtkunstwerk ("whole-art-work"). However, the reality is that I often lose this lovely centripetal vision one I get started on a book.   So here's Jonathan's advice: if you're worried that the story is getting all tangled and frazzled and out of shape, visualise the finished book.
As in, not just the story, but the book as an object.

Picture how it will look, feel, how thick it will be, the cover, the paper, the font even, what happens if you open it randomly, what's on page 158. I'm trying to do this as a mindfulness exercise every day now and it really does make me feel more confident and sure-footed.

6. Think of your manuscript as music

This is useful if you hate outlining and feel that it cramps your style. If it really doesn't work for you, don't do it. Just write the book as you go along. However, try to keep the first, improvised draft light and flexible to save yourself a lot of pain later. For example, if you get stuck, jot down a few keywords or bullet points that you can turn into proper dialogue etc later. Then just move on.

I once had a piano teacher who had a very strict rule about never re-playing a false note. Her argument was that a) music is time, and you can't stop time, so re-playing just means you're messing up the whole piece, and b) while you're focusing on the false note that you can't actually fix because it's already in the past, you're setting yourself up for the next false note.

Thankfully manuscripts aren't like that. You can always go back and fix things. But it's useful to think of the first draft of a piece of music. Just play it from the beginning to the end, don't worry too much about getting every single note right, and then improve it every time you play it again. And again.

7. Translate

Someone once told me about a famous writer (now who was that?) who translated a page of prose a day to keep his mind and vocabulary sharp and active. It's a great way of improving your accuracy, literary musicality and awareness of linguistic nuances, and again, it trains that muscle.

8. Enjoy every minute of the process

My editor, Jessica, gave me this piece of advice when she bought my first book. You can't control the publishing industry, readers' tastes or market conditions, so it's better to focus on the bits you can control, and enjoy them. Writing a book can be enormously satisfying and rewarding in its own right, regardless of whether it ends up being published. (It can also be enormously frustrating and soul-destroying, but we're trying to be positive here).

That's it for now. Let me know if any of these work for you.