We started, 10 Lessons ago, with what you needed to be able to write.
It turned out to be not that much.
But what do you need in order to be a writer?
This is how I usually put it:
You need the intelligence to begin a story and the stupidity to finish it.
You could call it stubbornness, but I think it’s more like stupidity. It’s not giving up, despite all evidence that giving up is the sensible thing to do.
Stupidity because it’s stupid to keep going back and back to the same story, trying different ways to make it work, trying to make it better.
Or at least, it feels stupid.
You can be on the sixth draft before you realise something very basic about your main character.
You can (whisper it) have finished a whole book, and years have gone by, before you realise something very basic about what you’ve written.
It was at least five years after I finished my first novel, Beatniks, before I realised I’d written a love story. I’m that stupid.
You may be aiming towards publication, or literary glory, but you will never be more of a writer than when you complete your first good story.
You may be a better writer. You may just be an older writer.
However, if you stop writing, you won’t be a writer any more. You’ll be someone who was once a writer.
How to get better
Here are the four things you can do:
I put them in this order of usefulness, from least useful to most useful:
Simply doing more writing, starting another story, is much less useful than reading – really reading – a good story.
And reading is fine. But re-reading the same story a second, a third and a forth time – that is when you start go really learn something from it.
Reading it aloud. Reading it so that you can hear the rhythms in it. Reading what the writer says about that story. Reading what other writers say about that story. Reading it so closely that you notice how the writer uses commas and dashes. Reading so that you notice what the writer has left out that other writers would have included, or included that other writers would have left out. Reading until you have dreams about the story.
A lot of emphasis is put on artists bring original. That’s seen as a virtue. And a lot of artists disguise how they got to the point where people saw them as original. Usually – I believe – it’s because, early on, they were completely overwhelmed by another artist. They loved them. They wanted to be them. They imitated them. And then, slowly and painfully, they started to detach from them. They needed to have some individuality, something to recognise as their own, so they fought their way free.
Unless you’ve gone through this, probably repeatedly, your writing won’t be anywhere. It won’t relate to any other writing. And all good writing relates to other good writing.
Great thrillers relate to other great thrillers.
Write a one page imitation of Gertrude Stein’s poem ‘If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso’.
You can listen to her reading it here –
And you can read it here.
You may not like Gertrude Stein’s style. You may hate it. But it is very clear what you need to do in order to imitate it. The style self-cannibalizes. The style repeats, with variation. With variation, the style repeats. What you need to do, with variation. With style. In order. Is the style you need…
And so on.
Write a page of a story trying as hard as you can to be a writer your deeply admire.
If you don’t have any writers you deeply admire, you need to find them. You need to read as much as you can until you discover them.
Read Gary Lutz’s article ‘The Sentence is a Lonely Place‘.
This is one of the best pieces of writing about the gnarliness of writing – the being-in-the-words. What Lutz is writing in favour of may be well beyond what you’re comfortable with. But you need to know that this passion of engagement with sound and rhythm and even what the letters look like on the page is possible.
If you would like to read something I’ve written, some of the books I have written are here.
The thing I’m most proud of having written is my novel Patience. It’s not out until August, but it can be ordered here. If you feel you’d like to do something to say thanks for these Lessons, you could buy it – or request that your local library gets a copy. That would be great.
I am giving away this Course for free. However, if you have gained from it, and would like to help cover the costs of writing it (and of me continuing as a writer) please feel free to –
Writing is very difficult.
Writing a novel is especially difficult.
Do not start writing a novel.
Just write stories. For at least a year. Just write stories.
Try to write ten stories in a year.
Try to work out what makes a good sentence.
I always finish by telling my students the same thing I told them at the start –
There are no short cuts.
There are no wasted hours.