I’ve had this great question from Lindsey Maguire:
I’m a 15-year-old high school student whose biggest dream is to be a writer. I’m a good writer, but there’s nothing special about my writing. I was wondering how I could start to practise my skills and to become better over time? How did you start off? Also, I have absolutely no idea how to start a novel, even though I’ve tried for years 🙂
What a lovely question. Let’s tackle it in stages.
It can’t be rushed
First of all, don’t be in a hurry. Styles don’t develop overnight. They soak into you from your reading. Which leads me to…
What are you reading?
You also mentioned in your email that you read a lot, but how varied is your diet? Are you sticking to just a few genres, eras, styles of writing? These will colour the way you express yourself and may limit you if you don’t cast the net as wide as possible.
As well as fiction, read poetry, and notice how words are more than just their literal meaning. Become fussy about nuance, moods, resonances, flavours; the mischief in ‘twinkle’ versus the hard edge of its cousin ‘glitter’. Relish the variety our language gives you.
Learn what you are made of
So how will you be distinctive?
Like analysing a compound in a chemistry lab, we learn what we’re made of from the things we react to.
What are the styles you like and why do you like them? Ditto for themes, characters, settings. Do you like the unconventional? Is there a genre that pushes your buttons (I’ll include literary fiction here for the sake of argument)? These will become part of your writerly signature.
When you’re with friends, notice what’s distinctive about the way they talk and think. How is that different from you?
Here’s another point. What do you want to do to readers? Unsettle them, amuse them, tie their brains in knots, awaken their political awareness, warm their hearts, chill their marrow, stir them with ambiguities, distil the human experience, resolve their troubles? All of these? These intentions – whether in an article, short story or a book – will be a hallmark of your style.
Try lots of ideas
Every now and again you’ll discover someone who blows a hole through your idea of what good writing is. Let it tenderise you to new influences; soak it up and see what it shows you. Try to emulate it, if you’re so inclined. It doesn’t mean you were wrong until this moment. Mimic their rhythms, their sentence structure, the types of things they would notice. Enjoy the workout. After a while your new passion will wear off and you’ll regain a sense of proportion. That doesn’t mean you’re lost again. You’ll have added a few genes to your writerly DNA.
How long does it take?
Our style develops through our lives. Some writers become distinctive early. Others blossom later.
Most of us don’t stop wishing we were a bit more special, or perfect. Every year, we might think we’ve finally ‘found it’ and chafe at the work we can’t undo. Evelyn Waugh often said he thought Brideshead Revisited was gluttonously overwrought.
Yours truly: how did I start off?
I started by apeing other writers I adored. As a teenager, any good book would send me scurrying to my room to try a new voice or story style. My typewriter got a lot of exercise. After college, I began to try novels and I went through a very visible (to me) Graham Greene phase, then Vita Sackville West, then Jack Vance, then Gavin Maxwell. When I read those writers I could think of no more perfect way to express a story.
One day I realised I didn’t feel I had to imitate any more. I could write as me and that was okay. That doesn’t mean I am no longer poleaxed by Graham, Gavin, Jack or Vita, or all the other thousands of writers in whose company I take pleasure. I still learn from them, all the time. But I no longer feel the need to eradicate and start again.
This is personal, but for me, special writers have a quality of honesty on the page. It makes me comfortable in their company; willing to travel with them, to accept their voice as the companion to my own thoughts. Read good non-fiction and notice how authors do this, how they burrow for the truth even while they amplify, assert or exaggerate. Three of my favourites for this are Verlyn Klinkenborg, David Sedaris and Gavin Maxwell (I told you I liked him). Aim for that candid quality in your own work, even when you’re trying on other tics and techniques.
And finally… how do you start a novel?
Some people just plunge in and write, muddle their way along. Clearly that hasn’t worked for you. In which case, are you looking to prepare material before you write? I have a book that will guide you through… (all together now…): Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence… (now recommended by university creative writing departments, which is nice)
What would you tell Lindsey? Let’s discuss!