Friday, January 13, 2012

The Big Secret

Google “Advice on Writing”.  Go on.  The result you will receive is about 258 million results in 0.32 seconds—that’s quick.  That tells me there are millions of people giving advice on writing to the millions who wish to write and are searching for the definitive answer.
There are a thousand books on it too, and do not forget the workshops—oh and the writing groups.  My lovely librarian recently walked me over to a poster on the library wall.  She knows I write.  I tell everyone I am a writer—I enjoy the funny looks I get.
So she pointed at the poster and said, ‘Would you like to come to this?  It’s a workshop on writing.  Only five dollars.’  We both peered at the poster.  There was another poster alongside it, on journaling for children, ten to fourteen years. 
‘The journaling might be better, I think—for the children.’  I wanted to say, I don’t do workshops but I thought that sounded a little arrogant.  Instead, I said, ‘I’ll check my diary.’
Fade out from this scene, and then fade in on Twitter this morning.  There was a tweet promoting a blog post about ten mistakes made by writers.  I think it was ten.  You could probably write one hundred if you set your mind to it.
It was a reasonable blog post, so I retweeted it, but added—without thinking—"The true Secret to writing well...Read.  Write.  Repeat."
And there you have it, whether you like that advice or not.  There is The Big Secret to writing well.  You must read and read and read and then, in between that, you must write and write and write.
Did I know this little gem two years ago?  No way.  When I decided I was going to take writing seriously and set out on my wobbly page-a-day goal, I thought, ‘Lets see how far I get before someone tells me I’m wasting my time.’  I didn’t know I needed to be toting up words like I was working out at a gym.
Fade out from Twitter and fade into a little coffee get together at one of those gorgeous book stores with its own groovy little cafĂ© nestled amongst the merchandise.  It’s a Sunday morning and there at a table is me, a Perth writing tutor and three other  enthusiatic writers in the making.

It was a free talk on ‘How to get published.’  I thought, it might be a great way  to meet people.  I’d actually won a writing competition on the Tutor’s website, so along I went  in support and for the fun of it.
An hour in, one of my fellow attendees commented, ‘I’m not very good.’ 

To which I offered, ‘Just keep writing.  Everyone goes through it—and read a lot.  You will get better.  It’s inevitable.’ 
Then I realised, when she looked at me like I had just said, 'Strip naked, spin around 3 times and yell hallelujh,' that  the ladies were waiting for the Big Secret reveal.  The problem is, it doesn't come at workshops.  I’m not putting down workshops.  I always say, ‘whatever works for you. Just make sure it is working for you.’
There is a point when you simply realise you are on a path, and where you are is where you are, until you write some more.   Writing experts will give you the answer for which you are looking.  But they won’t give you the answer you really need.
I am not saying you should not study the mechanics of writing.  I have done that and attended creative writing workshops decades ago.  It is important to know the basics, so that when your story is not working you have an idea where you went wrong.  If you are new to writing, do go and enrol in a creative writing course.  They are great fun.  You do learn important things and meet people with whom you can share your passion.  But eventually you don’t need them.
The three workshops I have attended in the past two years did teach me one thing: that I did not need to go to them anymore.  My husband knew that from the beginning.  Every time I would wave an ad at him and say, ‘This looks interesting.  Do you think I should go?’  He would say, ‘But you know what you need to do.  Sit down and write.  That workshop is time you could be writing.’
It took me a year to believe him and then the workshops cured me.  I kept meeting people at them who told me that if they didn’t go to a workshop or attend a writing group they wouldn’t write.  They were not there to learn.  They were there seeking inspiration and paying dearly for it—not just with money but in precious time.  
I even met a woman, who had left her job as a journalist  to finish her book.  She had not finished it yet.  ‘How long ago did you leave your job?’  I said, thinking a year.’
‘Five years,’ she said.  ‘I’m stuck on a bit in the book and I come to these things to gain inspiration.’ 
‘Why don’t you give that one up and start a new book?’  I said.  ‘Even write some short stories, mix it up, and keep moving.  I won some competitions with my short stories.  They pay you money.’  I am very enthusiastic in my encouragement and sharing of The Big Secret.
Her tone changed then.  ‘I don’t care about money for short stories.  I’m a serious writer.’
I wanted to say, ‘I don’t care about the money either.  It just gives you a deadline and keeps you writing, keeps your mind fresh.’  But she had already sidled away, pretending she knew someone on the other side of the room.  Maybe that person was also a stuck-serious-writer and they could commiserate together. 
Raymond Bradbury said that ‘to become a good writer, write a short story a week for ten years.  At the end of that, you will be good.’  I really wanted to yell that out to her, along with, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger.’
Now just for the record, in case you think as we near the end of this post that I will have any other ground-breaking revelations for you, I repeat:
To become a good writer and build a road to Great Writerdom-that’s not a word by the way but it sounds good—you must  Read, Write and Repeat. 
Stephen King says it.  Stephanie Meyers says it.  J.K. Rowlings says it. And Raymond Bradbury said it.  It is the worst kept secret in the literary world.  But nobody listens.  Inexperienced writers keep thinking there must be an easier way; a special wand at the workshops to transform you from blah to yeeha. 
Sorry no cigar there.  It’s not in the “How to” books either.  So close them up now.  Actually it is, you will find it in every “How to” book hidden amongst all the other stuff that you usually forget.
I have learnt this truth over these two years.  It is a hard lesson, and many will fall by the wayside.  There are thousands of writer’s souls strewn along the path to greatness.  The first two to three hundred thousand words will almost kill you.  That is a fact.

Along the way, you will cry—real tears of discouragement.  You will hang your head in shame as you read back the pulp you've produced.  Fear will grip you when you take more than a few days break from your discipline—when you return to the keyboard, will the muse alight upon your shoulder or will your mind be barren and desolate?  Will you ever write anything others will want to read?  These are the arrows and rocks hurled at you—by your non-supportive inner critic—for daring to believe you can write.  Especially in the beginning when you really cannot write a damn.
But when you hear that disparaging voice, when you feel disheartened, I want you to repeat these words.  ‘I will conquer.  I will succeed because I know The Big Secret.  I do not need anyone’s permission.  I do not need anyone else’s help.  I have The Big Secret to guide me. 
Now, with great conviction, like you really believe it—because deep down you know its true—repeat after me:
I will Read.  I will Write.  I will Repeat. 

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  1. Spot on post, as usual, Sue! I don't understand why people don't think that short stories aren't for serious writers. As I wade my through another hundred or so entries in the latest Stringybark Short Story competition I marvel at some of the plots. I feel teary at some of the descriptions. I sigh at the emotions that some of these little stories evoke. Frankly, it's cleverer to get an emotional response from a reader in 1500 words than it is in 5000 words. Sure, write the long stuff, but get the short stuff right and the long stuff will be easy.

    The other nail that Sue hits on the head is "read." How can you write well if you don't read good writing? Some of the stories we get sent are from people who spend their time writing text speak. I'm sorry, but this doesn't hack it in the world of literature. To write well, you must read.

    Sue's big secret is out. Read, write and read again.

  2. There is another secret to good writing. Read what you write before hitting the 'post link'. Pardon the double negative in the second sentence!

  3. Thank you David for your lovely comment.

    That woman so suprised me. She was really quite put out at what I said. I'm always surprised at writers who don't have a go at short story comps when starting out. It teaches you so much.

    I've learnt to write to a word count, edit ruthlessly and craft. And you grow from the rejection because you receive so many.

    I don't even track where my stories have gone once I've sent them now. If they do well at a comp, great, if not and I never hear

    By the way, you still run the best writing comps in Australia, if not the world. And I love writing for your comps because no matter what the result I end up with another story in the stable.

    Thank you again for taking the time out from your story judging to read my little post.

  4. This is a great post, Susan. You are so right! I often see these little courses and workshops being advertising and think they look fun, but like you, the only ones of any use were the ones I did in the beginning to brush up on the nuts and bolts of the craft. I really find that the more I write, the better I get, and I don't think about the 'writing' so much, just the story and the characters. Like anything, we think these courses and things will help us, but they don't really teach anything new. You just need to write (and of course read). Simple! One thing I will say though, is that there are some writers conferences that are worth going to when it comes to 'I need to meet agents and publishers' time. I went to one a few years ago (when I wasn't ready) and met loads... I wished I had something to give to them, but in hindsight I am glad I didn't. I have improved so much with experience, but luckily I still have a couple of their emails - so they might come in useful in the end (when I get round to finishing a damn novel!) In the meantime, I will continue writing short stories and flash fictions, because I love doing it and so many people now love reading them. Oh, and that woman? She'll never make it with that attitude!

  5. 'Being advertising'?? I agree with David... "Read what you write before hitting the 'post link'." Haha :)

  6. Susi,
    Thanks for your lovely comments, here and on Twitter. At those darn workshops and talks, I end up being the one encouraging people to keep going. So, I think, I should be paid to be there.

    Most people don't realise that you need to immerse yourself in what you are doing to succeed and take a professional attitude to the work and understanding the industry.

    Even those publisher meeting conferences may not be necessary now with Twitter. I have met a lot of publishing people through Twitter now that I am reviewing and interviewing authors. I hope one day this will have them remember my name when my manuscript lands in their slushpile.
    Susi, keep writing that book. I have been saying on Twitter that #2012, is the year of the publishing deal. Get it done and get it out there. You are a great writer and I am a fan.

  7. Thank you Susan for encouraging us all to do what we need to do more of. Like I keep telling my kids, if it's soccer or basketball or drawing or writing, you only get better with practice!

  8. Hey Susan, I have nominated you for the Versatile Blogger award! You need to read the page on my blog for details… Beware, it’s a bit time consuming but a nice accolade to share…

  9. Awesome post - you have nailed it, all the way. There is beauty and horror in indie publishing - amazing things are out there, but there's really, really bad stuff, too - because writers are publishing before they are ready. It takes many, many words to grow a writer.

  10. Hi Julie, Thank you for your lovely words. Yes, practise and practise and then some more. I shake my head when people say they don't have time to read. Yet, they can watch TV or sit on FB or even Twitter. I've got my books on my iPhone, so even if I have a spare minute waiting somewhere I can hop on and read if I choose. I never read magazines now whilst waiting at an appointment. Thanks for reading my post.

  11. SM Thank you for your lovely comment. Yes, I've read a few worrying short stories by people who have published themselves. The spelling and grammar errors are frightening. Its a shame because it will put off readers. But those people do need to practise more. I've probably written over 300,000 words now-about 1,000 pages and I'm only just getting the hang of it. LOL. Or it could be I am a slow learner. Thanks for taking the time to drop by.

  12. Susi, thank you so much. I will check at your blog. Everybody do check Susi blog. She is a heck of a short story writer in the horror genre. Great reads.

  13. I came here via Mariam Kobras on Twitter. Such a great post, thank you! A few months ago, like a shock of electricity, I realized I hadn't been working hard enough at writing. "Genius!" I thought. But I was an idiot, really, because I already knew that to be good at writing you have to work at it, and work hard. You're right that it's the worst kept secret in writing, yet my realization seemed like revelation. Now that I've calmed down and got a steadier head about the process, I just work hard and keep writing and reading.

  14. Some people say, "oh you're so lucky"
    but luck is another word for practice and practice and practice.
    You can study the art till the cows come home but unless you practice - all the time- you shouldn't expect to get any better. I think of it as the same as learning a musical instrument. You can blow/pluck/strum but unless you practice no one will want to listen.

  15. Thank you for commenting Hettie. That is very true. Stephen King likens it to going to the gym. He says in Danse Macabre that if you workout every day you are going to get big muscles. If you write every day you are going to get big writing muscles. Then he says, you write yourself to a place and then wait for luck to find you. I didn't understand this until I became disciplined at writing constantly. It is more than true.

  16. Good common sense post. There are always people who think there's a secret. There isn't. I never studied writing. I did attend one writer's workshop on crime fiction at the Council of Adult Education. The tutor invited us to say why we were there. i said, "For fun and to get an idea where to start." He said, "I think I can promise you that." And it was fun and I got some useful notes on good books and web sites for research, but that was all, and all I expected.

    I also joined a writers' group for would-be spec-fic writer. It was basically a mutual support group and it must have worked, because most of us who were in it have gone on to sell stuff. And it made us write something each month.

    Thanks to one member, I discovered i was a children's writer and have never looked back.

    But in the end - read and write - yes. The only way.

  17. This is so good and so true! And you just can't get people to listen - I've tried too. Many wannabe writers don't read much at all and I want to tell them they're doomed. Reading teaches you everything about writing. Literally everything. When you attempt it yourself, you learn that it's harder to create what you may have taken for granted when reading. But you keep trying until you get there. I love what Bradbury said - to write a short story every week. Good advice.

  18. Thank you Sue for your comment. I've just written a speech about attending workshops and writing groups. I think they are good as long as you know why you are there. I find sometimes they are a place where people go to talk about writing instead of actually writing. And there in lies the problem. Glad to hear you went for the right reasons and got results.

  19. Thank you REd Mojo Mama-sure feels funny calling you that.
    Reading is so key. Have you seen this Stephen King Video on advice for beginning writers?

    I just read the most fantastic book by J.C. Baggott entitled 'Pure'. Its an apocalyptic YA story out in a Feb. I learnt so much about pacing and paring down descriptions and thoughts of characters from that book.

    Then I read Justin Cronin's "The Passage" and learnt how to not bog down a story with too many characters and pointless dialogue. That book is terrible and it could have been so good. What got me was that this guy is a professor in creative writing. HE TEACHES WRITERS. So don't know what those people are learning.

    And millions would disagree with me and it is personal taste. However, in reading I learn everything. I call it subliminal learning of the best kind.

    Thank you for taking the time to post her. It is much appreciated.

  20. Stacie, thank you for your comment. I know exactly what you mean. Until you write for awhile you don't realise the difference it makes to your writing. Then you look back and realise things are clicking. I believe some kind of connections are made in your brain the more you read and the more you write, like the flicking of switches to turn on a big lumbering machine. Once its on it becomes very powerful. Mariam is a darling and is so kind to recommend me. :)


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