Monday, 25 April 2011

Writing myths

Anyone even vaguely interested in writing will have heard several key phrases about how to go about it. Some of them are golden rules that really help you and should be obeyed nearly all the time. Some though are of the pick and mix variety – use them if they work for you but don’t feel guilty if you decide to chuck them out of the window.

Kill your darlings.

Yes. This is a good one. I’m not saying that if you find yourself looking at a sentence going “Cor, I’m a genius. That is really good!” that you should immediately hit the delete button. But you might find yourself unable to remove something even though you sense that it probably needs to go or someone has suggested it doesn’t work. Sometimes people are wrong when they say that line needs to go. But if several people have said it and you’re still stubbornly sticking by it, claiming that it’s “too good” to lose, then you might need to reconsider.

Don’t just delete it because someone has told you to. But take a step back. Don’t look at it for a while. Go write something else, ride a horse, dance the conga, do something to clear your head of it. Hopefully you’ll be more objective when you come back. The idea is, never get so attached to a line, a scene, a character, a plot that you are willing to sacrifice the story to keep it. The beauty of taking time a break from the story is that when you come back and realise it does need to go, you’ll have distance and it won’t hurt to hit the delete button.

Write what you know.

This one I have some issues with. Mainly because I find it restrictive in its literal interpretation. If I only wrote what I know then all my characters would live in London, be part of single-parent families and have working class chips on their shoulders. Boring! Boring for me to write more than once, boring to read and boring for the characters because everyone will be pretty much the same.

I think this literal interpretation has stemmed from the idea that all writing is in some way autobiographical. If you write a story about a girl who’s not allowed to see her boyfriend – that must have happened to you. If you write a story about a guy who steals a motorbike – that must have happened to you. I find that really frustrating because it’s not always true. Yes, there are things in my life that have inspired my writing, but no more than the books I’ve read or the films I’ve watched have inspired my writing. It’s an argument that falters when you consider something like Jurassic Park.

However, I don’t think that this advice was ever meant to be taken literally. I think it’s true on a deep level – you need to understand, to know, your characters and what they feel in order to write something that rings true. Say you sit down to write about a girl who wants vengeance on the gang that killed her brother. You really have to think that through, think how you’d feel, what you’d do, before you start to write. It’s all very well to write what you think is the correct response but it’s not going to be truly complex, compelling and real until you’ve understood it. Walk a mile in your character’s shoes, only then are you going to know them well enough to write their stories.

Write. Just write.

In the words of Sally – yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!

I once read that Alan Bennett’s first draft of The History Boys was terrible. But it has since become a critically acclaimed hit and was made into a film. Not bad for something that wasn’t great from the word go, eh?

Because that’s the secret – nothing is ever great the first time round. Nobody is ever so good at something the first time that they never get any better. The same goes for your writing. Get it out, get it onto the page, the screen, wherever you’re most comfortable with and worry about whether it’s any good later. You cannot polish something that isn’t there.

My personal mantra is:

Write now. Worry later.

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