The Cheat Codes for Being a Fiction Writer (Some Of Them)
I’ve recently finished my Master’s course for Creative Writing. In fact, I handed in my dissertation at the start of the month, sealing off the educational period of my life possibly for good. I can’t say I learned a lot about being a writer but what I will say is that you pick up a great deal of extremely useful tidbits. The artistic university experience is food for thought and not sustenance for the starved. You’ll be plodding along for a few weeks and thinking that what you’re doing is a waste of time and then, suddenly, you’ll be presented with something that could massage your brains in a way that you weren’t expecting. It might be an experimental poem with a bizarre format or it could be an entirely new form of writing that you’d never heard of before.
Casper David Friedrich - “The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”
The one thing you won’t find at university (from my experience) is how to actually do the writing bit. There is a lot of debate about whether or not you can even teach it as a subject at all which is an argument you’ll probably never hear the end of. I certainly won’t be able to teach you either but, like music theory, there’s some pathways to the craft that open your brain a lot more to the process.
1. Less is More.
Sounds like a pretty old adage but it’s one of the most useful attitudes when it comes to what is called a “writing economy”. You have to be economical. Any artist in any avenue will sympathize with the compulsion to always add more to a piece of work when you should be taking more out. If you can get the same feelings out in less words, than do so. One of Matt Groening’s directing philosophies behind The Simpsons is being as funny as possible in as little words as possible - even if that means no words at all.
Obviously, there’s a limit to this philosophy that you’ll quickly get to grips with. It’s like changing gears in a car. You have to know when is the write time for what. Read it out to yourself. Is it too long? Are you running out of breath before the end of the sentence? The economy and quickness is also relative to the mood of the piece.
2. “Places need you to go to them“
Setting can be easy to overlook if the centrepoint of whatever you’re writing about isn’t the setting. The place exists in your head but you need to let the reader go there and feel what you feel. Use the senses. Think about the possible small fixtures of the room and what they would add if you let the reader in. Like the last point, there isn’t a need to be meticulous because you have to allow the reader’s imagination to imagine.
If you’re thinking about an entire town, my go-to would be Derry in Stephen King’s IT. As you can see from the fanart (u/dienaked on r/stephenking) is that the world is so richly drawn that one is able to produce a map like this at all. I would recommend the book and the latest movie to take notes on how Stephen King makes more than just a backdrop.
3. Understand You’ll Make Mistakes.
An important lesson about making art is that failure is part of the process. Whilst I include the grim acceptance that you don’t have the Midas touch, I specifically mean that it takes a while to get it right. I forget about the first two points sometimes and get swept up in the hotbed of my own brain. It’s easily done. It actually took a few years of me being told those two things to fully get my head around what they properly mean.
I've probably made some mistakes in this very post.
You aren’t God’s gift to the medium; without fault and above judgement. I’ll pack into this point that it does help to get your work read by someone who will be honest with you. It doesn’t have to be a writing professional but someone who reads a moderate amount. Ask them for specific things you want feedback on like story, structure, form and themes.
4. Be Obsessed With Your Characters.
You have time. You don’t have to but it does help to get to know your characters as much as you can. What is their favourite food? Where were they born? What was their childhood like? It helps because it makes dialogue a whole lot easier to write and how they behave come off a lot more natural in your writing. You won’t find yourself arriving at a point where you would be asking yourself: What would they be like in this situation? How would they react?
I say again that you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. It is especially useful if you’re constructing a fantasy or sci-fi world or any kind of series.
5. You Actually Have to Read Books.
Joseph Heller - Catch 22
Yes. I’m sorry but you could really do with reading books fairly regularly. You can’t really get away with not doing it. I thought for the longest time that the books that I had read up to my point in university would be enough to carry me because I’m incredibly influenced by all of them. You get it into your head that you’ll be compared to all the great writers as unfavourably as possible but it just isn’t true.
I have even said to myself that I’ll just end up subconsciously “copying” whatever I’ve read which isn’t really true either. Essentially, if you’re a creative person, anything you will ever do will have some connection to something that you’ve absorbed previously. You can tell yourself that isn’t the case or come up with any excuse not to read. But you really should. Just pick up a book before bed and do half an hour, twenty minutes.
This is all aside from the other obvious benefits of reading.
6. Each Chapter is a Short Story.
Taking this philosophy in your structure will make writing a novel a whole lot easier. Plan out each chapter like a short story. Work out what the conclusion is and what will be the crux of the chapter. It will ease you into the habit of planning generally because you have to plan to some extent.
You’ll also find from taking this advice, you’ll be taking the entire process one step at a time and it could help those who feel bogged down by a project.
7. Be Ruthless.
The editing process is nearly more than half the writing process and you have to be ruthless with what you cut out. There will be times where you come up with something incredible. Your brain will come up with the goods unexpectedly but you have to pause for a moment and question if it really works with what you’re aiming for. If it isn’t then you have to be brave enough to delete it. Nothing stopping you from saving it for later though.
“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” —Stephen King
This also counts for any of the building blocks in your story. If something doesn’t work, you have to be prepared for the possibility of scrapping the lot. You can afford to let the cards collapse.
8. Do What You Like
This is the best one. The greatest thing about being an artist is that you can do what you like and go about it however you want. You are in control of your process and there are so many different methods to get your engine running. I implore that you experiment with all the incentives and prompts that you’ll easily find on the internet for free. Try stuff out and see what works. Personally, my favourite thing to do whilst writing is listening to music or ambience. There are thousands of playlists on Spotify that are specifically for writing/studying/whatever so why not give that a bash. On YouTube, you will not be able to get enough of 10-hour ambient noises that folk have made.
There will be always something that suits your mood and way of working. You just have to find it. Read how other writers go about their process because it won’t be a secret.
My final tip would be that you’re always learning all the time. I’m still learning how to do this Tumblr thing and how to put these kinds of articles together. Your job is to allow the information that you’re taking in to stick to you and put it to use.
Some Books I Would Recommend:
Jeff Vandermeer - Wonderbook
Stephen King - On Writing
Joseph Heller - Catch 22
Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse Five
Khaled Hosseini - The Kite Runner
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gcse grades :)
so i know i've kind of been neglecting this blog (even though it's somehow continued to grow?) but i'm planning on reviving it in the next few weeks for when I start my a-levels
to kick-start that, i've decided to share my gcse results. i'm very proud of them. i know i could nit-pick about not getting 9's in certain subjects *cough* 9 in my maths mock was downgraded *cough* but i've decided that i'm very happy and that as nothing can be done now it's not worth being even a tiny bit upset.
english lit - 9
english lang - 9
maths - 8
biology - 8
chemistry - 9
physics - 8
religious studies - 9
spanish - 9
geography - 8
computer science - 8
fine art - 9
+ distinctions in all my speaking exams (spanish + eng lang)
so, there they are! this post is a bit of a self-indulgent brag but sometimes that's alright. as a bit of a reward for myself i'm gonna splurge a little on some of my favourite streamer's merch which is coming out within the next month-ish.
for anyone who's curious, the subjects i'm taking next year are english lit, spanish, art, and psychology (which isn't offered at gcse so there were no specific grade requirements). I'll probably make a reintroduction post before I start sixth form again in sept.
for now all i've got to worry about is the mountain of summer work that i've been procrastinating! yay!
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