The rule of writing

By now the whole world has read Jonathan Franzen’s very pretentious 10 rules for writing. It’s clear that rather than attempting to impart useful advice, Franzen just wants to stroke his own ego and make everyone else give up on their writing, therefore leaving the bestseller lists open to whatever it is he’s publishing these days. I see what you’re trying to do Franzen! I thought The Corrections was quite good (this is high praise from me) and I gave Freedom four stars when I reviewed it on Goodreads (an even rarer accolade) so I like Franzen’s writing, but he can get in the bin on this. Everyone who writes learns that there’s only one rule when writing:

You must finish your story.

That’s it. It really is that simple, and yet, it took me over two decades to actually heed that advice. You know how it is, you have an amazing idea for a story, you start writing it and the words spill out beautifully. Then you hit a wall. For me, the wall was usually 20,000 words, though I’ve hit the wall at 3000 words before. When you hit the wall, all the annoying things that you’ve ignored in favour of your initial blinding burst of creativity -  often plot, and the three why’s (why here, why now, why these people?) - just force you into a spiral of despair. At that point I usually would step away from the project, never to return, and become obsessed by a new idea, where the cycle would begin again. I thought that if I wasn’t gripped by creativity I couldn’t write, and if I wasn’t spilling over with momentum every single time I sat down to write then it meant that my idea was no good and should be ditched.

I was wrong. By my late twenties I had started a bunch of novels and abandoned each one to the wall. I didn’t think I would ever finish a novel as I wasn’t getting any better at writing. Yet, I wasn’t getting any better at writing a novel because I wasn’t actually writing novels, just the beginnings of them.

It wasn’t until I was pulling crazy all-nighters, surrounded by bits of paper printed off the internet, as I frantically wrote my dissertation for my public policy Masters degree in a two week sprint, that it hit me: this is how you write a novel. The subject of my dissertation no longer seemed like the brilliant idea it once was, but I needed to complete it in order to get the degree, and I couldn’t change the subject, so I wrote the damn thing anyway. I got a really good mark for it, even though I didn’t really like it.

It was a game changer.

I started writing another novel. I wrote 20,000 words in two weeks, and hit the wall, at the same point I always did. I took a break from it, and wrote some blog posts about movies and books for my other blog Worthless Chat Monkeys. This time I made myself keep returning to my draft novel. It took me 2-3 years to finish a first draft of 62,000 words. I was incredibly proud of my achievement, so I gave it to a friend to read and he said it was awful (note to self, if you have friends who are really negative about everything you are trying to achieve without any helpful criticism, tell them to get in the bin too). At a loss as to how to try and fix the book, I shelved it. Yet, when I got my next brilliant idea in the middle of ranting how a disappointing historical television programme could have been so much better, I was ready. I had written a book before. I could do it again, and I did. I wrote 52,000 words in a year, and then, overwhelmed by the magnitude of what I was trying to create, set it aside for about eighteen months while I wrote a science fiction novel. The sci fi novel was 80,000 words, a pretty derivative first contact novel, but once I’d got that out my system I spent another six months or so finishing off the historical novel.

By the end 2017 it had been seven years since I had my cramming session epiphany, but I now had three completed novels and a novella (as you might have noticed by the length of time it took me to write these novels that I do not write everyday - I have a full time job so writing daily just isn’t possible). I was definitely improving as a writer, and I’d done a handful of half-hearted queries to agents and open submissions windows, but not had any interest in my work. Why didn’t I have more interest in my work?

Because I still wasn’t adhering to the rule of writing.

I’d trained myself to finish writing a first draft. I’d read it through, tinker with it cosmetically (changing a few words here and there, fixing continuity), then I’d send it out to a couple of competitions, then put it in a drawer once I didn’t win. Recently I read back some 2016 feedback I got from an editor and he was incredibly positive about my historical novel, and yet I stuck it in a drawer and forgot about it as I just didn’t know how to tackle the changes he thought the book needed.

I hadn’t been finishing my stories.

Your story isn’t finished just because you’ve written a first draft. Your story is only finished when you can’t make it any better. So in 2018 I tried something new, I tried to become serious about editing. I love writing, but I hate editing with the fire of a thousand suns - that’s a direct quote (yes, this is a 10 Things I Hate About You reference). So I wrote another novel, picking up a 3000 word excerpt I’d hit the wall on two years previously and rewriting it entirely. I thought the finished draft was decent as it was, but I forced myself to catalogue it’s faults, and create a plan for fixing it. Reader, turns out my story was not great as it was. My first edit fixed everything I could see that was wrong (continuity, POV), and the second edit was to sort out grammar and spelling. Then I sent it out to two beta readers, but I thought I was basically done, and would have only minor changes to make. I was not done. I am now on my third edit, making a number of changes to firm up the story. I can already see how much better my story is compared to my first draft. I don’t know whether I’ll get anywhere with this novel, but I’ll certainly feel a lot more confident querying it when I finally get to that stage, because I will have finally finished my story.

So the moral of this tale is: finish your story.  

P.S. For those of you who really are interested in authors rules for writing, I’ve put a couple of links below.

Lit Rejections has a 10 rules for writing by famous authors. I disagree with most of them, but you may find them useful.

The Guardian has a similar list of rules for writing by famous authors. Neil Gaiman’s advice is basically write, write more, keep writing, and trust your writing, which is probably the best writing advice there is.