Writing Advice

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I was given a tea towel today.  It’s adorned with 13 bits of ‘honest advice’ for the aspiring author.  It was given as a joke, rather than a serious gift – I don’t think I’m believed to be in urgent need of the advice in question – but as well as being quite smile-inducing, it does contain several nuggets of basic wisdom that really would be quite handy for aspiring writers to embrace, if they haven’t already done so.  Such as:

  • You may break any rules but you will only break them beautifully if you understand them fully.
  • Write the first draft with your heart and the second draft with your head.
  • Rubbish is published because it sells.  Stop moaning; focus on your writing.  Publishing is a business, so deal with it.
  • You only need two out of talent, luck and determination.  Some manage only with luck.  Real writers aim for the other two.
  • Of course your mother loves your book: she’s your mother.

All true, more or less*.

The tea towel, and the advice thereupon, is the creation of Nicola Morgan.

*I confess, I don’t think my mother loves any of my books.  Not really her kind of thing.  But that’s fine; she loves me, after all. And my father does quite like at least some of them, I think, so there you are.


I’ll try to wrap up a couple more thoughts on this topic a bit more concisely than I managed in the first post.

Yes, I have yet more reasons why Winterbirth had a somewhat bleak tone to it.  The first of which is …

It wasn’t just a reaction to history, but to the contemporary world.  As I mentioned in Part 1, part of the reason the book/trilogy has the feel it does was my enthusiasm for narrative historical non-fiction, and the notion of borrowing some of its texture to create the illusion of reading about real people in a real world.  It wasn’t just the past of the real world that fed into it, though.  It was also the present when I was coming up with the story.  At the time – at any time, let’s be honest – it wasn’t hard to find dramatic and disturbing things being reported in the news, and the stuff that was at the back of my mind when I was pondering ideas for Winterbirth was the post-Yugoslavia convulsions affecting the Balkans.

Thousands of people were killed there as long-suppressed national, religious and cultural divisions resurfaced.  You could trace back some aspects (not all, by any means, but some) of what was going on many, many centuries.  I was struck by the notion that the present remained a prisoner of the past.  That the capacity for extraordinary and horrible violence remained latent in even apparently ordered societies.  The last bit of the 20th century saw us move away from the long era of vast empires confronting one another on vast battlefields, to one which was more chaotic.  More gruesome in some ways.  Everything looked greyer than it had once done.  Good and evil were more subjective, locally defined, transient qualities.  A lot of evil was going unpunished, in those days.  It always has done, of course; but a pervasive media has made it steadily more obvious.

Obviously you don’t have to write what you see around you, when you’re writing speculative fiction.  But it’s hardly surprising that sometimes people do.

Authorial inexperience.  I mentioned in Part 1 that sometimes an author, especially a novice author, might be making fewer conscious choices, and doing more going with the flow, than readers assume.  Separate but related point: perhaps an inexperienced author isn’t always as fully aware of the tonal effect his or her writing is generating as he/she might be.

I mention this only because I wonder – and I specifically don’t know, can’t remember quite clearly enough – whether I fully understood the cumulative effect of the style in which I was writing the Godless World trilogy.  Some of the small choices I was making.  I’ve got a feeling, and it’s no more than that, that were I writing the trilogy now, I’d probably lighten the tone a little bit.  Reading fantasy of this sort should, after all, be entertaining if nothing else.  It should provide enjoyment, excitement, alongside whatever other responses it’s generating in the reader.

Setting a bleak overlay to the whole thing doesn’t preclude entertainment and enjoyment by any means, but perhaps it does mean that entertainment and enjoyment have to work a bit harder to express themselves.  It’s possible I overdid the bleakness a bit, because my inexperience made it that bit trickier to step back from the day to day business of writing sentences, paragraphs and see the big picture; project myself into the reader’s shoes and visualise the cumulative effect of those sentences and paragraphs.

The thing about violence is …  I’m on thinner ice with this point than with most of the other stuff I’ve mentioned.  I’m not totally sure what I feel about it.  It’s complicated.  But there’s no denying I’ve thought about it, and that I had it in mind while writing the trilogy.

I’m a great big softie.  Never been in a fight in my life, so far as I remember.  Not a big fan of violence in general.  Except in entertainment, obviously.  It makes for exciting books, films, whatever, I do not deny.  But when I really think about it, I can’t get away from the notion that actually, really killing someone with a sword, or an axe, or a spear, is – it must be – by our modern standards an absolutely, horrifically dreadful business.  Cutting, hacking, stabbing a living human being at close range is not romantic or clean or easy.  Any world in which it was any of those things, not just for certain individuals (there will always be some, sadly), but on a widespread cultural level, would be a world I emphatically did not want to live in.

What’s odd, and makes this a bit complicated, is that I’m perfectly happy to watch, or read, and enjoy fictions that to a very great extent sanitize such violence, or revel in it, or completely ignore its inherent brutality. For some reason, when I’m the one doing the writing, things become more problematic.

There is a part of me, I think, that just instinctively rebels at the idea of painting a world in which people habitually kill each other, face to face, with blades as anything other than in some way cruel, bleak and traumatising.  I am, rather obviously, more than happy to write violent scenes.  In fact, I confess I actively enjoy it.  But it’s possible that I’m just on some level not happy, or perhaps not able, to write violent scenes that do not have unpleasant consequences, that do not reflect my personal repulsion at the very idea of killing someone with a sword.  That do not acknowledge that to my way of thinking, any imaginary world in which such violence is necessary on a large scale, or is celebrated, or is treated as normal, is to at least some extent inherently and inescapably grim.  Dark.  Grimdark, if you like.

And that’s a wrap.  Let there be no more talk of bleakness.  It’s the Vernal Equinox, after all.  The first day of Spring!  Sunshine and flowers will be with us any day now.  (But yes, it is true that it is currently snowing outside my window …. ho hum).

And P.S. here’s a random and trivial teaser: the word ‘vernal’ appears a lot in my next book, The Free.


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Now there’ll be those folks whose response is: ‘Well, I don’t need you to tell me that all that stuff’s a failure, Mr Ruckley.  I’ve read some of it!’  To them I say: ‘That’s mean.’  But also: ‘You might be right, but I’m talking about something else anyway.’ And: ‘Thanks for calling me ‘Mr. Ruckley’, by the way. That’s unexpectedly and unnecessarily polite of you.’

I was re-reading bits of one of the most interesting comics ever published the other day.  It’s called Understanding Comics, and it’s by Scott McCloud.  It’s a book about comics in the form of a comic, and for those of us who like the comics medium, reading it can be a bit like having a light going on your head. It’s a textbook, a manifesto, a meditation, an analysis, a history.  It explains a lot of what makes comics remarkable and different, and a lot about how they work.  If you like comics and haven’t read it, I prescribe an immediate trip to the library or bookstore to see if you can get your hands on it.  It’s called Understanding Comics and it really can change the way you understand comics.

But that’s beside the point. There’s a lot of Understanding Comics that’s of relevance to any kind of creator, not just those making comics.  What struck me in particular was one statement in the book, and how I might spin it into something worth saying to aspiring writers:

Ask any writer or filmmaker or painter just how much of a given project truly represents what they envisioned it to be. You’ll hear twenty per cent … ten … five … few will claim more than thirty.

That right there is, I think, both profoundly right and perhaps just a wee bit wrong. I’ve written one or two short stories for which I’d probably claim a bit more than 30% accurate representation of what was in my head. You can argue about the merit of what was in my head, of course, but for better or worse what ended up on the page was at least halfway there. I’ve got a feeling there are not a few creators of one sort or another around who’d happily claim over 30% for their stuff.

But broadly speaking? Sure, writing fiction is a tremendously disappointing process. A lot of it is about trying to manage and minimise your own failure in conveying the visions, the ideas, the themes, the sheer wonder that’s sitting right there in your head. Any writer who has high aspirations for their output – I don’t mean financial aspirations, so much as those relating to craft, art or communication – should probably try to get their head around that fact.

Because it’s not a bad thing. It’s not actually about disappointment or failure. It’s just a recognition that all those involved in the creative arts are, in some sense, attempting the flat-out impossible. As Scott McCloud says:

Media convert thoughts into forms that can traverse the physical world and be re-converted by one or more senses back into thoughts.

That right there is a next to impossible ask. Information, sensation, precision, texture is all going to be lost in the process of converting intangible, unbounded mental processes in one unique mind into limited, defined words. It is next to impossible to create a full, precise, unambiguous verbal representation of the infinite complexity of what is happening in your head. And however much of it you do manage to get down on paper is then going to be re-converted into mind-stuff by the reader. Frankly, it’s a miracle we manage to make this whole thing work as well as we do.

None of us, except perhaps I suppose a theoretically possible but improbably lucky few, will ever achieve 100% successful transcription of the magnificence inside our heads. We will fail. In some part, we will fail every single time we sit down to write. I know I have. McCloud again:

The mastery of one’s medium is the degree to which that percentage can be increased, the degree to which the artist’s ideas survive the journey …

And that’s what I’ve got to offer for aspiring writers: You are going to fail. You will never quite reproduce the wonders in your head on the page. Failure is not something to fear, or get hung up about. It’s an inherent part of the process. Pretty much everybody else is failing as well, whether they admit it or not. Your mission (My mission!), should you choose to accept it, is to aspire to fail less. To narrow the margins between what’s inside your head and what’s on the page.

Chances are, you’ll never hit that 100% mark, but there’s a wonderful thing about writing (and, I assume all the other creative arts and crafts): the more you practise, the more you do it, the closer you get. Your percentage will increase, and all you have to do to make that happen is to keep writing, and to take seriously the business of trying to write better.

Believe me, every few ticks upward in that percentage don’t feel anything remotely like failure or disappointment. They feel like gradual, immensely satisfying, success.

P.S. Yes, this post too is a failure. It was brilliant when I first thought of it. One of the best blog posts ever. Not so much now, huh? But it’s fine. Onwards and upwards!

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Once upon a time, I was an aspiring writer with no time for luck.  It wasn’t hard to find, out on the interwebs, those who hung on to various odd theories about how some folks managed to get their books published and others didn’t; one of the things that sometimes got said was that it was all about luck.  (That, or it was all about who you knew, what secret handshake you’d mastered, etc.).

The luck theory was, I suppose, a bit less daft than the various conspiracies proposed, but I still didn’t give it much credence.  I reckoned, in my infinite wisdom, that getting published and making a success of it was all about talent and application.  Maybe, I might have grudgingly conceded, the tiniest little bit of luck now and again; but mostly, not luck.

Now, I’ve got a different take on the whole business.  Sure, luck can play a part.  Not just in getting published in the first place, but in what happens thereafter.  I’ve had the odd bit of luck here and there.

The thing I’ve come to believe about luck, though, is that although you as a writer, aspiring or otherwise, can’t exactly control it, you can give it the chance it needs to make a difference.  You can invite luck into your writing life.  It’s not some numinous, magical force that picks folk out at random to sprinkle its beneficial pixie dust upon.  I mean, it might do that sometimes, but just as often the old cliche is true: You make your own luck.

Which brings me to the closest thing I’ve got to general advice for aspiring writers.  Luck might have a part to play in making your dreams come true.  You don’t get to decide whether, or when or how it will do so; that’s kind of in the nature of the luck beast.  But you can give it the chance to make a difference.  How do you do that?  Easy.

  • You write a lot, and you aspire to write well.  That means getting words down on (virtual) paper, finishing things you start, giving yourself the time and practice to get better at it.  You set your sights, and your expectations of yourself, high.
  • You put things you have written out there into the world.  Give them air.  You submit your work to magazines, publishers etc.  It’s difficult for luck to intervene if it doesn’t have the basic material to work with, and in this case that basic material is your work, sent out into the world.

I should note that this is not a roundabout way of advocating the self-publishing route that is so easily available now.  It has its place, no doubt, and there are those (not many) for whom it has worked magic.  But consider the possibility that on occasion it might also be a trap.  It’s an invitation to try a shortcut around parts of the first of those two bullet points and skip to the second: ‘putting your work out there’.  And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

So I’ve had my share of luck, some of it earned, some unearned.  None of it, though, would have happened if I hadn’t learned to finish pieces of writing, if I hadn’t sent them out to see what other, professional folks thought of them and taken rejection as a suggestion that I should try harder, if I hadn’t said ‘yes’ to certain opportunities or invitations that came my way that allowed me to get more writing out there, or get my existing writing into a different form.

All of which is perhaps just a long-winded way of saying that if you’re an aspiring author, or a published author who wants to get better or be more successful, luck might be able to help.  But if it does, it probably won’t be as a substitute for putting the hours in, risking and learning from rejection, aiming high, striving to improve.  More likely, it’ll be a result of those things.

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Published writers occasionally get asked, often by aspiring writers, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’, or some variation upon it.  On the whole, it’s not a question those published writers particularly look forward to, because it’s almost impossible to answer in any serious way that’s going to be useful or informative for the questioner, and the best frivolous answer was long ago delivered by, I believe, the inimitable Harlan Ellison: ‘Poughkeepsie’.

But I’ll answer it anyway, before suggesting an alternative query that might be more interesting and useful for all concerned. (Note: my answer will not be remotely as good as ‘Poughkeepsie’. You have been warned.)

Where do I get my ideas from?  Anywhere and everywhere, like pretty much all writers.

For example:

I got the idea for my first published story, ‘Farm Animal’, which appeared in Interzone many, many moons ago, from a dream.  (The one and only time this has happened, by the way).

I got the idea for my second published story, ‘Gibbons’, from the personal experience of spending three months in the rainforest of Borneo, studying – unsurprisingly – gibbons.

I got the idea for another story, ‘Flint’, which appeared in the anthology Speculative Horizons, from my non-fiction reading, specifically a book about shamanism and a book about prehistoric cultures.  (Speculative Horizons is a good little anthology in a good cause, by the way, and is close to selling out, so perhaps you’d like to take a look over here for info on what it contains and how to get your hands on one of the last few copies.)

I got an idea for a fantasy novel – which remains only a vague idea, with little likelihood of ever going further – from a map that appeared in a fantasy novel by another author.

I got the idea for my next novel, The Free, from a single, specific scene that popped into my head unbidden one day, and which not only does not appear in the novel as it will be published, but no longer has any close connection whatsoever to the plot, setting, theme or characters of The Free.

So there you are.  Anywhere and everywhere.  It’s completely useless as guidance to an aspiring writer, because the getting of ideas is not – not remotely – the hard bit of being a writer.

I’ve got a suggestion for what might be a better question to ask, and I wonder if it’s not closer to what someone’s really asking when they ask about where ideas come from.

‘How do you turn an idea into a publishable story?’

Now there’s a tougher question, and one that gets much closer to nailing the hard bit about being a writer.  There is a superabundance of ideas in the world, and more often than not in the head of anyone with a serious chance of becoming a professional writer.  90+% of those ideas will probably never make it into publication as stories, or story elements.

For the <10% (or whatever the number is) of ideas that make it from idle fancy to published prose, the process by which that transformation takes place is probably slightly mysterious even to those of us who do it, and no doubt happens slightly differently for every writer, but here’s a possible sketch of what it takes for an idea to become a story.

This is off the top of my head kind of stuff, so your mileage may well vary.  Indeed, it may be complete balderdash. Might possibly be a starting point for thinking about the whole thing, though.

An idea might be anything – a piece of dialogue, a visual image, a character hook, a theme, a scene, whatever – but for the sake of argument (and simplicity) let’s think of it as a single nugget of something – anything – that might become part of a story.  Maybe there’re two aspects to what you, as a writer, can do with that idea which we’ll call exploration and construction, since I can’t think of catchier names for them at the moment.  They’re not remotely as separate and distinct as I’m about to suggest, either, but what can you do?  Without generalisation and/or simplification we couldn’t say much about anything ever, really.

Exploration.  You mentally let that nugget roll, and follow where it leads.  You let it take its own path and see what connections, what consequences, what secondary ideas it can spawn as it rolls along through the back of your mind.  A kind of extrapolative free association, I guess, though it’s not entirely free because – as you’re a writer, and you know that what you’re hoping for here is a story – the chain or web of connections that initial nugget generates will hopefully have some kind of loose coherence and sense and ‘storyness’ to it.

This would be the bit of the process that takes the longest time, for me at least.  That idea nugget can be idly meandering around in my semi-conscious for years, trying to extrapolate itself into something more substantive than a nugget.  This would also be the bit where it’s liable to bump up against other ideas that have been performing similarly thankless gyrations in there for years of their own, and now and again maybe some of those bumps will result in a couple – or a clutch – of ideas that decide they belong together.

Most ideas’ll never emerge from this exploration, for whatever reason.  They’ll sadly wither, or go into hibernation, or be entirely forgotten, casualties of a Darwinian struggle for conscious attention fought out between all those aimlessly rolling nuggets.

Construction.  This bit might happen after or in parallel with the Exploration bit, I guess.  It’s the more conscious bit of the process, where you try to bolt the scaffolding of formal story onto and through an unruly, half-formed idea that’s grown into something with potential.  It’s where you try to make sure various tedious sounding but actually quite interesting things like closure, arcs, resonance, plot logic, coherent characters etc. etc. are in place to form a skeleton for your lovely, lovely idea to drape itself over.

Some of those formal considerations will quite likely emerge naturally from the Exploration stuff, given that as I said it’s not an entirely random or unstructured process due to the obsessive nature of writerly thought; even your subconscious starts to think in terms of story structures eventually.  But more often than not, you end up having to impose a certain amount of cold calculation on what you’re doing, if you want to end up with something coherent.

I guess all I’m saying is there is a sub- or semi-conscious bit and a conscious, considered bit to the whole thing, which is neither particularly revelatory or insightful.  Mildly interesting to muse on how this whole thing happens, though.

For what it’s worth (not a lot), my entirely unsustantiated guess at bits of the process that might cause problems for an aspiring writer (and published writers too, he says sheepishly, holding his hand up): not giving the Exploration, semi-conscious bit enough time; not having got into the habit of thinking dispassionately and instinctively enough about the Construction bit.  Once you’ve had a bit of practice and got your head in the right pattern of thought, it becomes much easier to recognise a more or less satisfying character arc, or closure or resonance, but if you don’t instinctively know what it feels like to write or read such things, it can be tricky.

I think.  Maybe.  Oh, I don’t know. How do you turn an idea into a publishable story?  Shrug.  Go ask someone else, please.

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