You dream of mermaids in a world of gilt jellyfish, girls who drop flowers and gemstones when they speak, men who battle monsters to rescue girls they have only seen in paintings.
The world of your imagination is so beautiful, so luminous, it defies description. So why is it so hard to make it real on the page?
Now think of those amazing stories you want to tell as existing in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. You’ll need a Rosetta Stone and a dictionary to make your tales meaningful to anyone other than yourself.
If you think that sounds hard, that’s because it is.
I’ve been publishing professionally for over 20 years now – writing for over 30 – and I must confess I’m only beginning to get a handle on how to tell a good story. That’s after writing five novels, publishing two, plus essays, poetry, over a hundred articles, and so on.
This is not false modesty on my part. You may be born with a gift, but as with any gift, you need practice. Writers aren’t writers so much as they’re hardened, seasoned labourers with callouses on their brains to prove how hard they’ve worked.
A good many people have asked me for advice on writing. Here’s the answer I always give, whether to my creative writing students or Joe Blow on the street: read voraciously. Write like there’s no tomorrow.
When you read you learn, even unconsciously, the techniques and styles that will make your own work good. You’ll likely stumble upon styles and genres and even characters or plots that make the hair stand up on you arms. You need to be inspired, to feed your imagination, in order to grow your own talents.
Thomas Wharton, a man I consider a truly great writer, once wrote that he writes the books he wishes existed. But you can only know what’s missing in your life by reading absolutely everything else on the planet. And let’s face it: if you don’t like to read then you’re not likely to put up with the continual self-punishment that is the writing life.
Writing demands sacrifice. You can’t become good at your instrument unless you give it a whirl every day. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting writers are martyrs (although, let’s face it, some are).
What I’m saying is that to become really good at writing, to become a talented and fluid writer, requires discipline and practice. It also requires the ability to look at your own work and tear it all apart, only to begin again. (More on editing in a later post.)
Try keeping a journal. Consider it a book of observances if you want, a place to stretch your imagination and try out your budding superpowers. If you find journals suspect, why not test yourself by giving yourself writing exercises each day? Write for five minutes straight, without pause, on any topic at all. Or you could pick a more structured exercise: write about an object from two or even three different perspectives, with different styles and tones.
The more you write the more fluid and in control you will become over your subject matter. Soon enough it won’t take you seven years to painstakingly transcribe that luminous flash in your brain into a 300 page novel worthy of the world’s pickiest readers… It will only take you one. Or two. If you’re lucky.