Here’s a short interview with her that underlines a key piece of advice to all writers.
I want to share with you one of my contemporary writing heroes. I’ve been fascinated, enthralled and educated by the writing of Elizabeth George for many years. I have a well thumbed copy of her book on writing, ‘Write Away’ on my shelves.
Here’s a short interview with her that underlines a key piece of advice to all writers.
Which hat are you wearing as you write? The question isn’t as mad as thinking I sit here wearing a fetching straw decorated with flowers, though that might be fun and help me tune into a character.
It relates rather to being able to separate out who you are in all the strands of the writing process. And it points to the biggest problem I’ve met in my own progress and talking to others.
We confuse writing with critiquing. All of us have an inner critic which operates in many areas of our lives; in writing especially it’s a killer. If we write a sentence then immediately judge it as rubbish, it stops us moving on to the next sentence because we think we have to fix the last one before we move on.
A few years ago I interviewed an American who’d written for Hollywood and his language about this was off-putting but accurate. He called the first version of what he wrote on any project, the vomit draft. Sounds horrible, but he meant that the words poured out and he didn’t stop them. He didn’t care how un-grammatical it came out; how illogical it seemed or how rubbish his dialogue. The important thing was that it came out.
Everything could be fixed. That was his motto and I took his point. We live in the days of computers and programs. We can write a scene, not know where it belongs and understand it will become clear, at some point.
When I think of those writers with their candles and quill pens, I realise how lucky I am to have this ease of changing anything and if necessary, everything, about what I write.
There’s a quote I love from the American writer James Michener, ‘I’m not a very good writer, but I’m a very good re-writer.’
That's my aim and it will be a work in progress as long as I keep writing.
Despite possible appearances, we writers can be sensitive souls. That’s not exaggeration because we sit with characters and words in our heads that only we can hear. We take the risk of putting them on paper and at some point, showing them to others.
This latter risk is for me the equivalent to being bitten by a horde of mosquitoes. We know how small they are and we also know what damage their bites can inflict. There’s the initial bite, then there’s a swelling and then that terrible urge to itch.
The initial bite in writing terms can be as fleeting as the real bite and come in the form of a frown or a shrug of the shoulders or negative comment. I’ve always marked the phrase ‘damning with faint praise’. When it comes from someone you think on your side, it can hurt worse than the stranger’s criticism.
The swelling can take the form of deflation or irritation as your system wants to protect itself from criticism. The urge to itch is that point in the night where you wake up and remember the negative comments.
My advice about showing your writing to family or friends is simple. Don’t.
Don’t show any of your writing, especially at a beginning stage to anybody who a) hasn’t been trained to offer feedback or b) hasn’t in their life written anything they’ve shown to others.
If they’re friends, they may overpraise you because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Underpraise you if they want to stop you making a fool of yourself, as they think, or brush you off by saying they don’t read critically.
If we want to develop as writers, we always have to be brave enough to share with others. The problem is that unless we can find a reliable, professional assessment, it’s hard for us to know how well we’re writing. What makes sense when you write it doesn’t always when you read it back. Even less when others read it.
I’ve preferred to work generally with one mentor at a time. Too many offering multiple choices doesn’t help me. It’s a personal choice who you pick, but you need to feel they’re objective, sympathetic and can offer suggestions to help you think in a different way.
When you find someone who ticks the boxes for you, cherish them and build a relationship. It pays dividends in the end, even if you have to invest money to make it happen.
Owning up to writing fiction and how important a part of my life it’s become in the last few years has felt scary. That fear has stopped me talking about it, except to a few people; writing about it; showing it to others, apart from a few people.
A lot of the work that needed to be done was in the way I viewed it. I came into fiction writing through business writing. I came into business writing as a practical service to others, who didn’t have the facility with words I seemed to take for granted.
Long before even the business writing began, I displayed on my desk a piece of an advert, I think from one of the writing courses. PUBLISHED WRITER it said. I added in biro, I AM A. It sat looking at me each day and still I did nothing about it. I share this because this internal viewing of our wish to write, our need to write is critical. Just as if you want to run a marathon you need to run as would be writers we need to write.
Whatever activity speaks to us from some gut level, we have to honour it. Accept it and acknowledge that without beginning, we’re not being true to ourselves. It’s a tricky subject and I waited for years, not believing I could do anything so reckless as claim to be a writer. Being a librarian worked wonders to widen my horizons. Meeting writers in my work impressed me. It also depressed me because to me they seemed like ‘others’. Other people showed more skill, aptitude, knowledge. Many of them wrote factual books on subjects in which they were acknowledged experts. I didn’t feel myself expert in anything.
With fiction I had a different set of excuses. No inspiration; no ability to create characters; no feeling for dialogue. And yet in my past I’d told silly stories to a younger cousin. Created a story out of a Bible parable which had made people smile and tell me they’d enjoyed it. Loved conversation.
I know I’m not alone in this problem. I’ve met many over the years in different settings who tell me, ‘I write but only for myself.’ Fair enough but it’s also fear that stops anyone being prepared to go further and share what they write.
We’re given certain skills and abilities at birth. It can take a lifetime to own to those. Without the owning up and the honouring of what we’ve been given, we’re short changing ourselves… and others. How many times have we learned from others? Shouldn't we let others learn from us by sharing?
I have to say I didn’t set out to write a series. The first book in the series was simply about a group of three women, one in particular, who surfaced from my unconscious to become companions. J B Priestley wrote the novel The Good Companions which I read on train journeys on my way to work as a library assistant. These women have become my good companions and have accompanied me through a few years of change and major events in my life. They turned my one effort at their story by sheer force of their personalities. Despite that first draft being very badly written, what survived from that was their relationship.
Quite simply I wanted to know what they did next. How would they react to their circumstances; tackle their problems; find solutions to allow freer, wider lives than they lived when they met.
Theirs wasn’t the first novel I’d attempted. I started somewhere around 2002 and it was probably the sixth, to be completed that is. In 2002 I’d challenged myself to write a novel simply to find out if I could write one with a beginning, a middle and an end.
We each as writers have to find our own method of attempting novels. Some plan to the nth degree and don’t deviate. I can’t do that. Though I've realised the stages in producing a novel and can separate out the crucial ones of writing and editing. Need quite different mindsets as I'll share with you.
Now I find a combination of planning and doing helpful but at the beginning I have to dive in and meet the characters so to speak. That begs the question who controls the story? I’ll leave that for another post. For now I’d say for me, I can’t tell until I begin.
Can be described as an adventure or the most scary thing in the world. Or both depending upon my mood at any given moment.
As I approach this new year of 2019, I want to meet it as honestly as I can. Who knows what it will bring? Whatever it is I want to be open. That means admitting to a large part of my life that I’ve hugged to myself mostly till now. Just as I’ve been guided to start The Releasing Voice blog, I’ve been nudged in the direction of becoming more transparent about my novels.
The title Journeys of the Heart is the current title for what at the moment are three novels in different stages of writing/editing.
In this blog I’ll share how I came into writing fiction. The challenges it’s brought me and the revelations for me in meeting those challenges.
This is the time to stand up and say yes I write non-fiction but I also write fiction. And I’m proud of that. It’s time to own up to this strand in my life that’s stretched and widened till I can’t say anymore that I do this just as a hobby. It’s developed into a way of looking at life with its ups and downs; its challenges and its obstacles.
Writing fiction has changed me. I hope for the better. Because in working with my characters, I’ve had to examine and observe views other than mine. Widen my perspective in what works and doesn’t. What the human spirit can endure and shine through.
If it all sounds heavy I want to reassure you. Most of all I write fiction because I love it. Love shaping the sentences. Allowing the characters to react and show me what’s possible.
However else I might describe the exploration, I can’t use the word boring. It keeps me amused, engaged and absorbed. I look forward to continuing as long as I can and sharing it with you.