Writing Lessons from My Younger Self

I’ve recently been doing a little creative writing… In fact this was always my first love, but during my postgraduate degree days I’ve channeled that interest into academic writing, which is not as dissimilar as you might think.

In revisiting the long trail of half-written fiction from my past, I’ve seen how much my writing has changed over the years. I started impulsively writing a novel at the age of twelve, coinciding with learning to touch-type (a revolutionary skill), and during my teens I cranked out a slew of fantasy and historical novels that were variously shallow, melodramatic, and improbable. They were filled with immortal prose:

The afternoon sun was warm, wispy clouds drifted lazily across the blue sky, and cardinals swooped and played  together.

This, the opening sentence to my first novel. What a grabber! In fact these words came to my mind the other day as I was walking outside, in weather aptly described here, though minus the cardinals. Do cardinals actually swoop and play together in real life?

I think my writing got better over the years. However, I also drifted towards a different set of problems. When I look at my later jottings of story ideas, I’m always surprised that a concept which seemed huge and magnificent to me at the time is really nothing but a loose set of atmospheres and ideas, almost bereft of plot or character. One might say it was maturity and thoughtfulness gone too far.

In fact, my younger self, pounding unselfconsciously away at the family computer, knew two things that I feel are worth revisiting, and are actually good basic advice for writing.

1. Write regularly, whether you feel like it or not

You know what I did when I was a teenager? It sounds so preposterous now. I decided that I would spend an hour a day writing, whether or not I wanted to. And I do remember some days, when the plot wasn’t going well, sitting and waiting for the clock to run out, looking forward to the end, suffering under this entirely self-imposed schedule! Of course it’s funny, because how many fourteen-year-olds impose that kind of structure on themselves to achieve goals entirely of their own making? I took myself way too seriously. But at the same time, not only is that exactly the writing advice you hear everywhere – set a time, write regularly – but I adopted that plan precisely because, in my naiveté, I did take myself quite seriously. It didn’t seem unrealistic to me to assume that I could have been a brilliant novelist by the age of eighteen if I only plugged away. While that makes me smile ruefully now, I do think that level of seriousness and optimism is exactly the way to succeed at a self-imposed goal. The seriousness goes hand in hand with the gritty discipline: I imposed a schedule because I took my writing so seriously; and conversely, it’s sticking to that kind of structure that makes any craft a serious one. If you stick to it, you will take yourself seriously, and very likely other people will as well.

2. In good fiction, stuff happens

Now, hmmm, I’m thinking whether there are exceptions to this. I’m tempted to blacken the names of some of the twentieth-century writers that make me want to bash my head against the table. But let’s leave aside any possible nuances of debate over the terms ‘happen’ and ‘good fiction’, and simply say – in the case of a book that I want to read for enjoyment, one that I will pay 40p to reserve at the library, one that I will eagerly save to start only after leaving the house for a holiday, one that will make me sorry when it’s over – in that kind of book, stuff always happens.

I mention this because my older self became esoteric, trying to capture auras and atmospheres and ideas in my writing; whereas my younger self would introduce a plague and famine and kill two people within the course of a chapter. I certainly didn’t have a handle on the art of suspense. But in a way, big stuff happening is better raw material, ripe for elaboration, than a vague notion. Even in the novels that are profound and thoughtful, and even in those that are slowly paced, things do happen: people decide, betray, sacrifice, discover, adventure, deceive, try, and fail. Also die. This focus on stuff happening is what makes my first few novels, although head-bashing in their own way in their bathos and abruptness, at least vaguely interesting in a plot summary. At least, if you asked me what happened in The Last of the Unicorns (oh yes, that was the title!), I could tell you, and although you’d laugh, in the narrating and responding we’d have the bare bones of a good storytelling experience. So, to my older self, I say: make stuff happen.

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