Sunday, 4 August 2013

Doing My Homework

So, it's taken me about 15 years (and several abandoned manuscripts) to realise that becoming a writer isn't an overnight thing.

Of course I was aware of this concept; I've bought enough "how-to-write-a-novel" books and browsed enough online writing forums to familiarise myself with the idea that being a writer is more often than not a painstakingly slow process but I never truly believed it until recently. I suppose, in my lovely naivety,I always assumed that you either had the gift and the potential to be a writer or you didn't (and no, I still haven't figured out if I have it or not!).

Anyone who has read my previous blog entries will know that I've spent the bulk of my waking life dreaming about being a writer, to the point that whole afternoons have been lost as I ponder who'll play my main character in the movie version of my book and wonder what dress I'll wear to the Oscars when I accept my Best Original Screenplay award (I'm torn between Oscar de la Renta and Prada right now but that could change).

But it's really only in the last 18 months that I've gotten serious about my writing. I've planned my novel meticulously, told people about it, established myself on social media as an aspiring writer and (probably the biggest personal achievement) I finally got over the 1,000 word mark on my wordcount (I'm currently at almost 15,000 words!). I think something finally clicked for me - I finally got the proverbial kick up the arse to take myself and my writing seriously and it really has worked. Not that I'm sticking to my plan; there are days that I switch the laptop, glance guiltily at it every half hour while watching Comedy Central and then switch it off before bed having managed to write zero words, promising myself that tomorrow will be more constructive. Those days still happen, although thankfully they're becoming less regular.

However, it's not just my planning and dedication that's improved. I've also started to think like a writer.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King states "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read and write a lot." Mr King is not alone in preaching this advice, this is basically rule number one in any of the self-help writing books I've already mentioned so I've read it about several (hundred) times.

I'll be honest though, I never really appreciated it because my (simplistic) view was that if I were writing a book, surely reading a different (and probably better) one would distract me? And similarly, wouldn't it be extremely disheartening to read a fantastic book and ultimately realise that anything I write will never in a million years be anywhere near as good?

Both are valid points and I stubbornly stuck by them for several years until I hit a turning point recently and I changed my perspective. I finally started to read books, not as a reader, but as a writer.

For example, I recently read JK Rowling's Casual Vacancy. I adored the Harry Potter series so much so that I cried (yes, really) when I finished Deathly Hallows (on a train too, but the less said about that the better). Personally, I found Casual Vacancy to be a difficult book to read, it was more character than plot driven with a slower pace than I'm used to. But when I started to read it as a writer, I was blown away by Rowling's skill, more so than I was reading Harry Potter. Her ability to "show, don't tell" was phenomenal; small, ubiquitous points littered the narrative providing the reader with greater insight into the characters, almost on a subconscious level.

I was also hugely impressed by her ability to build up tension, at an incredibly slow pace, such to the point that I was tearing through the pages, dying to see what would happen. It went from a book that I could take or leave to a book that I couldn't put down (in fact I ended up getting sunburnt on my face from being so enthralled in it on a sunny day). I know when I write myself, I often rush to get to the exciting part to keep the reader interested. I realise now that this is down to my own anxiety and that the reader will (hopefully) thank me if I slow the pace down and keep the suspense ticking just a little bit longer.

So now, I try to keep my eyes peeled when I'm reading a good book. I know it may seem a bit sad but I'll actually take notes if I notice how something is conveyed smartly by a writer. I never thought I'd need my highlighter pens after my final year college exams but life can surprise you sometimes!

The other point I mentioned was around becoming disillusioned if I read a brilliant book. This unfortunately still happens, some books will always touch my heart in the most magical way. I could read To Kill a Mockingbird a thousand times over without tiring of it and I've yet to make it through a Mitch Albom book without sobbing like a baby. And yet Harper Lee, Shakespeare, Yeats, Orwell, while all literary geniuses, were also people, the same as you or I. Why are they so different to me? They have talent (not sure if I do, jury's still out on that), they were dedicated (I'm writing the book, isn't that dedication?) and they followed their dreams (that's what I'm trying to do, when life doesn't get in the way!).

Don't get me wrong, I'm not comparing myself to these greats, I'm not that deluded (yet). But instead of feeling intimidated by them, I'm trying to feel inspired.

Another positive aspect of reading books while writing one is the feeling of superiority if I write a dreadful book and think Mine is hopefully better than that. I know that that may sound awfully conceited, but that's not my intention. Anyone who knows me knows that I would read any book put in front of me and I've always been a book lover. But since I've started reading as a writer, I've found myself becoming somewhat more critical of other writers. I'm not going to name any names (I don't want to alienate myself from fellow writers before I've even gotten started!) but it does (very rarely) happen that I read a book, struggle to finish it and genuinely think how did that get published? And then I feel a little bit better about myself, take out the laptop and try to get a few more words up on the screen.

So I'm going to keep my reading materials as a constant source of support for me during my novel writing. I switch between different genres and time periods to achieve as much variety as possible. Whenever I read the first page of a new book I have that flicker of hope that I'll come out the other end having learned something and improved my writing in some small way. Because that's what it's all about in the end!

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