What is writing? Is it just putting letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, chucking about a few ‘decorative pieces’ (to break away from the same-old, same-old) such as: . , ? ! “ ‘? In a way, yes. But really NOT!
Funny thing about writing is that it’s not about writing at all. All the stuff about letters, and words, and sentences, and paragraphs, and ‘decorative pieces’, is true, but it’s only about 20% of the work. Most of the work, like 80%, is about thinking, planning, scribbling, researching (reading), and (of course) deleting, changing, editing, rethinking… And remembering! Oh my goodness, there is so much to remember. When you’re half way through a book you need to remember EVERYTHING you’ve already written. You must know your characters as if they were real. You must know where they’ve been, what they’ve said, how they reacted, and you must remember where they’re going, what they’ll do next, how they’ll react, what will happen to them, who they met, when, how and why, and then you must remember the world they’re in – if their office is on the fifth floor, you better frigging remember fifth floor because that kind of detail is vital. Is it any wonder that writers might need ‘head’ space when they’re writing?
Like many writers out there, I cannot afford (at least not yet, fingers crossed) to just write. I have to pay my bills and stretch myself to five different places before I can even think about writing. So, to help me juggle it all I have to be organised.
1. I keep my writing separate from everything else, even though my writing is inspired by everything else in my life. This may sound odd, but I’m sure many writers out there will understand. In lamest terms, it is about separating the material side, while the emotional and metal side remain connected. I have a small space where I write – small as in my tiny desk and ordinary chair can fit, office chair can’t fit. I have a notebook just for my writing. And my head shifts into a different gear when I pick up that particular notebook, especially if I sit in my writing space. I still think about all the things in my life (can’t get those out of my head), but they become secondary. My focus is on the story that I’m writing.
2. I leave lots, and lots, and lots of notes. I have notes about where the characters have been, what they did, how they reacted. I have notes on little details like their bedroom is upstairs, facing west. I have notes on where they need to go next and how they will react, what will happen to them, who they’ll meet and what that character will do to the whole story.
3. I leave a list of all that I have already done. This helps me remember where I’ve been, and it gives me a feeling of success – “my, my, my, look how much I’ve done’. Some days I’ll find I don’t have even five minutes for my writing. Some days, I’ll have only five minutes, but I’ll be tempted to think ‘what’s the point, such short time can’t be enough for anything’. “Remove that thought.” I tell myself, sometimes out loud. Any time I have, whether it’s five minutes or five hours, I use it. Add a word or two. Breathe the air in my writing corner. Refresh my memory. Say hi to my characters. Whatever, I’m there even for five minutes. Eventually, I find it all added up and it’ll give me such an amazing feeling of accomplishment.
4. I leave all the notes I write during the day in one place. At some point, I might find the time to organise them. I have notes on envelopes that contained my electricity bill – hey, it was the only piece of paper I had nearby when the idea came to me. And, when I do organise my notes, I recycle the old papers that I scribbled on, which means I recycle twice; I like to think of it this way, so let it be.
5. (I’ll write this point as advice, you can figure out what I did and where I went wrong, very wrong) Take your time with major decisions like places and names of your characters. DO NOT CHANGE THEM half way through, or once you’ve done the first draft. Changing characters names is a nightmare. Spending more time thinking about this decision is time well spent. As I said in the beginning, writing is really about thinking, or at least more of it is about thinking than writing. There’s a very good reason for that. Once you’ve given your character a name, write down why you chose that name. If you should find yourself doubting the decision, look back on your note and leave the character’s name as it is. Same goes for places. If the story is set in London, oh do NOT change that. Just leave it in London. Write another story set in whatever place that has recently inspired you.
That’s all I will say in this post. Remember that writing is like growing flowers, except that we can’t depend on nature to do the work for us. Planting the seed is the writing in terms of letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and chuck around a few ‘decorative pieces’. What makes the seed turn into a flower is the mystery and the real work a writer has to do.
May all our story be free of: plot holes, two-dimensional characters, inconsistencies, and nonsense.
So, you’ve put months, maybe ever years, into writing your book. You’ve finished it. You want to get it published. You are excited, over the moon. As you should be. It is a big accomplishment. You’re bravely going out there to make your book public. One of the first things you’ll be asked is: What genre is it?
You go off to research different genres and you find your book can fit into more than one. Oh well, you think to yourself how that is no big deal. Oh that is a very big deal. That’s a big No! No! A good, successful book fits nicely into one box. So you start to think about which box to pick. Before too long those ‘boxes’ start to feel like coffins in which your book will be buried, never to be seen. Your hard work, your excitement, your sense of accomplishment is dying as you see your book is dying. There is no saving it.
You start to wonder where you went wrong. You wrote from your heart, a story that you believe in, that you’re passionate about, how could it die like that?
The simple fact is that many authors today write about life; fictional stories inspired by true events. Life is not about genre or boxes, so your story will not fit into the boxes. But that does not mean you should just let your book die.
I like to call my writing ‘genre fluid’. I can’t write to a specific genre, because that doesn’t inspire me. Yet all my books are inspired by one and same objective: My need to influence a positive change in our society. For example:
Immortality of Fireflies (recently published) is a novel, for adults, plot A is love/family/romance, plot B is crime (domestic vs international), there are a lot of secrets in it, there are some funny parts, there is a lot of dialogue, there is even talk about sex, then there is ‘a bit’ about men/women differences – in short, there are all sorts.
Jay the Dracula (Work in Progress – I will be writing about it in the WIP section) is a YA, fantasy about a young Dracula who finds he has the gift of the fairies (this is the worst thing that can happen to a Dracula. Seriously! His grandfather had his head chopped off, carries it under his arm most of the time, yet that is nothing compared to what happened to Jay). The story is about Jay fixing this ‘cosmic mix-up’. Along the way he meets all kinds of mythical creatures. Yet the story takes place in London, so I did not create a ‘new world’.
On the surface, these two books cannot be more different. But if we look beyond the surface we find that my objective in Immortality of Fireflies is to talk about social issues like keeping peace, fighting for justice, seeking improvement in the way we handle the ‘crimes against humanity’, and so on. While Jay the Dracula is a story about perspective, acceptance, moving on against all odds, and finding a solution to your problem that on one else might have. From that perspective, my books are not all that different. So perhaps I do have a genre, it’s just that no one defined it yet. And if I do, I’d like my genre to be more like a bubble that can float away and visit various other boxes. However, I don’t think this is a genre. This is more about writing to a theme. And perhaps I will find readers who prefer to read to a theme rather than to a genre. That remains to be seen.
Until then, write from your heart. Write stories that truly matter. I have nothing against writers who write for the market. But I’m not one of them. And, surely, we can find a little place for writers like me. Honestly, I think there is hope. Look at this vid and the way it mashes in all kinds of genres: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2qGIsOkA64 If TV is doing it, books will do it too. And I think we can experiment with this a lot more in books than in film.
(Thanks to Jessica and co at Sundance Writers’ café for talking about this in the prompt on 13.09.2021.)