How to begin? What to say? When to exaggerate? When to imply? What’s best said as a joke? What’s best said very, very seriously? You can waste a whole day’s work – in fact more: a week, a potential novel’s worth of time – scanning the internet for inspirational quotes and witty epigrams that seem to sum up exactly how you view the writing process.
“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”
“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.”
“Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”
But for me – for any of that advice to be actionable or helpful – I had to find my own frame; my own mantra. Because if clichés should be avoided like the plague, and rules are made to be broken, how could anything that someone else said, however eloquently, inform my work? Especially when one gets the sense that writers’ advice to other writers tends to be a glib attempt to hold a magic key in their hand while, in the same gesture, making it disappear. How do I know which words to cross out, Mr.
Mark Twain?How am I supposed to think through my fingers when all they’re thinking about is rolling another cigarette? How do I stop myself telling too many jokes, or shoehorning one in because I feel the tone has dried up when in fact it’s just making the sentence all clunky like a pack mule that was already overburdened before I added the 90s era boombox?
No, I say. No more advice. Fuck off Stephen King. That’s the point a lot of people hit, when they just want to cut their own path, and to hell with the greats. This is a good thing. This is work time. The one solitary piece of wisdom you should take with you on this journey is “just write”. Just climb up that hill. Because mantras – secrets and spells – from those that have succeeded before you do nothing but feed the demons that say ‘I cannot wield this magic!’. The inspirational quote set against a cloud with burgeoning sunlight is no more mighty or powerful than the thoughts in your own head. The person who said it has simply practiced brevity and, as the Simpsons once put it: “Brevity… is Wit”.
I think the best piece of advice I can give is to find your own mantra. It’s not really advice, but it certainly helped me. I was struggling with voice and exposition; when to play dialogue for realism and when to let it volley back and forth; what to cut and what not to cut, when I realised there was a simple way of looking at this that I had missed.
“Good Writing is Good Company.”
When a book is like a friend you turn to at night. When the insights are profound but gently built to. When everything is given a tangible context. When the characters are flawed but sweet in their humanity and viewed with a fair and even-handed lens. When the jokes are in-jokes between you and your buddy the writer. When they suddenly say the most naked and honest thing you’ve ever heard, and you realise that it had fascinated you for your whole life but you would never have said it yourself. When even passing the book cover on the shelf feels like a photograph of an old room you used to play in.
Sometimes good company is harsh. Sometimes it fucks with you – tests you – or plays tricks on you. But you are never the butt of the joke, and while there may be despair for the future of mankind, the human condition is never despaired of. Not you, dear reader: you know better. Good company means different things for different people, of course. Techie science fiction and the endless info-dumps can be, for a mind yearning to be blown, good company. Painful human insights about betrayal and mourning are, for others, good company. Some people just like to hang out with funny people, and yet – funny thing is – funny people often speak the harshest truth of all.
As I began to write this blog I realised when exactly it was I came up with this mantra. It was shortly after watching my eldest daughter reading the first few pages of a Jacqueline Wilson novel. I had never before seen her chuckle to herself with her face in a book. It was the sort of little, unspectacular laugh that she might have patronised me with after some godawful dad joke. But she wasn’t wrapped up in my arms. She was, metaphorically, sitting next to Jacqueline Wilson and listening to her telling stories. My daughter was enjoying some good company.
And what better reason to write than to make some friends, and tell them all about things? Good things, bad things, funny things; things that are true and things that ought to be true. What better company to be than good company? I hope that my mantra helps you with your work. But more importantly I hope that you find your own mantra, and that some day it graces the Internet, against a background of clouds with burgeoning sunlight, whereupon aspiring authors will cherish it and secretly resent your wisdom – wisdom which you will dismiss with frustrating humility as something you completely pulled out of your arse when all you were trying to do was shut down an interviewer’s awkward bloody question.