Ar ysgrifennu / Thoughts on writing

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Is your writing going around in circles?

Some things that might be helpful to you when you're starting out

I'm no expert. And much of what I now know has been learned through trial and error. But I thought it might be useful to make a note of some of the things that have occurred to me, or that have helped me at various times. They may, or may not, help you. 

'How to' books, and how to avoid them. There's an entire industry out there which has its eye on your ambitions to write. Unless you're careful, you can spend a fortune on libraries of books which will 'show' you how to write, and prove that you too can become a successful author. 

I decided early on that I either had time to write or time to read about writing, but no time to do both. I left the 'how to' books where they were and started out on my novel. I had no idea whether I could write. To my mind, there are only two ways of becoming a writer:

  • read a lot of books by writers you know to be good

  • keep writing

Having said that... once you are writing, I would definitely recommend the following resources:

Christopher Fielden's website

An all round excellent website full of tips and practical advice. The lists of short story competitions are particularly useful once you're ready to send out your work. Well worth looking at and supporting.

The Literary Consultancy

If, like me, you don't turn in creative circles, it can be difficult, early on, to find the right people to read your work. Friends can be too kind and other writers are often unwittingly competitive. Getting a professional review of your work can be worth its weight in gold once your manuscript is in relatively good shape. 


The Perils of Social Media or 'Why doesn't my writing experience look like that?'

Social media is a great way to connect with people and tell them about your work. However, for the novice writer, seeing other writers' websites can give a very false impression of what writing is all about. Writers need to post photographs of events and prizes in order to get noticed. But the reality is, those occasions are the rare exceptions. If you are a writer starting out, you may wonder, 'why is my life not filled with launches and awards, smiles, hugs and glasses of wine?' Let me put your mind at rest, or depress you further! This is what a writer's life might look like from the outside:

This is the less than glamorous reality: tired eyes, tons of paperwork and a vast array of Boots reading glasses!

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The wilderness years

I started writing My Beautiful Imperial on April 11 2011.

I remember it well because I wrote the date at the top of the sheet before I started writing.

At the time, I was suffering from severe insomnia and whilst I was tossing and turning trying to get to sleep, the story of Davy and the Imperial would keep emerging. Sometimes, in the small hours of the morning, whole scenes would appear, not just what they looked like but actual sentences too. One night, around 3.30am, it occurred to me that I might as well just get up and write down what was going on in my head. Davy was in a ditch. He was hungover, or most probably still drunk. He had been an amazing sailor and sea captain, but was now old and down on his luck. What had brought him to this ditch in Cardiganshire after such a fascinating career at sea? I put my fingers to the keyboard and started writing. 

The first scene in the book, the prologue, is more or less as it was when I first wrote it, with a few small amendments. From there, I decided that I would just keep writing until I had 30,000 words, which seemed to me, at the time, to be an achievable number of words. After all, degree dissertations were only 20,000 or thereabouts, and I had done a couple of those before. 

On that first morning, I think I probably wrote a good 1,500 - 2,000 words, so 30,000 didn't seem ridiculous.

As I was writing the book, I didn't worry too much about getting everything right. If I wasn't sure of a section, I'd leave it and go back to it later. Sometimes, I wrote scenes that would eventually appear further on in the book. However, on the whole, I wrote Imperial, as it was known whilst I was working on it, in the order it appears now. I carried on counting words until I reached 80,000. After that, I stopped counting. By then, I knew I had something the length of a novel, and all I needed to do was finish telling the story. 

There are many routes to becoming a writer, I'm sure. There is a route now which didn't really exist when I was young - that of the creative writing course. I'm sure that if I was starting out today, this kind of course would have appealed to me. Although, I doubt whether the people around me, my parents in particular, would have felt that there was a viable career at the end of it. Much like art, which I was also interested in, these things did not lead to 'real' jobs. 

Part of me agrees. After all, a writer must have something to say, in both writing and art. I probably didn't have much to say until I was at least in my late thirties. What would I have had to say in my late teens and early twenties? Not a lot, I suspect. That's not to disparage those who do. Or perhaps I am just trying to make myself feel better about being a late developer! 

The advantage of such courses for young people now is that they are working towards a degree, or in some cases, a PhD. No one is going to question whether what you are doing is worth spending time on because at the very least, you will have a qualification at the end of it. Even by virtue of being on the course, people are going to think you're clever. 

If you've taken a different route to writing, the route I have taken for example, you have to spend years in the wilderness. Years when you have nothing concrete to show for your work. You have no course to make you feel clever or to provide moral support. All you have is blind faith, either in yourself or your material. Sometimes you have no faith in either but are just stubborn enough not to give up.

The wilderness is a hard place to be. If you're stupid enough to let  slip (to the wrong person) that you have turned to writing - in between raising a family, holding down a job, running a business, paying the bills - you will almost certainly have to endure many unhelpful comments such as:

  • that's a nice hobby [seriously?]

  • so you plan to be the next JK Rowling? [of course]

  • you're lucky you have the time [at 4am in the morning when you're sleeping?]

These comments seem funny now, but when you're a fledgling writer, they can be killers. I used to hate the words, 'so what do you do?' because I would almost always have to refer to the other far less interesting things that I was involved in just to avoid any discussion. So, for at least the first three or four years, writing was like a slightly seedy secret that I had to keep to myself, for the purposes of self-preservation. 

And for those of you who are just starting out, I cannot emphasise this enough. Don't think that you can share your desire to write with everyone. Some people are brilliant at being supportive, and will invariably say the right thing. Others are not. It's not their fault. It's just that people are made differently. They will be brilliant at something else.

Your craft is a part of you. This seems like such an obvious thing to say. But in the same way that you wouldn't display your bank account for everyone to see, don't think that you can go sharing your creative journey with everyone either. Stay clear of people who will make you feel anything less than great about what you are trying to do. Just talk to them about the weather. Much safer. Some people are only capable of judging how good something is by results - the number of prizes you've won or the published books you have in Waterstones. For the first few years, you won't have any of these.

If in doubt, it's best to keep your journey to yourself, until you have something to show. Your aim is to stay focused on the destination, whether that's writing poetry, short stories or novels. Nurture the fledgling writer in you and treat it with respect. There's no law that says you have to discuss your work before you're ready. 


You're not just writing at your desk

If you're sat at your desk and the words just aren't coming, then get up and do something else. 

I don't know if other writers are the same, but in an odd way, the worst place to write is at your desk. Whole scenes, stories and chapters have frequently written themselves in my head whilst I have been mopping the floor, doing the ironing, or if I'm lucky, walking to the British Library. 

Very often, the process of writing does not involve wondering which word to write next on the page, but rather the physical process of representing in a coherent way - pencil or typing - what comes rushing out of one's head. 

This is not to deny that there are long periods when a single word or sentence has to be agonised over. Certain difficult passages will need to be re-written many times over. 

But the point is, you are not just writing when you're at your desk. If, like me, whole weeks go by without being able to get to a lap-top, you have to find ways of retaining things in your head. This is a good thing to master as you can perfect and hone many passages before they even reach the page. 


  • Try competitions.

  • Get a good chair and desk - I still haven't, and really regret it.

  • Not all advice will be useful to you.

  • Get a professional to look at your work. Don't rely on friends and family. But remember, even professionals sometimes get it wrong.