I am back. My grateful thanks to the followers who have waited and waited for a new post and a big open-arm welcome to the followers who have joined me recently, in spite of there having been no posts for so long.
I will be continuing with my ‘First Aid for Writers’ posts but as these were lengthy and time consuming to prepare, posting weekly meant there was never going to be time to share other thoughts and experiences with you. If I was to make those posts shorter (easier for me) I feared they would end up like so many other writing related posts; telling you what you should be doing but with few clues how to begin, or what the pitfalls might be, and no practical suggestions or exercises to help you deal with your difficulty. So, not much help at all, really. I will post My Fiction Writers Repair Kit ‘First Aid’ posts as often as I can with a few other kinds of writing posts between and if there is anything specific that you need help with, you can let me know.
Last year was an awful year in which I did very little writing and yet I was still being creative in small ways. I did some quilting which I hadn’t done since my early twenties, I learned to embroider, I made fabric houses, decorated matchboxes and began to draw every day. At first I copied things for practice but then began trying my own designs for quilts and fabric pictures. It certainly had a therapeutic effect although this was not the original intention and I began to wake up feeling joyful each morning and looking forward to creating something, even if it wasn’t a story or a poem. The photo on today’s post shows the ‘Winter Matchbox House’ I made as a Christmas present for a friend who had been ill. The idea is not mine, nor the artwork (but that of a talented blogger that I follow, Margaret Muirhead at http://homemadecity.com/matchbox-house/ but it allowed me to enjoy making a hurried gift for a friend without having to worry about one of my own designs going awry. The little person inside is my own addition. It is a little me, ready to dispense hugs as required. I love how repeated exposure to others people’s ideas over the year has prompted so many of my own; that I will learn to shape in my own way eventually. It is much the same with writing.
I may have stopped writing for a while but I didn’t stop reading. I worked my way through novels I bought long ago because I felt I ought to read them, rather than because I wanted to. I read short story collections I had downloaded onto Kindle and forgotten about. Most of all I read poems. I revisited poems I had stuck in scrapbooks years ago, I looked more closely at all the poetry collections I were squeezed into my bookshelves, I unearthed old Poetry Review magazines and came across a couple of poetry blogs,(https://josephinecorcoran.wordpress.com/ and http://anthonywilsonpoetry.com/, with posts that were always food for thought and a pleasure to read; little sanity packages bestowing wisdom and honesty and introducing me to new poets and poems, some of which took my breath away.
During this time, an old friend came to visit. We had known each other since we were children in India. She wanted to record her parents’ story she said but was not sure where to begin. She thought she might like to write a novel. I told her I had just started reading novels again after years of reading short stories but didn’t much care to write one and not the sort of novel most people seemed to want to write, anyway. She did read novels from time to time, she told me, though mostly she enjoyed reading non fiction. I think it is important to say, here, that she is an educated, multi talented woman with a high powered job, used to communicating verbally and in writing, but she had never written any fiction.
We were driving to the local shops, talking about writing on the way. I happened to mention that much of my fiction was based on real events. “A sort of “autobiography with lies,” I said and laughed. She seemed puzzled.”But they say that to write, you have to read” she said. Why, she wondered, if I was using my own life as raw material, did I need to read in order to write fiction. I then had one of those moments where so many answers presented themselves at once, that I couldn’t say anything at all. I thought about it for a while and said, “I think there are two answers to your question, depending on whether you mean ‘in order to write in general’ (which suggests learning to write well, whether it’s fiction or not), or to write a novel, specifically.”
I want to tell you what I said to her and, though it may be obvious to many of you especially if you have been writing for a while, clearly there are people who don’t quite understand why it is important to read if you want to write.
Lets start with the novel:
If you want to write novels then the main reasons to read novels are:
- To learn how they work: to discover ways of narrating or structuring, beginning and ending, the possible uses for divisions (parts, chapters, or none) within novels and so on. Any one of these components may suggest an option that you had not considered using.
- To extend your knowledge of what is possible: As you read more novels you will come across more writers that you enjoy and who will influence your writing. If you read contemporary fiction you will be exposed to topics that are current and, especially among contemporary literary novels, you may come across differences in content and style that surprise and excite you. You will have more confidence planning and structuring your own novel when you have a good idea of how others have managed it.
- To grow used to reading as a writer: Examine how writers have elicited the response they required of you, as a reader. What will you do to create the response you need when you write?
- To familiarise yourself with the kind of novel you want to write: Reading dozens of your favourite style of novel, a detective novel for example, will get you accustomed to the characteristics of that particular genre and of variations that may exist within it. You will begin to get an instinctive feel what works best and why.
All of what I have said above applies to anyone who wants to write short stories, or non fiction, or poetry, too, because they all draw on similar methods of engaging a reader.
If you want and like to write but haven’t decided what you want to write, and it isn’t necessarily going to be a novel, what then? Well, in this case you will not so much be reading to internalize the structure, rhythm, pace or conventions of a specific genre or type of novel, as reading to familiarize yourself with how words work and what you can do with them. You will discover ideas that resonate and writers who ‘speak’ to you.
- Reading gathers grist for your writing mill.
- Reading gives you ideas. A non-fiction might give you an idea for a short story. A newspaper article can lead to a poem. I once read an article in a magazine about a rich woman who fell in love with a black jazz player in the 1930’s and left her life to be with him and champion his work. I was moved by the story, yet the poem I wrote as a result did not draw on the information in the article as much as the picture it had created in my mind.
- Reading ABOUT writing can be helpful: I am surprised by how many people I know disagree with this idea. Perhaps they think such books are too prescriptive. Some are. Others less so. Some are goldmines. I suggest that you read some. (Check out the ones that are recommended in online bookstores. Read the reviews) and see how they might be useful to your needs. Try out some of what they suggest; discard what doesn’t work for you. The trick is to regard these books as offering you possibilities, not rules. You may find that one tells you the main character MUST be introduced in the first paragraph, yet you will discover many exceptions to this. Try both, in different types of stories and see what you discover. Reading critically and trying out different methods is never time wasted. I must have read close to sixty of these ‘How To’ books when I started writing but I can truthfully say that I found something useful in every one.
So, yes, I base my fiction on real life but this is the seed, the starting point, only. Then I add in ideas and techniques that I have learned from my reading and from trying them out for myself when I come to write. After all, fiction is not real life but has to be crafted so that it seems to be.