A few days ago, a Facebook memory popped up in my feed, back when I was shortlisted in a writing competition for the first time. Hurray! It was the London Independent Story Prize in the UK and a piece I wrote about a golden-orb weaver spider. I didn’t win but it felt great. I get the same feeling anytime a fictional piece I have written gets published. I think it’s to do with making something from nothing.
I’ve been writing short fiction for over a year now. For the most part I’ve been feeling my way as I go, learning what I can from people who know more than I do. I’ve had some small successes but the vast majority of my work remains unreadable, well out of the public eye in bulging folders on my desktop or in the many notebooks I have lying around the house. You can’t have too many notebooks. I’ve been crippled by writer’s block and emerged from the other side scarred and fragile. What a ride.
In that time, I’ve met lots of fellow aspirational wordsmiths who want to have a crack but don’t know where to start. Not everyone has an idea for the great Australian novel but there are so many different ways to explore creative writing that don’t involve huge debt or another degree. Obviously there are many, many experts on the subject and I am not one them.
What I do have, is experience in being inexperienced, I remember what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by the weight of my own expectation, deeply shy, with only a vague sense I wanted to try, and no idea how to do it. I have been that new leaf ready to unfurl and turn its tender face to the sky only to be scorched into ashes under the harsh glare of a burning sun so fast, it barely knew it was ever even alive. It’s called journalism. It teaches you how to write tightly, but just as importantly, it teaches you resilience and it was an excellent background for this particular new leaf.
I thought I’d share, a year on from diving in, some of the excellent advice I’ve been given that has helped me as I venture into writing short fiction.
Journalists (hopefully) learn to not take themselves too seriously pretty early on, and I can’t tell you how brilliant that life lesson is generally and when it comes to writing. Take the work seriously, but not yourself. For every time you start feeling too pleased with yourself in a newsroom, there’ll be a sub-editor to wave your carefully crafted copy in the air over their head, (back in the days when we wrote on paper) shrieking WHO WROTE THIS CRUD in front of your colleagues. They’ll summon you to stand over their shoulder as they peer at your story with narrowed eyes, shake their head in apparent wonder such incompetence could exist in a professional workplace, eventually flex their shoulders as if bracing themselves for the Herculean task ahead, and tap out a new version in seconds that makes, you’ll both agree, much more sense. You can’t take it personally. A thick skin is useful in any environment.
Start small if you want. You don’t need to write the world. I wish I could sit down and bash out a novel, have a solid story in my mind and the will and drive to write it. But we can’t all be Craig Silvey. It’s absolutely ok to write for fun. In fact, given by far the vast majority of writers won’t earn enough to pay for a new set of shoelaces you might as well decide to write for fun from the outset, then anything else is a bonus.
Choose your genre lightly. Try some different stuff and see what you enjoy. It all helps. The skills you learn from writing essays, short stories, flash fiction are transferrable. I have never got further than that but I’m going to assume those same skills will come in handy if I do ever decide I have a compelling idea for a book. I love short fiction, for myriad reasons and it lets me experiment without committing myself to a huge project.
Everyone I imagine, goes about it in their own way. Use your computer or try handwriting in a notebook. Keep a journal. Give yourself a time limit, maybe ten minutes, whatever works. I like to write to prompts or tasks. It helps me if someone tells me to write about chickens for example, something in my brain responds well to direction whereas if I am left to my own devices I get a bit lost. You can get prompts by joining a writing group, google writing prompts or advice for writers. There is so much out there when you look.
You don’t need to get caught up writing a complete story to start with. Just get some words out. I like to start with fragments of a memory, then make things up and I don’t stop for anything. You can go back and worry about spelling mistakes and narrative arcs later.
Once you have some words on paper, you can edit. I always start new drafts in a separate document and keep the old version in case I get carried away with my flame thrower and wreck the story. This is why most of my writing is not very good. I keep it all. My notebooks and computer are full of half written stories that go nowhere, a gazillion drafts of a gazillion stories, it doesn’t matter. Editing is so much fun if you can get past your own head telling you every word you write is either a luminous gem to be nurtured at all costs, or the worst thing anyone in the history of the world has written. Neither of these is helpful.
Put yourself out there. Even if it’s just reading a story aloud to a writing group. It’s terrifying but it gets easier. Look for small micro or short fiction competitions like Furious Fiction which is free to enter and runs every month, there’s Retreat West, Reflex and Bath. You don’t need to win, although that’s brilliant, it’s about developing the habit, having deadlines and a purpose if you’re starting out and you aren’t really sure what you want to write. I promise it will help you. Join Writing WA or the equivalent in your area to keep updated with competitions and resources and sign up for newsletters or author websites where writers offer tips to help you improve. For flash fiction, my genre of choice, I highly recommend Kathy Fish and Tommy Dean and Matt Kendrick. Also, SmokeLong Quarterly and Fractured Lit have excellent examples of short fiction and great craft articles. Many offer fantastic short courses.
Link up with other writers. Twitter has a terrible reputation for snark but it is a fabulous source of good writing communities. I am in three writing groups, two of them are small with trusted close friends who fill me with joy every time we meet, one is much bigger and I use it for resources mostly, but we all support each other as well. You’ll know a good writing buddy when they offer specific solicited advice that makes your work better and they lift you. Anyone who offers unsolicited negative advice should be crushed under the iron heel of your stony indifference.
Writing is such a lovely thing to do. Don’t suffocate your passion by worrying about having something important to say or even who might read it. You’ll find out soon enough if you enjoy it if your only motivation is the writing itself.
Editing is a process you can learn and it’s a really valuable skill. There’s also lots of good articles and resources online free. Hemingway is one good option.
Here’s some of the editing advice I’ve been given over the last year or so that’s worked well for me.
- Focus on the first and last lines. Make them really strong.
- Look for cliches and cut them, find a new way to say what you want to say.
- Look for filler words like ‘that’ and ‘just’ – and cut them if you can.
- Look for any words or phrases that are repeated and change them or make sure you know why they belong.
- Add detail. The more precise the better, smell, sound, a tiny image. A window is a window, but a wooden window where the paint has peeled and the glass is cracked, takes you somewhere specific.
- Burn your adverbs. Burn them all. If you don’t want to because you are convinced they make your story sound better, try taking them out for fun to see. Then burn them fast before you’re tempted to put them back in. (I think there are 24 in this piece- it could use a good edit.)
- When you think you have something that’s ok, read it aloud. Print it out. Get the Read Aloud function on your computer to read it to you. WA author, Susan Midalia gave me this advice and it’s a jewel. It’s something we always did at work with news copy or radio scripts, and it works with fiction, you pick up mistakes you don’t otherwise see and it’s a good way to see if your writing is conversational. Changing the font, (thank you Megan Anderson) helps to see your work with a new eye as well.
- Remember for every rule, there is an exception.
By far the single most helpful piece of advice I have found that I come back to time and time again is this. If you know who said it, I’d love to have the reference.
“You aren’t required to write something good every day, you are only required to keep showing up and hoping.”
Painting: Mavis by Deborah Watt.