Monday, October 4, 2010


Dear You--
I wrote much of GAMES OF THE HANGMAN  here

Just in case you think this is a thinly disguised guide to Las Vegas, which seems to be synonymous with sin in the American psyche if Google is any guide, I had better disabuse you up front. Instead, it’s a short piece designed to help creative writers, aspiring or otherwise, avoid some of the more obvious pitfalls of our difficult business, and to have a sense that though the world does not yet recognize their genius, there is someone out there who understands them and wants to help.

To be clear, I’m using ‘sinner in a lay sense’ – as shorthand for a fallible human being – and not as a pitch to scare donations out of a congregation. Further, I don’t think there is anything salacious in this particular piece. If you want that, then, if you are over 18, I advise you to read my books where most of the vices and inclinations of mankind are covered one way or another in suitably graphic (but tasteful) detail. That said, I have one friend, a nuclear scientist – which may explain his eccentricities - who was so concerned that his children might read something unsuitable that he took a razor blade and excised some 30 pages from Games Of The Hangman. Not many people would care to dwell upon this, but we have some strange people looking after our nuclear weapons.

In truth, I’ve made so many mistakes throughout my writing career that it’s a wonder I’m still writing, but I console myself with the fact that such is indeed the case; and that, although I started late, I still have written eight books, reached the lofty heights of the New York Times Best Seller List, receive fan mail from all over the world, and am a contented man when I’m allowed to practice my craft - as opposed to doing the things which so many other people think I should be doing. I have a sneaking suspicion that people, as a whole, regard us writers as vaguely subversive; and they are, of course, exactly right because our job isn’t just to illuminate the human condition, but to question the status quo, and inspire change for the better. Or perhaps I’m kidding myself, and our role is primarily to relax and entertain. I believe we do more than that, but there are worse fates.

And now to the sermon: 

1. Get a grip; make your mind an ally. The human mind is such a truly extraordinary thing, unique in every case and capable of such significant achievements, that it is scarcely surprising that getting a grip on just one – one’s own - is an unending task at which most of us are only moderately successful. Fatigue, emotion, diet, medications, drugs, alcohol, and life in general, all seem to conspire to undermine optimum mental efficiency. Yet, if one wants to become a good writer and achieve adequate success, developing some degree of mental discipline – difficult though it may be - is essential. Clearly, first of all, you have to master the plethora of skills required to actually write – no easy task in itself – but, perhaps of even greater importance is cultivating an ability to master your fears, to deal with the inevitable ups-and-downs that are a feature of any creative artist’s life, and, above all, to persist regardless of rejections, criticism, financial setbacks, your own failures, and whatever else life may chose to throw at you. In short, you need to develop a high degree of mental resilience, and be able to master your fears, because you need to know that the life of a committed creative writer, whether successful or otherwise, is rarely easy. This stems not just from your circumstances, whatever they may be, but from the very nature of a writer’s mind. The very attributes, which is make us both want and able to write, such as relentless intellectual curiosity, and a passionate desire to communicate (linked, paradoxically with a need for long periods of solitude), are scarcely those which contribute to peace of mind, or make writers easy to live with (with all the attendant consequences). But, such is a writer’s condition. 

2. Write every day – even if you initially write drivel. That doesn’t matter. Most writers-in-waiting don’t write nearly enough. They confuse talking about their aspirations with doing the deed. But talking isn’t writing; and neither is thinking about it. Writing is what counts and the initial objective must be to get comfortable with the process of writing – to make it a conditioned reflex, part of your muscle memory. Think of it as basic training. You can be one of the elite later. The interesting thing about writing a lot is that, without realizing it, your skills will improve. Remember, primarily you learn about writing by writing. True, the process takes years. Equally true, the satisfaction one gets from writing well is extraordinary. Here I don’t want to dismiss the benefits of teachers, mentors, university courses and the like; but – in essence – to make you understand that writers are, essentially, self-taught. I’m surprising myself by writing this, but writing isn’t a scientific discipline underpinned by absolutes: Though there are rules and techniques and traditional best practices, it is more a journey of growing enlightenment. That sound religious which is not what I mean. Instead I’m talking about a something more akin to Zen. When you get there, you’ll understand in a heartbeat. 

3. Get comfortable with the tools of your trade. Your tools are likely to be: a computer; a pen; a notebook; a recorder; and a camera (the precise mix is up to you). Keep all of them with you all of the time, if you can (easier said than done); and practice with them constantly until their use becomes a reflex. Change them as little as possible. It is all too easy to become obsessed with the latest and greatest technology, but that tends to be a distraction from your priority – which is to write. Further, if you aren’t intimately familiar with the electronic tools of our trade – often complex devices with fiddly controls - you will lack confidence in their use, and you will be forced to focus on your equipment when you should be thinking of your interviewee, or whatever should be the object of your attention. Conversely, if you are entirely experienced and comfortable with such tools as you need, your confidence will not only help you, but it will encourage your interviewees to relax and talk more freely. Putting all of that another way, become professional.

4. Learn to observe, and to pay attention to detail. The world around you is an endless source of inspiration, but to benefit from that you have to look, listen and contemplate – and not insulate yourself with earphones, or driving, or the endless other distractions that are available. Tragically we are losing the ability to observe because, apart from all the other obvious reasons, observation takes time. It’s not just a matter of seeing something. There is also a process of analysis, of putting matters in context, of zeroing in on what is significant, of noting the incongruous – and much else. Hard to believe that such fundamental capabilities are being lost but such is the case.

5. Learn how to record what you observe. This isn’t just a matter of technology – because your mind will always be your primary resource – but of self-discipline. You have to practice note-taking so that your notes can prompt your mind to recall events accurately, substantively, and in adequate detail.

6. Appreciate the advantages of researching alone. If you want a vacation, then, by all means, take a partner or go with a group. However if you want people to really trust you and confide in you, then do your research alone. When you are alone, your focus is invariably outwards. If you are traveling with even one friend, your focus will tend to be on your friend. As always, there exceptions to this, but appreciate that there other advantages to researching alone: a single person is inherently less intimidating; people are more likely to confide in you and to ask you to join them. True, a single person is less secure than when accompanied but whether the risks are acceptable or not is something only you can decide on a case by case basis.

7. Research isn’t writing. The trick with becoming a writer is to learn to enjoy the writing even more than the research. If you don’t do that, there is a danger that you’ll spend so much time researching, you won’t devote enough time to writing. It’s a common trap especially if you are writing something like a researched action thriller. But it is vital that you rein in your curiosity – especially in this age of the internet and focus on your number one priority – which is to write.

8. Write out a summary of what you are going to say before you write the full thing. That may sound like commonsense, but a truly amazing number of people start writing without really knowing where they are going – and then waffle. Determining what you are trying to say before you say it can be remarkably helpful. If a synopsis seems too demanding at the initial stage, then just make a list of key points. Writing involves much more list-making than one might think.

9. First time around, concentrate on getting a draft down on paper – and take risks. In short, write – get the story down - and don’t agonize over trying to find the perfect word or phrase. That will come. Have faith in a good night’s sleep and your subconscious. Taking risks refers to using words or phrases which are outside the conventional. If you fail to include them, the end result may well be perceived as bland. On the other hand, if you are too outrageous then your writing may well be perceived as over the top. Either way, you are better off taking risks the first time around and making changes during the re-write

10. Learn, not just how to re-write, but to enjoy the process. Why so? Because you can almost always do so much better the second time. You probably won’t appreciate that at first, and regard re-writing with some impatience, but when you find that you can improve your work significantly by making seemingly minor changes, you’ll get the re-writing bug (and it will serve you well).

11. Appreciate that no one knows how well you can write better than you. Listen to what others say, but follow your inner voice. That will take time to develop, but it will come. Be aware that just because someone is an editor, perhaps with decades of experience, does not mean that he or she is right. Understand that editors, who have too much to read and too little time, and who are conditioned to look for flaws, have a tendency to skim and do not read in the same way as the public. Further, editors have their biases and prejudices, and tend to be commercially driven, and do not necessarily understand the reading public as well as they profess. In addition, their treatment of you may well be guided as much by the personal chemistry between you, as by your writing. In contrast, feedback from general readers – who don’t know you personally so whose comments are entirely initiated by your work - is invaluable. Of course, you may be lucky enough to run up against that rare animal, ‘THE GREAT (SABER-TOOTHED) EDITOR’, in which case you are singularly fortunate.

12. Understand that writing is a people business – and network. This may be the hardest lesson of all because many writers are naturally introverts, and prefer to write rather than to engage with their fellow humans. Nonetheless, one’s talent alone is rarely sufficient. In addition, one needs the help of others because the primary ingredient of success is who you know; who likes you; who advances your interests at the right time; who decides to back your talent instead of another’s. It goes against the grain for many of us to accept this, but that doesn’t make it less true. So factor in the human element from the very beginning, network as much as possible, and never be afraid to ask for help.

I’m going to close this short opus by reflecting that although the figures indicate that making a living out of creative writing is statistically near impossible, a surprising number of people I have known, who have persevered in their respective creative spheres have succeeded – at least to an extent that makes them content. Beyond that, they have retained their integrity, accumulated a body of work which gives them deep satisfaction, and are proud of what they have achieved.

1 comment:

  1. Good list of tips, Victor.

    We can never get too good at making the best use of the tools of our trade.

    Doreen Pendgracs