Being a successful writer is writing what only you can write

Unless you’re naturally gifted, to be good at anything it makes sense that you need to work hard. This is the case in all walks of life; no one has the right to pick up a guitar, say, and start playing like Jimmy Page.

So hard work, yep. What else specifically, then, about writing do you need to do? Most people write to some extent every day, even if it’s emails and instant messaging, reports and use cases. This is something, but writing a number of emails probably isn’t going to make you a good novelist or poet.

If you want to learn more about creating these kinds of works, it’s normally the internet that will be there for you, like it so often is. There’s a huge amount of information about what you should be doing: some of it useful, some of it fundamentally wrong. This article is fairly typical: there’s lots of good stuff. It’s by a self-published author called Hugh Howey who passes on some advice based on his story.

Where it came unstuck for me, was in the idea that you should ditch prose in favour of plot (point six), specifically this sentence: “Readers prefer the clear and concise delivery of an exciting story more than the flowery and sublime delivery of utter ennui”

Which readers? All of them?

The article itself deals with the notion of success, which seems to be defined as ‘published’, and ‘sells a lot’.

I thought long and hard about it and I think it comes down to what my perception of art is and what it used to be.

When I was at school, ‘art’ was drawing and painting, and some crafts. Basically, it encompassed anything that was in the realm of an ‘art’ class. English wasn’t art, because it wasn’t done in art lessons: it was done in English lessons. English was never explained to me in artistic terms, and I didn’t have the critical thinking skills I have now.

It was academic. You dissected a book or poem; you moved on. No one ever explained that practically anyone could be an author if they felt they had something to say.

I learnt it all as an adult.

I started reading for pleasure. Several years after that, I realised that incessant letter-writing is a mark of some deeper need, and that pleasure can be had from writing an email. The fact I kept a diary meant something, and finally I realised I would quite like to write other things.

This is where I come back to that article: I write because I need to; I need to express myself and this is the medium that suits me and that I get most pleasure and benefit from. It is art. I don’t care about ‘success’ or making a living from it. It would be nice, but that is not the point of art is it? If you want to be ‘successful’, I hardly think oil painting is the option to take, but you don’t have a choice. The article instead comes from a point of view that there’s a formula: you apply it and get what you want. But it’s important to consider first what outcome you want out of writing.

If you want to write fluffy prose and forget about plot, you should do it. Your efforts might only appeal to a handful of people, but they will love it, and you will have your tribe.

If everyone took the approach that their novels have to be about gripping stories to make them publishable, what a poor world we would live in. They’d be nothing outside of the norm, and nothing, in my view, exciting either. I genuinely believe that there’s enough room for someone to write a book that makes no sense whatsoever, and I’m sure they exist, and I’m sure people love them.

So instead of writing to be ‘successful’, and following a formula that someone else has written — the easy thing to resign yourself to — what about working on what you want, whether that’s a six page poem about scaffolding, or a gripping courtroom drama. All these people telling you what you should be doing get a lot right, but they often miss one key thing: write what only you can write. That’s where the hard work will pay off.

P.S. worth noting that I’m not calling out Hugh Howey here: he wrote sound advice based on his story, and that makes total sense. I use his article as it was reading it that sparked this.

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