“A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” — Franz Kafka
Kafka one said that “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” I say that all writers are assholes but not all assholes are writers. So it’s better to be an asshole who writes than an asshole who doesn’t.
In my own life I often veer dangerously close to just being an asshole. So in the interests of, you know, actually writing — here’s some hard-won writing advice to help keep both of us on the right track.
You can’t be taught how to write
Irvine Welsh once told me how to write.
He said that there are three ways to learn how to write — read a lot, write a lot, and when all else fails get other writers drunk.
When I say Irvine Welsh told me how to write all I really mean is that I heard him say it at a book reading.
You can’t be taught how to write.
But you can learn how to write.
You learn to write by writing.
You learn to write as much by writing well as you do by writing badly.
Every piece of crap you push out gets you a little closer to the gold bricks you want.
When in doubt, write it out.
You learn to write by writing — it’s that simple.
My favourite writing quotes
“First Thought, Best Thought.” — Allen Ginsberg
“You are a genius all of the time.” — Jack Kerouac
“The first draft of everything is shit.” — Ernest Hemingway
Everything you need to know about writing can be summed up by these three writing quotes.
Jack Kerouac said: “You are a genius all of the time.” Ernest Hemingway said: “The first draft of everything is shit.” They’re both right.
These should not be thought of as separate things.
“First Thought, Best Thought” as Allen Ginsberg said. But you still have to do the work.
You have to write to overcome the biggest stumbling block to you being a writer.
Not your homework, not your chores, not your responsibilities. You. Or, more accurately, your fear.
The three above writers have three different attitudes about writing.
Take all of them on board when you write.
Split yourself into three people and give them jobs to do: The one who writes, the one who revises and the one who edits.
It’s ok to write crap — but you can’t polish a turd
Good is the enemy of great. And, you know, vice-versa.
If you want to increase your writing output then lower your standards.
Write crap rather than write nothing.
If you throw enough shit at the wall eventually some of it will stick.
These are words to live by if you’re a writer. Or a monkey. And you have shit.
As Ernest Hemingway said: “The first draft of anything is shit.”
As a rough rule-of-thumb everything you write is bad until it isn’t. Do your best and then move on. But first make sure that you’ve done your best.
Writing is rewriting.
Revise, edit, rewrite.
Finish your shit but remember to flush.
It’s ok to write crap — but you can’t polish a turd.
“I write a love letter, to write, and not because I love.” — Gustave Flaubert
No-one gives a shit about your blog.
The world already has more than enough books.
Nobody is going to die if they don’t read your words — unless you write signs for a living like: ‘Beware of the lion.’
Nobody cares if you live or die. I mean that in a good way.
If it doesn’t matter what you write then you’re free to write what matters most to you.
Write whatever the fuck you want.
Write what you want, when you want, including never at all
Nobody is going to teach you how to write.
The world doesn’t owe you a living.
Every scrap of writing advice will help you, or not, but never so much as writing itself.
Don’t take anybody’s word for anything — including this.
Everyone is full of shit and making it up as they go along.
Write what you want, when you want, including never at all.
Be a creator, not a consumer
Identify as a writer, as one who writes and creates, as a creator not a consumer.
That’s how you get out of the rat maze.
You become what you do, so do what you want to be.
The why’s in the what, not in the reward.
Robert Anton Wilson said:
“If you want to become a concert pianist, do it every day. You want to be a writer, do it every day. You want to become depressed, think depressing thoughts every day. You want to become an optimist, think a cheerful thought every day. Do it every day.”
To do is to be. To be is to do. Doobie doobie doo.
Rinse and repeat
There is freedom in being a writer and writing. It is fulfilling your function. I used to think freedom meant doing whatever you want. It means knowing who you are, what you are meant to be doing on this earth, and simply doing it. — Natalie Goldberg
Write it down.
Make it up.
Write it down.
Get it down.
Get it down.
Again and again.
Plan by writing, not by planning
“It’s not genius, it’s just that if you want something good to come out of something, you have to put in a lot of effort. That involves a lot of hard work, and a lot of blood, sweat and tears sometimes. No different to anything, no different to what we all do.” — Hubert Selby Jr
Plan by writing, not by planning.
Build from the bottom up.
Not building a wall — just making bricks.
Need to research your novel?
Write it first, then research the bits that you need to fill in the gaps.
If you plan first, you’ll plan yourself out of existence.
If you make the perfect plan for your book, you’ll lose all desire to write the messy drafts required to finish the actual book.
Fluid drafts, within set parameters, as opposed to rigid work plans.
Keep it fluid.
Kill your darlings
Don’t get too attached to your writing.
Some of your best lines belong in the waste-paper basket.
If it doesn’t belong in the story, then it’s not a great line, no matter how good it is.
If in doubt, cut it out.
You’re a samurai — not a bunny caught in headlights.
Everybody loves a threesome
You’re only allowed to write the same thing three times.
Think of everything you write as a trilogy.
Want to write a trashy vampire novel?
Write three trashy vampire novels.
But write them as though you’re only allowed to write three trashy vampire novels.
That way, you’ll shove every trashy idea you’ve ever had about vampires into those three books.
Then move on to your next trilogy of trashy alien novels or whatever.
How do you overcome your resistance to writing?
How do you overcome your resistance to writing?
You break resistance like you break rocks — with lots of small, repeated attempts and the occasional big hit.
Don’t just whack it and hope to be done with it.
Over time, repeated small actions will prove to be more effective.
It’s the things we do every day that define us the most.
What do you do? Feel free to sound off in the comments.
How to get over your writing hurdles
When I was little we had to do games lessons. I hated games but I was a natural sprinter. Because of this they made me jump the hurdles too.
To begin with I couldn’t jump over the hurdles at all. I didn’t know how to — I’d just run at them really fast and knock them over.
So they set it up with the hurdles on the floor and told me to jump over them.
I flew down the track no problem.
They raised the hurdles one notch.
I ran down the track and jumped over all the hurdles again.
Each time I jumped all the hurdles they raised them one notch until eventually they were at the correct height — and I was still able to jump them.
In writing you need to put the hurdle of ‘quality’ on the floor and focus on quantity instead.
Just keep running at your fears — raise your hurdles, a little bit at a time, until they’re easy to jump over at full height.
It’s not about you
Writing fiction has got nothing to do with self-expression and everything to do with telling a story.
Nobody cares about the writer.
Don’t bore the reader with your thoughts and feelings. Grab them by the throat and tell them a story.
Get their attention and get out of the way.
Stop confessing — start distressing.
Write with your pain
A pretty girl with a foreign accent stopped me in Leeds train station and held onto my arm.
“Do you have pain?” she said.
“Do you have pain?”
“No. PAIN. That you write with.”
She needed a pen.
I gave her a pen, of course, but she also had a point.
Although it’s not what she meant — what does it mean to write with a pain? To turn pain into words.
What pain do you write with? Be honest with the page even if you can’t be honest with yourself.
Creative Alchemy. You can’t turn lead into gold but you can turn shit into money.
Psychodrama. Write it down and make it happen. Or vice versa. “Breathe it, then write it” as Allen Ginsberg said.
It also reminded me of Paul Auster’s anecdote about why he always carries a pencil: because the one time he needed it most, as a child, he didn’t have a pencil and missed the opportunity to get the autograph of his childhood hero Willie Mays.
Write with your pain — but always keep a pen handy.
Don’t get it right, get it written
In magazine publishing you have to get things ‘fit to print’ as soon as possible.
You can’t edit a blank page.
Think of whatever you write as placeholder text — just get something down on paper.
Don’t get it right, get it written.
Details, or anything you’re unsure about, are just TK (editing speak for ‘to come’).
Then you have words to move around.
Go back and make it better in whatever time’s left.
Then get it fit to print — good enough, but not brilliant.
This article is a good example.
It’s not great, but at least I didn’t run out of ti —