Just for a little experiment, I thought I’d write this blog at a time I don’t normally write: it’s now 7:20am. I woke up about half an hour ago, and I’m already fed and dressed for the day ahead. But first I will write.
Why do I bring this up? Because the time at which you sit down and put pen to paper (in a manner of speaking) can drastically determine your output.
I’m a night owl when it comes to writing. True, you can find me on the packed commuter trains of Japan, furiously tapping away on my phone as I head to work. But the bulk of what I do comes when I get home, and the sun has long set. I simply prefer the setting of nighttime as a more atmospheric and stimulating time to write: darkness let’s our imaginations fill in the gaps, which is exactly what we need. That, and mornings are, well…mornings. And though I’m getting better at them, I am never going to call myself a morning person, I think. At least, not until I’m an old man. Then I’ll be waking up at 5:00am each day, apparently.
And yet, I can totally see things from the other side. Simply put, science says that we are at our most creative and focused in the morning, even if we don’t feel like it. And I will admit that it makes sense to a degree: as I sit here writing this, I have very few other things on my mind. If you write in the evening, you run the risk of having your willpower drained by your daily tasks. And that counts for physical and mental draining: even if arrive back home in the evening after work, there is no doubt that your mind has been pulled and stretched in multiple directions that morning, and you lose that blank slate of focus that the new morning offered. I’ll admit that this is true to myself as well: when I write on the train, the journey to work usually yields more output than the return journey. Not always, but most of the time.
And yet, that lack of focus the night brings can be a good thing. Think about it: focus is all well and good, and yet focus is by its very nature a narrow-minded sort of thing. Creative, yes, but sometimes having that blank slate sullied by long and eventful day can be a good thing. Studies have also shown that night owl writers are able to approach new ideas and problems from multiple angles and see things holistically, presumably because those problem-solving skills have been thoroughly exercised throughout the day.
Whether you’re a morning lark or a night owl in your writing, though, I don’t think it matters that much so long as you are consistent and frequent. There are countless examples of famous authors out there who had all of their day’s writing finished by the afternoon, and countless examples of authors who didn’t start until the afternoon. But what they both have in common is consistency. Making a habit of it at the same time daily encourages your brain to expect it. You know how you often wake up two minutes before your morning alarm goes off because your body expects to be woken up by then? This is the same thing. Get to the point where your system is expecting you to write. You’ll notice when you’ve got there, because when you neglect to write for a single day you will feel VERY weird and guilty.
Good morning to you all! Now for a cup to tea!
In an earlier blog, I quoted Ernest Hemingway's finest piece of advice: "Write drunk, edit sober." I've had a couple of people comment on this, so I'd like to expand on what it means to me.
Writing a first draft is like a night of heavy drinking with mates: it seems like a lot of fun as it happens, but when you look back on it you will cringe in shame at what you did, and wonder why on earth you now have a membership card to the local croquet club. Okay, well maybe that last one doesn't fit the metaphor, but the fact remains; when you finish that first draft and finally lay down your pen, your feet will barely touch the ground for the rest of the day. You will feel indestructible, elated, on a constant rush of endorphins . If you've ever intended to take up jogging, right then is the time because you could run a marathon then and there and still have the energy to go clubbing afterwards.
You will instantly deem that first draft a classic-in-waiting. It couldn't possibly need editing or tweaking: it's art! And even if it did have imperfections then that is all part of the charm, yes?
Alas, this is exactly why you should not even touch that first draft for at least two weeks. If you come back to it earlier than that to re-read it, you will still be dazzled by that warm afterglow of finishing your first draft. Because you have to see your first draft in the cold light of day for what it truly is: a glorious mess.
And all of this is precisely how it should be. It should absolutely be like a glorious mess. Because far too many people take writing that first draft seriously. I mean, you should take it seriously, but it’s a different kind of serious we’re talking about here. Because not only is finishing the first draft a huge achievement in of itself but it also displays the courage, whether you were aware of it or not, to write badly. Seriously, huge congrats for that. You have overcome one of the biggest hurdles of aspiring writers everywhere: getting a third or halfway through a book and losing heart and thinking that their work is not good enough. And they stop. Worse still, they will scrap the whole thing and start all over again, only to be thwarted at the same point once more. They are forever doomed to write in limbo like a tidal wave lapping on a beach hoping to one day reach the promenade to buy an ice cream, because they don't realize the irony of their thinking: yes, your book isn't probably good enough. That's exactly the level it should be for a first draft. And for goodness sake, don't judge your book's worth at the halfway point at least: that is where you are most likely to find a lull in the story!
But you, first drafter, recognized the need to power through! To turn your nose up at the judge nagging at you, and not be afraid to write crap. To simply get something down on the page that looks like a rough shape of what you hope the final product will be.
No other medium of entertainment in the world demands a final product from the get-go. Directors don’t get a load of actors on set and shout ‘action’ just like that. Musicians don’t just walk into the studio and play album-ready tracks. And you shouldn’t expect your book to be readable by anyone on the first pass. But you shouldn’t be scared of that fact. Think of your readers when laying down that first draft, sure, but don’t imagine them actually reading it. Once again, I come back to the fact that you should only write for yourself in the first instance: you know what you’re after, and you’re less likely to beat up on yourself than some imaginary reader of critique you’re aiming for.
Once again, I will say: writing is a rowdy night out with friends (the first draft) followed by a raging hangover and the post-mortem of the night before (the edit). You have to have them in that order, and just like you can’t really interrupt a good night out with deep introspection, you shouldn’t worry about the mess of a novel you’re making at first. Get to the end of that first draft and savour that euphoria that comes with it. You’ll need all the joy you can get before you descend into the editing process proper.
Look, I’m no book snob. I will read anything that I find interesting without any posturing over it’s genre, age range or targeted audience. For me, a good story is a good story in any shape or form.
And yet, there really is something special about a good book compared to, say, a good movie. Good movies are all well and good, but there’s something about that tome you have read countless times, with the pages all yellow and dog-eared and the back cover long since worn away, and a chunk of pages all wrinkly from when you dropped in the bath, that is just…special. The story in print becomes a sort of diary that you never wrote, with the fiction transposed with fond memories of your past that are then peppered with your thoughts of the present as your reread it again, ready to be locked away and treasured for the next time you open it. If this all sounds a little sentimental, put it this way: replacing a lost and much-loved DVD is completely different to replacing a lost and much-loved book.
So by that token, there is something timeless about a good book, both within the core of its beating heart as well as basic story. And there is something almost all of these favourite stories have in common: lack of pop-culture references.
Don’t get me wrong: I am in no way saying that books that do reference current trends are automatically assigned to be mediocre at best. Far from it: some of the most important books of our time need those direct references to the times in order to get its message across. And yet, so many classic books out there manage to get the same commentary on modern life across without the need to make pointed nods at the modern world. Look at Catcher in the Rye, a novel written in 1951. The story of teenager Holden Caulfield still hold up remarkably well today, because the themes of rebellion and searching for identity are themes that will never age.
Throwing in pop-culture references here and there does have it’s advantages, though: it can give your writing a sense of being within reality, if that’s what are aiming for. It does need to be subtle though: if your main character goes jogging, is it best to say he ‘ran to the sound of thumping trance’? Or ‘he ran to the sound of DJ Tiesto on his iPod?’ It’s down to the tone and style you’re after, and beware of the risks: your reader may not know who or what you are talking about, and if they have to constantly reach for Wikipedia every other page of your novel, you may test their patience too far. Moreover it smacks of desperation, of the author tugging on the reader’s sleeve and saying “Hey, look! Real world stuff, just like your world! Isn’t this so realistic and relatable?” So it can sound cheap if it is ham-fisted.
Moreover, you might consign your masterpiece to ageing quickly. True, it’s easy to put on the rose-tinted sunglasses and argue that namedrops of cassette tape Walkmans and popper tracksuits would firmly plant you in a time period as well as making that nostalgia engine purr, but hindsight is a wonderful thing – imagine if you’d written a novel in the mid-nineties and referenced the Spice Girls throughout. Unless that’s a big point of the plot, it’s going to make your story look terribly dated.
A great example is Jules Verne. Compare to his two most famous pieces: Journey to the Centre of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Journey, written in 1878, was written based what was very sound scientific belief at the time, and these ‘facts’ come right to the fore when the Professor explains why the centre of the earth can be reached by humans and isn’t that hot at all. Which, of course, we now know to be nonsense. Thus, Journey has now morphed into a rollicking adventure novel but with all the science thoroughly debunked. 20,000 Leagues, on the other hand, has aged much better (despite being older than Journey by eight years) because it relies more on speculation, and the simple fact that we still know very little about the deepest depths of the ocean.
Take a look again at the books and stories that you come back to. How many references to modern life (or what was modernity at the time they were written) are in there? Odds are that there are very few or none at all. And yet these books still speak to you down the years because the topics and themes simply never age. Pop-culture references may offer an instant sense of place, time and realism, but is that what your readers come for? I would argue that no, they don’t – that kind of thing is all around them already. Much more likely your reader turns to your novel looking for something else, something more. Ask yourself this: does the story you tell show knowledge of the world? Or an understanding of the world?
Everyone is a little bit self-conscious to a degree, no matter what those motivational ‘do whatever u like! J” posts your friends plaster their Facebook pages with may say. Despite the current (and welcome) trend for people to simply embrace who they are and not give a darn what others think, the irony of such bold declarations is that it shows an awareness and, to a degree, fear that you may indeed be judged on it.
So everybody is a little self-conscious. That is good, that is healthy. Those who are completely unaware of their influence on others are simply unable to empathize with others, and they will be forever lost in their own little bubble of self-obsession and delusion.
And you know what? That’s fine. People can be whatever they like in their personal lives. But in their professional lives, they have to open themselves up to others opinions and critique, otherwise they will go nowhere or even worse lose their position. You have to bend yourself to the whims of the job and the customers: that is almost the very definition of work.
So where does that leave us writers? For those of us that aspire to be professional authors with a zealous fanbase, does that mean that we have to compromise ourselves to cater to others?
It’s a tough question, and one that doesn’t have a right or wrong answer. If we don’t compromise our writing, we may never appeal to anyone but ourselves and never gain any following. But on the other hand if we don’t remain true to ourselves, our lack of authenticity and passion in our writing will seep through in our words, and we could alienate the very fans we were chasing.
So what’s the answer? Well, let’s take a step back here. Let’s remember why we are writing. The first and foremost reason is, I hope, that you enjoy doing so. Yes, there will be days when you feel like you want to throw your pet project out of the window. Even the best parents want to do the same thing at times! It doesn’t mean they don’t love them, and your writing must always have that heart of pure joy beating at its core. Just as readers can smell fakery and boredom in a writer from a mile away, likewise a writer that is clearly enthusiastic about what they talk about will always be engaging.
And that’s the case even when the subject matter could potentially be dull. I would much rather read a novel about cheese-making by an author that loves what they are doing than a novel about space-age adrenaline junkies who BASE jump from spaceships to exotic planets by an author who seems utterly jaded with the idea.
And that’s how every new author should start out: you have to remain true to yourself in the first instance. One of the best pieces of advice I had ever heard was to simply write the book that I had always wanted to read. Don’t be afraid to indulge your own whims a little bit, because you’ve got to let your own sense of fun permeate into your words. Of course, some cold hard editing may trim back some of this, but traces of that fiery passion will always remain. There is a passage in my novel ‘Kami’ where there is a humorous exchange between the two main characters as they hike through a forest. I had a blast writing that, but I had to cut it back a fair bit because it wasn’t pushing the story along. But what remains is still one my best pieces of writing I have done to date. I enjoyed writing it, so I enjoy reading it. And if I enjoy reading it, there will definitely be others out there who will too.
The time to listen to critique will come when you get that critique in the first place. And you really should listen to it. It can be a real eye-opener as well, because after you’ve edited and re-read your novel for the twelfth time, it will cease to be a story any more. It will be like that song on that album you’ve listened so much you barely hear it as music anymore, but more like a tuneful white noise. Your readers can point things out to you that you literally could not see.
Some of the feedback will be a no-brainer. If a lot of people say “I really enjoyed it overall, but the three-chapter-long interpretation of an acid jazz concert was a bit much”, then you may want to curtail the lengthy forays into jazz in the future. Some of it will be contradictory. For ‘Tick’, I have had one person tell me that they loved all the (literal) cat-fighting, and another tell me they thought it was too much. Another reader lapped up the high tension of the opening chapter, another was put right off by it. These very mixed messages nearly pulled me apart, and I began to question my own abilities. Was my writing too confusing? Too divisive? How can some people enjoy this but others can’t?
But in the end, the correct answer was the simplest: it all comes down to taste. You have yours and your readers have theirs. Sometimes it will match perfectly, sometimes it won’t. And that’s fine. Don’t even try to chase down negative response and appeal to absolutely everybody: it’s impossible and if you try then you have begun a race to the bottom to find the lowest common denominator, and your work will smack of desperation.
We should listen to what others say. It helps us grow as writers, to keep us on our toes and help us to get better. You could very well stick to your guns throughout your whole career and cater to only a very small, very dedicated fanbase – there is nothing wrong with that if that is what you want – but you risk stagnating, and who doesn’t enjoy a fresh challenge now and then? And even dedicated readers enjoy being pushed out of their comfort zone: just look at ‘Game of Thrones’, a series that thrives on torturing it’s fans almost as much as the fictional characters within, yet its growth in popularity is exponential.
Writing can be a very solitary experience, but so is reading. We shouldn’t fear our audience nor ignore them, but we should care about and value them, and have one ear open to what they say.
Off the Shelf
Here I share my ideas, musings and advice on the writing process. I also analyse some of my own writing for examples to show how I work.
Here I will show off of some of my favorite good and great stories, gushing lovingly over why I adore them and why you should too. I will also show you the other side of the spectrum: bad examples of stories and what we can learn from them.