Most writers, when asked where they get their ideas, say something glib like “from the idea shop”. They’re not saying this to be difficult – well, maybe some of them are – but because getting ideas is both the simplest and most mysterious part of the creative process.
Your writing voice can’t be forced, but it’s a vital part of creating stories that could only be written by you. It’s your fingerprint, and it’s tricky to define. Voice is that unique combination of language, syntax, theme, tone and plot that immediately tells us the difference between a story by Cormac McCarthy, Sarah Waters, Stephen King or F Scott Fitzgerald. Here are some exercises to help develop your voice.
If you’re telling the story as if it’s already happened (past tense), don’t slip into telling it as if it’s happening now (present tense). There’s no quick fix for this – you just have to edit carefully. Things can get complicated when a past-tense story mentions events that happened before the current ones, such as: “she had had to tell him.” Avoid this altogether if you can.
“World-building” is usually used to describe fantasy or science fiction stories, but all stories happen somewhere. Narratives set in the real world are created by the writer too: smells, colours and temperatures can vary wildly depending whether your story is set in Ghana or Liverpool or New York, the present day or 10 years ago or the late 1800s. Writers must build a strong sense of place without dumping paragraphs of rambling description into the story, and there are lots of techniques to help you set historical time, season, and location quickly and effectively.
Honest, useful critique is a vital part of being a writer. Writing is so internalised that we can lose track of our words, and what we meant to say isn’t actually on the page. It’s difficult to look objectively at your own work, and every piece of writing eventually needs a fresh set of eyes.
You might think that your experiences are very ordinary, but being brutally honest about your own life is truly authentic. Writing about sex is far more than cheap titillation; it’s honesty and truth, and that is beautiful.
Stories with these aspects might are not necessarily bad. They might be very good indeed. But there are so many of them that it’s hard to say something fresh. Have you ever heard that people make up their minds about strangers within three seconds of meeting? The same is true for stories.
On the Writing Career
It’s all very well reading books about writing, or listening to podcasts about writing, or discussing writing with other writers. But none of these things put words on the page, and the act of writing – of making mistakes and figuring out how to fix them – is the only way to learn.
It’s okay to be nervous! Few people enjoy public speaking, but the more you do it the easier it gets. When you get up on stage, take a few deep breaths and find a comfortable stance in front of the microphone. People don’t notice this sort of preparation, but it vastly improves your reading.
Cover letters are important, but a great cover letter does not guarantee publication – if your story is unsuitable for the magazine, it’ll still be rejected. That said, if the editor likes how you come across in your cover letter, they’re much more likely to send you an encouraging rejection, and they will read your next submission with more interest and enthusiasm than if you had annoyed or insulted them.
You’ve written a book and you want to get it published. Now for the tricky part: getting an agent. There are two main ways to get an agent: get them to request your writing, or send it unsolicited.
Your novel is brilliant – but how can you convince an agent when they already have hundreds of unpublished manuscripts avalanching on their desk? You have to entice them into reading your novel, but it’s tricky to walk the line between interesting and insane. Luckily, there is a standard format for agent queries – and it’s a little like a covering letter for a job application.
When I was a little girl my mother had very particular rules for birthday parties, and these exact same rules can be applied to networking as a writer. By remembering what your mother taught you, you’ll be working that room in no time.
When you’re struggling with internal forces such as depression or grief, or external forces such as caring for a child or dependent adult, it can seem impossible to focus on creative work.
Is there any writing or career-related topic you’d like to see covered here? Let me know.