Top Mutually Exclusive Advice for New Writers March 2014

Almost everyone asks me: "what's your top advice for new writers?"

They're usually hoping for something snappy. Thinking about over the last few days — especially in the light of a book I just finished reading (I have my notes to write up now) by a new writer — I find that the two pieces of advice that I would most like to give are, or at the very least seem to be, in fundamental conflict.

The first is:

If there is a simpler way, use it.

It is painfully common for new writers, either revelling in the sheer joy of language or determined to impress, to use curious extended metaphors, nominal phrases of 6 words or more for the subject and object of single verb sentences, strings of adjectives, "clever" and "cute" turns of phrase, obscure or erudite vocabulary, synonyms*, alliteration, addressing the reader, swapping typefaces, using any POV except 1st-person-with-hindsight (e.g. Sherlock Homes) or 3rd-person-omniscient (e.g. Dickens), flashbacks (and any other anti-chronology), addressing the reader directly, and of course, words and phrases of whose meaning they are not CERTAIN.

All this and more is classed as "running before you can walk". I have been at pains to point out that as a writer you have to make conscious choices about the devices and conceits employed in the pursuit of your craft. And it is all to easy for the novice to respond: but I chose to do all those things.

The problem is that caught up in the maelstrom of all those bells and whistles, the new writer loses his grip on a story that soon becomes like a watersnake: incredibly hard to grasp; once grasped easily fumbled, and once fumbled it'll either bite you or swim way out of reach. You have to know you can nail the story FIRST. Once you do, you have to start chusing with reasons. This means making conscious choices, but able to state your objective for those choices. Messing about with chronology? You want the reader to discover things in improbable orders. Why? Rest assured I will challenge you.

The second is:

Be ambitious.

If you are one day going to become known for your distinctive, personal style; if you are going to keep your creativity open and unfettered, then you need to experiment and keep experimenting. So you need to try out all the stuff that you want to try out. Noone ever got better by sticking to what they know. Don't be yourself. Try to become what you want to be.

It is very easy for the zealous tutor to stifle creativity. A good tutor will provide you with a framework in which to improvise, and introduce you to techniques that you weren't aware of — and then let you use them when you feel like it, for better or worse.

This advice is conflicting. But that's normal. Learning, Creativity and Discipline form a three way love triangle whose conflict can never be resolved and whose conflict might be the key to great writing. You want to be a better writer tomorrow, or you wouldn't be reading my blog. Not that reading my blog will make you a better writer. It might help. If you want to be a better writer then you have to have the ambition, to want to try new stuff even if you don't quite understand it; you have to but the various techniques of the craft into practice before you can grok in fullness their potential. But like any grasshopper, to become a master, you must first accept that you know nothing (or, in fairness, very little. If you knew nothing about writing... I'm sure you get the point).

Yes, sifu.

* <micro_rant> The purpose of Roget's Thesaurus, and the purpose of synonym dictionaries is NOT to help you find an alternative word, but to help you to find exactly the right word. Do you know who uses Roget the most? Translators is who: it is a very effective way of finding the best match for a meaning originally expressed in a foreign language. </micro_rant>

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