Tomorrow I’m going to be giving a talk at the University of Nottingham to the first year students doing their MA in Creative Writing. A scary prospect for all concerned. I spoke to the first year students last December, and it seemed to go alright (or they wouldn’t have asked me back, right?), but it’s still something that makes me a tad nervous. Some writers are introverted souls who turn only to the page and shun human contact like shy badgers, but most of the ones I know love getting up in front of people to talk about stories, games and whatever else takes their fancy. I’m somewhere in the middle, I think. Get me one on one and I’ll talk your ear off, put me in a room with other authors where we can riff off one another and all’s well.
But stick me at a lectern on my own and, to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, I’m just waiting for the Imposter Police to come and tap me on the shoulder. They’ll lead me away with rueful shakes of their heads and wonder what I was thinking, standing in front of a class of budding writers as though I was some kind of authority. But screw that. The feeling that you’re about to get the tap on the shoulder by folk who’ve found you out never goes away, but it can be kept at bay. After all, I’ve written nearly thirty novels, more short stories, a bunch of novellas and a few comics. So I figure I must know a bit about what I’m doing for a living…
Part of me thinks that I’m almost the worst kind of person to stand in front of a writing class. After all, I’ve never taken any kind of “official” course, class or tutorial in writing, so what kind of example does that set to the people in the class? I say I’ve never done any tutorials, but I still have fond memories of the Friday afternoon Games Dev tutorials we used to do in the Design Studio (Warhammer Armies: Fishmen of Aquopolis and Codex: Bubblemen are still two books I’d love to see in print!). But then, I don’t think it matters what route you take to writing, whether it’s via a more academic route – which I’d have loved to have done – or one where it’s the path that opens up before you like a light from Mount Olympus. There are no right or wrong ways to be a writer. Apart from the ones that work for you and those that don’t.
So what I think I’ll talk about isn’t the ‘craft’ of writing as such (I’ll leave that to the teachers), I reckon it’ll be more the day-to-day work of writing and the everyday components that make up a writer’s life. After all, I’m doing the job a lot of the people in the class want to be doing, so my experience is valuable. I can tell them how a writer lives and works, how I balance work and life, how I push on to get those words on the page and how I force myself to sit in the chair and get a damn book finished.
It’s that last point I think will be the most useful, as I’ve met loads of people at conventions and signings who tell me of the myriad great ideas they’ve had and the stories they’ve started. When I ask them how many they’ve finished, the answer is almost invariably the same. None. Thomas Farber said, “A Writer is someone who finishes,” and that’s about the best definition of a writer there is. If you start something, finish it, and that doesn’t just apply to writing. Ten brilliant unfinished stories are no use to anyone. One finished story can be made brilliant.
I can talk them through the process of pulling a story together, of making the characters stand out and how best to throw obstacles in their way. The audience wants the characters to succeed, the author (usually) wants them to as well, but it’s his or her job to throw as many roadblocks in their way beforehand. With the plot and characters and themes in place, I can talk them through the process of pitching a book and getting an outline written. I can wax lyrical about transforming that outline into a synopsis (one you’d give to an editor and one you’d actually use as a working document that helps you actually write the book) and then figuring out how to get those brilliant ideas onto the page.
From there, we can talk about what happens to a book once it’s actually been written. It’s often said that writing a book is the easy part, that its all the stuff that comes next that’s the hard bit, where the real work begins. Personally, I think that’s bollocks. Writing a book is bloody hard. It’s a long, demanding period of your life that asks a lot of your brain space. Yes, there’s almost always a lot of work in transforming your finished words into something readable, but that’s often a mechanical process, where you fix broken grammar, correct typos, rearrange structure, pep-up dialogue and add in that elusive magic that makes the words sing on the page. Okay, so not mechanical at all, but it’s a process you can view as being mechanical as you hack your way through redundant sentences, revise dull exposition and generally take a blowtorch to bits that just plain don’t work.
Then, when you emerge from the furnace of that battle, you’re ready to hand a book over to the editors, and the process of what happens to a book once it leaves your bloodied, gnawed-down stumps of fingers is also something I can talk about. Editorial Feedback, Copy Editors, Proof Readers, Pedantic Corrections Goblins, Final Red Penning…these are all things I can forewarn and forearm a writer to expect and how to deal with (usually by how I do it and telling them to do the opposite…). Such processes are all useful, and all necessary, but you need to be ready for what they entail, as it’s a path that can lead to much wailing and gnashing of teeth if you think your book’s going to sail through editorial without changes. And then, once your book’s out there, you need to be ready for that part too. There’s going to be bloggers who love your book, reviewers who hate it and everyone in-between. There’s Twitter, Facebook, Writer’s Blogs, Instagram, Pinterest, Reddit and a dozen other means by which your book lives or dies. There’s all sorts of things a writer needs to be doing nowadays to help their book to become successful, and I though I’m…okay at that side of things, it’s something I could be doing a lot better (especially on the social media side of things).
And lastly, one thing Dan Abnett and I talked about in Dublin a few years ago, was the plethora of blogs and writers giving Ten Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Become A Writer. While a lot of what those people were saying was true enough, and, yes, you ought to have a long, hard think as to whether or not you really want to become a writer, we thought it would be useful to do Ten Reasons Why It’s Awesome To Be A Writer.
Anyway, if I get some notes written up on the above, I’ll try and post them here in a rough and ready form that might be of use.
Wish me luck.