Writing: a cruel but saucy mistress

Here is a bunch of great writing advice from George ‘Game Of Thrones’ R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb, who I just looked up on Wikipedia (she writes fantasy books. No, me neither).

Here are the parts that ring most true for me:

“The best writing advice I had was [in] ‘Heinlein’s Rules for Writers’ by (American science fiction author) Robert A. Heinlein. His first rule is that you must write, and I was already doing that, but his second rule is, ‘You must finish what you write,’ and that had a big impact on me.” – George R.R. Martin

Here’s an interesting truth: if you don’t finish it you might as well not have started it. Yes, there’s something to be said for the hours of writing practice you put in that will eventually benefit your ability, but if you want anyone else to read it, it must be finished to a standard that you would be happy to show. It’s like George Lois’s dismissal of having a drawer of great roughs: they’re meaningless until they are completed. The Question might then be: how do you know it’s finished? When I spoke to David Abbott about that he said (and I entirely agree) that no matter how ‘finished’ you think a draft is, you will always spot glaring errors or instances of crapness when you look at the same material one more time. So you just have to read it, be satisfied/happy/ecstatic enough to let someone else see it and that’s that. The version of Instinct that got me an agent is vastly different to the one that was published; if I were to read that early version now I would shudder with embarrassment and burn it for fear that someone might discover how badly I could write. And yet I thought that version was worth sending out – and it was. Go fig.

“When both my editors say ‘This is really bad, you need to change this,’ I ignore that at my peril.” – Robin Hobb

Yeah… When to give a shit about what other people say – that’s another toughie. Every piece of criticism comes loaded with what’s behind it. Who is saying it? A few harsh words will hurt more coming from a respected colleague/editor/ECD than your mouth-breathing cousin or some reviewer on Amazon who thinks his anus is somewhere between his wrist and his armpit. And how many people have said the same thing? As Robin suggests, consistent negative feedback deserves more attention than one-off barbs. And if you know the person and their taste they might well be grinding an axe about something they personally dislike rather than a universal issue. And then, at the bottom of all of that, it’s still up to you. I finished another novel a year ago and the response, although generally positive, has had enough negativity for me to sit up and notice. And yet… I really believe it’s actually fine and none of these comments are properly swaying me from my opinion that the whole thing works well. So I’m sitting between a rock and a hard place where the negativity is taking some of the wind out of my sails, but when it comes to attempting to address the concerns I don’t have the enthusiasm to change what I think it already good. It’s fun being a writer!

“I will sit there and say, don’t do that, don’t do that, you’re going to make this story three chapters longer, and of course he doesn’t listen.” – Robin Hobb on her main character, Fitz.

“It’s all very well to discuss some of these things in the outline, but when you sit down to write it, other plots occur to you, secondary characters come in, you think of an interesting subplot. Suddenly the stew is much richer, but it also takes more bowls to fill it up.” George R.R. Martin.

If you’ve written from the basis of a great character then you are, to a certain extent, at the mercy of what that character will do. I remember reading an interview about the early writing of Alan Partridge. One of the writers came up with a gag he thought would be funny, to which Patrick Marber responded with a terse ‘Alan wouldn’t do that’. We all know what Alan would or wouldn’t do, but the same goes for all your characters, and if it doesn’t you either don’t know them well enough or you haven’t written them well enough. And the same goes for what George says: you may have the A and Z of a story, but the other 24 letters will only reveal themselves as you explore: you cannot know the colour of every wall, the accent of every voice or the weather of every day when you start, but those changes will affect everything.

But in the end nothing comes closer to playing God than writing. So if that floats your monkey, go to it.