Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Writing for Beginners (23)

The story-teller's apprentice.

A plumber friend of mine was recently talking about when he started out in the profession many years ago. He began as an apprentice - what in some trades is known unbecomingly as ‘an oily rag’ - to an experienced plumber. This introduction to the noble art of water-and-waste management meant he was given all the fetch-and-carry jobs, such as running off every few minutes for whatever materials were needed (including a one-way pipe and a long stand), digging trenches, drilling holes… basically, whatever the plumber required him to do. One of the worst jobs, which he hated due to suffering mild claustrophobia, was clambering about in gloomy lofts.

In time, of course, he realised something the plumber hadn’t told him: that all these ‘apprentice’ jobs were merely a run-up – a taster – to the real work, and that whatever he learned as a beginner would stand him in good stead. Because while he might not like fetching and carrying, or crawling about in confined spaces on his hands and knees, it would soon become second nature. And, as well as being instructed formally where all the pipes went so that the system worked efficiently, he was learning subliminally, too.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. I’ve met quite a few writers who have launched into their very first book without actually putting pen to paper in any other way. No short stories, no articles – probably not even a letter home to dear old Mum. I haven’t personally met one for whom it has worked, although I’m sure they're out there. But for most writers, it’s not that simple. One way or another, you have to do an apprenticeship.

But why? Well, like the plumber’s apprentice, you learn more about any craft simply by doing it. And even though a lot of what you do might appear mundane, even uninspiring (and we all go through that), there’s no beating getting in at the sharp end. Because while you’re plugging away, you are beginning to absorb skills, habits and knowledge about the art without thinking about it. And in doing so, you are learning how to assemble all the requirements for making a story come together.

Doing the groundwork. Like the apprentice, you have to make sure everything is ready before you begin. Yes, in writing, you can do some research as you go. But the job is so much easier if you don’t have to keep breaking off in mid-flow, thus spoiling your concentration.

Pacing yourself. You may be desperate to finish a scene or story. This could be because of time constraints, or because the sheer excitement of a good scene threatens to take over. And while this is a wonderful feeling for any writer, you have to learn to temper your enthusiasm and not splurge out the ending all in one go. To do so might ruin what should have been a gradual build-up of tension. The main rule is, don’t cut corners, no matter how tempting.

Alternative routes. Occasionally, you may find yourself up against a brick wall with no easy way through. Learn to look for an alternative, instead of automatically junking the whole thing (although that, too, might be an option you have to consider). Essentially, find out what works for you, and it will stand you in good stead for the future.

Having enough material. The story must have legs – not padding. Have you got the storyline, plot, characters and scenes to last? Or will you run out of material halfway through? Building a synopsis or chapter plan might help here – as will experience.

Quality control. Unlike the poor apprentice, you won’t have a plumber looking over your shoulder. But if you can develop a critical eye for your own work (most easily learnt through analysing what you like about other writers) you will find yourself checking your output as you go, thus avoiding some of the more obvious mistakes.

Pride in your work. This should be a natural development, because everybody likes to think they’re getting better as they go along. Hopefully, the more you write, the more you improve.

Learning to take criticism. Whether it comes in the shape of a refusal letter from an editor or the comments of a writing tutor, it’s something all writers have to face. And like the weary apprentice, after a hard day slaving over a U-bend, being told something isn’t right can be depressing. But that’s all it is; it means it’s not right. So fix it. Even if you do decide to junk it and start again.

Stretching yourself. Don’t settle for the easy jobs. If you only ever write short stories aimed at magazines, enter competitions once in a while. Try a non-fiction project. It might not be what you want to do all the time, but working on something different, with different demands, can be a useful challenge.

Don’t hide in the attic. Like the apprentice hoping that if the plumber can’t find him, he won’t be landed with another job, keeping your writing to yourself won’t help you grow. Get it out there. Submit it to agents, magazines or websites, show it to writing group members and friends. Good or bad, feedback is essential if you want to know - and learn by - what others think of your work.


·       Like any other job or craft, writing has a learning curve. This is best served by doing it.
·       Learn the rules of market guidelines and presentation, and you will move forward a lot faster.
·       Be professional in your presentation, language and attention to detail.
·       Study your competitors and analyse how they do it.
·       If offered advice, accept it and learn from it.

Taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - Accent Press - available in p/b and ebook

Do you know a writer who might benefit from this book? If so, check it out here.

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