a writer’s obligation to indulge in a good soak

One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.

Hart Crane

Like most—maybe all— writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books.

Francine Prose

Permission to dig into that to-be-read pile! Obligation to expand my literary horizons.

I’m always on the lookout for writers who do new and unexpected things with words. I love the rhyming phrases Lloyd Alexander put in the mouth of his hairy side-kick, Gurgi. I adore the made-up, onomatopoetic words Terry Pratchett uses to describe sounds. I revel in the quirky, dry wit of Georgette Heyer’s Regency lovers. And when I spent some weeks investigating Elizabethan broadside ballads, I wanted desperately to swear like them. A turd in thy teeth!

This is what makes a writer outstanding, their phrases sticking like porridge to the inside of your head: words combined in new spirals and twists, or even expanding upon the dictionary itself if the occasion demands! So I agree with Hart Crane – soak, drench, drown yourself in words of all sorts. But don’t limit yourself merely to one genre, or even to novels in general. Last night I surprised myself by soaking myself in some poetry – and enjoying it. If any of you can suggest further ways to stretch the literary boundaries, do let me know!

Look to your zest!

Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used. How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.

Ray Bradbury

I love this sentiment. It gives me permission to break the rules, write what I want to write (not what I think others want to read on the basis of what’s already out there), and to make that writing experience painfully exciting!

…. because abandoning those safe normative parameters is painful. With zest comes the spark of danger, not to mention a dollop of extra effort. But the pay-off is worth it. I would far rather rush down my own road Bradbury-wise than plod another well-trodden rut.

On the virtues of boneheaded stubbornness

The difference between a published writer and an unpublished one is that the published writer didn’t give up. If you want this enough, if you work at it and focus on improving your work, you can succeed. I’d also urge people to write what they enjoy. If you create the stories that speak to you, that you really feel, your strengths will shine through.

Annie West, author of Girl in the Bedouin Tent

 Or as Trish Morey so eloquently puts it, what we writers need is a good dose of “pure boneheaded stubbornness”.

Personally, I find this eminently desirable vice works best when I turn it into a habit. That is, I do my damned-est to write every single morning. Sometimes I have to be pig-headed just to squeeze out 100 words before work, but at least then I’ve done something, or so I tell myself. Then I have to cling (stubbornly) to the belief that those 100 words I’ve produced are not unadulterated drivel – or at least that they are redeemable. Somehow.

Of course, the situation isn’t always so dire. But I never know until I sit down at my laptop whether the morning will bring a deluge of sweetly effortless words or a meagre spatter of drivel. Without carefully cultivated stubbornness I would never find out.

showing not telling – heard it all before?


To ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’, budding novelists are told, is the foremost rule of fiction. The first time I heard the phrase – spoken in tones of great solemnity, of course – I could make neither nose-tip nor tail-tip of it. More recently, I have tended to equate The Rule to ‘thou shalt not overuse adjectives and adverbs’. (Ideally, ‘thou shalt not use them at all’.) But Jack M. Bickham presents it far more vividly and logically:

Fiction can only involve and convince and excite readers if it lets them experience the story world the way they experience real life: by taking in stimuli and drawing their own conclusions.

You present evidence. You show; you don’t tell.

Jack M. Bickham, “Mastering fiction’s first rule”

 Let the reader peer through the POV character’s eyes, snuff through their nostrils, and run their fingers over the slimy, slippery rocks near the edge of the waterfall.

And yes, I know I’ve used an excessive amount of forbidden adjectives and adverbs for such a short post!

permission to be dangerous

If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.

Toni Morrison, author of Beloved

Write the book you want to read.

Life is too precious to spend it writing tame, conventional stories to which you have no personal attachment.

Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club

Absolutely, Chuck! And just look where following their own advice landed these two stunningly memorable writers.

Yet to follow such advice means becoming a trifle selfish, ignoring trends in the publishing market, and stopping attempting to write what you think the editors/readers want to read. Write what you want to read instead. Who knows – someone else might like it too. Surely your tastes aren’t that peculiar?

Forgive the lecture. As ever, I’m really pep-talking myself.

my obligation to myself …

The only obligation any artist can have is to himself. His work means nothing, otherwise. It has no meaning.

Truman Capote

I needed to hear this right now. I’ve been preoccupied with doubting the merit of what I’m writing in the last few days, and getting horribly down in the dumps about it. Why? Because I’ve been comparing myself to other writers – their literary achievements, the recognition they receive – and I feel so very puny in comparison. Sometimes tunnel vision is a desirable thing. Sometimes we writers must simply focus on our own work, on our obligation to ourselves and let the wider (literary) world go hang.

To that noble end, I conclude with a second byte of inspiration, a quote that so deliciously overflows with ego that I need to make it my mantra:

I’ve always had complete confidence in myself. When I was nothing, I had complete confidence. There were ten guys in my writing class … who could write better than I. They didn’t have what I have, which is guts. I was dedicated to writing, and nothing could stop me.

John Toland

turn the world upside down

[The writer] has to be the kind of man who turns the world upside down and says, lookit, it looks different, doesn’t it?

Morris West

I’ll never forget the experience of stopping at a lake in the Victorian highlands at sunset. It wasn’t that the sunset was that spectacular. The lake, too, was only moderately pretty. But when I lay down on a picnic table and looked at the landscape with my head tipped off the end of the table … wow. Suddenly I perceived the scene anew, I really saw it. And it was breath-taking, serene, and utterly vivid.

So I agree with Morris West (except for the writer being a ‘man’ of course!). This is what I want the words I shape into stories to do – to turn the dome of the world upside down and shake it so all the colours sparkle.

the smell of fresh paper …

There are some lucky souls for whom the process of writing is easy, for whom the smell of fresh paper is better than air, whose minds chuckle perpetually over their own agility, who forget to eat, and who consider the world at large an intrusion on their good time at the computer.

This is possibly my favourite inspirational quote, and yet I cannot remember who wrote it. (Apologies, inspired soul. I’ll put your name up there as soon as I rediscover it.) I love the idea of ‘chuckling perpetually’ over one’s words, as if playing with a particularly sunny-natured baby. And of course a writer’s work is their baby!

This is how I want to be. This is the opposite of procrastination and the dreaded writer’s block. And who says I can’t?

pour your passion onto the page

Only write from your own passion, your own truth. That’s the only thing you really know about, and anything else leads you away from the pulse.

Marianne Williamson


And that passion! You will hear that from a lot of people who do well in things. What’s the key? The key is passion, I think. You gotta love it.

James Patterson 

And James Patterson ought to know a thing or two about success ….

But maybe James and Marianne have a point. If we writers are not passionate about our particular stories, how can we possibly expect our readers to be? I’ve read a lot of fiction, both published and unpublished, that has nothing obviously wrong with it except that it just doesn’t grab me. Is passion the missing ingredient? If we write that which we think our readers want to read, maybe that element of personal passion leaches away leaving the manuscript rather bloodless.

Perhaps this is simply another way of saying: write what you know.

i.e. Write the story you are passionate about!

blueberries for the soul

It’s supposed to be fun. Suppose you decide where it would be a treat to write – out in a park, where they can’t find you? In the back booth of a coffee shop? At the beach?  By a lake? In a bar? .… I like to have some coffee or tea or, when I’m doing heavy revision, some red wine to cool down my anxiety. Or a glass filled with blueberries and white wine. I like to play music ….

This part is all for you. You can construct a little hut for your soul with everything it needs ready at hand. Remember, it’s no big deal, but it’s a huge deal. You’re only having “fun,” but if you’re lucky, your soul, your real soul, will come out and say hi

Carolyn See, author of Making a Literary Life

Such decadence. Such bohemian indulgence. White wine and blueberries? Surely such props are unnecessary to a true writer?

Hmmm, but it does sound like a lovely idea. I’ll just have to make sure I don’t spill the wine on my computer.

I think Carolyn’s advice goes to the heart of overcoming procrastination and similar such writerly blocks. Once I have convinced myself to sit down with my computer and begin to write, I am fine. Words come, and time flies. But it’s the getting there in the first place. White wine and blueberries sounds like wonderful bait.