Thursday, 12 March 2009

What Does a Writer Do?

I once asked a writer for some advice on how to improve my own writing and he replied with a question: “What does a writer do?”

When I get asked these sorts of questions, I tend to freeze up. Part of me knows that they’re looking for an obvious answer, yet the rest of me is too busy looking for the less obvious answer to listen. Also, I sometimes just freeze up when someone says something unexpected, or answers a question with a question; A lot of the time when I ask someone a question it’s because I’ve run out of things to say and I want them to talk for a bit. Regardless of all this, the answer that I failed to provide was that “a writer writes”. This should be obvious, and I felt a failure at the time for not blurting the answer out instantly, thus identifying myself as a quick thinking genius deserving of further tuition and that I would forever be a non-writer for not knowing such a basic function of my desired activity. It is probably the best advice I could ever regurgitate to anyone that wants to be a writer.

I always feel a little awkward describing myself as a writer, but I suppose that I am. I could even tenuously describe myself as a professional writer, seeing as I have written comics that have then been sold in a real life comic book shop and even this blog has adverts strewn across it that just occasionally make me a couple of pennies. I can only really see that it’s a confidence issue: Whether or not I chose to see myself as a writer is self perception and dependant on if I think my ramblings class as writing, but I am currently fulfilling the task of the writer in the sense that I am writing. I suppose I could further qualify this by saying I’m an “aspiring writer” or a “trainee writer” or “an out of work freelancer” or something along those lines, but at the end of the day I am still currently a writer, even if I’m not comfortable with that particular label.

Anything takes practice. It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to achieve in life, it’s going to need work. With writing, the only way to hone your craft is to get practice at it. I can’t see this as something that you can learn from a book, despite the fact you can almost definitely pick up some useful tips. A lot of tricks can undoubtedly be taught in a class room environment, but any of that should be accompanied by the learn-by-doing-approach. Seeing what works and what doesn’t work first hand is the linchpin of learning anything, and with writing it’s even more significant. With anything creative, you can’t approach it with a strict methodology for fear of it becoming a painting-by-numbers affair. I found this interview with Russel T Davis, the man responsible for the recent Doctor Who reboot as well as various other shows. What makes the interview interesting is the way he talks about what worked and what didn’t work in his earlier projects and it’s very clear that these sort of lessons are not the sort of thing you can learn from a book; you have to see the failure for yourself before you can avoid it again.

Getting on with something that you want to do in this way is not only a good way to develop your skills, but also to find out if it’s actually something you want to do. I love writing and I know that I want to do this. I also know that there are certain aspects that I don’t want to focus on, such as academic writing or technical writing. I think that a lot of people that want to be writers have some good ideas and would love to see them finished, but don’t necessarily like the idea of working on them for hours and days and months. They say everyone has a book in them, but I would say that very few people can get it out of them. On the other hand, I don’t think one should be disheartened if you don’t always feel like writing or get a huge amount of satisfaction out of every single sentence that you write. It takes a lot of effort to make yourself do this sort of thing and even more effort to continuously plug away at a single project. You do have to make yourself do it and fight the instinct to leave it for another day. I feel that you will know deep down if the slight apathy that you sometimes experience when you sit down to write is a genuine dislike for writing or if it’s just part of the general human condition which seems hell bent on making you vegetate in front of the television.

None of this is meant to be a criticism on anyone that may have taken some sort of creative writing course, or followed a “how to write your first novel” book, or anyone that follows any form of code or pattern of writing; anything along those lines will not hurt your writing, I just don’t think you can rely on it. I have a good friend who has done a high level creative writing course and some of the work that I’ve seen of his is good, but it’ll only get better if he keeps on writing.

In closing, a writer writes, so if you want to be a writer, start writing. A good place to start is a blog where you can tell everyone to do all the things that you keep meaning to do yourself.

Additional Notes:

I don’t think the question of “What does a writer do” was an original idea of the writer in question and I think he stole the advice from someone else. A bit like what I’m doing here.

On the subject of labels, I don’t disagree with calling myself a writer on a philosophical “labels box you in” kind of way, but more because I just feel like a fraud saying it.

In all seriousness, if you do start a blog, feel free to post a link to it in the comments of this thread. If I really like it, I might even create a permanent link on the sidebar, but don’t take it to heart if I don’t; it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It probably means I haven’t noticed the comment, forgotten to put up the link, or decided against putting up links altogether.

In case anyone is interested, the BBC Writers room is pretty interesting and might provide the incentive you need to get going, even if the only thing I can really think is "how did a show like 'Robin Hood' or 'Merlin' get a second reading?". I guess some things just look better on paper...

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