Become a Better Creative Writer — the best of About Writing (so far).
About Writing is a project that I started with a promise that any writer can access free content that will help them become a better creative writer. I’ve taken the time to go through all advice from the website’s first six months and put the best of it in a new convenient order, arranged in the following chapters:
- 1: START WRITING
- 2: CORE PRINCIPLES
- 3: ON WRITING ADVICE
- 4: NOVELS
- 5: WRITING DIALOGUE
- 6: POETRY
- 7: OTHER WRITERS
Please remember that this isn’t the definitive ‘how to write’ guide because About Writing is an ongoing project with plenty of helpful posts still to publish. This is just the best advice so far. Enjoy, and become a better creative writer!
CHAPTER ONE: START WRITING
BECOME A BETTER CREATIVE WRITER
What you must know before you start writing.
You don’t need to know anything more than you already know. Start writing. You don’t need to overthink your ideas. You don’t even need to know your ideas. If you want to, go ahead, but you don’t need to.
You can meet your ideas as your letters meet the page. Decide whether it’s a poem or a novel later. And don’t worry about finding the right word. Does ‘unbelievable’ sound better than ‘astonishing’? It doesn’t matter. Write the first one that comes up, move onto the next.
The majority of writers sweat over every syllable in the editing process, so there’s time for that. You’ll probably find a better way to show your readers the feeling anyway, but not right away. That will come. Just write now, edit later. Nothing should slow your sentence.
And who knows? You might find something, like Jack Kerouac did, and type with a natural beat, a strong sense of rhythm. His spontaneous prose style defined him, despite Truman Capote describing it as typing, not writing. Well, I wouldn’t mind typing like Kerouac.
Become a better creative writer — experiment!
Give the approach a try and type without stopping. Most writers only find their story in the editing process anyway. And there’s beauty in writing your unedited, pure first thoughts.
Allow your imagination the opportunity to surprise you. Start writing! Natalie Goldberg writes about this concept beautifully in Writing Down the Bones. She writes about it as a discipline with which to experiment — losing control, writing with feeling over logical thought for twenty minutes or so — but I think there’s a real opportunity to incorporate ‘first thoughts’, or at least elements of it, into your everyday writing routine.
‘First thoughts’ is an exercise that exceeds the speculative nature of experiment, in the sense that the writer will learn something that will sustain and strengthen their writing for a lifetime.
Writing in this spirit was a great stimulus as I was starting out, provoking me to write without paying attention to the shyness on my shoulders. And I continue to write with the principles of Goldberg’s ‘first thoughts.’ Sometimes I slip, and find myself painfully searching for the perfect word mid-sentence, but then I remember to move on and write, knowing that the correct word will come to me later. It’s a great lesson for any writer, at any level.
The most important thing now is that you start writing. Edit later, when you’ve sobered up.
The first and best part of the writing process.
Nothing you write can ever be as pure or perfect as your idea. That’s the writer’s challenge, and that’s what keeps me up at night. It keeps me alive. This lifelong pursuit of perfection. How can I express on the page the strange feeling that carried itself into my daydream? Turning this intangible idea into words — is it possible? The more impossible it feels, the more I love it. It’s the best part of the writing process. And I even love every failure.
Because the best failures are still fantastic stories. They capture the essence of the idea, and they resemble the purity of that first thought, but they’re not quite the same. So, the next idea comes, and it’s even better than the last. You sit in front of a blank page and you ask yourself how to reimagine it into words. How can you show everyone else? And show them in the best way possible. The pursuit goes on. And it’s beautiful. I’m in love with how impossible the entire thing is.
The following passage from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot comes to mind:
“There is something at the bottom of every new human thought, every thought of genius, or even every earnest thought that springs up in any brain, which can never be communicated to others, even if one were to write volumes about it and were explaining one’s idea for thirty-five years; there’s something left which cannot be induced to emerge from your brain, and remains with you forever; and with it you will die, without communicating to anyone perhaps the most important of your ideas.”
We have to embrace the impossible passion with the scientific spirit of the process, and we have to try to find the best way to not let our most important ideas die with us. The more I write, the more I believe that the definition of writing has more to do with the craft and the attempt than the execution. To me, that’s what matters, and that’s where the real writing happens. The idea is the best part of the writing process.
It’s not about implementing a marketing strategy, begging for reviews, or selecting a genre or subject that will appeal to the broadest amount of people. And it definitely has nothing to do with money. It’s about the perfect, intangible idea, and the glorious failures at reimagining that idea into words. Some of your failures will be wonderful. All of them will improve you as a creative writer. So we beat on, boats against the current.
CHAPTER TWO: CORE PRINCIPLES
BECOME A BETTER CREATIVE WRITER
Be Specific & Become a Better Creative Writer.
When I moved into an apartment by the Maritsa River in Plovdiv, I became fixated on the trees that lined it. They made me feel something, a seemingly unfounded melancholy. And I knew that one day I would use them for a story.
Because fiction is much stronger when the writing is specific, I knew that my story wouldn’t be any good if I didn’t know exactly what type of tree it was. A quick Google search confirmed it.
They were white poplars, shedding their cotton blossom like snow in spring, clogging the banks of the river. And then the following line came to me: The bending poplars, newly bare.
I’d read it somewhere before. It was from Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell, a novel I’d read more than a decade ago. But the line had clung to me like a leaf to a tree in endless spring.
‘SHARPLY the menacing wind sweeps over
The bending poplars, newly bare’
This underlines the importance of reading good literature, how it teaches solid principles that improve your writing. The specificity of Orwell’s line planted the image in my mind so deeply that I remembered for years. Longevity is certainly, therefore, a benefit of being specific in your writing.
Further than that, consider my downcast reaction to the poplars by my river; one could argue that Orwell’s line has defined the way I react to the sight of a poplar tree. Specific writing makes readers feel something. There’s no other reason that such a tree should inspire melancholy, but it did, and was Orwell to blame?
I did use the poplars in my story, complete with their out-of-place snow in spring, to reflect the out-of-place nature of my protagonist. And if my story works it’s massively in debt to the specific writing within that scene.
It wouldn’t have been emotive to have had my protagonist look out to some trees. And it wouldn’t have been good writing to have simply told the readers that she felt out of place. She was looking out to the white poplars that lined the river, seeing winter in spring.
Be Succinct & Become a Better Creative Writer.
Your writing is more cluttered than you realise. Mine, too. I know because I see it every time I read through and edit. When working through our first and second drafts, be on the lookout for everything that doesn’t need to be there. Be succinct in your writing, focus on one flower instead of the entire garden, and your message will become clearer and stronger.
This isn’t about minimalism. In all genres and styles of writing, clearing the clutter is essential. It’s all about removing what doesn’t need to be there. Sometimes, a long and detailed description is necessary for the plot or character, and that’s different. This post will focus on phrases and words, which an editor will find and remove when line editing.
Cut the ‘nothing’ words to be succinct in your writing. Consider the adjective ‘personal’. A personal friend of hers. His personal accountant. The word ‘personal’ is doing nothing in these sentences. A friend of hers. His accountant. These edits would never influence the style of the writing. It doesn’t unrecognisably change a writer’s creation. It only improves it.
In my editing, I’m always searching for words relating to ‘now’, like ‘currently’ and ‘present time’. Why write, “At the present time, we are experiencing precipitation.” You can just write, “It’s raining.”
‘Experiencing’ is a word to avoid too. “Are you experiencing any pain?” I read this example in a writing advice book years ago. As I recall, the author wished his dentist would simply ask, “Does it hurt?” instead.
The language of clutter is the language of business and politics.
A company isn’t broke; it’s experiencing a current position of negative cash-flow. That poor area of town isn’t a slum, but a depressed socioeconomic area. People use this language to mislead or hide.
Verbose writing will cloud your message. This should tell you everything you need to know. Whatever you’re writing, you want to get your point across. Besides being specific in your writing, you need to be succinct too. By removing words and phrases that do nothing, you will increase the clarity of your prose. This advice doesn’t care about your genre, style, or point. It works.
One exception to this rule, I find, is dialogue. Remember that most rules don’t apply when we’re writing dialogue. It may suit a character to say, “At the present time, we are experiencing precipitation.” It says something about the person, and it’s therefore crucial to the character, the story, and the book, so it DOES need to be there.
Use your judgement. It’s up to you. Most writers can cut 50% from their first drafts without it affecting anything except the length. Writing with economy isn’t about minimalism. It’s about writing well. Be succinct in your writing and put every single word to work!
What’s your point?
What point are you making? And how much do you want to cover? The writer should work with these two questions throughout the entire writing process. Too many try to cover everything, attempting to write the definitive piece. But there will never be a definitive anything. As a writer, you don’t write to explain or define something. You focus on an interesting angle, and you’re precise and clear with it. You’ve got a point to make, and not everything is relevant. Understanding this is key if you want to write well.
You just can’t cover the entire topic. All Quiet on the Western Front, for example, is about World War 1, but it doesn’t cover the war from every perspective. It’s a story about some German schoolboys being influenced by a patriotic teacher and becoming soldiers. It shows the tragedy of war from a relatively small perspective. And the readers get far closer to the reality of the bigger picture through a story that focuses on a select experience.
Think small. The theme in my current novel is identity. My protagonist is dealing with who they are, but that’s about it. I’m not attempting to tackle every identity issue that anyone could encounter. And I’m not trying to generalise my character’s issue to connect with more people. If you think that way, you won’t connect with anyone. I’m writing about a small, specific issue. And I do hope that it will relate to people, but through the quality of my writing and how well I’ve communicated my character’s nature.
Write well, be niche, and become a better creative writer by engaging readers.
Have you ever identified with a character who has nothing to do with you? They live in a different era and country. They have a different profession, incomprehensible passions. If you met them in real life, there’s no way you’d be friends. But you identify with them, and you understand them? That’s writing.
I think about Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Perfume, an unloved orphan in 18th-century France who is born with an exceptional sense of smell and becomes a serial killer. There’s nothing in that character description to which I could possibly relate. Still, I felt close to him throughout the entire story, with intense empathy. His self-imposed reclusive stay in the mountains was particularly relatable, reminding me of my own trips into nature, alone in my tent.
What point are you making? And how much do you want to cover? Thinking small will yield the best results. There’s no drawback to it. By exploring the examples from my novel and Perfume, being precise with an issue and character will capture a reader’s attention. The temptation to cover more is something that everyone feels, but let it go, focus on something small, be specific and succinct, and your writing will be so much better.
What is a motif?
Understanding the motifs in your writing will help your creative process and how you talk about and sell your work. In this post, I’ll define what a motif is, how it differs from a theme, and then suggest how you might use a motif in a story.
A motif is a dominant or recurring idea with symbolic significance in an artistic work. Not every recurring idea within a story is a motif, though. To qualify, it has to connect to one of the story’s central ideas or themes.
A theme is the core, abstract idea in an artistic work. The word ‘abstract’ here is crucial because it’s the role of the motif to reinforce the intangible theme with concrete examples that reappear throughout the narrative.
Although symbolic, a motif is not the same as a symbol. A symbol is something that represents something else, usually something concrete that represents something abstract. But it must relate to the overall theme of the story to be a motif.
Examples of motifs in literature.
One of the themes of Moby Dick is the limits of human knowledge. It is always insufficient, often limited to what we see, which isn’t much. A motif of the story that supports this theme is ‘depth.’ The whale swims underneath the surface, concealing most of its body. The mysterious and unexplored depths of the sea are off-limits to Ishmael and humankind.
One motif in my current novel (still editing) is water. My character lives close to a river, and the constantly flowing water represents freedom, which is the theme of my novel. Water recurs throughout the story. My character is trapped and needs to break free emotionally (from a former relationship) and physically (from the city). Another motif in my novel is dirt. The buildings and streets in her city are filthy. My character seems obsessed at times. This motif represents neglect, which is another theme in the story. My character is feeling left behind after her closest friend left her alone in the city.
A writer must understand the themes and motifs of their story.
Motifs inform the writing. When my character is walking from home to work, I want her observations on the landscape to reflect the novel’s theme. I enjoy using motifs quite subtly, building up throughout the story. I like the motifs and themes of my work to creep up on my readers, almost subconsciously. Readers and characters begin the book as strangers. By the time they reach the end of the book, I want my readers to feel at one with my characters. In my experience, this is the power of motifs. They plant ideas without the reader necessarily noticing. It helps the writer create a powerful story.
This is different from a lot of writing advice; instead of aiming to improve the technique, with advice like be specific or be succinct, it asks the writer to step back and critique their novel as an entire piece, as a reader would.
Kill Your Darlings.
For some, it’s a fundamental and obvious piece of writing advice that they’ve practiced for years. To others, it sounds odd to the extent that following it would be detrimental to your writing. Because why would you want to kill your darlings? Aren’t they supposed to be cherished and nurtured? This post will show what the phrase means and how to commit the tough act. Hopefully, this post will show you how killing a darling or two will improve your writing.
Kill Your Darlings is a kind of writer’s mantra. It reminds you that deleting the parts of the story you are most attached to will sometimes improve it. It could be a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, or even a character. And it’s painful. But if it isn’t contributing anything, it has to be removed, no matter how much you love the writing. Editing is rough.
Following the principle means prioritising your entire piece instead of all the small elements that create it, and it takes practice to view your writing in this way. With so many moving parts, something like a novel can be almost impossible to view objectively, but this is one piece of advice that depends on that, and it also helps the writer get to that place. It’s vital to cut what doesn’t need to be there, and killing your darlings certainly falls into this general advice. It’s the most brutal version of it.
Complex descriptions and purple prose are common examples of darlings that need killing. These passages fall into the darling category because the writer has spent a lot of time writing them with beautiful language. But they rarely contribute anything that couldn’t be written quite simply. Instead of delighting the reader, they just get in the way.
Do it — You will become a better creative writer.
The simplest and easiest way to kill your darlings — and this is what I do — is to copy the text somewhere else. I tell myself that I’ll use it later for another story. Ninety percent of the time, I’m lying to myself, but it’s a good lie because it allows me to remove the writing that doesn’t need to be there without hesitation. In general, I don’t have a problem with discipline, yet I still need this lie to help me edit well. It’s tough, and I’m not on the brutal level of Gordon Lish yet.
I’ve invited editors and friends to read my stories and asked them about certain scenes and lines that I suspect could be darlings. If they don’t have much to say, it goes some way to confirming my suspicion. That writing probably means a lot more to me than it ever will to my readers; this gives me the strength to remove it.
The final thing I want to say is that it does feel good to do it. Even if it feels painful while you’re making the cuts, you have to follow through. When you read the writing through again, you will notice the improvement. So, sharpen those blades and ready yourself for war.
Active vs Passive Voice.
Active vs passive voice is all about verbs. A verb can have an active voice or a passive voice, and it’s generally better to choose the active.
The active voice makes the subject of a sentence perform the verb’s action. It makes a sentence more direct. It’s strong and more precise. The passive voice means the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the verb. This is an example of a passive sentence: “the subject of the sentence acts upon the verb.” To make it active, I must write “the verb acts upon the subject of the sentence,” but that doesn’t sound right.
Although the passive voice will sometimes be correct, the subject should generally drive the action, and this is what happens in active sentences. In passive sentences, the action happens to the person.
Take a look at this example of a passive sentence: “The marathon was run by the athlete.” It sounds unnatural and slow. The sentence improves by switching focus to the subject (the athlete) by placing it before the object (the marathon), like this: “The athlete ran the marathon.”
Running a marathon is an event that deserves action. But even a less inspiring example (a less active example) shows that the rule still applies. “The television was watched by him” is the passive version of, “He watched the television,” and it’s clear which sentence is better.
Sometimes, it isn’t obvious, though. Sentences with multiple clauses can get confusing, and the passive voice slips through. And sometimes, the passive voice is the right one to use.
So, when should you use the passive voice?
Sometimes the subject is unknown or insignificant, and it sounds better to use the passive voice. “My phone was stolen” is passive, but we don’t know who stole it. And it sounds no worse than “Someone stole my phone.” The passive voice can be polite, too. “A mistake was made” adopts the passive voice to avoid targeting the one who made the mistake.
In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams uses the passive voice to great effect, writing, “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.”
The universe was created. The creator’s identity doesn’t matter, which is the notable difference from the sentence in The Bible — In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth — and a deliberate move with an obvious intention by Adams, an atheist. And the passive voice is also used in the second sentence, instead of writing the active voice, which would be, “People regard this as a bad move.” and a lot less amusing.
Active vs Passive Voice can be a tricky subject for some writers, especially those who don’t use writing aids. I hope this post has made identifying the passive and active voice simple. Basically, write in the active voice every time unless you are writing in the passive for a particular reason. All writing advice follows this pattern. Follow the rules unless you improve your writing by not doing so.
Be Objective & Become a Better Creative Writer.
Some of you may enjoy Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey, and Harry Potter, but they aren’t better than anything Hemingway, Camus, or Proust has written. It’s not my intention to start something controversial here. I just want to stress the importance of objectivity in writing and education, and this seemed like a good place to start.
Why? Because this is the kind of thing I’ve read on writer Facebook groups, and they’re posted frequently enough to go unnoticeable. I’m sure the majority of readers on this blog have seen them too. And I’m not talking about not having preferences or never having an opinion, nor keeping your personal taste private or pretentiously pretending to prefer ‘higher’ art. That’s something else. It’s easy to retain your personal taste and be objective.
My Personal Taste + My Objectivity
Tolstoy is a great writer, but I also can’t enjoy his novels. It’s not because they’re translated from Russian or because they were written in the 19th century. My love of Dostoevsky’s work proves otherwise. It’s just because I don’t get on with Tolstoy’s style. But that doesn’t mean I dismiss his work. It’s in our interest as writers to be objective. We will always have our tastes and preferences, but we must also acknowledge the objective truth.
I think the following example will make the most sense. One of my favourite bands is Suede, — a band upon whose music my next novel will feature — but I don’t feel the need to proclaim them as a better band than The Beatles. Doing so would fail to acknowledge a massive chunk of musical history and the fact that most modern music is dependent on The Beatles. Most importantly, by believing that Suede is better than any other band, I would never learn the small, crucial nuances of why I love them and why some others might love them. A childish, sweeping statement disengages all critical thinking and leaves you nowhere.
Objectivity and Writing
Everything I’ve said applies to our approach to writing advice, too. There will always be occasions our personal preference overrides a solid piece of writing advice — let’s say ‘Use the Active Voice’ — but it should be implemented at a particular time, for a very particular reason. For an explanation of what I mean precisely, click the link above. It is mad to repeatedly state that using the active voice in writing is a nonsense rule as part of a wider scheme by the elite to make everyone write the same way.
This is the tone of the comments I’m reading, and it’s just incorrect. Writing advice isn’t elitist. It doesn’t want everyone to write in the same way (the concept of that is absurd in practice because a writer’s style is made up of a hell of a lot more than a simple guideline that helps you write well). Writing advice is there to improve your writing, and every good piece of writing advice includes the clause to apply your discretion and break any rules when it improves the writing to do so. Writing advice helps you become a better thinker, encouraging you to make informed decisions every time you write each sentence.
What’s the point of this post? It wasn’t to rant, I promise. I have always valued objectivity in writing and education. Every time I become more objective, I feel myself learn better. I don’t lose my personal preferences in favor of what I’m told to like. Instead, my understanding of why I enjoy certain things is clearer. And I don’t feel the need to blindly claim that the things I like are better than anything else. These are essential things for a writer to know.
With an open mind, an objective outlook on works of art, and an understanding of why you like the things you like, you will become a better creative writer. Your truth is not the truth. The fact that it’s yours and not shared universally makes it even more special. Be objective. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
CHAPTER THREE: ON WRITING ADVICE
BECOME A BETTER CREATIVE WRITER
The best writing advice anyone has given me.
I heard the best writing advice on the first morning of my University degree, even though I didn’t fully realise until years later. Carl Tighe, pictured above, was the head professor of Creative Writing. He said that I would learn nothing in his lectures that I couldn’t learn myself through reading fiction.
This turned out to be untrue, of course, because the real lesson of studying Creative Writing at University — and creative disciplines in general — is the encouragement and expectation to take your passion seriously. Your art isn’t your hobby or something you do in your spare time. It’s everything. You learn thousands of other things too, but the invitation end expectation to take it seriously is invaluable.
So why did Carl say that? He wasn’t dismissing the value of the degree; he loved the degree, and loved writing. Carl only wanted to underline the importance of reading. And he was right. Through university, I read dozens of books by writers, for writers, about writing advice, and they all prioritized the habit of reading. You’ve got to read in the right way, paying attention to more than what’s happening to the characters. It helps if you read the right books, of course, but, first and foremost, you have to read. You’ll learn everything you need to know.
Reading has taught me so much, and I do attribute whatever talent I have to the great books I have read. Still, the reason Carl’s writing advice is the best anyone has ever given me goes deeper than that. It was layered, installing within me the knowledge that I can always help myself and become a better creative writer.
The long-term gift of reading to become a better creative writer.
In the years that followed university, without daily lectures, without assignments, without the company of fellow writers, and without being forced to think about writing every day, I learned that my desire to write was totally self-driven. I didn’t need anyone to tell me to write. I didn’t need paychecks to write. And I didn’t need time to write either, because I’d always find it, somewhere. Crucially, I didn’t need outside confidence or guidance, and that’s partly because of Carl’s advice. It set me up for a lifetime.
Because, as I sit in my room today, surrounded by books, I know I have everything I could ever need. If I want to become a better creative writer, it’s within my reach. That’s empowering, and it will continue to be for my entire life. It’s an arm’s reach away. It’s up to us.
Carl died last year, but he lives on, through his family, his fiction and non-fiction publications, and his students. I still think of his lessons and advice. The importance of reading is a simple piece of advice that every writer has heard. But I like to think that Carl knew exactly what he was doing by choosing to share this particular lesson at such a critical moment. Impressionable and intimated on the first day of University, how could I ever forget? He could have said anything. He was a great teacher.
If you’re interested in reading more about Carl, visit his personal website here.
Become a Better Creative Writer and BEAT Writer’s Block.
A few weeks ago, I removed myself from my lonely writing routine and joined communities of writers on social media. I saw that ‘writer’s block’ is a huge topic. And it’s also something I’ve seen covered by other writers who offer advice.
I hadn’t planned on covering it. And I wouldn’t have written this post unless I had something different and useful to offer. This is an opinion piece, and I’m sharing it because I think it will help. I want to say that writer’s block isn’t something that we should admit to.
If there are reasons you’re not writing, you need to understand what those reasons are. The symptom is the same, and you’re not putting words on a page, but I would recommend that you don’t describe it as ‘writer’s block.’
I don’t like the term ‘Writer’s Block.’ Admitting you have it solves nothing. Instead, if you identify the reason you’re not writing, you’ll be in a better position to overcome the ‘block’ and put words on a page again.
It’s far more useful to understand that you’re suffering from perfectionism and then find some specific, instructional advice. Or from a lack of confidence, perhaps, and then you could try writing something to share with a trusted friend or someone who enjoys your writing. Or you could write for yourself. There are many things that keep a writer from creating. If you’re experiencing one, please name it. Then you can kill it.
I’m lucky to have studied Creative Writing, learning from outstanding teachers. It forced me to write every day for three years. It was a pleasure, but there were still times I felt low and unmotivated. I lived in a cheap and noisy house, with walls so damp that several of my books got spoiled. I had no money and I was always cold in winter. Sometimes I had headaches and no interesting ideas.
And even on the worst days, I wrote. I looked out of the window and wrote about the people that walked by. I set myself challenges, like writing about my previous day as though it were fiction, rewriting stories from different perspectives, and learning to take inspiration from everyday objects. In fact, the first chapter of my novel, The Little Movements, is titled Table Mats, and I wrote that chapter as a writing challenge I set myself. I wondered how much I could reveal about a couple’s relationship and history through a conversation about a mundane item.
And it became a novel that a publisher picked up.
Beating writer’s block!
When you know how to write, you can write about anything and make it interesting. You can work with prompts, try writing experiments, and condition yourself to write no matter how you feel.
Arm yourself with more writing techniques, the ability to write in different genres and forms (novels, scripts, non-fiction, memoir, plays, short stories, flash-fiction, poems etc), practice more writing experiments (like Goldberg’s ‘first thoughts’), read books that challenge you, fill your social media feeds with content from fellow creatives, subscribe to my blog and other writing blogs, and write.
I’m not saying that it’s easy. But if you’re ever feeling ‘writer’s block’, please delve deeper and find the actual thing that’s blocking you. You will overcome it and become a better creative writer in no time.
And don’t keep it to yourself. Talk to your family and friends, and get in touch and talk to me if you like. I know the importance of a supportive, creative community, and I’d love to be there for writers who need it!
Should writers worry about offending readers?
The answer is yes. Writers should worry about offending readers. Just not for the reasons you’re thinking.
On ‘controversial’ topics in fiction, Moy McCrory once said, “The only writing that offends me is bad writing.” And that’s my truth too. Lolita didn’t offend me, despite its subject and plot, and Fifty Shades of Grey is only offensive because of how poor the writing is.
I’ve always written whatever I’ve wanted to write. The protagonist of my current novel is a woman. Even this could be controversial nowadays. But I’ve always considered it completely standard for writers to create outside of their own experiences.
If you’re writing about another gender, culture, or religion, you need to know your stuff. You’ve got to research. But that’s all part of writing well. And research could mean hard research through analysing behavioural psychology and social practices, or it could be through your own personal experience. The people you know, the things you observe.
Writers worrying about offending readers is a topic that becomes louder every year. The world was different a decade ago, when Moy shared her view in a Creative Writing lecture. ‘Cancel Culture’ wasn’t something we ever thought about. And harassment on social media didn’t feel like an actual threat.
Still, I know Moy would give the same answer today.
Become a better creative writer — nothing else matters!
Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day and Nobel Prize winner, recently contributed to the discussion, saying that, “Novelists should write from whichever viewpoint they wish or represent all kinds of views.”
He expressed his “fear for the younger generation of writers,” frightened to write about characters outside of their immediate experiences. About his own writing, he said, “Right from an early age I’ve written from the point of view of people very different from myself. My first novel was written from the point of view of a woman.”
Ishiguro in 2021 says nothing that contradicts what Moy told me in 2011, and I haven’t changed my mind. But we are creating against a climate of fear, because the consequence of ‘offensive’ writing seems more serious than before.
Writing from the perspective of someone outside of my experience only makes me spend more time and energy researching. It puts more pressure on writing it well, but this is a positive thing. Writers should always research, and the pressure to write well should never drop. If you want to become a better creative writer, you already know this.
My Creative Writing degree did so much more than show me how to write well. The advice from my lecturers, who are excellent writers too, shaped me as a creative. Just as Carl Tighe’s advice set me up for a lifetime, Moy strengthened my writing values with a kind of mantra that I’ll never forget — the only writing that offends is bad writing.
Will writing advice help you become a better creative writer? Does it work?
Through my studies, work experience, and social exchanges with writers (online and real life) I can say with certainty that we are all quite different from one another. I recognize our differences, but I also see what connects us, and nothing highlights this better than how we respond to the question, ‘Does writing advice work?’
Writing advice is always a divisive topic, especially on social media. I love hearing how established writers define good writing, but some people question the point. They challenge the notion of ‘rules’ in a creative game, even opposing uncontroversial advice, like be specific in your writing and read a lot. But we all learn differently, because we’re all different.
The Nature of Writing.
I’ve never been able to say I take pleasure in writing like others do. It’s too simple for me to say yes. I enjoy it the same way I enjoy climbing a mountain. Parts of it are beautiful, but it’s a lot of hard work. After writing, I look back at what I’ve achieved and feel a sense of accomplishment. And I love fighting with sentences and words, themes and characters, but not how I enjoy sunbathing on a beach. Because, after all, I’m fighting.
Some writers let the words flow, and their first draft is just fine. I, however, find that writing is rewriting. When I picture a writer, I see a person scratching out lines on a printed manuscript. Reading with a red pen in hand. My writer is always editing. But others spend most of their time on the first draft.
And when you’re lacking inspiration? Some take a break, step away from the work and wait. Others battle through, thrashing the keys no matter how they feel. I’m somewhere in between. I battle, especially when I’ve already started a project, but I’ll never force a new project. I wait until the right idea, the right time. There will always be years between my published novels.
The vast differences between writers only reveal the nature of writing. There’s no right way. It’s difficult, and it’s personal. In On Writing Well, William Zinsser wrote, “Some people write by day, others by night. Some people need silence, others turn on the radio. Some write by hand, some by word processor, some by talking into a tape recorder. And some people write their first draft in one long burst and then revise; others can’t write the second paragraph until they have fiddled endlessly with the first.”
Writing Advice is for Everyone.
But we are all connected. What brings us together is that we all produce some kind of literature that comes from within. Based on the many approaches covered in this post, it’s inevitable that we respond differently to writing advice, but I believe that writing advice is there to help all of us. And they’re not ‘rules’. They’re an opportunity to develop, and the great thing about writing advice is that you don’t have to take it, or you can choose from whom to take it.
The whole point of writing advice, and this website, is to help people write well. When writers share good principles, they’re not trying to encourage you to write like they do. They want you to write like yourself. Only you can do that. Following writing principles just helps you communicate what you have to say with more clarity and strength.
And you can always break the ‘rules.’ But break them after you understand them, and after you’ve practiced them. It means you’re breaking the rules from a point of authority, not ignorance. This is how every successful rule-breaker has done it. And you can do it too. But begin with an open mind, and read writing advice with some trust that it’s here to improve you, not stifle your creativity.
Does writing advice work? Absolutely. I believe it’s possible to learn and become a better creative writer, and no matter what you pick up from other writers, you will never lose yourself.
Who are you writing for?
There’s only one answer to the question ‘Who you are writing for?’ and that’s yourself. You write in a language and style that you know, and you create something that you would love to read. You write what you know, and you write for yourself.
So why all the writing advice? What’s that all about? If you’re writing for yourself, why follow advice that trains you to write differently? On the surface, this seems paradoxical, maybe even hypocritical. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true, and I’ll explain.
Consider your reader for a moment, and the phrase, “If you lose the readers that don’t get you, you don’t want them, anyway.” This is true. But what matters here, and what this sentence doesn’t contain, is the reason you have lost them.
One reason is acceptable, and one isn’t.
If a reader has stopped reading your work because they don’t like your sense of humour, or they don’t enjoy reading about what you’ve written about, for example, a novel based on a travelling salesman who solves crimes in his spare time, then that’s just fine. Leave those readers behind. Don’t second guess what they might prefer. You wrote about your crime-solving salesman for a reason. If you created another character to please a faceless audience, then they probably still wouldn’t like it, and the story wouldn’t be as good, because it wasn’t what you wanted to write about. You’re writing for yourself, because you know what to write, and how to make it good.
It’s unforgivable, on the other hand, to lose readers because you have failed to work on your craft. If people invest in your character and story, and they love your sense of humour, and you then lose their attention because you’ve been reckless with your technique, that’s your fault. It’s not only in your interest as a writer to work on the craft of writing, but it’s your responsibility, too.
Write for yourself, but respect your readers.
Natalie Goldberg’s First Thoughts.
In a previous post, What you must know before you start writing, I mentioned Natalie Goldberg’s First Thoughts writing experiment from Writing Down the Bones. I wrote about it as an opportunity to give your imagination the chance to surprise you, as a way to overcome writer’s block. And I explored the idea of incorporating the experiment into your daily routine because I feel it’s equally helpful to all writers, new and experienced. In this post, I want to share the complete First Thoughts experiment.
Natalie Goldberg introduces the experiment by suggesting it as a timed exercise. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, or an hour. You can increase the duration over time, or you can start big. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you define the duration of the experiment before the session, and you commit yourself to the full period. These are her six rules:
- Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying.)
- Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.)
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)
- Lose control.
- Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
- Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)
First Thoughts to help you become a better creative writer
Goldberg writes that these rules are necessary to burn through to first thoughts, to a place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness and internal censorship. She wants writers to train their minds to see and feel, and she goes on to write about the potential of capturing oddities.
First thoughts are the way the mind flashes on something. We’re not used to living in this world. Usually, a person is confronting thoughts on thoughts. We naturally edit them, and by the time we write or speak them, they’re the second or third version.
Natalie Goldberg’s First Thoughts wants you to meet your thoughts without ego, control, and the logic that proves that the world is permanent and solid. She shares the example of Zen meditation. You sit cross-legged and, no matter what you feel, you continue to sit. You learn to remain steady and confront the energy, as her writing experiment encourages you to do.
These mentions of energy and meditation aren’t for everyone; I know that. But I believe that every writer can identify with the purity of that first thought and the subsequent pursuit to capture it in writing. That’s what we do.
And it isn’t easy. The writer has to confront the most difficult emotions head-on. Goldberg has had students break down crying when they read over their first thoughts. But don’t stop at the tears; go through to truth. Be present in the world, awake to everything around you.
You will become a better creative writer.
How to Edit Well: 14 Micro Editing Tips.
Here’s an editing cheat sheet. I’ve used it for almost ten years since the most influential teacher of my life handed it to me. In ‘The best writing advice anyone has given me‘ and ‘Should writers worry about offending readers,’ I shared advice from Carl Tighe and Moy McCrory. But it was Adrian Buckner, another teacher at Derby University, who gave me this ‘how to edit well’ printout.
I’m sharing it because it’s helpful, full of great tips that you can return to when editing your work. Posting it here is also convenient for me. The creased, stained, and breaking document can live a second, preserved life. Marked with ghosts of notes I no longer remember writing, the printout is reborn here on the site.
It will help you become a better creative writer. And it helps me become a better creative writer, too. I’ll finish this post by talking about Adrian. He was the most patient of all my teachers, generous with students of all levels. If he could see that you were engaged and hardworking, he matched your passion and knew how to help you improve.
He’s an excellent poet, too. In 1999, he became the first Nottinghamshire Poet Laureate, and several of his poetry collections sit proudly on my bookshelf. I’ll leave you with a link to one of Adrian’s recent poetry readings. Watch it on YouTube by clicking here.
CHAPTER FOUR: NOVELS
BECOME A BETTER CREATIVE WRITER
How to write a novel.
Every novelist has a unique process. A certain breed of writer can write a novel in fifteen or thirty days, some taking part in NaNoWriMo. It’s not something I’ve tried, but, time permitting, I want to in the future. It’s a good way to get down a solid first draft, writing freely without time to entertain writer’s block. But surely the writer would need to spend significantly longer editing the novel after the writing exercise. The other extreme has novelists spend decades on one story, reworking it over the years to try different styles and methods of delivery.
I’m somewhere in the middle. I start with a rough outline of a character or a mood, and I live with the idea for a couple of weeks, with my character as a kind of imaginary friend. I’m open to all of my ideas becoming a poem or anything else. But if it feels like a long piece of fiction, I write for my character, usually in the third person, and I scan over my work for an appropriate starting-off point.
When I have a few thousand words on the page, I take time to think about my character’s future. I like to write without knowing too much about the plot. I think I’d become bored with the story if I knew the end, and I’ve found that it’s easier to avoid cliched story arcs and endings without planning too much.
How to write a novel: the end stages.
I write for around six to nine months, by which time the first draft is complete. The first draft is usually between 80,000 and 120,000 words. The Little Movements was over 80,000 and gradually became around 50,000 at the time of publishing. After finishing the first draft, I put my novel aside for around six months and think of something else, anything and everything else.
I do this because I’m a one-man team. I edit my own novels, and I try, as much as possible, to remove myself from the work. Some don’t have the luxury of spending six months away from their work, and some don’t want to. But the point remains. When editing your work, try to forget that you wrote the words. Removing everything that doesn’t need to be there will be much easier.
My way is one way to write a novel, but there are as many ways as there are writers. Choose a method that allows you to stick to your writing principles. Originality and quality are high on my list, which is why I prefer to take longer. If prolificacy and profit are high on your list, you’ll need a very different model to mine. ‘Become a better creative writer’ could mean slightly different things to different writers. It’s about knowing who you are, what you stand for, and how to get your best words on the page.
How long should a novel be?
As a general rule, I believe that every work of art exists mainly in isolation, without too much regard for conventions and confining rules. If a story needs to be shorter or longer, it should be, even if that goes against advice. Some of the best novels break the rules — but they rebel with intent and from a position of authority. Whether you choose to follow practiced advice or go against it, it’s always helpful to understand it, including the expectations concerning how long a novel should be. This advice can be decisive when publishing and marketing your work.
Get to know what publishers and readers expect in terms of word length. If you follow the advice, you can use that as another benefit of your story and boost your chances of publication. If you go against the advice, you’ll be doing it with purpose. There should be good reasons your story is shorter or longer. Your story should be achieving something that a conventional length can’t. If your story is twice the expected length and doesn’t do anything more, maybe it’s a sign to cut. Your readers’ time is valuable, and every additional passage has to be justified. All of these points are so important if you want to become a better creative writer.
How long is a novel?
A simple response to how long a novel should be would be to say between 60,000 and 100,000 words. Shorter and longer books may find it difficult to get published. If you’re self-publishing, you decide the length, and there are no barriers to publishing, but it may be more difficult to find readers. Too short and people feel short-changed, too long, and you’re asking a lot from your readers.
My debut novel, The Little Movements, is around 50,000 words. It’s a short novel, shorter than what a novel should be and longer than a novella, which is a piece of writing between 10,000 and 40,000 words.
The Little Movements was around 80,000 words when the publisher first read it. I cut about 30,000 words because it improved the story. I knew I was ‘weakening’ the novel in terms of marketability, but I knew I was strengthening the story, so it was the right thing to do. But I made my decision from a position of authority. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is 47,000 words, and knowing that helped me decide (against the publisher’s wishes).
Become a better creative writer — it’s in your hands!
No reader will criticise an excellent story for being too short or too long. How long should a novel be? It should be as long as it needs to be. But understand the expectations. I wrote The Little Movements with this in mind, and I believe the initial 80,000-word length went in my favour. But I wasn’t a slave to the word count, shown by my decision to remove almost half of the novel in my final edit, which would have been a more difficult decision had I not been aware of the length of other books.
How to plan a novel.
I’m writing this post because an About Writing subscriber got in touch to request more detail on how to plan a novel. In this post, I’ll talk about my experience. In next week’s, I’ll provide a step-by-step plan that some other writers follow.
The creative stereotype sometimes pigeonholes us as whimsical hedonists living from one fleeting moment to another, disregarding all of the research and strategy that every creative must employ to create a work of art that means something. In How to write a novel, I briefly mentioned that I was “somewhere in the middle,” regarding how long I spend with an idea before committing it to a novel and how long I spend working on the story.
Some writers plan their entire book before they begin writing the first chapter, but I’m wary of over-thinking my ideas into non-existence. It’s true that ideas need to be realised through strategic thought, but you can plan too much and lose the feeling of your idea.
Plan with a writing experiment
I begin writing when I have a character in mind. My planning process is a partnership with my character. I let them loose and start writing with them, and, together, we test a few things. Which part of the novel am I writing when I’m writing these first scenes? I don’t know. I have no idea whether they will ultimately make it into the novel or service the first draft. What I’m doing is living with my character and seeing how they respond to certain situations, and I do this on the page.
I have a new character now. He appeared a couple of months ago, at the beginning of April. He has a distinct personality, but that’s it. When he came to me in April, he came to me as almost a stranger. Some writers I know make a list and fill out the character’s missing information — name, job, relationship status, etc. I don’t do this. I start writing. Now that I think about it, I am practising Natalie Goldberg’s First Thoughts writing experiment. I let the character surprise me.
After each writing exercise, I learn a little more. With my current character, I have six entries, and he is beginning to form. I am reaching the stage where I might begin to think about how to plan a novel with the material I’ve written.
Planning my two finished novels
My debut novel began the same loose way. I had characters, and I wrote for them. I had a few short scenes written when I sat down to think about a plan. The scenes were very good, and self-contained. Little moments that had a clear beginning, middle, and end. I felt that merging them into one narrative would detract what I liked about them so much, and that dictated the structure of my debut, The Little Movements. I wrote the rest of the novel in the same way I started. Every chapter is a close-up and self-contained scene, and the novel is non-linear. I wrote multiple chapters for my characters, and I knew that selecting the best chapters in the correct order would make or break my story.
The novel I’m currently editing, Twelve Tracks, was planned similarly. After writing for my character a month or two, I couldn’t ignore her intensely personal relationship with music. In my planning, I stumbled upon a structural idea of containing the narrative within the tracks of an album she loved. She begins playing the album from track one and moves through to its end, track twelve. Every scene in the novel is a memory or thought prompted by the music.
When should you begin planning?
Every novelist has a unique process and must learn how to plan a novel in a way that suits them. In this post, I have explored mine. I’ve illustrated the benefit of delaying the hard planning until you know your characters well. The best way to understand my characters is to unlock the cage and let them run around the page for a while.
Next week, I’ll share a more structured approach to planning. Remember, a subscriber requested this topic. If you subscribe to About Writing and ask me to cover something, I will.
Planning a novel (a step-by-step guide).
In my previous post, How to plan a novel, I answered a subscriber request to discuss planning a novel. I shared my process, which is on the light side of planning until the right vehicle for my character emerges. But some writers plan a significant amount of the story (sometimes the entire story) before they begin writing for their character.
A writer friend of mine swears by Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. I’ve read it, and although it doesn’t work for me, I want to share it here as an example of a more structured way to plan a novel. It suggests breaking your story into three distinct acts and includes a progress percentage that represents how much of each part should contribute to your entire word count.
Planning a novel
- An opening image of your character and the world. (1%)
- Introduce the theme. Your character makes a statement that suggests what their arc will be. (5%)
- Setup. Explore your character’s life and flaws. Learn what they’re like before the coming transformation. Introduce supporting characters and your character’s primary goal. What’s at risk if they don’t change? What will the rewards be? (1% to 10%)
- Catalyst. A life-changing incident catapults them into a new world or way of thinking. Your character cannot return to their normal world. (10%)
- Debate. Your character thinks about what to do next. Show their reluctance to change. (10% to 20%)
- Act 2 begins. Your character accepts the call to action and goes out of their comfort zone. This is the beginning of the new world, different from the one presented in the opening of the first act. (20%)
- B Story. New characters are introduced that assist your main character in whatever goal they need to achieve. It could be a love interest, a nemesis, a friend, or anyone. (22%)
- Fun and games. Your character is in the new world, and the readers are seeing them in it. Do they like it? Do they hate it? Are they doing well? (20% to 50%)
- Halfway through. Your character knows the world and has perhaps succeeded or failed in a small way. Now raise the stakes and push the character through to real change. (50%)
- Bad guys close in. If the story’s midpoint were a false victory (the character was doing well), this section would be a downward spiral where things get progressively worse. If the midpoint was a false defeat, this is the section where things improve. But the character’s enemies or flaws are closing in. (50% to 75%)
- The lowest point of the novel. Your character is at rock bottom. (75%)
- Deep, dark reflection. Your character processes everything they’ve gone through. They learn valuable life lessons. They figure out a solution. (75% to 80%)
- Epiphany. Your character knows what to do. They’re on the path to make it happen. (80%)
- Finale. Your character proves they have learned by achieving their goals, whatever they are. Enemies defeated, flaws are overcome, or lovers are reunited. The character is saved, and the world is a better place. (80% to 99%)
- Closing image. The image mirrors the opening image of the first act and shows the transformation the character has gone through. (99% to 100%)
Become a better creative writer with step-by-step planning
And that’s one example of planning a novel according to an easy-to-follow, step-by-step blueprint. There is enough room to create an original story, even with the somewhat strict advice, and there is probably an increased chance of success for publication and an audience. It’s too formulaic for my taste, but every writer has to find a plan that suits them, and I hope my two posts of planning have helped a few writers out there.
How do you know your novel is complete?
The question ‘How do you know your novel is complete?’ is one I’m dealing with right now. Since the publication of my first in 2015, I’ve been working on a follow-up. To the frustration of the readers who enjoy my work, I’ve finished novels only to abandon them, because they weren’t better than The Little Movements.
In 2018, I began work on a story called Twelve Tracks. It then became a novel, and now I’m sure it’s better than The Little Movements. A few friends have read it, including a professional editor, and they think it’s ready. But I think it needs more work. I know it needs another edit.
The reason I know? Because I know the characters and the story, and I’ve written long enough now to trust my instinct with these things. My answer to ‘How do you know your novel is complete?’ is perhaps a little underwhelming. You just know. But it’s an answer that’s always worked for me, and there’s slightly more to it than just that.
Listen to instinct.
The real point here is to develop an instinct and learn how to listen to it. It’s a noisy world. Some voices tell you to finish this one and start on your next exciting idea. Others say you’ve read it through twice already, and that’s enough. And some even congratulate you for reaching the word-count, as though that somehow marked the end of the writing process.
Reaching the target word-count is no measure of completion, though. I’ve read samples of self-published work that clearly needed more time. I’m not against self-publishing. In fact, I’m considering moving away from a traditional publishing model for Twelve Tracks. But there are aspects of the traditional model that the self-publishing writer needs to take on themselves. Take the time and go through every check you can think of. Have you edited enough? How well have you told the story? Is it ready for publication?
I believe the writer is working for the story, not the other way around. The story, therefore, dictates the style, the length and the quality. If you can do better, do better! If it needs to differ from what you planned, go with that.
“I know it can be better.”
My novel, Twelve Tracks, is how I imagined it would be, a suitable length for publishing, and it works well enough. My readers have told me it’s better than The Little Movements. But that isn’t enough to call it complete, because I know it can be better. During the editing process, I realised the story and characters could be better than I first planned.
Most writers live with this mantra — I know it can be better — and it’s certainly something to be wary of. It’s a phrase that could be helpful or extremely unhelpful depending on the writer, the story, or even the way a writer is feeling on a particular day.
The perfectionist novelist would finish nothing, forever stuck editing their first piece of work. And the public would read nothing of the perfectionist’s work. However, ‘I know it can be better’ isn’t a strive for perfection. Instead, it’s the pursuit of doing your characters and your story justice. Only the writer knows what that means. How do you know your novel is complete? If the story deserves better, it isn’t complete, and the editing process continues.
CHAPTER FIVE: WRITING DIALOGUE
BECOME A BETTER CREATIVE WRITER
How to write realistic dialogue: an introduction.
There’s a lot of good, easy-to-follow advice on ‘how to write realistic dialogue,’ and I will soon share my ideas on that here, but this first post on the subject will cover when and why I choose to use dialogue. Every writer should have this conversation with themselves before refining the dialogue that’s already on the page. What do you want your dialogue to achieve? Why will you use it?
I love dialogue. Editors and readers have always praised my use of it to the extent that one or two editors have asked why I don’t try writing plays instead. I wasn’t sure how to take this ‘praise’ at first. Were they complementing my dialogue or criticising everything else? I felt as though they were saying the other areas of my writing weren’t as strong.
But I learned to accept that writing realistic dialogue was my strength, and I continue to write novels instead of plays. Why? Because I’m more familiar with novels. I read far more novels than I watch plays. Additionally, the autonomy of the novel-writing process is something I enjoy. I don’t have to work with directors, actors, props, locations, and other people to complete my projects.
Most of the time, my stories are dialogue-heavy. Sure, the sound advice is that each line of your dialogue ought to be achieving something, like moving the plot forward or developing characters. Still, that advice isn’t exclusive to dialogue. Every line of your writing should be contributing to the plot and the characters. It’s just a matter of writing well. It’s one of the secrets if you want to become a better creative writer.
The main thing I do with my dialogue is show emotion. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is the oldest and best writing advice out there. And I employ dialogue more than anything else to show emotion. The following passage is from my novel, The Little Movements:
Essentially, what I’m saying with this dialogue could have been communicated by simply writing: Sarah and Simon tried to change the subject and talk about something else. First, they talked about a bus that passed, but it was clear that neither of them could concentrate on anything. And then Simon said he wanted to go home to bed.
I’m not stating that my decision to write this section in the form of dialogue was correct. But I am saying that I made my decision for a reason, with intent. I chose to write a novel that showed practically all subtle emotions and motivations through dialogue. The novel is a close-up account of two marriages. The readers experience snippets of their lives. So I didn’t think it mattered if some readers didn’t understand everything about the dynamics of their marriages.
That’s what I was going for — realism. I wanted readers to get to know my characters as any person would get to know a couple. They watch and listen to them, witnessing the couple in motion and make half-informed judgements. In my novel, no character is right or wrong, the good guy or the bad guy. My decision to go dialogue-heavy helped me achieve neutrality while still exploring the characters in depth.
I hope this introduction on how to write realistic dialogue has been helpful. I will get to more practical advice with future posts, but for now, ask yourself when you will use your dialogue and what you want to achieve from it. Always write with purpose.
What is the purpose of dialogue?
Every line of dialogue must serve a purpose. This instruction was something that I mentioned in my introductory post on the subject, How to write realistic dialogue? I half-dismissed it because every line of your writing — not only conversations between characters — must serve a purpose, but now I want to explore that point in detail and go over ‘What is the purpose of dialogue?’ What are the main things you can achieve through your characters having a conversation?
Look at this short exchange from Mad Men:
The writing in the first season of Mad Men is brilliant, and this short and straightforward exchange shows so much about Don Draper and his world, as it must do, being the opening scene of the pilot episode. Through his conversation with the busboy, Sam, we learn about the class and race hierarchy of 1960s New York, but that’s not it.
What we learn about Don Draper through this dialogue:
- He comes off as a self-assured character. When interrupted by the bartender, he remains calm and composed, ordering another ‘Old Fashioned.’
- He’s a man who plays by his own rules, not society’s.
- We learn that Don Draper considers himself beyond social constructs and class, which are points that become more and more important as the series goes on. Don Draper is a man at war with his identity and background and maybe this hints at a lack of belonging.
- The final thing we learn from this short exchange is that Don Draper is curious about understanding people’s motivations. He is interested in people’s thought processes and decision making because it’s central to his profession as an advertising copywriter.
The purpose of dialogue
This fantastic example shows what a writer could be thinking when they ask themselves, ‘What is the purpose of dialogue?’ In the example I shared, we learned about social injustice and many things about Don Draper. But, reduced to the simple facts, we understand that he’s calm, cool, doesn’t consider himself above anyone ‘beneath’ his social status and class, plays by his own rules, and is curious about how people think.
Your dialogue doesn’t have to do all of this. This is an exceptional example of writing dialogue to introduce a character and a world within an opening scene. I shared this example not to intimate you from writing, but to show you the possibilities within even a simple conversation. So start writing. You will become a better creative writer with practice. Nothing is stopping you.
What is subtext? — Become a Better Creative Writer!
A previous post on writing dialogue with purpose is critical information, but it’s still just a small part of writing good and realistic dialogue overall. A line packed with purpose, for example, could still be a poor line if it lacks subtext. I’ll show what subtext is and explain why subtext is important to dialogue.
Take a look at the line of dialogue in the following paragraph from Anakin Skywalker — and watch it here after the 50-second mark if you’re feeling brave. It’s full of purpose and still one of the worst lines of reported speech I’ve heard:
“From the moment I met you, all those years ago, not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought of you. And now that I’m with you again, I’m in agony. The closer I get to you, the worse it gets. The thought of not being with you, I can’t breathe. I’m haunted by the kiss that you should never have given me. My heart is beating, hoping that that kiss will not become a scar. You are in my very soul, tormenting me. What can I do? I will do anything that you ask.”
A good line of dialogue must be nuanced and specific. All good writing is specific. Anakin is all cliché. It’s unnatural, inauthentic, and lacks any subtext. Subtext is the difference between what a character says and what a character means. If you’re not including subtext in your dialogue writing, then you aren’t writing realistic dialogue. If you want to become a better creative writer, it’s essential.
A quick example to illustrate subtext:
A couple in your novel have a huge argument in front of friends. One of the couple storms out. A friend asks the one that was left behind, “Are you okay?” And they answer, “Perfect.”
We know they’re not okay, especially not perfect. It’s an obviously distressing situation, and, even in the short summary I’ve written, there are hints that they aren’t okay. To have a massive argument with someone, you’re probably emotionally invested. Otherwise, you wouldn’t even engage. Besides, few people feel good after an argument where one has stormed out.
The person isn’t perfect, and they feel bad, but they don’t want to or aren’t willing to talk about it. So that is the subtext, which is effectively showing and not telling in dialogue.
When a line of dialogue doesn’t use any subtext, and the character blurts out and tells their straight-up emotions — I am happy. I am sad. I am angry — then they stick out and sound unnatural. That doesn’t mean that a character will never say how they’re feeling. There will be occasions when a character does precisely that. But your most interesting and realistic lines will probably contain subtext.
If you write dialogue with subtext, you’re trusting your readers to understand your themes. And you must trust your readers if you want to become a better creative writer. Never patronize.
Realistic dialogue shouldn’t sound too real.
Writers are great observers. We pay attention to people’s mannerisms and listen to conversations in cafes and train stations. Something we all know is that real-life conversation is not realistic dialogue. More than other writers, this is something I need to be reminded of because I love realism. I attempt to write my dialogue as authentic as possible, but that never means replicating natural speech.
It would be largely incomprehensible. We ‘um’ and ‘ah’ far too often in real life. Alfred Hitchcock said that a good story was “life, with the dull parts cut out” and this rings true for what I’m saying about dialogue. Every line of dialogue needs to serve a purpose. How much of our real-life conversations serve more purpose than simply filling time?
Real conversations can often be pointless. They go around and around and never go anywhere, often without a satisfying end. People stutter and change their minds, and although there could be a good reason for this kind of dialogue within a story, such as showing how indecisive a character is, it wouldn’t be overly entertaining to read. The ums, ahs, likes, and you knows, would sound extremely authentic, but they would make the character sound unsure and nervous because we’re not used to reading them in dialogue.
How to write realistic dialogue
Overhearing conversations in cafes and train station platforms remains a valuable writing exercise, though. We can pick up the rhythm of real-life conversation. Hemingway, in particular, replicated the rhythm of real conversation to great effect in his writing. Good writers take a conversation and filter out every superfluous syllable to rework the passage into realistic dialogue with intelligent subtext.
If you take the time to listen to actual conversation, you’ll hear how inappropriate it would sound on the page. I say ‘take the time’ because our brains automatically filter out all the filler unless we’re really listening. Have you ever transcribed natural speech? Half of the words aren’t doing anything useful. Dialogue must feel real to the reader, but that’s something different than being real. You won’t find pure, authentic conversation as dialogue in fiction, and if you did, you probably wouldn’t enjoy reading it.
CHAPTER SIX: POETRY
BECOME A BETTER CREATIVE WRITER
Can Poetry be Taught?
I enrolled on a Creative Writing degree with a passion for poetry, several full notebooks of practice, and the hope that the place would show me how to become a poet. I knew it would take work, and I also knew that not everyone could learn. If a student didn’t already have some kind of interest and talent in the subject, I knew that no teacher could fashion a poet from the person. So, what is the teaching of Creative Writing, and can poetry be taught?
One of the crucial things a teacher can do is create the right conditions for writing. But what does that mean exactly? The role of a teacher of arts differs from other subjects, and the pressure to inspire looms large. It isn’t enough to instruct the student, sharing samples of great poems, and analysing lines and techniques. The teacher must encourage the students to write, putting the techniques into practice. The student must believe they can create their own work.
Belief can be even more difficult to inspire when the student is being introduced to great poetry. It’s easy to feel small when faced with Shakespeare. Presumably, students enroll in the course because they want to do it. The teacher needs them to understand that they can do it. And they need the student to know that their own experience is worthy of poetry.
Become a Better Creative Writer with Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath’s poem, Blackberrying, is an outstanding example of an ordinary experience, to which most of us have access, becoming a poem: walking in nature, picking blackberries. The poem explores themes such as a longing to return to childhood, and death.
I like this example, because I believe that its subject and themes are relatable to everyone. Also, I love the poem. The personification of the blackberries, the wonderful they must love me. The mournful image of the burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky brings to mind a funeral pyre, and it sticks with you.
The poem shows how an everyday experience can provide the perfect setting for poetry. The language, too, is simple. One of my favourite lines is quite childlike, even — Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes. Monosyllabic, but full of meaning.
In the right environment, a student will feel inspired to create their own poetry, about their own experiences. They won’t be afraid to use simple language and relatable themes. They will analyse the greats and believe they can create something of value. A student will become a better creative writer.
In conclusion, the best teacher of Creative Writing is reading. Teachers are still essential, as this post covers, because they help students read in the right way. They then develop the poet by showing them pieces like Blackberrying, to encourage them to turn their ordinary experiences into poetry.
I don’t know which of the following statements is truer. Becoming a poet will never be as simple as learning to drive, because there’ll never be a guidebook or set of instructions to follow. Or becoming a poet is much simpler, and as simple as any person picking up a pen and writing a few words down.
Becoming a good poet is something else, though. And yes, poetry can be taught, in the sense that a skilled teacher will create the best conditions to help a certain type of student thrive.
What’s the difference between poetry and prose?
The difference between poetry and prose sounds like a superfluous question until you’re a writer with a bunch of words on a page (or still in your head) and you don’t know if you’re writing a poem or a story.
The difference isn’t in the length, for there’s that famous six-word story that Hemingway wrote to win a bet, or so the legend says. And there are extraordinarily long poems, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Mahābhārata, also, is a poem of approximately 1.8 million words in total.
And the difference isn’t in the use of what we typically describe as poetic language either. Take a look at the following two examples.
A passage from Henry Miller’s novel, Tropic of Cancer:
She rises up out of a sea of faces and embraces me, embraces me passionately — a thousand eyes, noses, fingers, legs, bottles, windows, purses, saucers all glaring at us and we in each other’s arm oblivious. I sit down beside her and she talks — a flood of talk. Wild consumptive notes of hysteria, perversion, leprosy. I hear not a word because she is beautiful and I love her and now I am happy and willing to die.
The opening of Philip Levine’s poem, A Simple Truth:
I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
The extract from the novel is more poetic. But the poem is more of a poem than the novel, and the novel would never be thought of as a poem. And these aren’t the only examples. Nabokov’s Lolita, the novels of Kerouac, and large sections of the novels of Joyce are more poetic than certain poems. You can feel a little lost in these thoughts.
Here’s my opinion. It’s about how the words appear on the page. I don’t think I could distinguish between poetry and prose through headphones. But I know a poem when I see it on the page. And that’s it — we see a poem. The only difference between prose and poetry is its presentation.
When writing prose, the beginning and end of a line are decided by the margins of the page and the conventions of grammar. That’s basically it. There is poetry that follows the same conventional rules as prose, but it’s almost always categorized as prose poetry.
But you’re still a writer with a bunch of words on a page (or in your head) wondering whether you’re working with a poem or a story.
How I decide between poetry and prose
I write poems and stories, and here’s how I determine what they will be. I see poems as photos, a snapshot of a place, person, or mood. And I see stories as movies.
The characters and places in my stories benefit from movement: a backstory and a future. The characters and places in my poems are captured moments that benefit from keeping everything else out.
As a result, my prose strives for clarity. If a character does something, the reader understands why. It might still be unexpected and strange, and the story might be nonlinear and unconventional in structure, but there is a reason. My poetry, on the other hand, is more delicate in nature. I ask readers to absorb the information and feel without questioning the character’s motive. The poem presents a moment or mood without justification. It says, “This is the world” and then promptly ends.
I think that each writer must develop their own sense of what defines poetry and prose. Consequentially, if the writer is lucky, they’ll create strange and original boundaries that don’t conform to genre and move it forward. It’s one way to make your writing original and become a better creative writer.
What is Iambic Pentameter? (what every writer must know to become a better creative writer)
The first thing I want to say here is that, on some level, every English speaker is already familiar with iambic meter. There’s a reason that great poets have used it for centuries. It’s natural and human. The tones and rhythm resemble our everyday speaking voice, so you could find yourself speaking in iambic meter, and possibly in perfect iambic pentameters, when you next order pizza. To understand — what is iambic pentameter? — you must first know about the basic iambic rhythm.
Iambic rhythm is a rising rhythm, and an important lesson in poetry. You can hear it when you speak or read a line out loud. Because all words with over one syllable have accented and unaccented syllables. The accent of the word ‘abroad’, for example, is on the second syllable.
It can sometimes be difficult to hear the accent, and one trick is to try switching the accented syllable. A/broad, for example, with an accent on the first syllable, sounds unnatural, so a/BROAD is clearly correct. Some accents are more difficult to identify than others, but this method usually works for me.
An iamb is a type of foot. A metrical foot with an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable. The word ‘abroad’ is an iamb. The first syllable is unaccented, and the second syllable is accented. It’s as simple as that.
An iambic pentameter is a line that contains five iambs (penta = five). An iambic pentameter has ten syllables, five unstressed, and five stressed.
Here’s an example by Shakespeare, from Macbeth.
As calling home our exiled friends abroad
Try reading the line aloud, feeling the stress of the syllables and overall rhythm. It should feel quite musical to read, but it should also feel natural and right. By the time you reach the end of the sentence, you’re ready to take a breath. That is intentional, and part of what makes the iambic pentameter so special. And you will become a better creative writer by getting to know the rhythm back to front.
Why every writer should care!
There’s a reason Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameters, especially during the crucial moments in his plays. Most of his famous lines, in fact, are iambic pentameters.
Romeo, during the balcony scene: But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
The lines were easier to memorise for Shakespeare’s actors, and simple to say comfortably in one breath. We want our writing to be memorable, don’t we? And accurate too! When writing dialogue, you’re trying to make it sound authentic. The iambic pentameter offers a technical solution to make dialogue rhythmically realistic, while more beautiful too. You certainly wouldn’t want every line written in such a way, but perhaps there’s an opportunity to use it at a pivotal moment. And you can use any words you want. It doesn’t have to be profound or poetic.
But there’s a greater reason behind Shakespeare’s love for the line, and it’s about our bodies. Our hearts beat in iambic rhythm. da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. When you read an iambic pentameter, you’re reading a perfect breath of words that beat in time with your heart. You can use them anywhere in your writing, in poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction, and even a shopping list if you dare. I have to buy a cake for Mark today.
Whatever you write in iambic pentameter, it will be read completely. Heart and mind.
CHAPTER SEVEN: OTHER WRITERS
BECOME A BETTER CREATIVE WRITER
What the famous six-word story teaches us.
I referenced the famous six-word story, attributed to Hemingway, in my previous article about the difference between prose and poetry. It struck me that it might be worth spending a little time with the story here. One reason is because some may be unfamiliar with it. Another is because it teaches an invaluable writing lesson that will help you become a better creative writer. And here’s the story:
Hemingway wrote it in the 20s to win a $10 bet against his writer friends, who challenged him to write a story in just six words. That’s the legend, anyway. But it’s likely untrue, and, if it is true, then other writers got to it before he did.
A newspaper in 1906 published the following quote in its classified section: “For sale, baby carriage, never been used. Apply at this office.” A similar publication appeared in a newspaper in 1910, and “Little Shoes, Never Worn” showed up in a 1917 essay by William R. Kane. A comic strip in 1927 described “For Sale, A Baby Carriage; Never Used!” as the greatest short story in the world. And all of these examples predate the Hemingway legend.
Therefore, it’s likely that Hemingway never wrote the story and the bet never took place. Peter Miller was the first to connect Hemingway with the story, in a 1991 publication, 30 years after Hemingway’s death. But it’s easy to see how the most famous minimalist writer who ever lived would ultimately be tied to the shortest short story. People wanted it to be true.
Can the famous six-word story help us become a better creative writer?
The story is possibly the earliest form of flash fiction, which is a genre that attempts to tell a story in as few words as possible, but there are lessons to learn from these six words that a writer can apply to every genre and form.
It’s a perfect example of showing and not telling, which a writer must know if they want to become a better creative writer. The story strongly suggests that parents have lost a child during pregnancy. Although there are other possibilities, this is the most common meaning, and surely the intended one.
Show your readers everything, and tell them nothing. It isn’t the creative writer’s role to report a story. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, the reader should experience the sense of the fiction unfolding around themselves. You invite your readers into the world, and let them feel it.
With this tragic six-word story, the readers are firmly in the author’s world. No one needs to tell us what happened. We get it. And it’s all the more upsetting because we figured it out ourselves.
We read the baby shoes advert and we think of those poor parents.
Carver and Lish: how much editing is too much?
Raymond Carver was a short story writer and poet, and recognized as one of America’s greatest writers. But how much of that is down to his editor, Gordon Lish? And how much editing is too much? It’s one of the trickiest questions to master to become a better creative writer.
Creative Writing degrees love Carver. His stories are short, and his writing is a perfect model for minimalism. And at university, Carver became the most influential writer of my life. He replaced Hemingway, Ishiguro, and Kerouac all at once, and easily. In my mind, there was no one better than Carver. I wanted to write just like him.
But it was the legendary editor, Gordon Lish, who was responsible for Carver’s minimalist style. Another of Lish’s writers, Barry Hannah, said this of his influence: “Gordon Lish was a genius editor. A deep friend and mentor. He taught me how to write short stories. He would cross out everything so there’d be like three lines left, and he would be right.”
When people talk about Lish’s editing, they say the following things. That Lish is a brilliant editor who helped create great stories, and that Lish overstepped his boundaries.
Carver’s Collected Stories.
Around thirty years after most of his publications, Raymond Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, released some of Carver’s unedited stories in a 2009 collection titled Collected Stories. This publication brought Lish’s heavy editing into focus again.
Stephen King said that one story was, “a total rewrite … a cheat.” And Giles Harvey said that the publication “has not done Carver any favours. Rather, it has inadvertently pointed up the editorial genius of Gordon Lish.”
Although Lish and Carver’s relationship eventually soured, it’s clear that the arrangement between them was uncontroversial. Lish himself has said, “For all those years, Carver could not have been more enthusiastic, nor more complicit — nor complacent.”
But it was Lish’s reported hubris that people didn’t like, with Lish taking all the credit for Carver’s success. He even described Carver as “his creature” once. And Carver’s photograph wasn’t on the back jacket of his first book. Lish’s name was there.
Although Lish’s talent is unquestionable, his editing style continues to be a talking point. It’s best described as discovery rather than development. Instead of guiding the author, he takes the story and changes it. He saw the heart of Carver’s stories and stripped everything else.
Or did Lish strip stories of their heart?
How much editing is too much? Master your editing and become a better creative writer.
Reading Raymond Carver’s The Bath (Lish-edited) and comparing that to A Small, Good Thing (The same story without Lish) is a standout example of a story arguably losing its heart through heavy editing.
When a story, and characters within a story, become unrecognizable through editing, then doesn’t the person who made the changes become a co-creator? A co-writer? Or is this all part of the editor’s role?
How much of an influence is too much? And would Carver have become one of America’s greatest writers without Lish? What do you need to become a better creative writer?
Become a Better Creative Writer — Like Kerouac?
Kerouac’s writing advice, titled Belief and Technique for Modern Prose, is more of an offbeat reflection on beat life than an instructive list that shows how to write like Kerouac. But I think that makes it more interesting, and more useful.
He reportedly stuck the list on the wall of Allen Ginsberg’s North Beach hotel room, just before the poet wrote Howl. Ginsberg then credited Kerouac as the biggest inspiration for his poem in the dedications.
Kerouac’s spontaneous prose then inspired many of the cultural icons of the 60s, including Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Doors. He became an underground celebrity, and something of a forefather of the hippie movement.
If you can’t use the advice to improve your writing, you’re not alone. Even if the list doesn’t show you how to become a better creative writer like Kerouac, it’s an insight into how he approached art and life. And living like Kerouac is more interesting than trying to write like him. Enjoy his list below, and write like you.
Kerouac’s list to become a better creative writer:
- Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
- Submissive to everything, open, listening
- Try never get drunk outside yr own house
- Be in love with yr life
- Something that you feel will find its own form
- Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
- Blow as deep as you want to blow
- Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
- The unspeakable visions of the individual
- No time for poetry but exactly what is
- Visionary tics shivering in the chest
- In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
- Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
- Like Proust be an old teahead of time
- Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
- The jewel centre of interest is the eye within the eye
- Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
- Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
- Accept loss forever
- Believe in the holy contour of life
- Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
- Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better
- Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
- No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
- Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
- Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
- In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
- Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
- You’re a Genius all the time
- Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
On Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry is notoriously difficult to translate. For non-German speakers, Rilke’s writing in Letters to a Young Poet is the closest we can get to the poet. It doesn’t only bring us closer to his writing style, but also the man and the general nature of poetry and writing. In Letters to a Young Poet, we read exchanges between Rilke and an aspiring writer called Franz Xaver. Rilke was only 28 at the time, and his reputation was nothing then to what it eventually became, but Franz Xaver, a young officer cadet, wrote to him all the same.
And Rilke responded! Instead of dismissing the student writer, he took the time to write the most beautiful and intelligent remarks on the art of writing. Some of Rilke’s responses remind me of my best teachers, particularly Adrian Bucker. When reading the letters, you can’t help but reflect on Rilke’s great wisdom, patience, and generosity. You are reading the perfect exchange between teacher and student, between someone with knowledge that takes your breath away and another with a breathless eagerness to learn.
It’s remarkable how profound some of Rilke’s comments are. He would have had no idea the letters would one day be published. I’m convinced he believed when writing them that no one other than Franz Xaver would read them. I doubt he spent much time planning them. The passages in the letters came straight from the heart. I think that’s why the letters remain so powerful. They still contain that freshness of thought. The words are alive. The ideas excite. It’s naked insight, and I recommend it to writers and artists of any kind.
A quote from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:
“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
Become a Better Creative Writer — with Kurt Vonnegut.
Kurt Vonnegut was a great writer. He was an author with a unique voice, and he once published some of his insight with a short piece that I now want to share, titled How to write with style.
He published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five non-fiction books throughout his career. After he died in 2007, a book of his unpublished pieces, Armageddon in Retrospect, was also published, by his son.
Keep reading the post for Vonnegut’s full advice, but here it is in short:
- Find a subject you care about
- Do not ramble, though
- Keep it simple
- Have guts to cut
- Sound like yourself
- Say what you mean
- Pity the readers
Vonnegut had a distinct style of his own, and you can tell that his advice aims to assist writers in finding their voice. Put style and personality on the page and learn how to communicate better! It may take years to discover your style and learn how to express that in writing, but it’s a journey with which every good writer will be familiar, and Vonnegut’s advice, like all good writing advice, will help you get closer to your goal.
Take a look at Vonnegut’s How to write with style yourself:
What does Kafkaesque mean?
If you haven’t read The Trial by Kafka, I’ll try not to spoil too much in this article, but I’m going to use it as an example to answer the question, What does Kafkaesque mean? Also, if you haven’t read The Trial, I’ll be glad if this post reminds or encourages you to do so.
Two unidentified agents arrest Josef K. without being able to tell him the reason. This is how The Trial begins. The reason for his arrest and most of the legal procedure remains a mystery to Josef K. throughout the novel. This kind of scenario was so specific to Kafka’s writing that a new term was created. Kafkaesque.
It describes an unnecessarily complicated and frustrating experience. Bureaucracy is a typical subject matter, but Kafkaesque hinges on more than the inclusion of the regular issues of bureaucracy (endless lines and waiting times in a grey labyrinth of a government building only to fill out a confusing form at the end of it all, if there is an end).
Kafkaesque is a commonly misused term, as this quote by John R. Williams, in an introduction to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, suggests:
“Rather like “Orwellian”, the term “Kafkaesque” has come to be used, often enough by those who have not read a word of Kafka, to describe what are perceived as typically or even uniquely modern traumas: existential alienation, isolation and insecurity, the labyrinth of state bureaucracy, the corrupt or whimsical abuse of totalitarian power, the impenetrable tangle of legal systems, the knock on the door in the middle of the night….”
The nuances of Kafkaesque
There’s irony, particularly in how the protagonist relates to the absurd nightmarish ordeal. But it’s not a horror story. It’s more like a tragicomedy. For example, the protagonist in Metamorphosis turns into an insect. However, his biggest concern at the beginning of the story was getting to work on time. So the logic is off-centre in a tragicomic fashion.
It’s easy to see where Kafka found inspiration. He worked as an insurance clerk in Prague, and his protagonists are generally office workers trapped in a confusing mess. The disorienting experience derails any chance of success, and it even makes the character lose interest in success. Finally, the goal of the protagonist doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all too confusing. And that’s Kafkaesque.
What does Orwellian mean?
Last week’s post explored the term Kafkaesque. I want to spend some time with something else mentioned within that post, which is Orwellian. It’s a label with which many of you are probably familiar, but, like Kafkaesque, it can be misused, especially to make a rash and unfocused politically charged point. So let’s get into it. What does Orwellian mean?
Orwellian is a political term. Some of you may have even heard it on mainstream news channels because it’s still relevant today. You can’t think of George Orwell’s most famous work, 1984, without thinking of the oppressive and totalitarian government of the novel. To some, the term Orwellian is interchangeable with the word ‘authoritarian.’ But that’s not it, and George Orwell himself would definitely have something to say on the matter.
He wrote many essays on the importance of being precise with language. One of the horrors of 1984, a recurring motif, is how leaders strategically control language to manipulate a society of people. The novel contains several standout examples of the oceanic government of the book misusing language with clear intent. The government manufactures lies within the Ministry of Truth, for example. And the military is called the Ministry of Peace.
Many people use the term ‘Orwellian’ to describe an authoritarian government or body. But Orwell’s entire point is that an evil government may appear to be the opposite of authoritarian with the application of political language and still do evil behind the scenes. Large-scale deception is a crucial ingredient of Orwellian, especially with the words the government or body uses.
The lies sound truthful. They twist facts to make murder sound respectable. And the language penetrates more than the surface. It influences behaviour and detrimentally affects the mental and critical thinking capacity of anyone subjected to it. I haven’t done the injustices present in the novel justice. Read 1984 to see the extent to which language influences the minds and actions of the characters.
We should only use the term Orwellian about deceptive political language with an underhand agenda. Of course, the body or person being dishonest with the language may be authoritarian, but the two labels are separate issues altogether.
Read it aloud to yourself like a mantra: become a better creative writer!
Become a better creative writer, become a better creative writer, become a better creative writer, become a better creative writer, become a better creative writer, become a better creative writer, become a better creative writer, become a better creative writer…
Wake up with ‘become a better creative writer’ as your first thought, and leave ‘become a better creative writer’ ringing in your head as you drop off to sleep at night.