The Writing Room

This is the part of my website where I’m gradually dumping everything I’ve learned about writing. If you’re a writer, or you think you might like to give writing a go, welcome. Come in, make yourself comfortable, poke around, criticise the decor – whatever you like. You’ll have to make your own tea, I’m afraid.

Can good writing be taught?

The rise in popularity of creative writing courses has sparked an ongoing debate on the subject of whether or not good writing is something that can be taught. Many people seem to view creative writing as a hallowed and elevated art form – a gift, bestowed only upon the worthy and favoured few by the capricious gods of ink and parchment. Which is strange, when you think about it. Have you ever heard anyone suggest that a pianist should muddle their way to concert standard, or that a painter is somehow cheating by learning about the various techniques available to enhance their work? When it comes to writing, however, it is often claimed that you either ‘have it’ or you don’t.

Novelist and university professor, Philip Hensher, once stated that ‘what lies, or ought to lie, beneath the growth of creative writing as a subject is the conviction that a good deal of the best writing derives from conscious craft, if not all of it.’ Professor Hensher will no doubt be overjoyed to know that I agree with him on this. As long as you have an imagination, and the drive to tell a story, you can learn to write that story. Once you understand some key elements of the craft of writing, you can make the conscious choices that will turn your rough draft into something other people can read and enjoy.

Writing vs editing

Having just said that writing can be taught, I’m going to add a caveat. It’s my view that when we talk about writing advice, most of what we’re talking about is actually editing advice. The award-winning author, Shannon Hale, famously said ‘I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.’ If you are just starting out, don’t worry about anything other than getting that sand shovelled. Get it into some sort of box, in some sort of vaguely useful piles. Don’t worry about what shape those piles are, or whether some of it has slipped back down again – just get the words down. Get the story told, before you worry about anything else. Once you start learning aspects of the craft of writing, it’s all too easy to get stuck in a rut of doubt and dissatisfaction, shovelling the sand into the box, then back out again, over and over. Don’t worry about plot holes. Don’t go back and rewrite earlier chapters if you change something. Don’t agonise over whether your dialogue is convincing. Decide you don’t need a particular minor character? Stick them in a room, walk away and keep writing. Ask me about Davy from the first draft of The Space Between the Stars sometime. Poor Davy.

With the first draft of your first book, you’re not trying to produce a polished manuscript. You’re telling yourself what story you want to tell – and you’re proving to yourself that you can finish what you start. It’s unlikely that the final version will bear much resemblance to the original concept. First novels are apprenticeships. You learn a huge amount just by writing them. And they can be so much fun. Yes, there’s a satisfaction in polishing a piece of writing to the standard required for submission or publication, but it’s a quieter, more measured enjoyment. Don’t deny yourself that first unfettered, creative joy. Shovel that sand, fill that box. Then, and only then, start learning the skills you need to build the sandcastles you can see in your head.

Keeping the reader close

In my post on psychic distance, I made a sweeping generalisation - that most modern-day writers want to create a close perspective, in which the reader has insight into the inner workings of the main character. It is a generalisation, but it’s one I stand by - when it...

All a Matter of Perspective

Narrative perspective is the window that a writer opens up for the reader to look through onto a fictional world. If the reader is going to stay at that window for as long as it takes for the story to unfold, the view has to be clear, uncluttered and steady. I believe...

An Introduction to Psychic Distance

In my post entitled It’s all a matter of perspective, I touched on something called psychic distance - sometimes known as narrative, authorial or emotional distance. Psychic distance is about how much space there is between the reader and the character whose story it...
All a matter of perspective
An introduction to psychic distance
Keeping the reader close

Where to start?

Once you’ve got your box of sand, and you’re starting to think about fancy crenellations, and whether to dig a moat, have a look at the posts listed on the right-hand side of this page.

A good starting point would be It’s all a matter of perspective, followed by An introduction to psychic distance, and then Keeping the reader close. I’ll be covering various other topics in upcoming posts, so check back regularly to see what’s new.