WRITING BLUNDERS: Ignoring the Wisdom of Your Elders and Betters

WRITING BLUNDERS: Ignore the Wisdom of Your Elders and Betters

The student is eleven years old, pasty, spotty, and burns with a fire you can feel from several metres away with the desire to write novels.

Up to this point he has mainly read books intended for kids like himself as he’s grown to this point. He made his breakthrough into solo reading with a Dr Suess book, reading its big colourful pages, following each word with a careful finger to make sure he didn’t spin off the high mountain road of literacy and into the steep ravine of confusion.

But now he’s practically a grown-up. He has ideas and thoughts. He has been toying with things that resemble stories. He has been trying, a bit like Victor Frankenstein, to piece together stray bits from stories he’s encountered elsewhere, in books, on TV, in movies, and has written these up in his big looping clumsy handwriting, hoping these creatures might have the spark of life about them, and breathe on their own. But they don’t, and they don’t. They lie on the page, inert and dead.

So clearly his approach is wrong. He needs to write his own stories. And that means books.

So the student tracks down a Master. “Please, Miss. I want to write novels. What is the Secret of Writing Novels?”

The Master gets this a lot. She looks down at the pasty, pimply, fleshy kid with the burning eyes. She can see he’s got it bad. She even feels a bit sorry for him, the way you feel sorry for anyone who is not only blessed but also cursed. The first thing the Master tells the student is what she always says. “Chop wood. Carry water.” Because these are essential tasks. The monastery would not function without these things.

The student peers up at the Master. “This will help me write novels?”

The Master allows a small, cryptic smile. “Not directly. But you will have a great deal of time to think and grow and learn responsibility. You will become wise. You will come to understand something of how the world works, for the simplest, most humble of people, to those people so great they take tea with gods. You will learn all this while you chop wood and carry water. It’s pretty neat.”

“But I want to write novels now. Right now. Today.”

The Master leaned back. Her back hurt. This boy with his burning eyes was going to be a problem. At length, she said, “Very well. There is one path you may take that will also take you to your destination.”

“Please, Master. Tell me. I will be in your eternal debt.”

“This road is much harder than the road I described before. You must work like ten men at all times. It is lonely. You will face the most formidable opponent: the world’s indifference, again and again, and each time it will grown in power. You will also carry your own doubt on your back, and it will whisper in your ear at all times, especially when you feel most confident of your powers. Again and again, you will feel the pull and logic of suicide, but you must resist. Because if you can beat your doubt, resist the lure of suicide, and overcome the world’s indifference, you can become a noted writer of short stories. And if you gain a reputation as a master of short stories, you can use that as a pathway to writing the novels that you truly burn to write. The short stories each create awareness of your writing, of your presence in the world, and make people want to read more by you. People will ask you, ‘when might we see a novel from you?’ And because you have laid such a sound foundation, you will do well. Truly, this is the path to such success as is possible in the hard world of writing today. If you’re strong enough.”

The student stared up at her and blinked twice, and then again. “That’s it?”

The Master was exhausted. She had just laid out the very best career advice there was. Some people paid her money for consultations like that. “Yes, boy. That is indeed it. Take it or leave it.”

“But I want to write books. I want to write books now. Today.”

The Master believed she had a migraine coming on. It felt like a weather front moving into her head, trailing storms. She clutched her forehead. “Go for it. Best of luck.” She shook his hand and went off to prepare for her next class.

The student, that night, opened a notebook, and started writing a novel. He made it eighteen pages.

It took him until he was 18 before he even began to figure out, in a rough-as-guts sort of way, how to put a novel-length narrative together. But it would take many more years before he could actually write a decent novel, on purpose. During his teen years, under the influence of mad manic phases, he wrote millions of words of terrible short stories, but he never intended to sell those. They were just writing because he had to write. They were a kind of waste product of what was going on his head, like psychic exhaust.

So I never followed that teacher’s excellent advice. There was that teacher, and I really was 11 years old, and I really did want to write novels and did not care about how it was supposed to be done. I wanted the answers right there, in that conversation, that day. Because I was an idiot.

In the years since I have seen a great many terrific writers I admire enormously follow this traditional career path to what certainly looks like considerable success, much more than I have managed with my novels-only strategy. Chief among these is the Brisbane writer Angela Slatter who produced a prodigious body of work spanning numerous short story collections, including mosaic novels composed of linked short stories, and who has only in recent years begun to produce, to wide acclaim and international success, actual novels. She is a towering example of the Master’s advice to the student, of doing it properly, and I admire Angela Slatter greatly for making such a success of it.

It’s the sort of thing that makes me wonder if it’s not too late for me. Who knows? Because I have written novels and had them published to resounding indifference, for the most part. There was no broad audience of readers primed with loads of Bedford short fiction who were hungry for novels. So my novels just kind of belly-flopped into the world, kids freshly arrived at a new school on their first day in front of the new class, and everybody giving them the stink-eye.

I’ve been writing, often multiple times a day, every day now for nearly three months now. I’ve already produced a 92,000-word memoir, and am 22,000 into a novel. Now I’m also doing these memoir-like Writing Blunders pieces. I’m having no problems writing now. Maybe I can learn some new tricks in my old age?

5 thoughts on “WRITING BLUNDERS: Ignoring the Wisdom of Your Elders and Betters”

  1. Hmmm, what would I say to the same starry-eyed nerd?
    “Use the Force, my son. Flail a lot. Occasionally miss. But most of all, start with a shed-tonne of natural talent and a truck-tonne of astonishing good luck. Next!”
    And he would go away thinking, “Gosh, I never realised that writing had gone over to metric too.”
    And I would collect my fee and go home.

    1. It never occurred to me to ask another writer, because at that age I didn’t know any. So I asked an English teacher, and that’s more or less what she said.

      And thank you for your kind words! 🙂

    1. It feels like a giant blunder to me, one of my worst. If I’d done what I was told, and followed the short stories first, then the novel pattern that, eg, Angela Slatter followed, I would have done much better. I actively undermined my own chance for success with this choice I made.

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