Adventures in Writing…learning to write

Learning to write…
I’ve seen this discussion a few times and read all sorts of comments from the ‘experts’ and sometimes, as I sit here and digest what has been said, I experience a kind of panic. Because, I don’t fit in to any of the accepted norms. But then, I never have!
I’ve always been something of a rebel, a trait of mine which has got me into a lot of trouble in the past, especially at school. So, forgive me if my non-conformity ruffles feathers.
I’ve never been to any form of creative writing class, or ‘boot-camp’ (God I hate that expression and it immediately puts me off) nor have I read books on ‘how-to’ write. Well, let me qualify that statement. I’ve never read any of the plethora of modern books about ‘how to’, so many cropping up nowadays that you would need a life time to get through them all. But there was one. When I was fourteen and the writing bug really began to grip me, I did pick up a copy of ‘Teach Yourself How to Write’. I still have it, but I’ve only ever skimmed through it. I remember the most powerful lesson spoke about beginnings, those important few lines that need to grab the reader’s attention and draw them into the story. They gave some examples, and of course they are very famous indeed. The opening line to Heller’s ‘Catch-22’ was one of those examples. Read it and you’ll see. It does the trick fabulously. But it’s not just beginnings is it.
They – by ‘they’, I mean the ‘experts’ – talk about the Three-Part novel. Well, I haven’t got a clue what that means. I don’t have much of a clue about any of the jargon to be honest. I hate jargon and buzz-words and all that flannel. I’m a teacher, and I absolutely HATE (note capital letters here, for true emphasis) the associated jargon connected with education. First it was POS and SOW, now it’s AP and CPD and any number of other acronyms that we’re all supposed to know and use with informed regularity. I don’t have a clue. And please, don’t get me started on ‘Targets’…Grrr….Let me out of here!
But then, I’m a rebel.
Perhaps I deliberately block it all from entering my brain. But I do feel that the business world has encroached upon us all, the movers and shakers (ah, such a wonderful phrase that one!) moulding us, telling us what we need to do to acquire success. Acquire success…Note, no hint of artistry or craftsmanship. It’s all about profits and percentage shares and everything I hate about this world in which we live. I want to be Monet, not Alan Sugar!
Well, those books and seminars and talks and posts in Linked-In may be okay for making money, but in teaching we deal with human beings, and they have weaknesses and flaws, greatness and genius. Everyone is different. And in writing, I believe, it should be the desire – the absolute need – to create stories which should be our prime motivator. Creativity, not profit.
That is why I hate all this marketing nonsense you get on all the social networks. The ‘Get Rich Quick’ way to be a novelist. If only it was so easy!
So, no training, no teaching, no wise mentor patting me on the head or waggling their finger, ‘tut, tut, Stuart, you’ve used far too many commas there!’ No, I learned to write by doing TWO things. All right, three (cut-to Monty Python’s ‘Spanish Inquisition’ sketch).
One, I read. I read a lot. And nowadays I don’t just read for entertainment. In fact, truth be told, I’ve been reading and learning about the structure of novels since I was about eleven years of age. Back then I read everything I could get my hands on by Agatha Christie, C.S.Forrester, Ian Fleming and Sven Hassel and a host of others. I read Tolkein for sheer pleasure, but on my third reading I really began to look at the way he described the landscape and the characters, and today I can see echoes of him in George R.R.Martin’s epic stories. Nowadays I still continue to read for pleasure, and to learn. I am more critical now, and concentrate on sentence and paragraph structure, use of descriptive language, etc. And I often see the so-called ‘rules’ being broken, and that is so refreshing. It really is!
Two, of course – I write. The old adage ‘practise makes perfect’ is what it says. The more you do it, the better you get. I am now highly critical of what I do. I never used to be. I used to be impatient and rush through manuscripts as if my life depended on it. Now, I take my time, look at every sentence, and I use ‘Auto-Crit’ to help me identify repeated words and phrases. Over-use of words, and redundant phrases are always a minefield. We become so close, so intimate with our own words we miss the most silly of mistakes. Of course you should have someone read your work, and I do. Friends are okay, but they tend not to be objective. I know some writers use Beta-readers, but whatever method you use, someone else should look over your work. It may even be your publishers. But write. Write as often and as much as you can, and read back over what you have done and never be satisfied until you can actually ‘see’ it in your head. Read dialogue out loud too, to prevent it from becoming wooden. Natural reading/sounding dialogue is difficult. I was an actor, so I guess I have an inherent sense of dialogue, and that has helped me enormously.
Ah, and this is the third point. The point people may or may not like, I don’t know. I am an avid film watcher. I love films. All sorts, but mainly westerns, sci-fi , thrillers and horror. I might sometimes watch something cerebral too, or maybe even a comedy so long as it’s not some inane rubbish about dippy teenagers in a high-school. From great films I have developed a sense of pace and plot. The structure of a novel, the ebb and flow, the development of tension and motivation, it’s all there in films. Characterisation, conflict, and (here we go, wait for it) resolution. I write my books as if there were films, and I’m getting better at it. Once I simply used to write. Now, I look.
So, Read, write, look. And from all of those…LEARN.
I like to think I have learned. My latest books are much better than my earlier ones. Harlan Coben said much the same thing, and I remember him cringing in an interview when he heard the news his publishers were re-releasing his very first novel. I don’t think he was pleased because he knew that his writing is nowadays so much better than it was. And he did that by writing.

The cover for my forthcoming historical novel 'Varangian'.

The cover for my forthcoming historical novel ‘Varangian’.

My latest book ‘VARANGIAN’ is a solid story of love and hate, sex and violence, all set in the Byzantine Empire when Harald Hardrada was a captain in the Varangian Guard, a group of Norse and Saxon warriors who formed an elite force of superb fighting men. His story is amazing, and I have used it as a vehicle for creating a series of historical stories which I hope people will enjoy. The sequel is going to be better than the first, so there we have it. The learning process, the ability to improve. Wow, that almost sounds like ‘continuity and progression’ and suddenly I’m back at university ‘learning’ how to teach! I better be careful. I may be becoming a conformist! But no, don’t worry…As I often say, ‘It’s all balls’…so, just get out there and DO IT !
‘Varangian is available from all Amazon outlets, and if you do not have a Kindle, it is available for all other e-reader platforms from Smashwords. Here’s the link:
Thanks for dropping by and keep on reading!


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