How to write: New Zealand authors, playwrights and novelists share their hard-won wisdom
So you know that, deep down inside, you're harbouring a stellar script or groundbreaking novel, right? But every time you sit down to write, the loudest voice is the one telling you you're rubbish...
A new book edited by Emily Perkins and Chris Price brings together writing advice from New Zealanders who've learned how to get the words out. Here are some snippets.
ASHLEIGH YOUNG, POET AND ESSAYIST
After any kind of exposure, you eventually need to come back to your writing. After [my first] poetry reading, whenever I tried to go back into my usual writing routine, which at that time meant wrapping myself in a duvet and hunching over my computer like a big larva, my mind kept drifting back to the stage. Back to being seen and heard. I thought about how my voice had sounded, and I never wanted to hear that sound again. By extension, I didn't want to see my voice on a page.
In terms of getting over this, there are two approaches that have worked for me. The first is an aggressive approach, and it is my favourite. Write as if you were doing a frantic last-minute tidy-up before a flat inspection: fast and forcefully. Don't try to ignore any discomfort. Instead, write directly at it, the same way you should directly confront a manspreader on the bus.
You're going to have to face your inner critic at some point – there are only so many days you can get up at 5am in order to "catch it out", a routine some writers swear by – so shoot words at it as if you were in a game of paintball. "Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall," John McPhee says. This is not a delicate process. We are talking about one of the most powerful forces within ourselves – self-doubt, and let's be honest, probably some self-loathing in there as well – and to face it as an equal, you must use force. You won't overwhelm it for good, but you will put up a good fight, and you can subdue it.
GARY HENDERSON, PLAYWRIGHT
I always ask my students a series of questions about their plays, especially when they are embarking on a second draft, although they can be helpful at any stage. The questions are quite mechanical, but I find them useful for cutting to the heart of the students' stories.
First question: What happens in your play? They must answer this in a paragraph. Most students, on their first attempt, write the blurb for the back of a DVD cover. They don't tell me what happens in their play. They tell me something to pique my curiosity. Which is exactly the position I'm already in. I'm curious about what happens in their play. I want to know how it starts, how it develops, how it ends. Once they get it, they find they have encapsulated their plot in one paragraph – simple and uncluttered.
Second question: What is your play really about? They must answer this with a single word. It's hard, and I'm quite strict about it. The first time I pose these questions, it's an exercise; they're not going to be committed to their answers, so it takes the pressure off a bit, but it doesn't make it any easier. The single-word demand forces them to look for the big subject their play is addressing. Once they settle on a word, that's what I describe as their play's theme. Jealousy. Family. Betrayal. Solitude. Obsession. Loyalty.
You can almost feel the satisfaction in the room once they've come up with their word.
"Phew. Now I know what I'm writing about. Away I go…" In fact, most of us tend to stop there.
But the third question is the really useful one when you're prying apart your work: What are you saying about that thing? The students must answer this with a concise, provocative statement. The shorter the statement and the stronger the language, the better.
TUSIATA AVIA, POET AND DRAMATIST
This is what fear sounds like. When I started to write this I became aware of you. I didn't know who you were at that point, so I made you up in my head.
Soon you became a scary audience, an audience who would sit in judgement of me and just know, somehow, about my deficits…
Welcome to the voices in my head, the monstrous,= fear-driven voices in my head. These voices have dogged me all my creative life, reminding me that I am not enough: not experienced enough, qualified enough, old enough, young enough, white enough, brown enough, thin enough, academic enough, street enough, theatre enough, literary enough, disciplined enough, relaxed enough, prolific enough, enough enough.
The voices have never gone away, but I have learned over the years how not to let them take me over completely. How do I do this? I go to my sister-artists and we talk. Honestly. I out myself and this usually gives others permission to out themselves too. It is a huge relief. We confess to each other and realise how much the same we are. We ignite courage in each other. We act as mother-confessors and absolve each other.
A host of high-level women creatives are tortured at every stage of their projects by their own monstrous, fear-driven voices: the international multiple award-winner who fears she is a has-been, the professor who fears she's not qualified, the celebrated writer who lies face down in the grass in despair, the senior practitioner who is busy in her own head writing bad reviews of her latest work before the reviewers beat her to it.
If you have never suffered these voices – you are extremely lucky and extremely rare. If you have, welcome! You and your voices are welcome here.
TINA MAKERETI, NOVELIST
Patricia Grace writes simply about the lives of ordinary people, ordinary lives she knows about.
She makes no pretence of ever doing anything else. And yet her work is seen as culturally and politically, even spiritually and nationally, important and challenging because these are the lives of ordinary people that were largely invisible to the majority of the Pakeha population until people like Patricia, Witi and Hone started writing. Sometimes simply writing about your life and the lives of people like you can deeply matter.
Sometimes, though, you are writing in an echo chamber. Sometimes there are lots of writers like you, writing lots of stories like the one you are writing. Go to the edges of the room. Feel along the walls for cracks and crevices, draughts. Maybe windows to other rooms. Dig away at the ingrained dirt in the corner. There are so many stories unwritten. So many lives unnoticed. Be brave. Make yourself uncomfortable. Do the work required.
STELLA DUFFY, NOVELIST
Five hundred words a day is doable for most people – not perfect words, just the next 500. If you write 500 words a day, five days a week, 50 weeks of the year (yay, holiday!), you'll have written a first draft of a novel in a year. Then spend the same time making it better. And again. Done. That's the book you've been going on about but not writing for the past three years. Now send it out and start the next one.
A writing career does not follow a defined path. My (ex-) publisher turned down my seventh book. I thought it was my best; they didn't. Luckily they hadn't given me any money for it, but they didn't want it. I was gutted, mortified and shamed, as well as without a publisher. It happens. It happens much more than most writers are prepared to admit. Two things to say about that: If we writers were more honest about how little most of us earn, certain falsehoods about writing and publishing would die overnight.
Publishing is a business and not every book will suit every publisher. As it turned out, I eventually went to Virago with that book, State of Happiness. It became the first book I had longlisted for a major prize (the Orange Prize for Fiction) and it remains (in my opinion) one of my best books. So, a happy ending followed the awful upsetting bit, because I kept going.
KEN DUNCUM, PLAYWRIGHT
The first draft comes in a rush of invention and inspiration, it's a wild ride where you're hanging on by your fingertips, creating things out of the raw stuff of chaos. Indeed, it's only six weeks since [a student] delivered her first draft, buzzing with excitement and adrenaline from the final 48-hour dash. That's how it should be and needs to be; more than anything that first draft is a channelling of the writer's subconscious, a getting-out of what has been bubbling back there out of sight. One of the most important aspects in writing that first draft is to keep the channel open, to keep that download from the deeper recesses of the cave-where-story-dwells moving, without impeding it with analysis.
But once you've done that, once that first draft lies there covered in the blood of the newborn – and you've had a bit of a lie-down – then it is time for some analysis. It's time to fire up a different part of your brain in an attempt to objectively weigh up what you've written. In order to rewrite effectively, this more cold-blooded analytical aspect of your mind then needs to work together with the atavistic creative part that wrote the first draft. It may be that they can function together simultaneously (both light up on the brain scan at the same time), but more likely they will work together in phase, your consciousness flicking back and forth between them (sometimes at a leisurely pace, spending extended periods in each; at other times oscillating so quickly it becomes a white-hot blur). It's not easy, but neither is juggling, and practice will get you a long way at both skills.
Extracted from The Fusebox, edited by Emily Perkins and Chris Price (Victoria University Press), $35, out now.
- Sunday Magazine