Trust me; we all have days when we wonder what we’re doing. When we’ve read our work so many times it seems to blur on the page and we couldn’t spot a spelling mistake in our name. These are the days we need to dig deep, to remember why we thought we were writers at all. If you’re having ‘one of those days’, or even if you’re not, I’d like to tell you a story. It’s full of ego, naivety, crushing truth and a glimmer of hope for all who’ve chosen the writer’s journey…
A long time ago I suffered from ideas block. It was a terrible state to be in – a blank page and a blank mind. I knew I wanted to write, but not what I wanted to write. I’ve always liked the shape and sound of language, so for the longest time I kept a journal and poured all my writing hopes into that. Mostly I practiced free writing and wrote poetry – some as beautiful as a faded Polaroid, but for the most part pretty tortured and awful.
This went on for years until I signed up for a writing course – which covered a range of styles and promised to help me find my place as a writer. Just what I needed!
The course included non-fiction, script-writing and novel-writing (at a very basic level, but did include a promising module on sci-fi and fantasy). It started well. My first two assignments, an article on sleep deprivation (I had a baby at the time and was absolutely qualified to write that one) and a humorous piece on farmers’ children becoming ‘townies’, were both published. With money in the bank, I figured I must have some latent skill as a writer. That is until I was asked to produce short stories – and drew a blank.
I had plenty of excuses – the main one being, “I don’t want to write short stories.” I felt I was born to write the Novel. I honestly believed I had more to say than could possibly be contained in a mere 1000 words. (*hangs head in shame*) So after much procrastination I managed to produce a laboured piece based around the idea of writer’s block. Yes, I was again taking a write-what-you-know approach. The story was about pirates who took over a writing room. Nuff said right? Actually no, it gets worse. I tried to sell it. My only hope is whoever received it had a good laugh with their colleagues and it has gone to the place where legends fade into obscurity…
By the time I hit the second short story, I’d read ahead to the module about fantasy. Although it was supposed to be a children’s story, I figured I’d at least turn it to my advantage and write about dragons too. To my mind it was a triumph. I wrote about 12 year old twins, Roan and Eden Carter who rescue a dragon. Once again I had my eyes on a book idea and thought I’d do a bit of world-building and develop the hook. It was over the word-limit, but I remember telling a friend, with absolute confidence, that I’d gone over it with a fine-tooth comb and there was no possible way I could cut anything out. So I sent it in anyway, basking in the knowledge I’d redeemed myself.
You can see where this one is going…
The assignment came back covered – and I mean covered – in mark-ups. One page had the comment: “Too much information – you could cut down to these three lines.” Amongst other things there was a decent amount of telling, and a good dollop of melodrama. You can see what I mean:
As the story unfolded in his mind, Roan could feel his anger towards the Rohe flaring within him. “How dare they hunt you!” he snarled, his eyes suddenly dark.
*face palm* How far I’ve come…
The worst part however was about the dragon. The tutor said:
The ‘dragon’ element needed to be a stronger force in why he was there and his purpose in the story. There usually has to be a very strong reason why the dragon MUST be saved.
And I couldn’t answer her. Why were these youngsters risking harm to save this dragon? Why was the dragon worthy of protection? I think I’d seen the movies Eragon, and Dragonheart and had climbed on board the misunderstood dragon train without thinking it through. I certainly hadn’t projected any visible motive in the story.
Now I could have done a lot of things. Blamed it all on the short story form and ignored the advice. Stood on my years-of-fantasy-genre-reading soapbox and convinced myself she didn’t know what she was talking about. Or crumpled beneath evidence of my ‘in-much-need-of-improvement’ prose – and stuck to writing articles. But for some reason I didn’t (well I crumpled a little – I am human after all). Instead it made me step back and think about what I was trying to achieve.
I honestly thought being a writer meant writing down your story and sending it into the world. That it might need extensive editing, or that writing was a learned skill never crossed my mind at all. In fact I thought the course would merely confirm my outstanding natural ability. Instead I discovered there was a whole craft that I still needed to learn.
A. Whole. Craft.
And I had to accept that if I couldn’t master that in 1500 words how on earth was I going to pull it off in a novel?
The other life changing revelation made me really question what I wanted to say. Why did I love reading fantasy? What did I want to say in a genre I have always loved?
When I pushed deeper into what I’d written, I discovered a story I got excited about telling. My 12 year old twins grew up and I found a real hero, complete with a totally new attitude towards dragons. The third book in my trilogy is Roan’s part of the story.
Over the years I’ve learned so much and I’m sure my writing is much stronger because of it. But I know there will be more critiques that will continue to expose areas that need work. And each time I’m going to need to dig deep and remember why I am a writer.
So the moral of the story? Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up your writing dreams. The hardest critique can bring the greatest growth and fire your creativity if you’ll let it. In the words of Galadriel (yes from The Lord of the Rings again):
‘And you, Ring-bearer,’ she said, turning to Frodo. ‘I come to you last who are not last in my thoughts. For you I have prepared this.’ She held up a small crystal phial: it glittered as she moved it, and rays of white light sprang from her hand. ‘In this phial,’ she said, ‘is caught the light of Earendil’s star, set amid the waters of my fountain. It will shine still brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.’
Now that is really great writing!
How about you? Have you had a defining moment in your writing journey? Or have you received a critique that shook you to your core – but ultimately spurred you on? Maybe it’s just been a bit too hard lately and you needed a reminder that you’re not alone? I’d love to hear from you.