Tuesday, 13 March 2012

LEARNING TO WRITE RUBBISH

Hello, Dear Readers! Before we move onto today's topic, I'd like to bring up the subject of the Queen of Teen Award again.

I was talking about this with one of the lovely ladies from my publisher yesterday, which lead to me getting a bit fired up and making lots of forceful tweets ('Say NO to pink and sparkly [while nice]! Say YES to sword fights, magic & epic battles!'). In the wake of the the response on Twitter, I'm stepping up my position on the Award from: 'It would be nice if non-pink-and-sparkly author won this year' to: 'I WANT TO WIN AND SHOW THEM ALL THAT THERE IS MORE TO YA THAN SNOGGING!'

And other stuff to do with damning the torpedos and fighting on the beaches and Macduff.

So. Here's the link. If you are eligible to vote, a nomination for Team Zolah would be much appreciated. You can always vote for some other fantasy author, of course. If you want to make me cry. If you'd like to make me smile instead, asking friends and family to also support Team Zolah would be a great way of going about it. I might have swag to give away in regard to this later on, so stay tuned for that.

[Now for a Party Political Broadcast] Chose adventure and fear and strength! Chose sword fights, climbing mountains and swimming oceans! Chose trusty stallions, fleet falcons and tricksy dragons! Chose dark spells, subtle illusions and fearful enchantment! Chose alternate views of femininity! Chose new worlds! Chose honour and valour and epic battles to the death! Chose FANTASY! Chose Team Zolah! [End Broadcast]

Right, having dealt with THAT - yes, you did read the title of this post right. Sometimes you really DO need to write rubbish. Let me tell you why.

I remember, many years ago, reading an interview with a famous illustrator (I think it was Quentin Blake, but I can't find the quote now so I may be wrong) in which he said that in order to draw competently, one first needs to be willing to write 'a thousand miles of bad line'. He was basically telling apprentice artists that they couldn't expect to be good right away - that drawing badly has value so long as it teaches you something.

Much the same is true of writing (especially for those of us who scribble by hand). In fact, for writers it might go up to a million miles of bad lines before you start to produce something good.

Luckily, this includes all the stories about rabbits and essays for Mother's Day and the two pages on 'What I Did On My Holidays' that you wrote in Primary School. And all the longer stories and poems about death and flowers and fiendishly plotting to murder all the school bullies that you wrote in secondary school. And for most of us, it also includes the first few novels we write as well.

But it's more than that. Because even once you've learned all you can learn from writing badly, and you've locked your hilariously bad efforts away in the trunk never to see the light of day again, when you can say with a straight face 'I'm competent. I can string a sentence together. I know my craft'...there are still times when you're going to need - yes, I said NEED - to write rubbish.

Sometimes you need to get everything wrong before you stand a chance of getting it right.

It's not fun. In fact, it can be downright painful. The moment I start thinking about it, similes and metaphors for how tortuous this is begin to swarm from my typing fingers. Like trying to chip out Michaelangelo's David from a block of marble using only a blunt spoon. Like wading through quicksand with only a single hair as a safety rope. Like swimming through treacle. Like trying to run in one of those awful dreams where your legs have turned to lead and no matter how scared you are, you can't get away and the horrible Black Thing is gaining on you until you can feel it's fetid breath on the back of your neck...

Writing rubbish, when you're well aware that it's rubbish, is one of the least pleasant things you'll ever have to do as a writer.

But there's something that's worse. Not writing at all.

That's the choice we all face one day. The choice between giving up and going on. Going on, even though all those metaphors for our suffering are crowding around us, and we'd rather give up and do anything else, anything else at all, even clean all the bathroom grouting with a toothbrush and then brush our teeth with it. With no mouthwash.

I've never written a single book where I got everything right the first time around. Sometimes I wasn't aware that I'd taken a wrong turn, and it wasn't until I'd finished my first draft and re-read it that I realised something had taken a turn for the stinky. But a lot of the time I did know. And despite gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair and banging of skulls against the nearest wall, I didn't have the tools to fix it at that point. All I could do was keep going until something gave and things slid back into place, knowing full well that I was leaving a mess behind me which I would have to fix sooner or later.

There's a phrase I often use:   

You can fix anything in revision - except a blank page.

People always respond to this. It's got a comforting sound to it. I repeat it to myself quite often. But the flipside of it is the other phrase which I have oft typed out here on the blog:

Give yourself permission to suck.

Because you will. We all do. From time to time, we HAVE to, or all we'd have is a blank page.

If chapter three isn't working, and nothing you do seems to make it better? And you've wailed and cried and tried going back to the beginning and switching POV characters and beginning in the middle and all the rest and nothing's worked? If you ever want to write chapter four and chapter five all the chapters after that and finally, The End? You must press on with it. Press on, painful as it is, until you've got it all as wrong as it can possibly be. And then - only then - in the shining, particular terribleness of something so awful, so twisted and sideways and no-good, you might begin to see the way to get it *right*.

It will be a lot easier to do this if you admit to yourself that it's OK first. That from time to time writing rubbish IS A GOOD THING - the only thing, in fact, you can do to save your book. You will spend a lot less time wailing and crying and gnashing and pulling your hair out if you impress this lesson on your mind now. I wish I had managed it a few years ago.

So let's add another saying to the list. 
  1. You can fix anything in revision - except a blank page.
  2. Give yourself permission to suck.
  3. Sometimes it's vital to write rubbish.
Thanks for reading, guys :) See you all on Thursday. 

13 comments:

Julie Cohen said...

YES.

Zoë Marriott said...

Well, that was pretty much the reaction I was hoping for, Julie :)

Jenni said...

Excellent post and one I need to make myself read and read and believe and do.

Zoë Marriott said...

Jenni: I'm thinking of getting it tattooed on my forearm, since my subconscious *still* doesn't want to believe this.

amy_celestia said...

This makes me feel so much better! Sometimes I read back over what I've written and want to bang my head on the desk, but you're right, anything is better than a blank page!!

Rachel Balcombe said...

THIS. THIS ALL THE TIME.

I've recently been wanting to write poetry again (mostly because clearing out cupboards produces a surprising amount of hilarious poetry books from our childhood), but I've been afraid of it messing up my notebook with its suckiness.

FEAR NOT, PEN! EMBRACE THE SUCKINESS!

Thank you for this post. And also, have you ever read A. E. Housman's 'Cruelty to Fabulous Animals'? It is a truly beautiful poem, and there are unicorns.

Zoë Marriott said...

Amy: Pretty much any time I look back over what I've read, I have to resist the urge to hit my head on something! I should probably have gotten over that already...but the urge remains!

Rachel: Oh, I do that. I have five or six 'special' notebooks that I've hoarded for years because I don't want to suck in them. And really, the poor blank pages are crying out for words! Any words!

Rebecca Lindsay said...

Love today's post :)

Emma Pass said...

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I wish I'd realised this sooner, too!

Zoë Marriott said...

Rebecca: Well technically it's yesterday's post. But I appreciate the thought anyway :)

Emma: What's weird that I seem to forget it between books as well. I finish one ms knowing it completely, but by the time I'm three chapters into the next book I'm freaking out again. Why does my subconscious hate me?

Elise Stephens said...

This is encouraging because it means that when you're slogging through garbage, trying to find the essence of something good, that the slogging itself is better than leaving the page alone entirely while I stew and wait for my mental waters to clear. Yes and thank you!

Zoë Marriott said...

Elise: Yep. Although it's easier to believe when you're not actually slogging, I know!

Isabel said...

I can't say how many times I've been told this before, and mostly by you, but I still find myself needing to hear it again and again. Thanks for the post, it was really helpful!

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