What My Parents Taught Me About Writing

I remember waking up one morning early to a strange sound in the study. I went in there to check, and found my mom sobbing over her typewriter.

Literally sobbing.Ma verwerk

Because she had to just finished drowning her beloved main character.

Both my parents were published authors and very involved in mentoring young writers, so I learned a great deal about the discipline and the rigors of writing from them.

Oh, and if some of these sound familiar, it is simply because the road to writing has always been pretty much the same – whether it is tar or gravel or grass or cobblestones, the path still leads from here to there, from the start of the book to reader reading the last word. Nothing much has changed.

1.   ABC: Writing is Hard Work.

ABC = Apply Bottom to Chair. Yes. You have heard this before.

It’s still true, though.

If you don’t sit down to some serious writing (or do it standing up), nothing will ever magically happen.

Writing. Is. Hard. Work.

2.   Kill Your Darlings: Edit!

William Faulkner said that you have to kill your darlings.

Because if you don’t kill your darlings, they will kill your book.

For those of you who are horrified at the suggestion of murder, please note: a “darling” in a book could be a favourite minor character who doesn’t contribute to your main plot but wonders off on his or her own little garden path.

Or it could be a flowery phrase, or a word you use over and over and over … get the picture?

Or it could be a whole subplot that makes your book overweight and dowdy instead of streamlined and sexy.

How do you kill your darlings? Well, editors are the best assassins you can find. But before you hire them, do some assassination (aka editing) yourself.

3.   Your Sweetheart’s Blue Eyes: Make Notes!

Somewhere you need to create a table and note down details regarding your characters and the setting and anything else that you could forget one hundred pages into the book. Do not change the colour of someone’s eyes simply because you didn’t make a note of it. Excel makes it really easy to create a character list, but there are handy apps out there that you might want to use as well.

4.   Night Owls or Larks? Know Yourself

My mom woke up at four in the morning to start writing. My dad wrote until midnight.  Oh what a marriage that must have been!

Seriously though: you need to write when you are fresh and wide awake and able. You cannot write with a hundred people asking you for tea or food or socks. But you also cannot write in the mornings if you are not a morning person.

5.   Be a Great Spy. Know Your Market.

Maybe you are writing for yourself. That’s cool. Then you don’t have to get to know your market. Well, actually, you already know your market pretty well then …

But otherwise: get to know your market or get to know someone who knows your market. Publishers, editors and agents all know their fields well. But it doesn’t help a lot if you don’t do your own market research and you also don’t listen to them. Either spy yourself or trust your spies.

Target Your Audience by Answering These Six Questions

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Writing is a bit like hunting. Though I have to confess I have never hunted, and I won’t … love Bambi too much to do anything but buy my meat packaged and reasonably bloodless at the shop. But getting back to the point:  writing is like hunting in the sense that you cannot just load your keyboard and hike through the woods, hoping a reader or two might cross your path.

Nope.

Not that easy.

You need to be writing for someone. Granted, sometimes that someone you are writing for might be yourself, your dad or your favourite aunt. But let’s suppose that you want to make a living by writing for others.

So … a few questions you might want to know the answers to as you are setting out on your hunt:

 

Are my readers bright or not so bright?

Now that seems like a terrible question to ask. It simply smells of bias and prejudice. But, between us girls and boys, it is important to know if you are writing for the code-speaking elite or writing for the rest of us.

So, if you are writing for the rest of us, make sure that you achieve a happy balance between leaving us groping in the dark and showering us with adverbs and adjectives galore.

You can decide when you want to spew forth majestically, but most of the time you can simply say what you mean. It works well for Stephen King and company, doesn’t it?

Your job as a writer is most often to observe that which other people simply don’t see and then draw their attention to it. You don’t need to decorate it with roses. They will be amazed at noticing what they have been missing all along.

 

Are my readers reading a book or online content?

There is a difference. When a reader settles into a book it is as if she or he is taking a walking holiday along a strange coastline. Plenty of time to stop and drink in the sights and eat at funny little restaurants.

But when a reader reads online, most often it can be likened to a bus tour through seven European countries in three glorious, sun-filled days. Online reading is all about skimming and not that much about depth. Not all too often. So give the online reader plenty of white space and big headings. And say what you need to say. Fast.

 

Are my readers male or female?

Now this one is tricky. A great reader is sexless, ageless, without bias. But maybe you do want to write for a specific audience. Men might read about how girls wax their armpits, but most often they won’t. So, at times,  you can write with the assumption that the person reading it is male, or female.

Otherwise, don’t go all male on your readers. Don’t make sexist jokes or below-the-belt innuendos. Except, of course, if that is exactly what your writing is all about. You’ll have a following. But you will also cut yourself off from part of your possible audience.

 

Are my readers old or young?

Although the ideal reader is ageless, and the ideal copy is ageless, it is true that we all have references in our lives. If I said, “Freedom”, the word would trigger totally different symbols, songs and famous people in our minds if we are of different generations.

So if you are writing for a specific age group, keep this in mind. Don’t use your own references and assume that they will know all about Paul and John. They might go Beatles, or they might go Biblical.

 

Are my readers multicultural and if so, which cultures?

This is another tough one. Readers from different cultures find different things acceptable or unacceptable. If you are a good writer, you shouldn’t isolate yourself within your own culture, but really soak up some others so that when you write, you write without bias and prejudice. However, if you are biased and prejudiced and happy about it, well, then I guess you know the way ahead.

When writing for a multicultural audience, be aware of taboos and make sure that you don’t unintentionally offend. The easiest way is to ask a friend of a different culture to let you know if you have some cultural spinach in your teeth.

 

Why are you writing this?

This is the big question. If you are not sure why you are writing this, you will most definitely not convince anyone of anything. If you have a passion for your subject matter, your enthusiasm will sometimes make even your worst critic think.

Be sure of your reasons. If you are writing to inform, don’t waste time on personal confessions. If you are writing to inspire, don’t preach. If you are writing to entertain, don’t take out the holiday slides.

See the “ideal reader” in your mind’s eye when you start writing. Know him or her well. Then, once you start, look up from time to time and catch their eyes. If he or she is smiling and nodding and hanging on to your every word, you might be on the right track.

If you see fish-eyes, however, change your reader … or change your writing!

 

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