Things I Learnt And Didn’t Learn About Writing In 2021

1. Pick Which Mistake You’re Willing To Make

I first took this idea from Stephen Bush’s political columns, in which he talked about it being useful for political parties to pick which mistake they’re willing to make (as otherwise they’ll spend their lives trying to be all things to all people). It’s a concept you might have run into in other walks of life though. For me, it’s very similar to the exhortation I hear before every rugby game; “they might run around us, but don’t let them run through us”. We’ve picked the mistake we’re willing to make in order to minimise the chances of the other one.

There’s so many ways to deploy it in writing. The biggest one I think is in terms of how you approach writing – what’s the bigger mistake, bad words or no words? A lot of people are scared of bad words but unless you’re fairly atypical (which tbh I think I might be), bad words is a lesser mistake than no words. But it goes for everything in terms of clarifying what you’re doing. Would you rather hear your story is too slow or too quick? What about your story is too slow vs your characters underdeveloped? In some ways it’s the same as the advice as to write an ideal fan letter to yourself, just reversed, but the different angle can be pretty important.

2. Make As Big A Surface As You Can For Luck To Fall On

Luck has a hell of a lot to do with making it. That’s something I hear a bunch from people. Know the best way to win a lottery? Number one is know someone who can fix it, and number two is buy a bunch of tickets. For a writer that means makes a bunch of submissions, write a bunch of stuff, see if you can talk to interesting people.

Did I do this? Not really. But I believe in it.

3. You Characters Are As Interesting As Their Flaws

This one came from Will Storr’s stuff on writing and Sacred Flaws. It’s probably not a good one to cite as universal but it’s the next best thing. Don’t mistake this is thinking small details, shining qualities, cool special moves and such don’t matter either. They do. They’re a big part of what gains interest. But their flaws, their mistakes – that’s the hard cap in most stories. There’s two reasons for this from where I’m sitting.

One is if a character isn’t making mistakes, there’s a good chance there isn’t much story. But a lot of the audience don’t want to see the character make mistakes if they’re rooting for them. Getting the audience to understand why and agree with how the character makes mistakes is how you bring those things together, and also gives them a chance to get invested in the plot by guessing what’s coming next.

The second is you’re always looking for a way to make characters stand out, and the list of heroic and virtuous qualities is a lot more set and known than the list of possible flaws. It can also make them more relatable too.

Have I put this into practice? No, but then I’ve not really started anything new since reading Will Storr’s book. But I think bits of it are creeping into current projects and as I refine a longstanding project/consider other ones, I’m trying to put this so deeply into the characters I don’t have to think about it.

4. The Guiding Image

This is a recent one from a VanderMeer article, one I haven’t really had a chance to put into practice yet. But the basic idea is that as part of your plans on how the novel to go, there should be some sort of image – some sort of totem – that encapsulates everything you’re trying to achieve and serves as a reference point when you might be going astray.

And part of the reason is I’ve been starting to do that independent of VanderMeer. For me it’s been a song and a philosophy more than an image, but it works for me.

There’s probably been other things. But those are the four things shining out at me.

What did you learn about writing this year?

3 thoughts on “Things I Learnt And Didn’t Learn About Writing In 2021

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