Sunday, 9 September 2012

On writing: a proofreader's perspective

Reading: Drum by Kyle Onstott
Listening to: Fazer "Killer"
Weather: not bad

This is just to say I've read Stephen King's On Writing for the second (or is it the third?) time now, and as usual, I found it interesting and informative. But this time I've realized this is just one very good book on writing - and there are loads of other books out there that you could buy to fill your shelves. Or fill yourselves. There are others out there, what King might describe as BS, that I think are nothing close.

For instance, I would highly recommend:

The Best American Travel Writing (2002 is my edition, editor is Frances Mayes) - great for writers of creative nonfiction, or to brush up in general for writers of both fiction and non. Also great, of course, for those who love to read.


Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (editor Janet Burroway, 6th Edition, 2003) - perfect especially for those starting to write stories. This is full of short stories that can show you how to turn the story around, how to define it, how to make your characters, setting, and musings speak. A great read in general as well. I have a couple/few favorite short stories in there. To me, this book is like coming home.

I agree with King's first and cardinal rule for the way in which to improve your writing: to read a lot and write a lot - of course that is true.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

But I have discovered (for myself, at least) that the process of writing varies so drastically from one person to another that one person just can't say what is right or not.

For at least a year, in my early twenties, I tried to keep up the frenetic pace to which Stephen King admits (or boasts?) in On Writing. Two thousand words a day, every day: Rain, shine, pressed for homework and time, hungover, exhausted after a double shift, on my birthday and Christmas and all. Not taking a day off, no matter what - because this is the way a Real Writer works, this is the only way you can really take it seriously. Because I took King's words as gospel. Because, I thought: this is how an idea becomes pages, how pages become a book.

But... I've found over the years - and we're talking working between two and four jobs, studying full-time undergrad and post-grad university courses (in two different countries) in creative writing, biology, anthropology, etc etc etc - that it just didn't work for me. I discovered, when I sat down and pounded out an exercise for one of my creative writing classes, that I did best when locked in a library carrel for an entire day, phone turned off, and completing the first draft of the whole thing in one session. (First draft in this case being between 500 and 4,000 words).

This spoke to my creative sense. The way I create my work in one long, back-aching, sometimes agonizing session lasting between two and seven hours: there is nothing wrong with that. It was the way that worked for me. I produced. My focus was hard, driven, the determined way a person chisels through stone, unlocking the message underneath.

Now, let's fast-forward to today: I am nearing thirty. I proofread for a living - obituaries, in memoriams, birth announcements, family notices for engagements, marriages, wedding anniversaries. Eight hours a day, I am checking for commas, semi colons, the proper use of apostrophes, the distinct - but sometimes elusive -
difference between there and their. And even with such light reading, I find that between my train commutes, my brain is mashed potatoes by the time I get home. Monday through Friday, I am reading two, almost three hours a day. This is reading for fun by the way - novels, memoirs, things published by old pens and newbies alike. It is on the weekend when I let my creative side flourish: I am Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, penning the next Frankenstein: Or Modern Prometheus. I am Oscar Wilde, writing something from that comes De Profundis. I am Barbara Kingsolver with her Bean Trees, or Stephen King with his bloody Carrie. I am at my laptop, like Hemingway, there to merely sit and bleed. On Saturday and Sunday, I am creating the next story, five thousand words at a time.

I just want to say, there is nothing wrong with being different. Never apologise for it. Never worry about it. Please, please don't do like me and dwell on it. It is you. And you are so different from me, or Toni Morrison, or Chuck Palahniuk, or Dean Crawford - the only thing that links us is the passion for the stories that exist in our minds, and in our hearts.

You write that story down in any way that best pleases you. It might take you seven years (as long as it took me to write my first novel, Ashbourne Hauntings). It might take you seven months (Chemical Love). It might take you seven weeks (Drowning Rachel). You might have spent months and years on other blocks of manuscripts that still haven't seen the light of day, that yet need that magic eye to see the forest amidst the trees (all my other works that I won't even mention here). There is no right way. 

But remember this: do your best.

Write the story that's in your heart. Don't worry how many words or how many days you write - just write. When you have the energy. When it wakes you up in the night - when your characters speak to you during your lunch hour, when you're at the post office, at the dentist, picking out new wallpaper, when you're in the pet food aisle at the grocery store, and something sparks a thought that sparks something else: a crescendo in your chest - when you can, write it down. Right there, in the middle of the sidewalk, or on the bus, or at your desk at work. That TV commercial at dinner that said something you couldn't quite explain? The premise for your next novel? Write it down. You can look at it later, with bemusement, and then recognition. Write it.

Uncover it. That story. It was always there for you to tell. The clues are there for you to tie together, to weave something colorful and beautiful. All you have to do is write it down.

And with that, Dear Reader, I wish you a happy Sunday!

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