A LESSON IN WRITING
Author Elizabeth Kyne reveals how she learnt the hard way
and passes on a few tips to save you the trouble
I was always wanted to write, even as a child. I tell people that I wrote my first novel at the age of twelve, but my Mum says that I was always writing stories when I was younger, so my literary leanings probably go back further than that. It was obviously something deep within me because I didn’t learn any of this from my family. Neither my mother nor my father (who is dyslexic) read books at home and my younger sister, who was born eight years after me, never became a reader either.
So, even though I loved books, the idea that I could grow up to become a ‘writer’ wasn’t articulated until I was much older. By this time – although still writing stories – I was kind of distracted by the more normal occupations of passing exams, going to university and getting a job. While studying for a postgraduate diploma in radio journalism, I started writing articles for magazines. This was great fun because I could go off and interview someone, write it up and someone would pay me. I liked this so much, I spent seven years freelancing in both radio journalism and article writing. I even published half a dozen non-fiction books.
Then the lure of a regular salary and the pressure of household bills got to me and I gave it all up for a ‘proper job’. This may have seemed a good idea at the time, but it didn’t allow me the freedom to write a novel as I had hoped. Too many 4.30am starts and being in a creative environment zapped my fiction-writing brain. I did this job for about five years until the heavy burden of stress finally made me implode. I couldn’t take it anymore. I decided to go part time and write a novel.
I knew I had the skills and ability to do it. Over the years I’d written lots of fiction, taken lots of classes and knew what I was doing. Except, now I was older, wiser, more experienced and wouldn’t be interrupted by magazine editors ringing me with deadlines that required me to put the novel aside. I had a publishing background with the books I’d written, so all I had to do was put the words on paper – right?
So desperate was I to prove that I had done the right thing in giving up my full-time salary, that I hadn’t realised I’d forgotten a lot of the writing craft I’d learnt during the years. Here are some of the things I failed to do:
1) Practice. I was very out of practice. It had been some years since I’d sat down at the computer and written a story. The best thing I could have done was to remind myself how to do it by getting my hands dirty. Getting a few short stories under my belt would have been a good idea, thereby allowing me to work out any kinks, make my mistakes and re-learn my craft before attempting to write my 100,000 word novel.
2) Get feedback early on. Now, feedback can be a double-edged sword. It can, of course, be brilliant in encouraging you to improve, spotting the things in your writing that are good and the things that need work. It can also be soul-destroying if you get a harsh critique. There is the additional problem of being caught up in the critiquing cycle of constantly re-writing the same story and not progressing. The best advice I’ve been given on critiquing (and writing workshops in general) is not to stress about re-writing after receiving feedback, but to go on and write a new story, using what you learnt in the earlier critique. I think I could have learnt a lot by following this advice – if only I had been given it two years earlier.
3) Research the basics. By this I mean the ‘rules’ of writing and the techniques that novelists use. Like feedback, this can have its dangers as well as its advantages. A piece of fiction that slavishly adheres to the rules is likely to be as dull as watching a Disney parade in the rain. I’m sure some of the classics we still enjoy today wouldn’t be read if, for example, Emily Bronte had sat down to write Wuthering Heights with a set of ‘rules’ in her head. But it would have been useful for me to re-visit some of the tools in the writer’s toolbox; such as the concept of protagonist versus antagonist, and using all the senses when writing description. Because, as I was writing the novel, the lessons I’d learnt in previous years came back to me in dribs and drabs and made me think a-fresh about what I was doing. If only I had taken time to remind myself of them before I started, I could have had all those useful tools at the back of my mind from the very beginning.
4) Think things through. This may sound obvious, but it was something I didn’t do. Not really. You see, I’d spent a couple of weeks plotting my novel and thinking about what might happen and how the characters would react, but I didn’t fully look at the ideas behind the story and work out the consequences that followed. In other words, I’d worked out a plot, but I hadn’t fully realised the concepts within that plot. For example, a plot might involve a princess that falls asleep for a-thousand years and is woken by a kiss from a prince. To turn it into a story, , I might want to imagine the effect on the kingdom of a sleeping princess and the reasons why the prince goes looking for her.
The result of not following the advice above was a flawed novel. Not that I regret writing it, not for one minute, because I learnt an awful lot from writing it. In fact, I learnt most of what I’ve listed above. But it was a very painful way to learn. Over the course of a year, I’d put all my effort and my hopes into this one project only to realise at the end of it that my hopes were mis-placed. It was devastating. Not least because I’d given up my full-time job to become a novelist and all I had to show for it was a novel I felt I couldn’t send to publishers.
I learnt my lessons in one big fell swoop. They were useful lessons, even if I would have preferred they had been broken to me gently. That particular novel never saw the light of day, but I kept writing and I was really proud of my next novel, and the one that followed it, my current novel If Wishes Were Husbands. I’m just about to start the follow-up to Husbands and I hope I can take the lessons I learnt from all what has come before and craft an even better book. Because a good writer never stops learning. Whether she does it the easy way, or the hard way like I did, the only way to improve is to use your experience. Otherwise, what was the point of experiencing it in the first place?
Rachel re-invents herself when she moves back to her home town of Aylesbury; with a new job, a new house and a new haircut. But people’s eyes glaze over when she tells them about her life as a forty-something singleton who works in accounts. So why not spice things up a bit? Why not tell her new hairdresser and her new friends about her fantastic husband? Everyone wants to hear about Darren, the man who cooks her amazing meals, cleans the house and takes her to bed for orgasmic sex three times a night! What a shame he doesn't exist…
…Until she comes home one night and finds Darren sitting in her lounge. And everything she said becomes true: from his sensuous food to his skill in bed. So real, that she believes it.
Not as if living with a perfect is man is… well, perfect…
She can’t find anything because every time she puts something down, he tidies it away. Then there’s the shock of the credit card bill from buying all that gourmet food. Not to mention the sex! Three times a night is great at first, but sometimes all she wants at the end of the day is a sandwich and some sleep.
Then Rachel decides that Darren has to go - and that’s when her troubles really begin.
Elizabeth Kyne takes the absurdities of the modern woman's quest for love and turns them into an enjoyable romp. She finds the comic in everyday situations, from buying a dress to experimenting with hair dye at home. While, underneath, she comments on the pressure to find the perfect husband and how that quest is doomed for us all.
Elizabeth Kyne trained to be a radio journalist and spent her early working years reading news bulletins and writing for magazines. Later, after learning the meaning of “mortgage” and “gas bill”, she decided to do the sensible thing and drop the freelance lifestyle to get a proper job. The job, however, all went horribly wrong and she returned to her first love of writing, and worked on several novels before finding success with “If Wishes Were Husbands”.
Great post, Elizabeth! These are good points for all of us to remember - as per my recent post on Goal, Motivation and Conflict. Nine books in and I'm still learning the basics, lol!
Elizabeth would love to chat!