Thursday, 10 October 2013

A Letter to Sylvie: Advice to a Writer Aged Fourteen

 A friend of mine asked me if I would give some advice to his friend's fourteen year old daughter. Let's call her Sylvie: This is what I wrote to her:

Dear Sylvie: 

I had to think hard before I answered your letter. Either I had to pat you on the head and say wonderful! You are amazing! You might be wonderful and amazing in many ways but you would never make any
progress with your writing if I just said that.

So I decided to respond to you as I would to any writer – as an individual. Really as an adult. Here we go - 

I am very impressed that you are thinking of writing seriously as part of your life. I can see from your letter that you are a very fluent writer and can really impress yourself.

I like the way your talk about your writing ‘When I begin writing something I don’t plan a lot, I just have a rough idea in my head and then expand on it as I write ‘ … This is a good way to start off  – working naturally and acknowledging the importance of your subconscious. Feeling this freedom to ‘expand on it as I write’ is an important part of the writing process. Too many ‘creative writing courses’ emphasise the importance of pre-thinking, planning and structure.. This can produce mechanical and derivative work and does not allow unique voices to emerge.

However, once you have a good chunk of writing, then reflection and retrospective structuring can sustain and elaborate your  unique voice. For a good writer, a high level of self-editing is important. This is a skill that will develop in years of writing. Remember to work on your edit after you have a chunk of writing to work on. Don't try to do the two things at once. It's very important to keep these processes separate.

You describe your own editing process, saying,   when I read through it I change only little things or sometimes large chunks. I imagine that by little things you mean points of spelling, grammar and syntax (look that word up…). This is the very first level of editing.

When you mention ‘large chunks’, this is the second level. I imagine by this you mean
  • *      changing the order of paragraphs
  • *      changing the time sequence of events
  • *      changing description to dialogue
  • *      making the use of tense consistent
  • *      re-enforcing the nature of cause and effect in your narrative
  • *      seeing that the forward arc of your story works

When you begin to teach yourself these second level skills you are on your way to being a writer.

In terms of subject matter I see you say   I can write any genre, however I like sticking to horror, drama, some action, and a little romance... And  I have been writing about supernatural beings such as; vampires, werewolves, and ghosts.

It is not unusual for young writers to begin with such themes.
This is a proper stage in beginning to write. I think that it has something to do with the fact that a young person lacks  real life experience – yet! - to draw on. Also it reflects   the power of great fairy tales in children’s conscious and subconscious mind. As I say, a good starting place.

But here is a warning! The problem is that some people get stuck on such subject matter and their writing becomes stale and – even worse – derivative. Instead of drawing on their own unique subconscious such writers imitate somebody else’s subconscious. Be careful not to love somebody’s books so much that you imitate them.

So, how do you become your own writer with your own unique voice?

My Top Tips

*      You should begin to read as a writer, asking yourself how does this or that writer have this or that effect
Read as a writer...
on you. Using this approach, continue to read widely looking at the work word by word, line by line.

For imaginative narrative, read many kinds of fiction from Shakespeare (have you read The Tempest? Wonderful fantasy evocation) to David Almond (Brilliant writer, try My Name is Mina: ‘A celebration of the richness of the everyday life’:  Sunday Times)

For extending your feeling for words and the rhythm of language read poetry -from Keats (combination of perfect word choice, assonance, rhyme and metre) to Carol Ann Duffy (modern syntax and references with a deep feeling for words and their power)

*      Warningdon’t practice amateur lit-crit on your reading! Just try to see  how the writer works; see how they get their effect. This is NOT the same as the amateur lit-crit practiced for exam answers.  

       Avoid Creative Writing Courses unless they are taught by experienced and published writers. And Eng.Lit degree does not equal this.

*      Dip into your pocket money and buy ON BECOMING A WRITER by Dorothea Brande. Read it and do her exercises which encourage you to write for twenty minutes first thing every morning come rain or shine without looking back for twenty one day. In this lump of free writing you will find your unique voice and your own original themes.

Good luck, Sylvie. And happy writing.


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