If you aren’t born knowing the rules, learn them! – Truman Capote
If you aren’t born knowing the rules, learn them! – Truman Capote
“Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.”
Among the greatest commencement addresses of all time is an extraordinary speech beloved author Neil Gaiman delivered in May of 2012 at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.
So potent and enlivening was his advice on courage and the creative life that the speech was adapted into Make Good Art – a gem of a book. Here is his advice:
When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician — make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor — make good art. IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.”
A wise woman once said, “If you are not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.” Gaiman articulates the same sentiment with his own brand of exquisite eloquence:
I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.
Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.
So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.
Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.
Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”
This week’s writing prompt, although for everyone, is especially useful for those who are working on a bigger project – perhaps a novel or novella. The problem with writing a bigger work is that generally, there’s not much ‘reward’ in terms of recognition and publication throughout what is usually a long process. Most journals don’t accept novel excerpts as submissions, and so unless you’re working on multiple short stories as well as your novel, you won’t be published until *fingers crossed* your novel hits the shelves.
So here’s something for you to try:
Get yourself in the writing zone with your favourite tipple and a notepad. Draw a quick mind map of the main characters and the ‘support cast’ associated with them in your current work. Then take a closer look at one of these secondary characters.
The idea is to choose someone who is quietly relevant to your story – perhaps it is the actions of this character that made your protagonist act in a certain way or choose a certain path? It could be your lead man’s mother? Or an old school friend? Think about their backstory.
This story could be set years before the events in your novel take place, like the protagonist’s childhood, or the childhood of their parents, or a lover… Choose a character whose backstory impacts the narrative in a subtle way. This is your opportunity to explore events and characters that you love but don’t have room for in your current work.
Then write a short story based on whatever you come up with. This allows you to create something that can stand alone from your novel, yet benefit it at the same time. At best, you have a short story that you’re able to submit to literary journals for consideration, and at worst, you’ve built onto the backstory of your novel, and enriched one of its support characters or settings by getting to know them better.
To coincide with the new series of The Handmaid’s Tale (which has just started to air in the UK), here is a quote from the fantastic Margaret Atwood.
She certainly knows that words are power! x
If you feel a bit lost from time to time, or unsure of yourself, don’t be discouraged. According to Joseph Heller, every writer has trouble writing. x
Extra extra! Read all about it!
Here is a writing prompt to really get those creative juices flowing:
Write a made-up news report.
This could be an idea taken from something you’ve seen in real life, maybe something you read in a local or national paper.
Or you could take one of your fictional characters and imagine something newsworthy happening to them – how would that event be reported in the morning papers?
It could be an opinion piece or a feature, a wedding announcement, something unusual or exciting taking place in the community, or it could be the crime of the century!
Who knows. Maybe it will spark the idea for your next novel, or give you an exciting new twist.
Or it could be that prompt you needed to develop your plot and get you out of that rut you’ve been stuck in.
Happy writing 🙂
I’m going to be honest with you. I have this problem (which is a fairly common one) where I compare myself to other people. I’ll spare you the mushy, self-esteem-issues stuff because day-to-day it doesn’t bother me that much.
But when it comes to my creativity, comparing myself to other writers is really not okay. I’ve come to realise this in the last few months, and want you to know why (even though we all do it from time to time) we need to stop. It’s a matter of taking pride in yourself and your own writing rather than trying to find ‘the answer’ in other people.
Ever finished an incredible book, one that had a profound effect on you, and wanted to know more about the author? Of course you have. Flick to the author bio, do a quick Google search. You find out they started submitting to publishers when they were 15, they had a book deal by 20 and they’re making tonnes of money, or even worse, they never wanted to be a writer, they just sort of ‘fell into it’ and got extremely lucky – suddenly it’s like someone’s let the air out of you. Here you are in your 30s bumming around still trying to write that first novel and wishing your MS was even half as amazing. This is your life. And look at theirs. Tragic.
Stop. Stop right there.
You’re no doubt familiar with the scenario above, but that doesn’t mean that it’s an acceptable way to judge yourself as a writer. The more you compare yourself to others this way, the more you devalue yourself.
Such thoughts might go along these lines:
They’ve written so many amazing things / I haven’t written anything good
They’ve been published so many times / I’m not even good enough to get a response
They write every single day / I can’t even write once a week
These sort of thoughts are neither productive nor helpful to your development as a writer, so banish them from your mind the second they start to creep in.
Making yourself depressed over what other people are doing only wastes time that you could be being productive, that you could be making a change toward the things you’re complaining about. If you’re feeling low because Ray Bradbury wrote an early draft of Fahrenheit 451 in just nine days and you’ve been sitting on your book draft for over a year (yes, this is my life) then stop pouting and get a wriggle on. Instead of getting depressed about it, use it as motivation to get your head down.
Okay. Here’s the sentimental, motivational part: every artist is different, and just because your methods or techniques aren’t the same as everyone elses’ doesn’t mean they’re any less valid. Emily Dickinson shut herself up to write, but that doesn’t mean we all need to become hermits. Hunter S. Thompson was a gonzo journalist who did tonnes of drugs, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to report a story.
Own your habits and your quirky creative identity. Find your own voice. Write by your own rules, and don’t let anyone else dictate how you should do it.”
Yes, there are writers who’ve been published young, or who mingle with big names, or who got a crazy-lucky break into the industry (Evie Wyld, I’m thinking of you). But the thing about those amazing writers is that they didn’t get where they are now by being someone else, they did it by being the writer they were meant to be; by being themselves and putting in a lot of hard work. You might not be where they are, but if you don’t believe in yourself you won’t even get close. As the saying goes:
Never compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.”
While comparing yourself to other writers in a negative way can be damaging to your creative self-esteem, you can turn the experience into a positive. Instead of wallowing and feeling crummy, think about your achievements and inspire yourself to keep creating. The worst thing you can do is give up because you don’t believe in what you’re doing. Think about those writers that simultaneously excite and revolt you with how amazing they are. They’re amazing because they tried, because they put in the effort, and in the end they made it.
Maybe your stories and poems have been rejected a lot, and you haven’t won any competitions, but at least you’re submitting them which is a massive dedication in itself.
Maybe you haven’t been writing much lately, but maybe you’ve been pursuing other creative tasks like reading your favourite books. Or researching some important plot points. These are also valuable uses of your time.
Turn your self talk on its head. Find a plus amidst the minuses. Give yourself permission to be awesome, stroke your ego a little. It’s absolutely acceptable, I promise.
Sometimes the only thing you can do is text a buddy or meet up for a drink after work and let loose. Chances are, they totally understand where you’re coming from (especially if they’re a writer too) and can balance out your frustration with a fresh perspective.
Talk to writer friends, or find a Twitter or blog post about it. I guarantee you will find others in the same boat. It certainly helps to hear that you’re not alone in the way you feel about your writing idols (and trust me, we’re all right there with you on this one).
If you’re unhappy with where you are in your creative journey, make a change. Don’t waste another minute. You can twist those negative feelings towards other writers back around and set yourself some achievable goals. Want to write more or even finish that novel? Set deadlines and cover your walls in post-its. In love with the technique or style of a particular author? Give it a go in your own writing and see how it works. Challenge yourself by saying, ‘yes, I can do that too’ or ‘I’m going to do it even better’. You might just surprise yourself!
Happy writing x