Writing tips written specifically for Women in Prison Magazine, 2010

Writing Tips

(well they work for me)

Shelley Silas

For Women in Prison Magazine

3rd August 2010

A few years ago I spent three hours a week over four months with women at East Sutton Park open prison.  Part of the course included writing exercises and improvisation games.  The purpose was to have some fun but also to try and unlock their creative side.  During the last workshop the women read/performed their pieces.  I was very proud of everyone, but actually it proved a worthwhile experience for myself as well.  While not everyone wants to write or can write in a way they consider ‘good enough,’ I believe everyone has a voice, and everyone has something to say.  But how do you find that voice, how do you tap into the qualities that make you different to someone else?  And what’s the difference between writing from your own life experiences and making it up?

I left school with 3 O’levels, went to work at 17, did a BA when I was in my 30s, part-time over four years while I worked full time, and then went on to do an MA in creative writing. And I promise you I am not at all academic.  The most important tool I left with was that writing is really re-writing, that an initial idea which sparks our interest and excitement at any given time, is one thing, but going on to develop that idea into a longer and more in depth piece, re-reading several times and re-writing possibly even more, is another altogether.  The re-writing is where, for me at least, the really hard work begins. You don’t have to be an Oxbridge graduate or any other university graduate to write.  You don’t need permission to write.  All you need is to want to do it, and then do it, and keep doing it.  It’s not physically hard, you do need staying power, and often your confidence can be low because of rejections, and all of us, even the most established, are rejected at some time.  You just have to keep at it, because the more you do, the better you’ll get, you’ll discover early on which ideas work and which don’t, and most importantly, you’ll find your voice.

Swimming has become a recent love of mine, as with most things, I started later in life. It relaxes me, focuses me and allows me time for just myself without the distractions of contemporary living – i.e. technology.  In the pool one morning, I decided that swimming is like writing.  We use different techniques, different strokes, we breath differently, we go at our own pace, but the outcome is the same – i.e. a finished piece of work or several laps.  It’s how we get there that makes each of us different.  I must preface what you’re about to read by saying these are suggestions that help me, they may help you, they may assist you in finding your own way.  Each writer has their own process.  Now it’s time to find yours.

  • don’t try and write like anyone else.  originality is what sells.

I think it’s very easy to try and emulate someone else, perhaps thinking if I can write like them, I’ll be a success, because they are.  Your USP (unique selling point, a word creative types use a lot) is your voice.  And it’s not just enough having an individual voice, you need a good story too.

  • your voice.  your individual style/tone and so much more that differentiates you from someone else.

It’s also the way you speak, your rhythms, patterns, inflections, the organic order in which the words end up on the page.  You might hear people compare writers to each other, someone may say he writes in a very Dickensian way, or her work is like Martina Cole or Marian Keyes.  So what is it that differentiates them?  Spend 10 minutes a day listening to others.  Make a note of how they sound, what makes them different to one another?  Whose writing do you like and why?

  • writing your life.

The women I met in East Sutton Park had the most fantastic stories to tell.  While I never asked why they were there, I was of course interested to know.  After a couple of weeks, some of them volunteered the information, others did not.  We are all intrinsically interested in the human condition, why people do certain things, what drives them.   If you’re writing from real life (and many writers take incidents from their own lives and fictionalise them), it’s up to you how much you tell.  It’s not necessary to write down every detail of every second in your life, because quite frankly, we are only interested in some aspects.  It’s important to include the big events, where the changes (emotional and physical) happened and what the direct results of those changes were, what kept you going, the people who influenced you, the house you lived in, though we don’t need to know about every single neighbour unless they had a direct influence/effect on your life story.  I would say only tell us as much as you feel we need to know about your story to get a clear picture of how it was.  When you read about other people’s lives in memoirs, what is it that has specifically excited/interested you in their story?  Alternatively make a note of what hasn’t interested you, even though they have still included it.

  • structure.

Structure is what holds your story together, kind of like the way a house is built.  How is it held in place, how is it designed?  What might make one house different from another?  A good start is the basic beginning, middle and end structure, but some stories might start at the end and go back, or start in the middle and go back.  Think about the films Groundhog Day and Memento structurally.  There is no fixed structure for anything, no right way or one way to do it, as long as it works and supports the story you are trying to tell, go for it.  Sometimes you might need to write the story first and then work in the structure.  I find it’s best to do this, otherwise you are so bogged down with all the technical stuff that your story suffers, and ultimately, for me at least, there’s a real danger of structure overtaking story, and that’s not ideal.  You can have the best characters and a good, solid structure, but it’s story that counts most for me.  I don’t want to confuse you or bog you down with structure, as I think it’s best to write the first draft and then go back and see where the structure might not work properly or where you can do something different.  But it’s something to consider.  And not every novel or play has to have a new or original structure, most people use a beginning, middle and end, and that works just as well!

  • get on with it while accepting that prevarication is part of the creative process.

Okay, so I admit, I spend a great deal of time making cups of coffee, walking around, doing lots of displacement activities so that I don’t have to write.  Actually, what’s going on inside my head while I’m doing all these other activities is a great deal of thinking about characters and plots and stories.  I might not physically write a word until later afternoon or early evening.  But the pre-writing can often be the most creatively satisfying.  So it’s okay to do other things, you don’t have to sit at a desk eight hours a day every day.

  • sometimes it’s okay to write rubbish

Rubbish is useful, because it’s often only after you’ve finished a piece, whether a short story or play or something longer, that you can begin to see what it is you’re saying, and then the real writing starts.   A gem of a sentence or storyline may well appear through the rubbish.  I would encourage you to set yourself a limit to write every day, 500 words is good, and stick to it, even at weekends, rather than waiting for the perfect sentence or idea to emerge before you start.

  • grammar

Don’t worry about getting your punctuation right, or your grammar perfect.  Just WRITE.  I’ve read a few writers’ work in the past, very successful writers, and I can tell you that I was pretty surprised at the absence of grammar and punctuation.  It might be laziness or that they are just not very good at it and that’s okay.  Editors and sub editors often take care of this, though I wouldn’t encourage you to leave it entirely up to them.  What I mean is, don’t let it stop you writing that first page, draft, novel, play, short story.  You can go back and revisit, revise and make better.

  • when boredom sets in

Okay, so you might get bored, actually, you will get bored and that’s okay.  It happens to all of us.  Go do something else.  Go for a walk, to the gym, read, watch TV, draw, whatever.  Don’t make yourself sit down and write if you really, really, don’t want to.  It’s okay to be bored.  But if you’re too bored too often you might want to think about whether your story is working or whether your boredom is a result of you just not being bothered!

  • things you might want to write about.

Everyone has a story, everyone has something interesting to say. Chances are, if it interests you, it will interest someone else.  If you’re keeping a diary or journal, perhaps an entry might include something that has excited you, surprised you, upset you, something you’ve witnessed or heard.  It might be a new experience, something you’ve read or watched that has had an impact on you or it might be directly from your life.  It doesn’t really matter as long as you want to write it.  As I say, if you’re interested, chances are everyone else will be too.

  • no need to rush.

One of the most important pieces of advice I can give to any new writer (and quite a few established ones) is not to rush.  Often we think a piece of work is finished when it is far from that.  I would suggest you finish a first draft, leave it for a week or two then return to it with fresh eyes.  You’ll be amazed at how work develops in that time, you may have had other thoughts, and you’ll be pleased you didn’t send it off too soon.  It’s something I have learned to do, it doesn’t come naturally – mainly because writing is often such a solitary business, that as soon as we have written something, we want to share it.  Hold off sending anything to anyone to read until you are absolutely sure that you can do no more on it without handing it over.

  • questions.

I have found if I’m stuck or something doesn’t work or make sense, I ask myself questions about what it is I’m trying to write.  There’s no one definitive list of questions, make them up – you’re the boss of your work.  Questions I might ask are, is this plot really, really feasible?  Why does this character behave in this way?  Do I really care about this other character?  Etc etc.  It’s a way of breaking the ice, moving ahead and getting to know your work so well, so when someone else is reading it, if they have any questions, you’ll automatically know the answers.  It works for me.

  • reward yourself.

Whenever I finish something, a story, play, feature, I like to acknowledge actually getting through to the end! And the way I do this is to reward myself.  It might be chocolate, a new lipstick, watching a DVD, a cup of coffee, an hour of daytime TV.   Sometimes that feels like a reward! Whatever it is, I like to mark the completion in some way.

  • try not to compare yourself to others.

Easier said than done, but it’s probably the most harmful way to disrupt yourself and your writing and gives you every reason not to write.  A is different to B is different to T is different to J.  It’s what makes us all matter, it’s what gives us our unique way of telling a story, our voice.  If we were all the same, there would only be one type of book or play written in one way.  There’s room for everyone.  By all means look at what someone else is doing, but don’t think you have to be like them in order to succeed.  You don’t.  And their success doesn’t take away from your success or your ambition or your possibilities.  We can all succeed and there are loads of possibilities out there for all of us.

  • the only way is your way.

Once you know what you want to say say it.  There is no formula, no perfect or right way to write.  The way you say it, is the best way for you.  And you might have more than one voice, more than one style, and that is okay too.  Some people write under different names, because what they’re writing, possibly crime and romance, require different styles, different voices.  So as not to confuse readers, they simply have another name for another style of work.  Maybe read some Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine.  Same writer, writing under different names.  Publishing and other writing worlds (i.e. theatre) often find it easier to compartmentalise writers into types so they come to expect the same style from you every time.  And it’s possibly easier for them to sell.  But if you’re like me, you don’t fit into any one box.  It can be harder at the start, ultimately I think it’s more exciting!

Go write, try and enjoy it.  Go find your voice, and when you’ve found it remember, it’s yours and no one else writes or sounds like you.

© Shelley Silas

3rd August 2010