Ghost Writers

If someone is a member of fifty activity groups, the chances of him or her coming to a writers’ workshop and sitting still long enough to write a story are pretty slim.

The writers’ group I founded in Abu Dhabi back in June 2015 now has 1,952 members. A group of these writer-members meets weekly, and out of around sixteen who sign up on the Meetup site for our free workshop sessions, usually about eight turn up to take their places in the café where we meet. What happens each week to the other eight, one can only guess. One assumes they were abducted on their way to the workshop. Sometimes we never ever hear from them again.

RIP

Many of our would-be attendees have plenty to say for themselves. Some send messages to say that they ‘really want to come’ to our workshop, and ‘definitely intend to come,’ but they are ‘just so busy at the moment.’ Well, with those fifty other groups to attend, they would be, wouldn’t they?

Some say they would indeed come if I could only move the group into the centre of town, or if I could change the meeting time, or if I could shift the day of meeting. Of course, call their bluff and change the location and the timings, and not only do those people not show up, but they vanish from the face of the earth. This is why we now refer to them as… ghost writers.

I sometimes wonder if analyzing the nature of the other groups chosen by these writers would give me a profile of the type of people who sign up for a writers’ group that they most likely won’t attend. Meetups much loved by our ghost writers include: the Abu Dhabi Blockchain & Cryptocurrency Meetup, the Abu Dhabi Agile Scrum Exchange, The Abu Dhabi Bucket Listers, The Abu Dhabi Corniche Boot Camp, The Abu Dhabi Dance Lessons Meetup, the Abu Dhabi Civil Engineering Meetup, and the Abu Dhabi Meditation group.Meet Up Logo

I like to keep an open mind. Many of our best writers have come not from the English departments of schools and universities, but from oil companies and IT departments. I also tell myself that I should be very happy when those who are expected do not show up. It must mean that the group has served its purpose of giving them a sense of community and motivation and, as a result, they are comfortably ensconced at their desks hammering out the ideas that will make up the next chapter of their book.

I mean… they won’t be in a shopping mall or at the cinema, will they?

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Why you need to start writing yesterday

It may come as a shock to you to learn that you are not the only writer in the world, or in your country, or – indeed – in your neighbourhood. In fact, it would seem that every other person writes. I keep bumping into people who tell me, ‘Oh yes, I’ve written a novel.’

So, what’s the difference between one writer and the next?

Well, some writers are committed, and some are not. Some write every day, and until the sun goes down. Some have objectives, and some do not. Some prioritize their writing, and some drop tools to do other things… go out with friends, work late at the office, chat to people on social media. Yesterday they decided to write something, but today they’ve decided to go to a movie or to go out for a meal instead. You’ve got the idea. The writing isn’t going to happen.

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Meanwhile, you need to hear a few statistics. In the United States alone there are over 200 MFA writing programs (Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing). In 2016, more than 20,000 people applied to these programs. Every year these MFA courses produce 3,000 writing graduates. A few of these have some moderate successes. Many more go on to teach… usually on MFA programs.

In short, there’s a lot of competition out there. While you’re sitting around thinking that you might like to be a writer, and that you might start writing seriously tomorrow or the next day, you’ve actually already been left behind in the dust of others who are a whole lot faster and a whole lot more committed.

But, if you still want to be a writer, here are a few things you need to do:

  1. Give up your socializing.
  2. Decide what you want to write, and plan your writing projects.
  3. Commit to and prioritize your writing.
  4. Stop talking about what you’re going to write, and write.
  5. Read like a writer. In other words, read to learn.
  6. Keep writing until you’ve completed a first draft, however terrible that is.
  7. Rewrite and improve, using the ideas and insights gained from your reading.After that if you are still not making any progress, consider that writing may not be for you. Think about trying your hand at some other art form. How about painting?

The Write Stuff: short stories

In case you’re wondering if any good comes out of being part of a writers’ group… well, it does. This month sees the publication of The Write Stuff, a collection of stories by members of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. These are all writers who stuck with the group, read, listened, discussed, and wrote their socks off.

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Of the 14 whose work appears in the anthology, at least four are first-time authors who thought that the chance of ever getting published was either impossible or remote. But today, they are in print and on the path to future writing successes.

My formula for becoming a writer: read a lot, write a lot, re-write a lot, read some more. Don’t rush through books just to clock up numbers. You’re a writer, so read in order to learn how others write.

The Write Stuff is available now on amazon.com, on amazon.co.uk, and on Kindle.

 

Why you should stop exposing your clunky writing to the world

If you have the time, I strongly urge you to listen at least to the first half of this podcast from The Guardian newspaper of an interview with two traditionally published first-time authors.

What we learn, amongst other things, is how long it took these authors to write their books and the process they went through in the editing of them. One author spent three years on her book, the other seven years. One spent three months just doing a line edit of her novel, going painstakingly through the text with a ruler under each line, re-reading, correcting and adjusting. ‘Writers’ often hand me stories that they proudly tell me they finished just the night before… and, of course, it shows.

Another interesting piece of information from this podcast concerns the results of the last ALCS survey on author earnings in the UK. The average amount they earned was 11,000 GBP per year. This leads us to reflect on why we write and what we want from our writing. From talking to many would-be authors, I find that there is still a desire for and a belief in overnight success. Publication, they believe, will bring them the kind of glory and recognition that they are unlikely to find in other fields of work. What they do not put into the mix is that, for experienced critics and the discerning reader, the faults of their work will be on display for all to see. So, instead of showcasing their remarkable imagination and insights, they may well, through haste, and careless or the absence of editing, simply be demonstrating their ignorance and incompetence.

Everyone who can think can write, but not everyone who can write can produce work of quality. My advice for anyone publishing or hoping to publish traditionally or by self-publishing is 1) keep writing, 2) put in the work, 3) learn from your mistakes, 4) read books that have been professionally edited in order to learn, and 5) build your life around your writing, not your writing around your life.

Solitude and the writer

Why do writers need silence and solitude?

Surely writers can write anywhere – in public places and in cafés, for example? Why would they even need to go to workshops or on writers’ retreats? Why can’t writers lock out their family and write in a room at home? Why do they complain when people make a noise and ‘disturb’ them?

Does contrived solitude work? Do writers produce more when they are alone, or when they are surrounded by others?

Your inner creative voice

Writers need just enough silence and solitude to listen to their inner creative voice. We have many inner voices and the worst, of course, is the one that beats you up for the things you haven’t done and should do. We’ve been taught to kill that voice. We’ve been taught to talk back to it and sort it out. Remember that book by Shad Helmstetter, What to say when you talk to your self? But, when slaughtering the bad voice, we need to take care not to lose the creative one. It’s down there somewhere, and your life as a writer is so much more difficult if you can’t hear it.

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Turning down the external volume

You go out, you have fun, you surround yourself with friends, you discuss, you argue, you tell jokes. Do all of that on a regular basis and there is way too much external noise. You will never hear the voice that has come up with a memory, an idea, a what-if, the description of a character, or an opening line to some story you haven’t thought of yet. So, you need to turn down the external volume and listen out for what that voice is saying.

Abu Dhabi, home to our Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop, is not the best of places to be a writer. There is something for you to see and do every evening of the week: a film screening, an exhibition opening, a musical performance, a play, a comedy show, a guest speaker, a debate, a dinner with friends. And after each of those activities, you are obliged to post photos of the event on social media to show that you were there along with the rest of the in-crowd, the people who are in the places that are trending.

But what about your writing? You won’t be hearing your inner creative voice with all that going on.

Solutions

There are various solutions. Some are drastic.

  • You could stop going out and do what you originally committed to do – write. At a writers’ conference, author Terry Pratchett once gave a plenary address entitled, ‘Why are you listening to me when you should be at home writing?’
  • You could give up writing. You may need to acknowledge that you are not sufficiently committed to writing to give up your social life and spend the necessary time drafting and re-drafting your work.
  • You could go to a writers’ workshop and find enough temporary focus to hear that voice and write for thirty or forty minutes. This can definitely get you started, though it is not a permanent solution. Your workshop will provide you with input and support, and it will give you that brief period of head space that you need to get some new ideas down on paper. To be a successful writer, however, you need to be able to write independently of your writers’ workshop. Did Dickens go to a writers’ workshop? Did Hemingway?

SolitudeDo not delude yourself. If you can’t write on your own – and that means being able to turn down the external volume to hear what’s in your head – you won’t be able to write in that expensive writers’ retreat or in that romantic garret in Paris.

 Listen

So, train yourself to be silent. Limit your socializing. If your socializing is full-time and your writing is supposed to be full-time, one of those is not going to work. Decide which it is to be. Find a time of day to think and write when there are fewer distractions, and let that creative voice filter through. Listen to it and then quickly write down everything it says.

If you can do this, you will never be short of ideas and you will become your own support system.

Give me a cue #1

In our weekly meetings of The Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop, I give out a number of writing prompts that serve to stimulate the imagination and help the writers connect enough ideas to write a short piece during our session.

It may be that they write only a few lines inspired by the prompt, or that they come up with a piece of flash fiction, the initial draft of a short story, or even the premise for a novel. The important thing is just for them to let their minds loose around these cues and trust that a story or an idea will visit them. So, from the last workshop on Valentine’s Day, 14 February, 2018,  we have the following prompts:

Prompt 1 – First Love

The Italian writer Elena Ferrante is now writing a series of essays for The Guardian. The first of these is on the subject of First Love. As with all of these prompts, you’re advised to write your short piece first and then, out of interest, take a look at the source for that idea. Incidentally, Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym and, although the real writer has been unmasked, she still remains rather reclusive and inaccessible.

Ferrante

Prompt 2 – Dirty Money

Shooter Literary Magazine is inviting submissions for Issue #8, which should relate to the theme of Dirty Money. Check their website for further details. Submissions should be between 2,000 and 7,500 words.

ShooterLit Mag

 

Prompt 3 – The Accident

Watching men at work on the building site next to my house gave me the idea for this prompt. So, you might consider the lead up to an accident, the accident itself or the aftermath. On the other hand, think ‘out of the box’ about other kinds of accidents. Stretch your imagination.

Prompt 4 – There should be more than one word for ‘love.’

I ‘love’ this prompt. It leads us to consider the many kinds of love in our lives. The line comes from a British TV series called River, which is – on the surface – a crime drama but which, beneath the violent storyline, is actually a very moving love story. In the sixth and last episode of the first series, one of the characters quotes this line: ‘There should be more than one word for ‘love,’ and then goes on to list the many diverse manifestations of love.

Prompt 5 – A Nasty Taste

This prompt comes from the title of an article in The National newspaper. A celebrity restaurateur got less than brilliant reviews for the food served at his New York restaurant, hence the ‘Nasty Taste.’ In English, we also say that a bad experience has left us with A Nasty Taste, in our mouth, so the prompt can be interpreted in several different ways. I do in fact get a lot of my story ideas from newspapers. See if the same works for you.

What to write

When I give out prompts, workshop participants generally ask me two questions:

  • What should I write … a story, an essay … what?
  • How much should I write?

My response is, in effect, ‘I don’t know … because I can’t get inside your head. I can’t see what thoughts these prompts might trigger in your brain.’

Writing is about depending on your own inner thought processes. Too often would-be writers are still in thrall to their old childhood memories of the teachers who told them what to write and how much to write. Writers are proactive. It is important to remember that you won’t become a writer until you start to listen to what your own mind is telling you to write. Train yourself to listen to inner voices and to see both remembered and invented images. Can’t hear them? Can’t see them? Keep listening and keep looking. They will come.

Learning from other writers

A few days ago I mentioned Ben East’s excellent interview in The National with Fiona Mozley, the author of Elmet. Learning about another writer’s sources of inspiration is always helpful and enlightening. Here we learn that Mozley saw Elmet as a ‘Yorkshire western.’ She saw parallels between her story of a land dispute in England and the ‘traditional arc of a western.’ To identify this arc, she drew upon films such as Once Upon a Time in the West and Unforgiven.

Once upon a time in the West

These kinds of western battles and the showdowns go back through cinematic history to movies like High Noon, Shane and The Magnificent Seven, but also to films like The Seven Samurai.Seven SamuraiTheme

In our workshop, when discussing story ideas, I often ask participants. ‘What’s it about?’ Mozley answers this question in the article: ‘ the question of the individual versus society; how people battle the natural world and their landscape.’

We don’t really know what we are writing until we discover our themes. Do you know yours?

Making words count

Cinema or television, then, can be one source of inspiration. Another is, of course, other books. Mozley tells us she has drawn inspiration from southern American gothic literature and, in particular, the work of Cormac McCarthy, from books such as No Country for Old Men and The Road.

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Her close reading of McCarthy ties in – rather spookily – with what I had planned for our workshop this week. A few words of explanation about this directly from Mozley: ‘McCarthy made me think about every single sentence, how I needed to make every word count.”

Last week we discussed ‘overwriting’ and ‘redundancy,’ abundant examples of which we can find in our own first drafts. The purpose of re-writing is to remove what is not needed and ‘make every word count.’

So, when you lift your fingers from the keyboard and say, ‘It’s done!’ what happens next?