The last bastion of inequality seems to be the way in which time is divided up for writers. Men’s single-mindedness works well for them when they want to sit down and write. They settle to their laptop and block out the world and emerge when they’ve finished.
In my experience, women’s writing time is up for grabs by everybody. Dinner needs cooking? Laundry needs ironing? Kids need the computer for their homework? Mother wants you to fetch her prescription? Husband wants a delivery sorted out? No problem – we have a female writer around. She’ll do it, because her writing day is infinitely expendable.
Underlying all that, of course, is the assumption that her writing isn’t important and she’s probably not that good, anyway. The real problem comes when the writer in question is so brainwashed by this that she begins to believe it.
You have to believe in your own ability. Because there’ll be a queue forming, to tell you you’re no good. For heaven’s sake don’t join them.
And let someone else do the washing up.
In the past 15 years of reading for the Rayleigh & Rochford Talking Newspaper Lorraine Coverley has also written a column piece each month, many of which are collected together for the first time in this book.
Short, pithy pieces of fun covering a number of diverse subjects: taking a narrowboat through a tunnel without lights; the snow-covered Easter holiday in Yorkshire; the collie and The Stick; dragging a suitcase through Bank station; sea shanties in Claridges; ghost walks for small children; and how to survive football, Christingle services and malfunctioning smoke alarms – in fact, all the stuff that inspires Lorraine’s quirky sense of humour.
Some people write purely for their own benefit: it may entertain them; it may help them deal with emotional or psychological problems. For those people the act of writing is sufficient and nobody else has any right criticizing or judging them.
But for the writer who intends to publish the rules are very different: they have to be prepared to do an awful lot more and put up with an immense amount of criticism, negativity and rejection. By offering their work to others they are inviting the world, or a small part of it, to take pot-shots at them. And they will.
So step one in writing for others is to consider the framework on which everything else hangs – your canvas, if you will – the base structure, that is, the plotline and the characters. For the structure to remain sound and hold up everything else, it has to be broadly feasible. Not literally feasible: you can write about pixies or aliens or an alternative universe if you want, but it must be inherently workable. Your pixies must have proper depth of character, your universe has to have rules. They can be mad rules, or sensible rules, but it has to have them. And your characters must believe them.
For the rules to be believed by your readers, they have first to be believed in by you, so a good rule of thumb is to try imagining that you’re going to read out some of your story or book to someone else. If you think they might needs lots and lots and lots of explanations, if the whole thing starts to sound silly as you read it out, if your listeners are confused, you’ve probably got it wrong.
Back to that canvas and start again …
Available now on Amazon: the beginner’s guide to all things chicken-related, with a dash of daft humour in the mix. Which type(s) to buy, how to feed them, how to build a henhouse, what to do if they don’t seem well. Genuinely helpful, plus added silliness.
If a painter and decorator intended to paint your house, they’d look pretty foolish turning up clutching a ladder, but no paint, or brushes. Being a writer without the essential toolkit is just the same.
Too many people think writing is about slapping some words down into a laptop. If I had a pound for every time someone has uttered the immortal words, “I should just sit down and write a book” I’d have – about £10 – but it’s still bloody annoying. Keith Waterhouse once complained about people saying that, as though the sitting down bit is the important one.
So, once the aspiring writer HAS sat down, what is their toolkit? A laptop? A neat, lined pad? No.
Our toolkit is spelling, grammar, punctuation and syntax. Those old things …
Writers rely on them. We not only have to use them, we should respect them, study them, admire them. They are our tools and we should keep them clean and polished, ready for use at every turn. And if we don’t naturally have them, we must go out and get them. If we don’t, and if we assume instead that any deficiencies in them will be made up by everybody else, we are doomed to disappointment …
Writers need to read. Yes, I know, they also need to write, but reading is step one.
Reading does so much for writers. It inspires us; it teaches us; it develops our love of words; it sets us thinking. A writer who does not read is like an artist working with boxing gloves and a blindfold on. He might be able to splash some paint about, but it’s not going to be a picture.
Sometimes I pick up a book out of curiosity. Sometimes it’s because I already know the writer is good. Sometimes it’s simply to let my mind switch off a bit and have a break, but reading a book is never a waste of time (especially if it’s someone else reading one of mine!)
Some people will only read the current writers, the recommended reads that are all the rage at the moment, but that’s to miss out on some real gems. The classic writers, like Austen, Dickens, Thackeray and the rest, are always worth reading because of the way they expand our vocabulary. Writers like Lee Child or Ian Fleming show us how to write something terse and taut, with not a surplus word anywhere. Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Keith Waterhouse, Jasper Fforde and Rob Grant show us what comedy REALLY is, and Katherine Mansfield and M. R. James, without apparent effort, demonstrate how to write the perfect short story.
Having absorbed good writing we can apply the lessons to our own.
This anthology available from http://www.alfiedog.com includes ‘Harry’ by Lorraine Coverley: the tale of Caroline Duncan, recently widowed, whose telephone keeps ringing, but there’s never anybody there. Or is there? Even when she rips the plug out of the socket, the phone still rings. Who is it that needs to talk to her that badly?