How To Be A Great Writer

One of the few downsides of running a blog through WordPress is that I’m part of a huge community of fellow writers and, having accidentally signed up to a newsletter service or two, I’m perpetually bombarded with other people’s updates. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – some of these guys are pretty good writers – but there’s an unfortunate side-effect of having people read your words. Knowing you’re being read is a heady experience, and one’s head naturally expands to fit the role. Egos, stroked to fever pitch by readership, develop to terrifying sizes, and that leads to a most distressing action:
Soapboxing is a phenomenon that appears in many forms. Here’s a classic example, lifted in its entirety from Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (and a little from my own time in the restaurant trade). A doctor or a dentist (or any kind of professional not involved in catering, really) who’s pretty successful and wealthy gets it into his head that he can cook. Maybe he can, or maybe his friends are obsequious flatterers. Maybe he hosts lavish dinner parties and the wine he supplies makes everything seem that much more magical. Anyway, his friends tell him that, since he’s such a good cook, he should open a restaurant! It can be his nest-egg. His retirement fund. Catering is easy money – I mean, how hard can it be! You make food and people eat it. What could be simpler?
Our professional takes this to heart and gets things moving. He’s always wanted to be Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Property is rented. Fridges are stocked. Chefs are hired. Liquor licenses are acquired. Supply chains develop. Menus are crafted, business cards are handed out, a name is chosen. A clientèle is established. And the whole thing tanks. The restaurant trade is a cruel mistress, unsuited to anyone who doesn’t know it from the ground up. Pretty soon, bizarre meals-of-the-day are being developed, a house band is brought in, and the stench of death starts to hang around the enterprise. Eventually, the business closes and the kitchen equipment is parted out to other budding restaurants. Whose fault is it? Not the well-meaning friends, who only wanted to cadge a few free meals. Not the customers, who only wanted somewhere to eat. It’s the fault of the professional: a man who, having mastered one field, believed himself to be invincible.
That’s soapboxing: developing a little skill and immediately peacocking into an ego of disastrous proportions. We do it all the time. There’s an excellent psychology paper by Dunning and Krueger called Unskilled and Unaware Of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. It’s essential reading, I assure you, because it lays out in clear terms how a very little knowledge is a dangerous thing. People – and that’s all of us, including you and I – are quite appallingly bad at judging how good we are. At anything. This is the reason that everybody thinks they’d make a great leader. This is the reason everybody thinks they have above-average intelligence. It’s the reason self-assessed psychological tests, like the Myers-Brigg, is about as accurate (and as subtle) as throwing a grenade at a dartboard and claiming victory. You can look yourself in the mirror and come to absolutely any conclusion you like. Psychologically we are utter failures at determining our competence. This is why you should beware politicians – as Douglas Adams once pointed out, the sort of person who believes he’d make a good leader, thinks he should become President and then sets about doing exactly that is exactly the sort of person who shouldn’t be let anywhere near a position of power. The people who should become world leaders are shy, retiring and modest.
Among writers, soapboxing is rampant. Having got a novel or two under their belts, they believe they have the inside track. They know how these things are done, right? I mean they’ve written something. That’s an achievement. It takes more than your average Schmoe to crap out a novel. It requires wisdom to write a book. So your writer gets himself a blog for a soapbox and starts haranguing the crowd. I can teach you how to write!
"Please, validate my childhood!"

“Please, validate my childhood!”

Now, I’m of the opinion that great writers do one of two things: they die, like Jack Kerouac, Charles Baudelaire, or Ludwig Wittgenstein, or they go into hiding, like J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. There might be a couple of exceptions here and there.
Okay, so it’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but great writers tend to be shy or iconoclastic. They tend to shun the limelight and let their works do the talking. I mean, the greatest English writer was Shakespeare and we don’t even have an accurate portrait of him. Nobody even knows who wrote the bible.
Points off for saying "God". Or "Shakespeare".

Points off for saying “God”. Or “Shakespeare”.

Of course it would be unfair to say that writers scrambling for attention are hacks, so I won’t. I’ll just think it really really loudly. That’s my opinion and you’re free to disagree with it. The fact remains that there exists a huge, self-perpetuating industry of writers telling other writers how to write. There are blog posts called “Sixty Second Writing Tips!” or “Secrets Of The Trade!”. They’re everywhere, spewing out exactly the sort of drivel that perpetuates the idea that
a) writing is a teachable skill, and
b) for the low, low price of $49.99, you too can become an author! Subscribe to my newsletter, please!
I have two problems with this. The first is obvious: telling people how to do something you’ve only just mastered yourself makes a div of the worst kind. In fact, it makes you a consultant, and consultants infest every level of our society and are actively retarding the progress of the human race. If you want to teach, become a teacher. That’s what we pay them for. It’s worth pointing out that, if you’re a writer and at least a little honest with yourself, you don’t really want more writers. There are millions. Competition for book deals has never been higher in an industry already saturated with people writing vampire fiction, books about plucky tween magicians and erotica that’s only slightly sexier than having your nethers stapled to a football and kicked off a ferry. We don’t want more writers! There’s too many of you bastards already!
The second is a more general rule, and it’s one lifted from William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade:
It’s a rule that Goldman applied to writing for Hollywood, but it works as a general rule for life. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my painful transition to adulthood, it’s that adults are children pretending to be wise. Nobody really knows how anything gets done – we’re born believing that parents are the all-seeing masters of their destiny, and as we grow up we realise that the world is a big mess ruled by immense forces over which we have little control. If you need proof, think of the wisest person you know and how close they come to disaster every single day of their lives. How many of the world’s great discoveries start as accidents in the lab? How many children are brought into the world by chance? How many careers start entirely by accident?
Writing is the ultimate non-career. It starts when damaged, repressed people discover that the best outlet for their creativity comes from splurging words into the void. It’s a career that offers, for most of us, neither praise or prestige. The daily grind can take a horrific toll, or it can be dismayingly easy. A while back I wrote knowingly about my average day as a writer. That daily routine somehow evolved into a couple of books, a TV series and a play. The point I’m making is that nobody knows how books get written. Nobody has a clue. They just don’t exist one minute, and then they do. There’s no clear path in the development of a book. Some writers will tell you that you need to write a couple of thousand words, bad or good, a day. Some will tell you to take long walks. Some will tell you to quit drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and slugging whiskey, to embrace a healthy lifestyle. Some will tell you to record your dreams. Some will tell you to shun sleep and just work.
Nobody knows anything. The biggest-selling trilogy of last year was written by a talentless purveyor of Twilight fan fiction. The biggest-selling children’s book series of all time rips off Tolkein, Neil Gaiman and Enid Blyton and was written in a cafe full of elephant statues. The most widely-translated book in the world is about a magic man in the sky who can’t quite decide what he wants from you. Nobody knows what will be popular, what will be optioned for movies or what will overturn the whole of society and usher in a thousand years of war and strife. William Golding wrote Lord of the Flies in middle age, Bret Easton Ellis’ first novel was published when he was 21. Hemingway, greatest writer of the 20th Century, shot himself in the head. The worst book ever written, Joyce’s Ulysses, is regarded as a masterpiece by everybody for reasons that defy explanation.
Which brings me to my central point: nobody can tell you how to write. Nobody has any creative influence on you. If you’re the sort of person who needs to be told how to write a book, you lack the central skills necessary to write. I’m sorry. You’ll probably make a great lawyer or a doctor – we need plenty of both. But if somebody has to walk you through the stages of writing anything, other than to give you a couple of layout tips, you’re kind of already up a creek. You won’t make much of a writer. You can always plump for the next best thing: journalist. After that the drop-off is pretty steep. A speech-writer or a lecturer, maybe. Or…you could always tell other people how to write a book. Soapboxing is easy.
Writers are by nature, like most artists, solitary, passionate and misanthropic. They’re the kids who played on their own at school because nobody could penetrate the world they were creating for themselves. They build mythologies where things are as they want them to be. That’s a skill that can’t be taught. Nobody can impart imagination to you. They can’t make you a better writer than you would have been. Sure, there are teachable skills; spelling, grammar, and vocabulary, but these have less to do with writing than they do with tools of the trade. Learning engineering doesn’t make you Isambard Kingdom Brunel, nor does learning programming make you Bill Gates. Being these people requires vision, and that can’t be taught. Soapboxing writing is an oxymoron: it’s imposing guidelines on the most organic of processes. You might as well tell the wind which way to blow. Writers soapboxing are acting like Canutes…or at least something that sounds like Canute.
My advice for prospective writers (and it’s advice that you should ignore, if that’s not paradoxical) is to stop taking advice. Nobody knows any more than you do. If you’ve got vision and talent it will reveal itself. You don’t need to write 2000 words a day or join in that NaNoWriMo farce. If you’ve got talent it will appear. One day you’ll just write something. It will happen if you want it to. It might be terrible, it might be ignored by all and sundry, or it might be mocked relentlessly, but it will be yours and yours alone.
Which leaves us here: me, an unskilled idiot, telling other unskilled idiots how not to be unskilled idiots.
Soapboxing the soapboxers, as it happens.

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