Tag Archives: reading

Ideas – They Don’t Just Pop Into Your Head

I’d say the greatest challenge for a writer is quite a simple on actually. It’s not writing well, or getting published. Even at a push, I’d say it’s not about staying motivated either. It’s having lots of ideas.

When we think about writing, we have this notion that ideas are the one thing you can’t change. Either you have a good idea or you don’t, either you can think up of many ideas or you can’t. It’s a bit of a naive attitude though, because it relies on the fact that ideas for writing simply stroll into our heads, that we have sudden moments of creative genius that happen outside of our control. It’s sensationalist, and encouraged because of its appeal, but it doesn’t do much good in reality.

If a writer were to say the idea for their entire book just walked fully formed into their head, I’d tell them to stop being overly dramatic. What are ideas? They’re by no means so tidy or obedient even. When you pause to break it down, the idea for a work is more of a single one, a stub, a starting point. One idea might be something very simple, and as you think about it, you come up with more. Whenever I write, I start with a small idea in mind. It’s my goal for what I’m going to do. Then as I continue, I get more ideas the more I think. I don’t just sit there waiting for inspiration to hit me, I ask myself questions about the idea I’ve had. Sometimes I get answers. Sometimes I don’t. But it creates more ideas for you to play with, rather than struggling with just one.

In reality, a story is an amalgamation of many ideas. One idea starts the process off, but then others join it. Some contradict each other, and some turn the story away from your original idea. But as you ask yourself questions, you build up a single, cohesive story. It’s like building a rubber band ball. You start with the first one, and as you add more the ball takes shape, until all those rubber bands behave like a single ball, rather than a pile of them.

So, you can think creatively by asking yourself questions. That’s a start, but it’s still limited in boosting your imagination. I’m not going to launch into a long paragraph about reading other books, because that’s a stock response. I’d say, read a selection of books. Ones that interest you, ones that you know nothing about. Even ones you think you won’t like. Don’t stop with contemporary fiction, but go back in time. Have a dig. Don’t limit yourself to fiction, but look at non-fiction. History is a very good place to come up with ideas, as you ask “what if” questions as you read. What if Rome didn’t fall? You can have some fun with that. Even then, I’d encourage brave writers to read philosophy. Stories will give you ideas for events, and philosophy will give you understanding of different modes of thought, which means, better characterisation.

Life experience is a great asset too. You know how looking back at your past work is almost always something that makes you cringe? That’s greater experience talking. How can you make your work better? By going out and living. Gain experiences, don’t just slave away at the keyboard. You can draw inspiration from the experiences you’ve had yourself, and the great thing about this is that it is free, and it’s going on all the time. If you can travel, then do, but if you can’t try to experience other cultures. Books, encyclopaedias, TV, these will all give you experience.

Ideas aren’t just a solitary affair. Have willing volunteers read your work. Discuss ideas. It’s always good to have friends that are writers for this purpose, and even better if you have a mentor. So in short, there are things you can do to have more ideas. It isn’t just about creativity on its own, because it is extremely hard to pull something from nothing, even if it is in your head. Experimentation is key, and you must not limit yourself by sticking to only what you like.

My question is how do you come up with ideas? Do you struggle, or do you have too many?

Responding To Criticism

Oh, this is one of the ‘fun’ bits of writing that should come with a warning. How do you deal with criticism?

Firstly to use an apt clichĂ©, writing is a school of hard knocks. It’s true. You’ve written something, you’re sure you’ve perfected it, and then some person comes and insensitively points out all the things you’ve done wrong. It’s not nice, and there is no softening it. The first time you receive criticism like this, you might cry. You’re very likely to discount it, to push it out of your mind.

So how do you cope with it? We all know that criticism is ultimately good for us as it helps us improve in the long-term, but that doesn’t make you feel any better at the time.

I think the first thing to set straight is your mental attitude. Realise that the reason criticism affects you so is because you care about what you do. You take pride in it, and you’ve worked hard. You haven’t produced some half-baked attempt and tried to wing it. Once you’ve seen the feedback, don’t dwell on it. Try to take your mind off it, go and unwind. It never helps to undertake something when you’re upset. So recognise how you are feeling and don’t do anything until your emotions are in check. Only then will you be able to respond positively and logically.

When reading through criticism, you need to determine what stance the person has taken. Is it feedback, or is it criticism? I was misleading you with the last sentence, because feedback and criticism are the same thing, except we interpret criticism as negative.

Feedback, criticism or critique should mean to you anything that is measured, positive or constructive. It might point out your mistakes, but it should do so in a way that is not a personal attack on you, or treats your work in a derogatory fashion. It should give advice and point out flaws, but don’t mistake honesty as an attack on you. It never helps to read sugar-coated feedback, and sometimes things just have to be said as they are.

But what about the negative, the feedback that clearly is written with no intention to help you? I’ve got a word for that. Rubbish. You laugh, and you leave it. Why? Sometimes it’s clear that the person has no idea what they’re talking about. Other times, it’s blindingly obvious that they’re just trying to hurt and insult you. It’s perfectly legitimate to write some people off – don’t feel obliged to take into consideration everything everyone says.

Now, what do you do with the feedback that you haven’t thrown in the bin? Read it carefully, read it slowly. Be logical and objective. Remember, if this person has taken time to point out the problems in your writing, they want to help you. But what if they aren’t using the critique sandwich? Start with the good points, then move into the problems, and then finish with what was liked. What if it’s just all about the problems?

Well, I’m that type of critic. It’s not because I want to belittle the writer, make them feel bad, imply that there is nothing they did well or even try to impose my own authority upon them. It’s simply because when I read critically, I spend my time writing on what can be done better, not what is already done well. If you’re strapped for time, you probably will do this.

This is a small tangent, but it’s something I think both writers and critics should understand. Sometimes  when you’re giving feedback, you just don’t have anything negative to say. Stop the presses, that’s something a good critic should never do right? Wrong. There is no shame in standing up and saying to someone “you know I’m sitting here reading through your work and I can’t find anything wrong“. In fact, I was asked to beta-read a story for a friend this summer, and while I had a slight pick at the first chapter, I’m waiting until he is online again before I tell him that he doesn’t need me to critique it. It’s good. It doesn’t make you a bad critic. It doesn’t mean you weren’t being critical enough. I believe it makes you more legitimate in your feedback by saying this, instead of proceeding to talk about non-existent problems.

Let’s get back to the main point then. How do you cope with feedback? To summarise, you leave it, you get yourself in order. You then read it carefully. You decide whether the feedback is legitimate or not. Then you act on it.

You should never, never, respond to feedback when you first receive it. You’ll be emotional, you won’t think straight. You’ll misinterpret, and you could go to the nuclear option. That is, you could delete your entire work and say you’ll start again.

Never delete anything you write – that is the cardinal sin as far as I’m concerned. You have the ability to re-draft as many times as you want. So don’t got and delete your work – because all you’re doing is reinforcing negative emotions about your writing and destroying any progress you’ve made.

Deleting an re-writing is not progress. It is not re-drafting. It is undoing the progress you’ve made. It is quite literally, trying to write something perfect from scratch. I need not tell you how silly that is.

It Belongs In A Museum, Not A Bin – The Problem With Literary Canon

It’s no lie. I would without hesitation throw away many literary classics for being dull, contrived and boring. I can imagine that will upset some people reading this, but I have reasoning.

For instance, let’s ask why some books are ‘classics’ in the first place, and not others. With all artistic endeavour, it is impossible to give a concise measurement of a book, and thus you cannot say what criteria makes something a classic. Like all works of art, they only gain status when people are willing to go out and say why they think such a piece is a classic.

But there’s a problem I think we as readers, and certainly as writers, have a duty to address. As far as I’m concerned, ‘literature’ is a stagnant entity. Stuck in a time-warp more likely. Our definition of literature that belongs in the cannon seems to be stuck around the necessity that it must either be old, or deal with deep spiritual and philosophical points. Of course, any selective criteria creates a picture that does not represent the whole. As such, the canon does not represent the entire summary of writing out there. I wouldn’t even say it’s the best. I think we can all list a few literary classics that we’d never want to touch again.

Literature has lost something in becoming so conceited. It has lost its primary function, the thing that made all writers start in the first place. That is telling a good story. Sadly, along the way, storytelling became sidelined, cast into the realm of sensationalist fiction, and therefore not literary. Hence, anything that is popular cannot be literary. Why do we not see science fiction or fantasy included in the canon? We know the answer.

This is what I think must change in order for literature to maintain its credibility. It must not linger in the past alone, but actively engage with present works, rather than exclude them because the author isn’t dead, or because it’s set in a fantasy world.

In light of this, what would you put in your own literary canon? What would you champion, and what would you leave out? Would you put Shakespeare in the bin, or would you keep things as they are?

Writing with Meaning

From experience, it seems as writers we inherently aim to write with meaning in our works. We want to portray some message that is important to us, or highlight something wrong or unjust in society in the hope that when the text is read, it might change minds for the better. The idea that literature is something that should educate is a very old idea, yet, it’s also something that comes naturally to us that it feel new and innovative. Aristotle comes up with the idea in his Poetics that people learn by imitation, and that tragedy through catharsis (a word we struggle to define exactly, but it seems to mean a sort of purging of negative feeling) in art can serve a function to better society. Personally, I then fast-forward a bit to Philip Sidney, who in An Apology for Poetry outlined that art is wonderful because it can educate as writers have the freedom to condemn vice and praise virtue. Meanwhile, history rarely sees such judgement because it’s a record of what’s happened and that alone.

The thing is though, literature can become too caught up in trying to have a message that it suffers for it. I’ve read plenty of works from writers all at various points in their careers, and this is one of the points that they’ve all shared. When a story is too focussed on its message, the power of the message gets lost. I find myself rolling my eyes, sighing as another moralistic point comes through in a very transparent, or explicit scene. This is the problem with giving your writing an explicit meaning. You end up alienating your readers not because they’re hostile to your message, but because they’re fed up of having it raised in not so subtle ways, or far too often.

The reason I find myself groaning is that the message is repeated far too often. Rather than being the climax of the story, it is prevalent throughout the book, and as such doesn’t allow any progression, or even any moment of catharsis. No sooner do you feel things have moved on, then you you find that you’re back dealing with the same underlying issues in another recycled scene. At the end of the day, if the novel is to point out a fault, we don’t want our faces rubbed in it continually. Better to have that one single moment where the message is powerfully conveyed than to have it continually recur. That’s the difference between a moment of shock in literature and getting hammered with it.

However, I think messages in literature are just becoming irrelevant now to us. I’d like to say that from the people I’ve encountered so far in life, the majority of us navigate with a good moral compass, and we’re aware and take action upon injustices and faults in society. We don’t really need to be instructed, and especially as adult readers. Frankly, if the basic morals that make us decent human beings aren’t in place by adulthood, then what good is reading a book going to do? That ship sailed a long time ago. More importantly, the emphasis on literature has, and always will be not on moralising or instructing as Philip Sidney imagined it, but in providing a good story. As Francis Bacon correctly identified, we loves lies (art) for “a corrupt love of the lie itself.”

Morals and messages can the cornerstone of a work, but they never should dominate the work. A story is always a complex interplay of many elements, and a message is only one of them. It is always best to have your written agenda in a book to be one that is very well hidden, that a more discerning reader might pick up on, but other readers who aren’t interested in close reading will gloss over. That, and it is also fundamental to make the reader feel that they came to discover that message in the work, rather than have you force it upon them. It leaves a much more powerful impression when you are the one to conclude something, rather than be told it. That’s my personal opinion and how I prefer to write, but I have one final question to pose on the subject.

Since we’re living in the Postmodernist age, we’re increasingly being confronted with pieces of literature that either have no meaning, no single meaning but multiple competing meanings or actually even resist our attempts to give them meaning. How are we able to create and divine meaning when faced with challenges of interpretation like this? The joys of living in a de-centred universe where all language is arbitrary and meaning is only generated in texts but networks of difference and context. Saussure really did open Pandora’s Box (I consider him to be the basis from which Post-structuralism and Post-modernism come from).

But let’s not worry, because even with problems of truth and language, we can find refuge in our own personal truth. Explaining ideas is an act of translation that involves the risk your idea won’t be understood as you understand it, so what you’ve decided yourself is the (relatively) safest option. As with most things in life, the solution is one of moderation. Write with a message in mind, but not exclusively for that message.

Please, share your thoughts about giving your own writing “meaning” in the comments below. How important do you think it is? Do you prefer to find your own meaning or be told one?

– As a note, I’ll explain why I keep referring to the likes of Foucault, Saussure and Aristotle in my posts. To be brief, they came up with ideas that shaped the way we write, read, and interpret literature, and as such it makes sense to understand their ideas so that we may further build our own.