Writing is hard, not complicated. You don’t need books, tutors, degrees, any of that. Writing is, at heart, your responsibility – a solo project. You’ll need friends and wise advisors, but the work is yours, as is the triumph, the enjoyment, the slog.
Your job is to transmit what you have to say, serve it and in doing so serve the reader. Your voice is like no other. Your responsibility and pleasure are to make it more deeply itself, more intensely expressive, more useful.
Writing follows rules you already know, those of telling stories in life: don’t be boring, don’t be directionless, don’t be vague, don’t make unconvincing people, don’t show off, don’t be cheap. Be true to yourself and the nature of your piece.
The stories we tell people off the page have urgency provided by real issues, real themes, real human nature, real narrative. Those stories make us tell them. Okay, sometimes we have, say, a great shark story and only produce it, because someone else is rocking the room with their terrific shark story. But, narcissists or not, we need our story to exist as a functional narrative before we tell it, or the room will leave us.
We can only write stories we know. How do we tell a story that we’re building from the first impulse up? We plan, we research, we ask and ask and ask. We question every idea and then question every answer until the story feels like something we’ve already heard and the people in it feel like people we’ve already met. That’s when we start writing – when we know.
We may feel afraid to ask questions in case we only get silence back – actually questions train our minds to help us.
Make it up as you write? Won’t work. Rewrite when you still don’t know what you want to say? Won’t work. Steal people from real life? You’ll lose friends and never learn how to build character from scratch and create an organic whole. Great Authors baffle you so obscurity must be a good thing? No. You just didn’t understand the Great Authors. Even your mystery must be communicative. Obscuring what would aid your reader is like calling for help with your own hand over your mouth. Why would you?
Wait. Plan. Ask questions of your plot, your themes, the characters you are forming. Wait until you are part of the story and vice versa. Wait until you have to tell your story, because it makes you. Then follow those rules you already know and do your best. Your best is your best teacher – it lets you grow. Your reader could be thinking about anything. You have to be better than their best thought – if not, you’re insulting them.
Aim high. Aim to change a reader’s life, sustain and delight them. The writing will sustain and delight you, you will never stop learning and you will know how to make good work. Good work gives you skills and dignity.
This is the first in a new series of ‘How To...’ guides for writers, written in 2018/19 by A. L. Kennedy.
A.L.Kennedy was born in Dundee in 1965. She is the author of 17 books: 6 literary novels, 1 science fiction novel, 7 short story collections and 3 works of non-fiction. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She was twice included in the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list.
Her prose is published in a number of languages. She has won awards including the 2007 Costa Book Award and the Austrian State Prize for International Literature. She is also a dramatist for the stage, radio, TV and film. She is an essayist and regularly reads her work on BBC radio. She occasionally writes and performs one-person shows. She writes for a number of UK and overseas publications and for The Guardian Online.