The Best Writing Advice I Ever Received…
The best piece of advice I ever received as an author was: You have the power to change it. I’m going back a few years now, but it made me realize the words I’d sweated over, though possibly written in blood, weren’t cast in stone. I could reel him in and redirect the hero if he was on the wrong journey, cut a character completely without feeling I’d committed murder. Get rid of clunky dialogue and superfluous narrative. I could change the whole plot if I wanted to. The words were mine. Still, a publisher might not want to publish them, but I woke up to the fact that the tome I’d created wasn’t precious.
It also drove me to examine other areas of my life where fear might be holding me back. I’m talking the sort of paralyzing fear arachnaphobics might feel when confronted with their worst nightmare. Yes, that’s me. I am that petrified person perched on the back of the sofa, screaming, “Are you insane?” while some well-meaning individual tries to assure me that the spider is more scared than I am. It was bad. So bad I fell over the stair rail and sprained my wrist while scrambling away from one. Eventually, I even rented out my house rather than share it with my enormous hairy lodgers. To be fair to myself, I was a single parent going through some traumatic life events at the time, including a recent bereavement, so I was possibly emotionally fragile, but… renting out my house? Really? It was unacceptable behavior, I realized. Time I did something about it.
You have the power to change it, I intoned silently, as I tried not to flee the cognitive therapist’s waiting room a week later. “If you bring one near me, I will jump out of the window,” I warned her, once I’d summoned up the courage to go into her office. We were four floors up. I was also scared of heights. I’d never been more serious in my life.
So, did it work? Or did I end up flattening an unsuspecting passerby? If I tell you that by the end of the session I was terrified—that the leggiest house spider I’ve ever seen might fall off the back of my hand and break her bones, you can draw your own conclusions. Apparently, instead of internal bones, spiders have exoskeletons, which they shed and regrow as they age, which is why, to some of us, they appear so ugly. They’re actually very delicate creatures with poor eyesight. Well, my heart just went out to her. More so, when after desensitizing by repeating over all the many scary words associated with my phobia—scurrying, hunched legs, running—which triggered a visual and therefore the debilitating emotions associated with it, I was told not just to picture her trying to get back to her babies across a vast space and the monster that is me, but wearing a pink wellington boot on each leg as she did so. Now, imagine her losing a welly. She limps on, annoyed with herself for pandering to fashion, desperate to get back to her babies now, kicking them off, and struggling. You can see how my protective gene kicked in. Perhaps, also, why I was mortified to find my partner had recently removed my newly acquired eight-legged pet from my bathroom. He lived under the sink (the spider, not my partner, and he was definitely male because I called him Boris) and I was bereft to find him one day just gone. Full of remorse, my partner has been given a leave of stay, for the moment.
With my courage bolstered, I went on to face another fear head on and throw myself out of a plane.
I’m the small one in green, by the way.
You can see how that mantra really did psyche me up to change things. At least those things it was within my power to change.
This same mantra served me well when it came to terror-inducing edits when I was finally published, particularly huge structural edits that often entail a rewrite. Agents or publishers, I realized, aren’t just arbitrarily making changes to my masterpiece because they’ve got nothing better to do. They want to sell the book. By this stage, they will at least think it will fit the market and they’ve taken you on. They have faith in you. You’ve got this far, despite a daunting journey littered with potholes.
The road to publication, as many authors will confirm, can be a very bumpy one, often paved with rejection, and you feel the fear of that every time you submit. If you are a writer, though, determination is your byword. If you do disappear down a pothole, you claw your way out, dust yourself off, and push on. The key to reaching your destination, I think, is to learn from your journey. If you do write with a view to being published, please don’t take a leaf out of my book and throw yourself out of a plane, but I urge you to perhaps take a leaf out of other authors’ books. In my humble view, the most important writers’ tool of all is reading. As the hugely talented Stephen King advises in On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” He goes on to say he reads because he likes to read, but also says, “Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons…” In my mind, he is so right. Other authors can do so much more than teach you how to weave a story. They can inspire you.