The hype cycle (aka. the process)

Hello. It’s 2019. Is it passe to say Happy New Year?

It’s been radio silence here for the past four weeks because…drum roll…I’ve been writing! As in actual words and sentences and paragraphs and scenes and things that could possibly even be called CHAPTERS. Every time I manage to get words on a page it really does feel miraculous.

Today I was listening to the latest episode of the podcast Zig Zag. It’s about The Hype Cycle which is a graph created by tech analyst Jackie Fenn a quarter century ago. This graph was meant to describe new technology (ie. bitcoin, Twitter, push notifications) but it’s been borrowed by other fields and its basics are a helpful way to think of the writing process.

Image via Gartner

Image via Gartner

The Hype Cycle has five phases:

1. initial spark of innovation
2. peak of expectation
3. trough of disillusionment
4. slope of enlightenment
5. plateau of productivity

Every story begins with the first idea. It might not even be a very big idea but that match gets lit and it sets off a bonfire and you get so jazzed about writing this amazing thing.

That sets off phase two which is when you’re deep in the writing zone, churning out pages and pages and completely engaged with your project. It’s such a happy time, possibly the happiest time! At some point though you tumble into phase three, the pit of hell and despair. I have been thinking about the trough of disillusionment a lot because I know it is looming on my horizon but also because I’ve been evaluating manuscripts for other writers this month and I am always conscious of the need to balance critique and praise. My job is to question areas where I feel the draft is weak and offer suggestions for possible improvements. The risk is - especially with writers who I don’t know well or at all - that my comments will throw them into the trough and they won’t try to climb out.

Here’s the thing: the trough is a necessary part of the process. It’s like driving through the isthmus between St. John’s and Terra Nova National Park. Sometimes that damn isthmus is a death trap and the fog is low and there’s a horrible blizzard and you’re driving with zero visibility. But there’s literally no other way to get to the Park. You just have to white knuckle through it. The trough is the same. There’s no way to get to a better draft without seeing the flaws and feeling bad about them.

The trick is to keep calm and carry on. Don’t give up. And don’t deceive yourself into thinking the flaws aren’t there. Accept the flaws. Start trying to fix them. That’s phase four, the gradual work of revision and correction. And onward to the plateau of productivity. That initial hopeful burst doesn’t really come back. For one thing, after some time, the idea is no longer novel. But what you get instead in these last two stages is gradual improvement. Little by little. Until the end.

Sometimes you have to cycle through phases two and three several times while working on a single project. Dr. Math and I have this running joke in our house. He comes home from a day of research and I ask: “How was it?” If it’s been a good day he says: “I solved this lemma. I’m a genius!” But inevitably, the following day he’ll come home with a hang dog, downtrodden expression and tell me the breakthrough he made yesterday ended up only being a partial solution. Or he’s now discovered some other loose thread. Scientific research and fiction writing, if plotted on graphs would look much like the same rollercoaster. See the ride through to the end. That’s what I’m saying.

The 99 per cent

Or: why talent is overrated. 

Sometimes we talk about stories like this: the story is an entity with its own consciousness. The story arrives, via a muse. The story reveals itself as it is being written. Writers are mere scribes.

This airy-fairy, woo-woo, magical thinking is a whole lot of nonsense. Writing isn't magic. It's good old-fashioned hard work. It is sitting your butt in the chair every single day and forcing yourself to do the work. Because trust me about this, if you don’t keep the pump primed, it will not yield a drop.

Sure, there are moments that feel sublime but the movie montage of how a book is made would look really mundane. Writing is a nose stuck in a refugee law text book. It is hours trawling the internet for photos of jail cells and then more hours trying to find the correct combination of words to evoke said jail cells. It is reading over something you thought was insightful and poetic the day before only to discover it has morphed into toxic waste. It is revising a chapter for the tenth time. It is writing the same sentence five different ways and then reading each option out loud. It is chucking months of work and going back to square one. It is persistence and effort with a healthy dose of self-hatred. And most of the time it is also working despite deep uncertainty. Not knowing if the story is any good. Or else, knowing it is not good but hoping it might eventually get better.

Where the work  happens

Sometimes, because we are often asked and it is difficult to properly describe how stories are invented, we writers revert to supernatural explanations. Harry Potter famously appeared to JK Rowling in a train car. I believe this anecdote because that is how many of my characters have rocked up too. I’ll be tossing and turning with insomnia when a little girl appears out of thin air.

This is called inspiration (1%). Then comes the perspiration (99%). Now I have to make decisions. What’s this little girl’s name, age, and future vocation? Is she introverted or extroverted, a pessimist or optimist? Decisions mean constraints and constraints are important because good writing is precise. You can’t be specific when you are writing about a character if you haven’t nailed down the details. But then the real questions are: What does this character want more than anything? Who far will she go to get it? And for that, I free write pages and pages and pages, most of which will never leave my notebook. From all this random riffing emerges a picture of who the character is and from there the plot evolves.

It does everyone a disservice to suggest there’s a fairy who selectively whispers sweet nothings into the ears of a chosen few. Talent is real and it sure is helpful but it’s highly overrated and not the key ingredient. If you want to be a writer, write. Do the work. I repeat: talent is not necessary. Work is necessary. That’s the 99%.

Required reading

Recently, while chatting with a couple of fellow writers, I was reminded once again about a gaping hole in my education: Bird by Bird by Anne Lammot, which every self respecting creative swears by.  (Note to self: read that book!)

In my study, a corner of shelf space is devoted to these types of how-to manuals, books I read with a red pen and highlighter in hand. These are my life savers, the guides I return to whenever I'm floundering.

Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway - the closest thing to a creative writing text book you can get and fully worth the price tag.

From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler - immensely helpful when I was first starting to work on The Boat People. Butler advocates a system of imagining individual scenes, jotting them down on cue cards, then once you have sufficient cards, organizing them into an outline. And then putting pen to paper to write a first draft. I fell down on the outline part but being able to take each scene as they came, one at a time, really made the prospect of writing a first draft less overwhelming.

Aspects of the Novel by EM Forster - short and sweet, illuminating for readers as well as writers.

How Fiction Works by James Wood - teaches you how to take apart literature as you would a clock so you can understand what works, what doesn't, and most importantly why. Wood taught me how to read like a writer, critically and carefully.

 

Advice from other writers

Glimmer Train - long time home of incredible, award-winning short fiction...have you all submitted work to them? you really should - has a couple of instructive essays on their website at the moment.

First up, British author Rowena Macdonald's tips for writing dialogue. My favourites are: 2. Don't dump too much information in dialogue. In real life, we don't always helpfully explain what's going on AND 7. Don't be afraid to let conversations hang unresolved in mid-air and move onto another scene.

MFA director Josh Henkin explores the link between plot and character. Plot, he argues, is discovered by interrogating character: "My graduate students often tell me they have trouble with plot, but what they're really telling me is they have trouble with character. I remind my students to ask themselves a hundred questions about their characters. Better yet, they should ask themselves a thousand questions, because in the answers to those questions lie the seeds of a narrative." This is a truth I know and yet somehow often forget. When you're stuck on something, go back to character.

 

 

The voices in your head

Characters come into their own when I first hear them speak. And that's how I primarily write dialogue - it bubbles up from the unconscious part of my brain that is always at work. I may be crap at finding endings but putting words in characters' mouths has always felt natural.

But like any other part of the craft, there is some element of science here too. Here are some technical suggestions:

1. Don't rely too heavily on dialogue to carry plot or develop character.

2. Less is more. Three lines of dialogue? Odds are you need only one. Remember: what is left unsaid is often more powerful than what is said.

3. Dialogue gets good when it isn't straight forward. When characters lie or hold back or speak at cross purposes. This is how you bake in irony, double meanings, and conflict, thereby making the scene more layered and interesting.

Fiction has to seem realistic without actually being realistic.

4. Don't underestimate the power of indirect speech. It proceeds at a swifter pace - helpful if your characters have a lot of talking to do - and is easier to nail than direct dialogue.

5. Dialogue should multi-task. If dialogue reveals character and ratchets up tension, if it propels the plot forward and makes you laugh, then it's all much more interesting.

6. Read the work of other writers and see how they go about it.

7. Listen closely to how real people speak. Listen to rhythm and cadence, how thoughts are phrased, the way people of different ages and backgrounds sound. Pay enough attention and you'll develop an ear for dialogue and an instinct for crafting it. Also, you can straight up just steal things you overheard friends and strangers saying.

8. Which is not to say that your characters should speak the way real people do. For one thing, we talk way too much in real life. Fiction has to seem realistic without actually being realistic. Allow a sentence to stand in for a monologue. Sure, in the first draft, write all the pauses and ums and uhs and verbal ticks and quirks of accent into a character's speech. But then later, when you're revising, delete, delete, delete and just leave a few things behind, a little bit of seasoning to give the reader a taste.

 

 

 

This moment

On Saturday night, as I was about to embark on the evening's festivities, I saw a pithy cartoon that summed my year up. But dumpster fire or not, 2016 is over and the page has freshly turned on this new year.

In 2017 my resolution is to live in the moment. This moment. This one right now. We have a joke in my family that the main topic of conversation at every meal is the next one (what will we eat next? and when? and how?). As a natural planner, my brain is always fast forwarding to the next event, the next item on the to-do-list, the next book, the next deadline, and while this is a useful way to manage one's life and career, it is a bad way to actually write.

This year I will stay in the moment of every scene and write from within that moment without skipping ahead. This year I will stop and experience the moment - this very one - and pause to notice all the fine details. Because a good writer is by necessity a noticer.

 

Underwater writing

Three years ago I took a master class with Sarah Selecky, a writer whose short fiction I've admired for years. The class was tiny. Five of us students plus Sarah around her kitchen table every Monday night for five weeks. I learned a lot in that month - how to critique other people's work, for example, and by extension how to think critically about my own. But the most important skill Sarah taught me was underwater writing.

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Submerge yourself fully in the scene. Smell, taste, hear, see, and feel every detail. Are you there? Are you squirming? Is it hard work? Good. Now write from that place; write from within the scene. Don't write about the scene. Don't write in circles around the scene. Don't hover above. Write from inside. 

Don’t be deceived by well crafted sentences that write around an experience. Write the experience. Don’t write about it. Write from within it.
— Sarah Selecky

How do you know if you're doing it properly? Watch for the red flags. Abstractions are red flags. Don't say Romeo and Juliet are in love. What does love mean? How does it manifest for these characters? Show us the specific emotions and actions.

Efficient language is another red flag (ditto: cliches). Words like happy, angry, and impatient have become a kind of short hand, so shopworn as to be skimmable. Don't tell us a character is sad. Show us the rapid blinking of the watery eyes. Let us feel the slump of the shoulders. Conjure melancholy without using that word.

The word "something" is another flag. Like efficient language and abstractions it is a first draft placeholder. But in the revisions, you must articulate what the something is.

Don't trust the word suddenly. Cross it out. Make the action feel sudden.

Once you get the hang of it, cliched and lazy writing are easy to spot. A more pernicious problem is beautiful language. "Don't be deceived by well crafted sentences that write AROUND an experience," Sarah told us. "Write the experience. Don't write ABOUT it. Write from WITHIN it."

This is the toughest part of writing. Articulating every emotion and action, that's slow going, gruelling work. It's the real reason writers are tortured and turn to hard liquor. Writing is drowning.

 

 

Detective fiction

I harp on a lot about the importance leaving things unsaid and trusting your reader to work it out. But what does it mean in practice? For me, restraint comes during revisions. And it can be as simple as trimming a sentence. Here’s an example from my novel. A character walks into a coffee shop. 

Original sentence: Grace had taken to sitting with her back to the wall in public places so she couldn’t be surprised from behind.

Edited sentence: Grace had taken to sitting with her back to the wall.

Now the reader has to work out the why. Some might not make the leap but that has to be a risk the writer is willing to take.

Another way to leave things unsaid is to show not tell.

Let’s return to Grace in the coffee shop. A few pages after the line above, this happens:

“A bulky man walked in, shoulders hunched, eyes concealed by a black hood, hands hidden in his pockets. Fear hitched Grace’s chest. The man looked up and waved and a child ran over. When he pulled back his hood and sank to his knees, holding his arms out, his whole demeanour changed. Grace released a breath.”

We force the reader to do a little work because there's something in it for them at the end. Why do people love detective stories and murder mysteries? Because we are endlessly fascinated with working things out. Readers who must connect the dots are naturally more engaged so take a lesson from mystery writers: keep the reader guessing.

Villain

I finally got with the times this year and discovered Elizabeth Hay, devouvering first her Giller-winning Late Nights on Air and then her newest novel His Whole Life.

Both books share a parallel story structure. In the foreground are the characters with their everyday trials - in the case of Late Nights, a group of co-workers working at a radio station in Yellowknife and in the case of His Whole Life, a family on the verge of divorce. And looming in the background are larger forces, big political events. In Late Nights it's a proposed gas pipeline that has many in the First Nations community up in arms. In His Whole Life it's Quebec's historic '95 referendum. I've always been fascinated by this structure but it's a tricky thing to pull off. How to not draw too fine a point on the parallels between the stories? How to hold the big things in the background when their natural position is front and centre?

The answer is character. And here is something Hay excels at. Her characters are precisely drawn, flawed, messy, real, and as a result, deeply compelling. They - not the big events - are the through line that pull the narrative along. In His Whole Life, the character who really struck me was George.

STOP READING HERE IF YOU DON'T WANT SPOILERS.

George is petty, jealous, a coward, and underlying it all is his staunch, infuriating, refusal to be happy. He acts out in cruel ways that hurt those around him. He's unreasonably jealous of his wife's relationship with her best friend. He refuses to get treatment for a cancer, forcing his family to bear witness to this slow acting suicide. He has no friends. His birth family doesn't much care for him. And no wonder.

But George, unlike a Disney villain, is not one-dimensional. And here's the thing that Hay does so well: she gives George moments of true tenderness, allows us glimpses of the bigger man he could be if only...what? If only his first wife and elder brother hadn't died young. If only his second wife hadn't left him for a woman. If only he didn't think of himself as such a loser. It is possible then to feel sorry for George, maybe even sympathetic. Because Hay has such empathy for him, gives the reader a window on the source of his wounds. And because he's so real, he becomes recognizable. We all know a George, don't we?

And these complex feelings of loathing and sympathy for a person we think we know, this is the formula for a compulsive read. Who cares about the Referendum when there's a truly interesting, nuanced, personal family drama unfolding? The illusion that we're reading about real people is what keeps us turning the page, to find out what happens in the end.

 

 

Voice

The New Quarterly invited me to take part in their annual Wild Writers Festival this past weekend.  What fun to meet and hobnob with Southern Ontario writers. As the newbie among a group of more established authors, I took the opportunity to pick everyone's brains and pocketed a few golden nuggets about the publicity cycle, self-promotion, publishing houses, awards, reviews, and...quotation marks (of all things!). Now you know the burning question on every writer's mind: to quote or not to quote?

I was there to participate in a panel on "Finding your voice" with Kirsteen MacLeod, Kerry-Lee Powell, and Brent van Staalduinen. (You can see a few photos on Brent's site) Moderater Carrie Snyder did an admirable job of keeping us on track and asking thought-provoking questions. One remains with me because I still don't know the answer: is there anything you won't write about?

A couple of us were chatting before the panel began and admitted that we could not in fact define the subject in question: voice. We knew what it was not. It was not the character's voice or the narrator's voice. Nor was it style. So what was it then, this mysterious thing we called voice?

Despite a wide-ranging and spirited discussion during our session, I don't think we came to any conclusions. But now, after some time for reflection, I believe I have an answer. So if you were at Wild Writers on Saturday and came away disappointed, I offer this post script.

So much of a writer’s voice is... nature - an unconscious, uncontrolled manifestation of our literary DNA.

The author's voice on the page is very much like a person's voice. In the sense that it is something we both can and cannot control. We can, to a certain extent, moderate the way we speak. We can train ourselves not to upspeak, we can stamp out the ums and uhs, we can, at least while sober, hide an accent and while drunk affect one. But all of this, only to a point. A tenor will never be a baritone. A person's spoken voice is particular, specific, and mostly out of their control. Partly because we never actually know what we sound like. You know when you hear your voice in a recording? Is that how I sound? Yeah, that.

Like our spoken voices, our written voices can be partly controlled. It probably changes over time as our work matures, as we try out new genres and adopt new styles. So much of a writer's voice is nurture - a mixture of the books we read and love, our teachers and mentors, the people in our lives, the stuff we consciously adopt. But so much else is nature - an unconscious, uncontrolled manifestation of our literary DNA.

An astute audience member asked this question: is voice  something that is imposed from above or bubbles up from below? To me it is the thing that seeps in, unconsciously, from below, and infuses our writing in ways we don't even realize. It's the thing only readers can intuit the way only others know what we sound like when we speak.

Hidden messages

I got an email from a reader, a highschool student who came across Doppel and liked it. She asked: are there hidden messages in your story?

What an unexpected question. The answer of course is no, I haven't planted mysterious ciphers that if cracked will reveal secret messages. And also yes, there are Easter Eggs in every story. But what a person makes of any story, the meanings they divine in the words they read, those things are often not anything the writer intended, at least not consciously.

Often, the hidden meanings of a story, the secret messages, the rich subtext, the themes and morals, exist for the reader because the writer remained silent. Two characters have a conversation at a bar. We are privy to their dialogue, their body language, the setting around them but none of their inner thoughts are revealed. When the author is silent, the reader has the freedom to project their own ideas on a tale. And the story changes then depending on who reads it and on when it is read. The novel you love at 15 might be one we loathe at 23 and then perhaps love again at 74.

Good stories are partnerships. Writers leave a few blanks for readers, with their unique personalities and life experiences, to fill in. The best stories are the ones that reveal something new on every re-read and this is only possible if the writer is brave enough to stay silent.

Sabbatical

My husband Tom is a mathemagician and they have this antiquated - but fantastic - tradition in academia called sabbatical. Antiquated because it literally comes from the Old Testament (Leviticus 25:1-7). And fantastic because a year off from teaching and administrative responsibilities means more time for intensive research. So we're in Toronto for the Fall. And Toronto in the Fall is magical. The weather is perfect and the city's calendar is stuffed to the gills with cultural events, particularly literary ones.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Word on the Street and, among other sessions, had a chance to hear Zoe Whittall read from her Giller short-listed novel The Best Kind of People. What a pleasure! This book is on my must-read list. And here's a piece of editorial advice she shared from her experience as a TV writer: get in and out of the scene fast. Yes! I forget this too often.

So we're in Toronto. Tom has an office on campus and I alternate between a reading room at Robart's Library and a bright and airy cafe-cum-study space called Grad Room. I've taken to saying we are on sabbatical because it feels that way. A sabbatical from St. John's and life as usual. I'm revising The Boat People, of course, but also working on a couple of other projects (stay tuned) including my first grant application to Canada Council for the Arts. And these are all things I'd be doing if I was home but the vibe here is different. I'm more productive, for one thing, and procrastination - my #1 daily battle at home - doesn't hold the same lure here. I don't know why. I had expected it to be more difficult to write here, that it would take time to settle in to a new work environment and get started. But it's been the opposite. There's something to be said for breaking free of regular routines and shaking things up.

Don't mind the gap

This video of Ira Glass talking about storytelling was making the rounds two or three years ago when I was struggling (who are we kidding? I'm often still struggling) with my writing, with the disconnect between what I wanted it to be and what it actually was, flat and boring and so sorely lacking on the page. The difference between the platonic ideal of my story and my actual craptastic story. Zadie Smith talks about this difference in a fantastic essay called Fail Better. You should go check that out too. Preferably a hard copy version with a pen and a highlighter. But, before that, watch this video, or just close your eyes and listen. Really listen. Because Ira is right. You have to trust your good taste, give it time, and WRITE. Do A LOT of work. Do ALL the work.

WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.

Solnit on writing

This piece on how to be a writer by Rebecca Solnit on Literary Hub is making the rounds this week. Maybe you've seen it. Solnit is wise. So wise. She writes about finding joy, but not taking it too seriously, making writing a vocation, the importance of research and reading (and not reading), and many other things.

The advice that resonated most with me was: "Write. There is no substitute." AMEN! "It takes time. This means you need to find that time." YES. Because: "Remember that writing is not typing. Thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, composing in your head and in sketches, maybe some typing, with revisions as you go, and then more revisions, deletions, emendating, additions, reflections, setting aside and returning afresh..." PREACH!

Unless your name is Carrie Bradshaw or you are a fictional character in the montage scene of a movie, typing is really just "this little transaction in the middle of two vast thoughtful processes."

Ten tips on how to be a writer. Go read the whole thing.

 

 

 

Character is King

Like everyone else with a Netflix account, I am obsessed with Stranger Things. The Stephen King font and creepy opening music, the retro 80s vibe, that nerdy kid with no teeth....all of it hooked me.

Lit Reactor are also fans, as it happens, and Max Booth III has posted a great column today about what the show can teach us about characterization. Without giving away any spoilers, let me summarize a couple of the key points:

Think of exposition as narrative calories. You’re only allowed 2000 of them per book, so you better spread that shit out or you’re going to get hungry awfully fast.
— Max Booth III

1. Don't introduce a character with a massive exposition dump, unless you want to bore your reader. Reveal your characters gradually; allow the reader to meet them over time through the course of the story. Think about how we get to know people in our lives...bit by bit over time, through what they say and do and how they look and how others interact with them. Why should characters we meet on the page be any different?

2. Create nuanced characters. You can write a scene - as the writers of Stranger Things do - where two characters are in conflict but no one is really the bad guy. This, I think, is more often than not how conflict works in the real world. Both people act poorly. Or there is a misunderstanding and each person acts according to their narrow understanding of the situation. Heroes and villains are boring. Anti-heros are compelling. Villains who have endearing qualities, who can evoke even a bit of empathy, are more interesting.

3. Play around with stereotypes. Everyone expects the highschool Queen Bee to be a one-note bully. But what if she's not? What if she's deeply insecure about her dyslexia? Or is revealed to be heroic?

4. Character is King. Above plot and setting and scene, there is character first and foremost. Nothing makes me more perplexed than a character who acts in an inauthentic way; this is what happens when characters act in service to the plot. Ask yourself: is this really what this person would do, how they would feel? And be honest! Sometimes the plot as you originally envisioned it has to change. My advice: Create complex interesting characters and then follow where they lead.

If you've already watched the whole show, take a look at Lit Reactor's column. It's a thoughtful take on what works and doesn't in terms of characterization on the show.

And if you haven't watched the show yet....?!?

The spreadsheet

It's rejection season! Seven rejections so far this month. My friend Sonam asked me how I handle it - so many "no"s. I've written about rejection before but not about my spreadsheet. The spreadsheet is key to the whole "brush it off" process. (It's also key to staying sane and organized.)

The format doesn't matter too much. Submitted. Rejected. Accepted. That's all you need. Create the spreadsheet as soon as you start sending your work out. That way, when the replies come in, you'll have a place to tally them up and something concrete to do.

The act of filling in the boxes can be analgesic. You read the rejection. You fill in the spreadsheet. Decide if you need to revise the story. If not, because you can see at a glance which publications haven't seen the story yet, you can re-submit right away. The goal is to have as few stories in the rejected section as possible.

Recently, I began jotting down alternative publications beside each submitted story. I highly recommend this approach. It makes re-submitting even more automatic and leaves zero time for brooding.

Writers! If I can give you one piece of advice: stop feeling sorry for yourself. That is precious time when you could be writing, editing, submitting, reading or binge watching Orange is the New Black.

Eventually something will stick. A story will be accepted and then you can move it to the "published" section of the spreadsheet (keep it visible, close to the rejected list). This is important because you can see over time how stories graduate from rejected to accepted. And keeping track of which publications rejected the stories will also help you see the truth: that taste is subjective. Just because a story is rejected doesn't mean it's worthless. Sometimes, yes, the story needs work. And if a rejection comes with feedback, consider it a gift. But often a rejection from one publication is only that: a rejection from one publication.

The spreadsheet speaks the truth. Look at all those acceptances! Look at all those rejections! Being a writer means being rejected. So go send your work out, go court rejection.

 

 

 

 

Write what you know

Earlier this year, I was asked to adjudicate a junior short fiction contest. Young writers ages 12 -20 submitted their stories and essays and I was given the monumental task of picking winners. When I told a couple of teacher friends that I was doing this they told me to expect cutting. Cutting is important, my teacher friends said. Teenagers always write about characters who cut themselves.

I didn't read any self harm stories but there were some common themes: New York City, spies, zombies, violent crime, and the tragic deaths of healthy young people. The body count was high! Everything about these pieces felt familiar. Maybe a little too familiar. I was a teenage writer once, pouring all my imagination and purple prose into page after page on WordPerfect. My stories were invariably about teenagers on an island, being picked off by a serial killer (spoiler: the killer was one of the teenagers!). I knew nothing about deserted islands or serial killers just as I suspect most of these young writers know little of spies and violent crime. What I wanted to say to all of them was: never mind all this; write what you know!

Because here's the thing: there was a lot of talent in these pieces. Evocative scene setting, beautiful turns of phrase, and endings that surprised and thrilled me. But a lot of it was overshadowed by the emphasis on high-stakes plot. Occasionally, a glimmer of some real truth, some messy uncomfortable human emotion, shone through and that's when I got interested.

The problem - I think - is we are told to write what we know. And we think: what I know is boring; no one is going to read that. My advice is more specific: focus on the real feelings and emotions of which you have intimate knowledge. Interrogate those areas of your life which are most painful, most awkward, most cringe-inducing. And then write about those things.

Write about being bullied. Write about feeling inadequate. Write about being abandoned by your friends in the cafeteria. Write about failure. Write about loneliness. And then if you want to set the story in New York City, by all means. Or make your characters werewolves. Have them join MI5. Send them to Saturn.  If your writing is driven by real emotions and feelings, if writing makes me you feel unsettled and deeply uncomfortable, then the setting and characters and plot will matter very little. Because the things you invent will be secondary to the emotions that you know

I'd like to go back in time and give this advice to myself: You'll never be this age again! And when you're older you won't have access to the intense, complex emotions you have now. Write this stuff down!

It's low stakes (emotionally) to construct a high-stakes plot that is removed from the reality of one's own life. But when you make yourself vulnerable, when the act of writing feels high-stakes to the writer... that's when the story gets real, gets interesting.