This week’s writer’s tips come from Matthew Bright, a man of many talents. He is a designer, an editor and a writer. Like me he doesn’t feel comfortable writing in third person, but soldiers on regardless. I’ve decided my next novel will be in third person, so I’ll have to go to him for tips.
His short fiction has appeared in a number of venues, including Nightmare’s Queers Destroy Fiction, and he is the co-author of Between The Lines, an experimental novella, with Christopher Black.
He is also the editor of several anthologies, including The Myriad Carnival, Threesome: Him, Him and Me and forthcoming titles Gents and Clockwork Cairo. With the release of Threesome, Publishers Weekly declared him ‘unambiguously…an editor to watch’, which is a quote he’s inclined to have printed on business cards and hand out to complete strangers on the street.
Below are his tips for writing.
1. I’m going to cheat and make this tip a whole bunch of related tips, but it boils down to: READ. I’ll not be the first to say this, but it probably can’t be said enough: Read. Read until you get better at reading and writing. The reason self-publishing gets a bad rap is because hordes of its writers don’t read: they don’t know that their stories have been done before, and they don’t know that their sentences have been done before. I studied creative writing, and half my cohort devoured books, while the other half had barely picked one up. Take a guess which ones were the good writers that got better. (Actually, there was one irritating exception to that rule, a man who became a co-writer of mine, and who only just finished reading a book he started reading ten years ago when we were at university. But as any good statistician knows, ignore the weird ones.)
Also, imitate. Consciously. Sit down and deliberately write a story in the style of an author you love. Pick apart what they’ve done that made it work. Try and avoid their pitfalls. (You don’t have to sell the story at the end. You don’t even have to show it to someone. Do it for fun, and do it to develop craft.)
And finally, copy. And no, I don’t mean plagiarise, I mean copy. Take a book you love, and type out the first 2000 words. This might sound absurd, but it’s an astonishing exercise; you will learn more about how that author put their words together (and how you can do similar) than hours of study, or hours of reading. It’s the most peculiar thing and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
2. CUT. I know it’s a long familiar saying to kill your darlings, and I also know it’s really, really hard. But here’s a useful tip that I’ve come to realise holds a lot of water: your first 1000 words? You don’t need them. I’ve done my time as author and editor, and it’s a rule of thumb that occurs surprisingly often: the first 1000 words of a short story are redundant. It might sting, but you could just as easily put a red line through the first 1000 words and start deeper in the story. It’s a rookie mistake, and it’s very easy to do.
Extend that ruthlessness. Try this exercise: free-write a 500 words description of a place. Now cut half of those words. Now cut half again. And again, and again, until you have about six words left. I’m willing to bet those six words are a pretty pure distillation, and the other 484 aren’t anywhere near as necessary as you think. Now take that into writing.
3. RESTRICT. I mean, sure, you’re free to write whatever you want, however you want, and you really are, but you’d be surprised how freeing placing incredibly strict limitations on yourself can be. Limitation breeds invention. My most successful story was one written for an already-restrictive call for submissions (that specified genre, protagonists race, ableism and sexuality) which I then wrote in chunks of exactly two hundred words (because, y’know, it wasn’t hard enough already.) Forcing yourself to innovate within self-imposed walls gets you places even coffee can’t.
Try it. Write a story entire in second person. Write a story without once specifying the gender of a characters. Write with a timer and a ridiculous word count limit. Write a story that takes place over three seconds of time. Write a story about your childhood told from the point of view of your parents. Write a story without a single sentient character in it. Write from the point of view of an object. Write in poetry. Write only in unascribed dialogue. Write only with dialogue overheard on the bus. Write the darkest story you would never have the nerve to show anyone. Write the lightest, fluffiest story you would would never have the nerve to show anyone. Write a crossover between the two. Write more. Read it. Write more, better.
Thanks Matthew for sharing your thoughts. This has been one of the most entertaining posts in this series. I love the idea of placing strict limitations on your writing. Any restrictions to any creative process helps you think outside the box.
Check out his website as it’s one of the best designed I’ve seen while proving simplicity is more, a whole lot more. Click here to find out all about his art, his writing and the books he’s edited. One of them has the coolest trailer for a book I’ve ever seen. Take a look below.
I’ll be back with either a private post or another guest post next week. Your guess is as good as mine.