10 Rules for Writers: Claire

Claire Kelly is a recent graduate of UNB and a longtime reader for QWERTY, and today she’s going to give you all the details on things like knowing your writing, knowing your space, and editing like a mofo. So sit still and learn! And when you’re done sitting still, check out her most recent poetry in QWERTY 28, PRISM 51.2, The Malahat Review 180, and Branch.

1)      Try not to sit hunched over like a 17th-century Parisian beggar, or with one leg crossed over the other (which once caused my leg to fall asleep so thoroughly that when my Mum called me I fell down the stairs). You are a body writing. Nothing derails creativity like physical pain. Just ask Stephen King.

2)      Don’t rely too much on routines. For me, I like a cup of tea while writing or, depending on the time of day, a glass of wine while getting in the mood to write. Some people, such as the journalist Christopher Hitchens, like to smoke while putting words on the page. No judgements here, but occasionally try to write without the feel-good drink-y and inhale-y. That way you’re not like Pavlov’s drooling dog. Also, if you happen to be too broke for tea, wine, candy corn, cigarettes, etc., you will still be rich enough to write.

3)      Google for specifics. Details help. I, for example, just looked up the breed of Pavlov’s dog. Turns out Pavlov used many, many, many dogs of whatever breed. So when you say someone is like Pavlov’s dog you actually mean he/she is like a Pavlovian dog, which sounds like an insult from “The Princess Bride.” Specifics are especially important for humour. Having a person get sick from eating supper isn’t funny. Having an old-school, fully habited nun blow chunks after eating a chocolate Jesus is funny.

4)      Know how you write and don’t let anyone make you feel bad about your process. If you write every day, great. If you write in 12-hour bursts every so often, great.  Of course, this rule only counts if you are actually writing, editing, or consciously taking a break. If you are a writer who isn’t writing, you only need to feel as bad as will allow you to start writing again. Wallowing, even genuine wallowing, sucks balls. It doesn’t suck for anyone else, but for yourself. People don’t usually care if you are writing. They’re out winning world championships for yodelling, etc.  Similarly, knowing how you write means knowing your habits. I like the word ‘of.’ It took me years to notice that I will slip ‘of’ into a sentence whenever I get the chance. The farm of Jack. Complexity of design. Redundancy of example. Now that I know my habit I can, not break it exactly, but make my habit effective. Every ‘of’ is a chosen ‘of’.

5)      The best advice I was given for writing was from the poet John Barton. In my first year I had to drop a class because I wasn’t writing. I, despite knowing the decision was the right one, felt guilty. John told me I had made the right decision, that writers need a lot of “white space.” This “white space” is where your ideas percolate, and you don’t want a weak brew.

6)      Very rarely does a piece of fiction not have characters experiencing conflict(s). So, when in doubt, LIGHT SOMETHING ON FIRE (not literally, but literaturely). It doesn’t need to be fire every time, but having something suddenly happen that the character or characters have to deal with is one useful way to get unstuck. Plots are characters dealing with consequences (whether those consequences exist outside of their own heads or not).

7)      Similarly, have characters that participate in the economic realities of whatever world you’ve created or are writing about. Also, make the jobs mean something. The doctors, lawyers, etc. in soap operas do not have jobs; they occasionally have uniforms. Make sure your character occasionally thinks about where supper is coming from. Not in an obnoxious way though. Subtle-like.

8)      Have a group of people with whom you are willing to share your writing. Have at least one person, but more is better. Different readers/editors have different skills/obsessions. Plus, if multiple people are saying a part isn’t working, but their suggestions don’t work either, at least you know that there is something wrong with that part. Knowing something is wrong is the first step to not looking like an idiot while doing a public reading.

9)      Edit. I primarily write poems. I edit those suckers like they contain the cure to procrastination. Editing is writing. Also, for the love of Santa, read your writing aloud.  Language can be lovely when you want it to. It can also be leaden and have awkward rhymes and repetitions. However, if you’re describing something ugly, you might want to avoid floaty, chintzy words and use cacophony. Playing with the sound is easier if you read your work aloud.

10)   Know when to get in and know when to get out. This piece of advice works for all types of writing. Starting a short story as close to the “action” as possible is a generally sound investment for you and, especially, for your readers. Explaining too much at the end of the story makes your readers feel like you think they’re half-brained nincompoops. Poetry, because of the formal constraints, also must start very close to the point, or driving image, etc. Novels that start with stuff happening feel like real worlds, like they existed before you showed up. Novels that don’t tie everything up feel like they will go on after you’ve moved on like the fickle bibliophile you are.

I guess this is a good time to say that I have really enjoyed working at Qwerty and that I will be a loyal reader for as long as this great project continues. Go team!


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