Thursday, 21 March 2013

The C Word...

The most obvious difference I see between the successful writers I have met and the aspiring writers is confidence. Confident writers are focused and productive. They say, “This is MY story. I’m writing it MY way, and I don’t care what anyone thinks.” They put their blinkers on, they put the hours into what they think is right, and deliver. After that it’s part luck and part commercial savvy that decides whether the final product attracts deals or not, but this is the right approach to any artistic endeavour. So if self-belief and an uncompromising approach to writing is the way to go, what can a writer do to get precious confidence without getting tainted by someone else’s directions?

The wrong thing to do, which I see a lot in the writers I work with, is to go on endless courses or read a pile of books on ‘How to Write’. They inevitably provide you with a set of rules that seem to apply to famous stories.  As soon as you buy into this, your story becomes driven by structure. It becomes a little unnatural and it loses its spark, and you have your creative instinct damaged by someone else’s rules.

That paragraph may seem odd coming from a man who gives courses to aspiring writers, but I am very careful in my approach. The word ‘education’ comes from the Latin ‘to draw out’, and for writers, with precious, highly personal inspiration, the difference between ‘drawing out’ and ‘forcing in’ is a critical distinction. In my experience, what writers really need is not help from the outside to change what is inside. It’s help in making the best possible use of the inspiration that is already there.

The questions writers really want answering are: “How do I make the most of my story ideas? How do I tell my story to its absolute best? How do I guide my ability to tell stories without damaging my natural talent? It takes me months to find out what’s bugging me in my story. How do I understand and solve story problems quickly and effectively? What gives one story power and another one not? What are the story tools that are available to writers that make stories grip and intrigue?”

There is only one person who can tell your story the right way, and that is YOU! Yes, you need knowledge of the craft of story so you are empowered to tell your story your way. Then you will also have the confidence to send it off and, importantly, take rejection knowing that what you’ve done is right irrespective of what the rejection letter says. Many of the writers I meet are hugely restricted by fear of rejection. So much so that they don’t even finish their work. Once it’s finished, it’s judgement day, and that is unbearable, so people keep writing and re-writing for years rather than face the dreaded judgement day. Again, confidence is the issue. If you know you have been true to yourself and true to your story, then you cease to care about external judgement. You listen, of course, in case something constructive resonates with you, but ultimately your own personal judgement is all that matters, so if others choose to reject it for their commercial agenda, so be it. Of course, rejection hurts, but it also goes with the territory, so grasping the rejection nettle and taking the consequences is something you simply have to do. John Sullivan gave me all you need to know about ‘How to be a writer’:

1) Write the best stuff you can.
2) Send it off.
3) Go to 1) 

What happens after that is out of your hands, so just go to 1) ,do 2) and forget it. Over time you will improve, and one day something will click. When it does, the weirdest thing happens: the pile of rejections become a massive badge of honour, and the glow you feel from success becomes magnified ten-fold by every single rejection you collected along the way.

Writers who become clients of mine are always surprised when we start work because I won’t read their story. I’m working to help the writer take responsibility for themselves; to find and shape the inspiration that comes from within. There’s only one right way to write your story, and that’s your way. If you think about it, there simply can’t be any other way to write your story. So forget the gurus and take responsibility. Yes, learn about story so you can squeeze the most from your ideas. Write every day, and say to yourself every day:

“My Story. My Way. And balls to the lot of you.”

Say it now. Say it out loud and mean it. Not only will you laugh at yourself, but take responsibility for your own development and suddenly life as a writer, and your path forwards from today, becomes very clear indeed...

Now. Go To 1).


  1. I've often had the problem of turning to sources to tell me how to write. But I think I'm gaining a bit of confidence, plus I remind myself that structure shouldn't come first (even though I always want to put it that way). I'm almost there, telling my story my way. I think it'll be pretty liberating.

  2. I spent most of 2010 with how-to books - I even bought one on editing. Ha! Edit what? Didn't write a word!

  3. Thanks for that post David. Such good advice. And it hit close to home for me, as I expect it does for many writers. Back to 1), oh, and 2) which in some ways is harder. Love what you said about the badge of honor. So true.

  4. @David - Excellent post, and I couldn't agree more. I've been an advertising copywriter and creative director since Disco, and your words mirror what I used to tell junior writers I was mentoring.

    As a writer, if you don't have confidence in your words, story and voice, who will?

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  6. Hi David,

    I really enjoyed this post. When I finished writing my novel The Visitors and decided to self-publish, I sent it off to test readers. Even doing this made me feel sick to my stomach. There is a point where we as writers just have to make the commitment and take action every day. This is what I have been doing. Now I am on to the second novel and I realize that with daily practice my writing will grow tighter and my story telling ability stronger.

    There was one time years, ago when I decided to take advice from a how to book on writing and formatted my ideas for my story like it was suggested before I started writing. It was not the way that I naturally did things and after spending a few days formatting all the details I found I was completely disinterested. I think that if we trust ourselves and start by following our natural inclinations that is a great beginning with a better chance at longevity in a project.