In almost every aspect of my life, when I’ve had to learn something new, someone always compares it to learning to drive (no-one ever bothers to check if I have ever gone through this particular process, though. Odd). Well, I thought I’d get there, first, this time.
I have been driving for about five years, now. It only takes a couple of years before bad habits start to creep in: coasting up to traffic lights, not checking all your blind spots before manoeuvring, driving with one hand on the gear stick. Recently, I’ve been trying to concentrate more on doing things ‘properly’ as a driver and one thing that has stood out is how little I use the ‘ten-to-two’ steering taught by driving instructors. I get sucked into steering hand-over-hand, like I’m in a Grand Prix. So I decided to revert to ten-to-two steering. And it works! I’d forgotten, like so many people, just how well a car can turn a corner, how much control you have over it. When driving hand-over-hand, I often feel as though the car is going to lose grip on the road or tip over but I think that’s because I am leaning over, myself, to tilt my shoulders enough to turn the wheel. With ten-to-two steering, you stay upright and feel so much more composed through a corner.
When I think of myself as a writer or discuss being a writer with friends or acquaintances, I always feel the need to qualify it by saying that I am an aspiring writer, that I’d like to be a writer (I’ve written about this elsewhere and may reproduce that post here, sometime, just to keep everything in one place). I do this for a few reasons. Not least because, like many writers, I actually lack confidence and don’t want people coming up to me and asking, “How’s that book coming along?” every time I meet them. It’s is also because I have this feeling that, until I’m published, it seems a bit disingenuous, somehow unqualified, to claim that I am a writer simply because I write anything at all; if that’s all it takes, then anyone with a diary is a writer. I suppose that in an attempt to avoid my usual pedantry, I’m conflating the words writer and author. However, the point stands: I don’t feel qualified to claim to be a writer/author until someone buys my published (as yet, unfinished) work. Until that point and, no doubt, beyond, I consider myself to be learning to write like an author. I’ll ignore all of the questions about what I mean, there and skip to my point.
I’m learning to write and will continue to learn for as long as I write. And so will every other writer on the planet that wishes to keep producing good stories.
It is easy, though, to get bogged down with learning. Anyone who has gone through a university degree in the last ten years and then tried to find employment afterwards will know this to be true. For this reason, it is imperative that we remember this: get back to basics. As with the reversion to ten-to-two steering, we need to forget much of the flim-flam we try to inject into our writing – the witticisms, the verbose descriptions, the tricks of plot-twists and the like – and refocus on what actually matters.
What is the story about? My wife asked me this, yesterday, after asking to read what I had written, so far. I did not let her read it because it’s not finished but her curiosity was piqued. However, to my shame, I realised that I could not answer her succinctly. I had lost sight of the basics. I did not know what my story was about.
So, my task for this week: re-learn my story’s basics. What is the premise? Who is involved and how/why? Why is the premise important to the people involved? How do they react and how do they change the world they inhabit? How do they change, themselves?
Think about it. Has anything happened that has forced you to reconsider the basics? Did someone say something off-hand that startled you? Did you realise that a story-line had run to a dead-end? Did you find yourself throwing your computer against a wall in frustration? Leave a comment and start a conversation. Suggest other basics that we need to remember as continuously-learning writers.
And keep your hands at ten-to-two.