I Tell You How To Write

Here’s some hubris for you. I’ve never had a work of fiction published but I’m going to go ahead and trash an actual, award-winning no less, author.

Irish writer Colum McCann wrote a column for the Guardian recently on tips for aspiring writers and, well, they aren’t great. He opens his essay, unironically, with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke: “Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody.” He then goes on to advise you.

He continues: “In the end it all comes down to the strike of the word on the page, not to mention the strike thereafter, and the strike after that.” Which is true in the same way it’s true that running a marathon comes down to strike after strike on the pavement with your feet. But you should train for that, wear proper clothing, hydrate and probably some other important stuff.

In all my years writing and teaching writing, I’ve never heard the complaint “Well I can’t strike the keys.” Writers complain about not having time, not having ideas, not knowing what to write and about a million other things. “I can’t put my feet to the pavement” isn’t the problem for most writers and all of that training, equipment, water can be helped by someone else.

His first bit of real advice is that there are no rules. But there are rules. Lots of them. Sure, Joyce wrote in stream of consciousness and cummings used weird punctuation. But the vast, overwhelming number of books aren’t written by Joyce and cummings. And your stream of consciousness, punctuation-free, hybrid epic fantasy-romance-comedy with serious moral undertones that’s the perfect beach read and also 900 pages long is probably not going to get published. Story structure exists for a reason. Because it’s easy to comprehend. That isn’t a bad thing.

His second piece of advice is to focus on your first line. “A first line should open up your rib cage. It should reach in and twist your heart backward. It should suggest that the world will never be the same again,” he says.

Quick, other than “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” name an opening line. What is the opening line to the novel you’re reading right now? Hell, what’s the opening line of this blog post? Even the choosiest readers will give you the first few paragraphs. If you have a great first line, great. If you don’t, keep reading. Hook them with a great first paragraph or first chapter.

He’s got some good advice. Don’t write dialog in an incomprehensible accent. Do research. Don’t be afraid of failure.

But writing isn’t a mysterious Holy Grail. Many people have good ideas. Fewer people have the desire to write them down. Even fewer have the grit to see things out to completion. And fewer still educate themselves on how to write, take a course, take several course, read lots of (crappy Guardian) articles about writing. And then even less than that have the luck to get something published.