Today on the blog, I’m welcoming author and all-around swell guy, Michael Cairns, whose new UF/Sci-Fi book The Spirit Room drops this month. Who is Michael Cairns?
Chocoholic Michael Cairns is a writer and author of the real-world epic fantasy trilogy, The Assembly and science fiction adventure series, A Game of War. A musician, father and school teacher, when not writing he can be found behind his drum kit, tucking into his chocolate stash or trying, and usually failing, to outwit his young daughter.
He is not even messing around about the chocoholic thing. Read on for some writing advice from Michael, a look at his new book, and find out how you can connect with Michael and try his work for free!
My top four tips for writing and why it’s OK to ignore them
There’s no shortage of advice out there for the newbie writer, and, since embarking on my writing life a little over two years ago, I’ve taken advantage of that fact, ploughing through a phenomenal amount of the available wisdom. I’ve read posts on writing, publishing, marketing and more. I normally struggle with non-fiction, indeed, anything resembling a text-book sends me into school-memory-induced sweats and I have to run and find some chocolate. But once I tapped into the hitherto undiscovered magic of blogs, I was able to glean a tremendous amount from short, usually well-written, easy-to-digest posts and podcasts. There is however, a downside to this abundance of advice.
I found it easy, particularly at the start, to get lost in all of the things I thought I should be doing, but wasn’t, worrying in case I wasn’t doing the whole ‘writing thing’ properly, which really knocked my confidence. I think there are many budding authors out there in the same boat, struggling to sift through and find the gold, and the approach which will work best for them.
I’ve listed here some of those nuggets which I have found excellent, but that have also caused me great worry, in some cases enough to pack up the trusty blade and head off in search of cake.
1. Plan, Plan, Plan.
I have, since starting, written four novels, four novellas and a bunch of short stories. Every one of them has begun with a line, then a paragraph, then a page and so on. Not one of them has started with a brainstorm, a mind-map, a hastily-scribbled-in notepad, or anything else that suggests planning. Please believe me, I’m in no way cussing planners, I am genuinely jealous of them, but for me, it works very differently. When we are ‘in flow’, which is to say, accessing our unconscious, the bit of us that excels at creating, we are able to create effortlessly, ideas spilling out. My flow comes when I write, through the physical act of typing, and try as I may, I cannot get the same result by sitting with a pen and plotting.
I believe, that one of the main reasons the fabled 10,000 hours of practice leads to excellence in writing, or anything else for that matter, is that this is the time it takes to internalise the necessary skills to the extent that you can switch off the conscious brain entirely and let the unconscious take over. This is true in all creative pursuits. As a drummer as well as author, whenever I sit down to play at a gig, I always make sure that I know the music well enough for my unconscious to take over, and my thoughts to get out of the way.
So, if you plan, that’s ace, good for you. If you don’t, please, don’t panic. You aren’t the only one, and whether you know where you’re going, or only realise as you type ‘the end’, so long as you edit properly, it doesn’t matter! And it definitely doesn’t make you a better or worse author.
2. It’s ok for the first draft to be crap.
I write this one with the caveat that I don’t struggle to get words on the page. If what I’m writing excites me, it comes out in a flood. So, with that in mind, I have to take issue with this advice, which I hear at least once a day, tweeted in a quote or slipped innocuously into a blog. I think it is meant to reassure, and as a tool for avoiding white-page paralysis, it has value. However, I believe it can also be self-defeating. Yes, with limited time (most of us) and a million things on our minds, just getting stuff down on paper can be a pain. And, yes, the edit is god and master of all and cannot be underestimated, but equally, if we aren’t aiming for excellence every time, then what’s the point?
Let’s return to the concept of flow. Being ‘in flow’ is this idea that your subconscious is being tapped into, the vast part of your brain that is constantly working, sucking up all the good stuff that you see, and storing it, possibly in teeny tiny boxes stacked on never-ending shelves. The generally accepted wisdom is that your subconscious does everything a hell of a lot better than your conscious, more naturally and without the ego that constantly questions and makes us doubt ourselves, and hence, is far better suited to creation. If that is the case, then when is it easier to access said good stuff? When we are writing, story pouring from us like maple syrup onto pancakes (mmm, pancakes), or when we are editing, picking our story apart, looking at typos and wincing as we find the word suddenly for the twenty forth time that chapter?
The first draft can absolutely be full of typos, dodgy grammar and the like, but it can, and should, contain magic, and that is what we should aim for, every time we sit down to write. So, perhaps the question, to avoid said paralysis, is not, how can I write the perfect novel, but rather, how can I best get into my flow?
3. Write every day.
I did this, religiously, and it helped me to access my flow state, to find the place quicker each time I sat down to write. Writing regularly will, without a shadow of a doubt, not only improve your writing, but also make it easier for you to get effortlessly into flow. This in turn, makes it easier for you to use those tiny windows of time, five minutes here, ten minutes there, to write. It also boosts your word count, which is a great motivator for me.
But do you have to write every day? No, absolutely not. As an author just setting out on what may well be a long and pothole-ridden road, setting goals is important, but setting achievable goals is essential. Different targets work for different people, but I would always choose a word count or page count over ‘writing every day’, because some days, for a multitude of reasons, it just isn’t possible.
The time I have felt worst about my writing wasn’t after my editor tore it up and told me to try again, or indeed after my two year old daughter did the same, but on a day when everything that could go wrong, did, and I crawled into bed, tired, dejected, with a word count of zero. My new year’s resolution and self-belief were in the toilet, despite having worked a full day teaching, then come home to a sick baby and wife, and, I’m sure, saved the world, at least once. ‘Write often’ I like, ‘write enough to get better and make progress’ I like even more, but write every day? That can be dangerous.
4. Always carry a notepad and pencil, to scribble down those ideas.
Ok, I have a confession to make. I don’t carry a notepad, nor do I have a pencil handy. And the reasons for this are simple.
I don’t get ideas. I don’t wake in the middle of the night, sitting up, finger held upright as the new Lord of the Rings downloads in glorious technicolour into my frontal lobes. Nor do I grab people on the tube, and gush to them about the plot for my new zombie/Disney crossover (it will happen, it will.) My ideas, so far at least, seem to be linked to the physical act of typing, of accessing that flow state. When my fingers are moving across the keyboard like rats in the mortuary when you’ve just flicked the light on, and there’s always one that just sits in the middle, nibbling on a decaying ear and staring at you like ‘what, you want something?’ (that’s my left pinkie, by the way, completely useless,) then my brain wakes and spills the story onto the page. Every now and then, when I’m not sat at my computer, I’ll forget about the rats and try to plan and plot, and nothing will come. Then I think about the ear, and the little teeth chewing away, and I’ll feel better.
The second reason is that my handwriting sucks, beyond all measure, and is frustratingly, elbow-bitingly slow, often meaning that by the time I get to the end of the sentence, I’ve forgotten what I was trying to say.
So there’s my thoughts on some of the gems available to us.
Why is it ok to ignore all of these? Writers are, I’ve found, in general, a fairly self-critical lot, which is a good thing, because we need that to create our best work. However, beating ourselves up for failing to accede to someone else’s guidelines is just daft, and counter-productive.
So, the one piece of advice that I think we should all adhere to, is that the best writing you can do is when you are yourself, authentically true to your vision and your voice. Following someone else’s model, if it doesn’t fit with your own, will only take you away from what you do best, which is writing. Or maybe excelling in chocolate-tasting. That could just be me, though.
What are the writing rules you live by, and do you ever break them?
It’s supernatural conflict on a global scale. Action, adventure, aliens, magic, mayhem & modern day super-heroes…
An ancient cadre of magicians
A select team of extra-ordinary warriors
An unseen foe
As two ancient forces battle for control, reality as we know it is being torn apart. Caught somewhere in the middle, and tasked with ridding the world of the insidious alien intelligence are The Planets. Neptune hails from Rio, the gay daughter of strict catholic parents. Mars, from Ireland, still missing the sister he lost years ago. Uri grew up on the streets of New York, and Venus… well, no one knows and she isn’t telling. Imbued with extra-ordinary powers, these highly trained individuals take the fight across the globe. With startling and unnerving revelations at every turn, the depth of deception is only now becoming clear…
At http://cairnswrites.com you can download a free copy of my first novella Childhood Dreams (A Game of War, Part one), find podcasts, free short stories, info about me, and of course, links to where you can buy my books.
You can connect with me on twitter www.twitter.com/cairnswrites
Feel free to ‘like’ www.facebook.com/cairnswrites (I talk about chocolate mostly, and a bit on writing as well)
Enjoy some of the comic art and inspiring images I repin on www.pinterest.com/michaelcairns.
Further information about Michael, links to his books, headshots and book cover photos can also be found at http://cairnswrites.com/press/