Tuesday, 9 March 2010


risk n. a chance or possibility of danger, loss, injury, or other adverse consequences.

As vocations go, sitting down, staring at a screen a lot and tapping some keys appears to offer little in the way of danger. The occasional repetitive strain injury and moderate poverty aside, the life of a writer would appear one of circumspection and safety. And for many, I suppose it is. You study your craft diligently, then reproduce your own story by way of pastiche, or if you’ve an ounce of originality, as derivation. This is all fair enough. It’s what we’re told to do: learn from the best and mimic their techniques and style to achieve the same end.

But will this risk-free approach truly satisfy the artist in you? More importantly, will you stand out from the slush pile? Probably not. It saddens me when I read a story so heavily influenced by a great writer of the past that it becomes indistinguishable (with the exception of being inferior). Of course other people’s work will have shaped your own aesthetic output; the way I know a piece of writing is good, is that I immediately start to wish that I’d written it. I don’t mean this in an arrogant sense, in that I could have written it, just that my admiration for it comes from being a writer first and a reader second. But as someone who reads hundreds of submitted stories, I crave writing that’s brave, that’s taken a risk. I might get a beautifully crafted piece of writing, workshopped to within an inch of its life, boxes all ticked, structurally perfect. But at no time do I forget I’m reading; the writer has taken not one chance, and it likely gets rejected.

So what are these risks I’m talking about? Well, finding your own style for a start, a voice that’s shaped by your own experiences, not one that blithely imitates or produces formulaic prose. Playing with structure and style is important, though I’m not advocating being experimental for its own sake and at the expense of quality. But it’s the substance I’m talking about here. Yes, you’re telling a story, but as a writer, I’d hope you were illuminating a truth about the world and the beautiful, fragile, foolish, remarkable and terrible people in it. And revealing this truth involves taking risks. There’s the risk of looking inside yourself in order to write about something, and not particularly liking what you find. Been there, done that one. There’s the risk of offending people, of producing work you know people close to you won’t enjoy or respect. But (and I’m really only talking about literary fiction here) you’re not in this, I’d hope, to make friends. There’s the risk that you might spend an entire year or two trying to capture the essence of this truth, only to fail.

It’s all a gamble, but you can improve your odds.

As someone once commented here, try to ‘write drunk’, without contrivance or even control. Learn to trust what’s inside and let it spew out, whatever it might be. I mentioned before about writing one page a day with the strict promise that you’ll destroy it before anyone sees it, which can be liberating. Write down what really scares you, those thoughts nobody else knows, and this will echo into the next time you compose some fiction.

Try not to predict what will be selling in a year or two, or what you think agents or publishers want to read. Tell your story. Trust what you have to say, and remember you’re in this for the long haul.


Anna-Marie said...

I like reading your posts Tom, they are full of sensible commentary and entertainment written in a very eloquent way. This post` is a bit scary to me. It makes me think about how every reader will be critical in their own unique way (good and bad), and that in the process of revealing something that has essentially been your own private thought process for a substantial length of time you have to be ready to accept judgment (not “you” obviously, I mean “one” but that sounds too posh). As for writing down thoughts that nobody else knows - yikes, even I couldn’t bare to look at that :D

TOM J VOWLER said...

Go on, Anna-Marie, I dare you.

dirtywhitecandy said...

'Write drunk' ... so long as you can remember how to save it! Seriously, though, this hits an important point. To write something that won't be a pale imitation of what's already out there requires the writer to mentally disinhibit and tap into what an idea fundamentally means to them.

Blake Kimzey said...

This is such a helpful bit of writing. I took a break from the blinking cursor and a white screen to read your blog and I'm glad I did. Thanks, Tom.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Good to see you, Roz. Yeah, I think the reader sees through imitation. Tapping into your own private terror or wonder and translating it to your fiction ensures it's original.

Hi, Blake. Curse those blinking cursors.

billyf27 said...

I am trying to transition from short stories to novels. I reach a certain point in the novel, and start thinking that I can't waste a year or two writing this story that will never get published. It is then easy to run to the safety of the shorts.

Maybe, it could be that I just don't have the right story yet.

Patty said...

I just recently decided to try my hand at writing and your blog has helped me so much, thank you!

Cindy said...

Hi, great post. The most difficult thing to develop in any type of writing is how to write in your own voice.

Marisa Birns said...

"...illuminating a truth about the world and the beautiful, fragile, foolish, remarkable and terrible people in it."

Such a wonderful explanation of what writing should be doing.

Write drunk. Yes. I haven't been doing that. Now, I will. Thank you.