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Ten Pieces of Advice for the Writing Life

By Leila Aboulela

Polish your intention. Why are you writing? What do you really want to achieve? I once picked up a book of poems by Les Murray and the dedication said, “To the Glory of God”.  Other writers feel that they are bearing witness or that they are born story-tellers or that they are activists, entertainers, reformers, artists  or that they want to challenge perceptions or shine a torch into a dark cave of wonders.  There is no harm in starting out with the highest of intentions – if luck strikes it will keep you grounded and when disappointment hits you can still keep your head up high because you had picked up your pen for the sincerest of causes.

Write about anything, what you know and what you’re curious to find out; what you understand and what you want to figure out. The subject matter doesn’t really matter. What is crucial is your own fascination, your own angle, what keeps you awake at night, those words that can’t stay inside you anymore, those feeling that must take shape, that scene you’re itching to draw, that journey that needs to be mapped. Write about anything and everything but write with love and sharp eyes.

Surprise your reader. Agents, editors and competition judges have read all the books worth reading and watched all the films worth watching. On bad days they are jaded and on good days they want to be blown away. So startle them, provoke them, pull the carpet from under their feet.  Children are sweet so give them Satan toddling in a nappy. Rapists are evil so tell them about the one who saved the life of a puppy. Play around with the clichés – money can’t buy happiness, mothers love their children. And if this sounds too crude for you then sting them with the truth, dazzle them with innocence, sing, juggle and make them laugh or tell a story that has never been put into words before.

Gather your strength for sitting. A writer writes and a writer reads and this means hours and hours on a chair (preferably a good one). Look after your eyesight; be kind to your spine.  Walk every day and strengthen your upper body. Watch your posture; relax your neck. Stretch. This might all seem mundane but unless you’re aiming for the flash in the pan one book wonder, you want to be in for the long haul. Thousands and thousands of words, days banging the keyboard, hours of editing and reading require stamina, a certain kind of body power that needs to be developed.

Close your ears. Let the voices of your characters rise above that of the people around you. Your story is more important that the breaking news. Your novel is more valid than the latest research discovery. Your fictional world is more accurate that what the experts have discovered… at least until you’ve finished your novel.

Milk time. I wrote whole paragraphs of my first novel in my head at the kitchen sink. Then I would rush afterwards to write it all down on the first piece of paper I could find. Housework does not require our full attention, nor does exercise, nor does shopping, neither do certain office jobs. Apparently Naguib Mahfouz used to edit his writing while he was at his civil servant post. On the bus and the train, waiting in a queue, sitting in the dentist’s chair you can still be working on your writing without need for a pen or a keyboard. Think about your characters, draw them close to you and know them better. Mull the opening of your next chapter, worry about that particular plot weakness.  The next time you sit down to write, you will find yourself either full of more material or clearer in your vision.

Never worry that your readers will think that your protagonists are you. Once you start to care about your personal image, you are self-censoring. At the end of the day, the story is more important than the personal life of the writer. And if you’re worried that your friends or relatives will discover themselves in your novel then in addition to changing their name, alter at least two of the following:  their relationship to the protagonist, their nationality, gender, address or occupation.

Back out of dead ends. I have found that the quickest way to deal with a block in my writing is to simply delete a few lines, a paragraph or a whole chapter and then take my novel in another direction.

Read to become a better writer. This sounds like “eat to become stronger” and in a way reading is the food of the creative process. Read for all the reasons a reader reads but also read for inspiration, read to be influenced, read in order to pick up tricks and techniques, read in order to answer the questions, “How on earth did the author pull this off? How on earth did he/she get away with this?” Writing is an extension of reading and the quality of your reading will be reflected into your writing.

Be humble when receiving critical feedback from editors and other professionals. Be less humble when listening to family members and friends. But always keep an open mind. After all, you need readers and you want your work to be read. Be willing to redraft. Put your work aside and then examine it with fresh eyes. You will find weaknesses and errors, many things that you want to change. If time is tight, keep writing new material and only revise what you have written days ago. Consider the suggestions you hear, but remember that the final judgment is yours. No one knows these characters, this setting, the ins and outs of this fictional world as well as you do.

Leila Aboulela’s latest novel Lyrics Alley, set in 1950s Sudan, was Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards and short-listed for a Regional Commonwealth Writers Prize. It was long-listed for the Orange Prize as were her previous novels The Translator (a New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year) and Minaret. Leila was awarded the Caine Prize for “The Museum” included in her story collection Coloured Lights which went on to be short-listed for the Macmillan/Silver PEN Award. BBC Radio has adapted her work extensively and broadcast a number of her plays including The Mystic Life and the historical drama The Lion of Chechnya. Leila’s work has been translated into 13 languages.

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