The centipede, the shape-sorter and being Martina

How don't you do it?

One of the things about becoming an author is that people start asking you for opinions and advice. But I've sometimes heard an author saying or writing things about How to Write (as opposed to How I Write, which is different) which have made me think, "Oh, help! I hope no one here thinks it's the only way, and/or the ticket to success!" That's not because I write better, or sell better, than whoever's talking. It's because I know that there are other ways than the one they've just described. The opposite is also true.

I know of one aspiring writer, now published, who claims blithely that he 'never plots.' But he has a powerful, instinctive grasp of plot; as the sentences grow across the pages there's a mental dance of instinct: "X... no Y, with a bit of Z... no, A would be better, yes, we're off again". If you don't have that instinctive plot monitor, say - and lots of writers who are good in other ways don't - then it's probably wise to do some conscious plotting and planning fairly early on, or you're likely to find that you're 30k words across a soggy marsh of nice but pointless writing, and sinking fast.

The opposite is also true: it's easy enough to say "You must plan before you write a word" if your sure and certain instinct will always tell you when you should abandon the plan because the scaffolding has become a strait-jacket. But that sends a lot of aspiring writers wrenching their characters about as miserably as the writer wrecking good prose to get rid of the word was; they can't yet hear that still, small voice of warning, or they hear it but don't have the confidence to heed it.

I think that whether or not each of us formalises advice/opinion giving into some kind of teaching/lecturing/workshopping, as soon as anyone gazes at our book in our hand and wants to know how they can get there, it behoves us all to acquire the mindset of the good teacher. What good teachers know is that in their subject, there were things they were always good at. Those things came naturally and they didn't really have to think about how to get them right. My two sisters have four Maths A Levels between them. They are both teachers but, asked to explain something mathematical to O Level Emma, Carola will explain it as algebra, Sophia as co-ordinate geometry; each reaches for her own most natural way of expressing the same concepts. But good teachers know that even a good student can have a completely different set of natural talents from their own, and both Sophia and Carola could use the other system to explain, if I looked as if it would make it clearer to me.

So what's stupid to the point of cruelty-to-aspiring-writers, I think, is to take "your own most natural" way as the only way, and transmit it as that. "Just write", says the author blithely from the platform, not understanding how inhibited many potentially good beginner writers feel, either because they believe they need to "understand grammar", or because they don't feel entitled to be heard. "Learn your craft first," says another author, just as blithely, not realising that for many writers, technique-consciousness may prevent them from ever daring to put a word on the page, so it needs to come later, once they've got some confidence by writing whatever comes into their head, and shaping it with nothing but instinct.

Which is why, if you're likely to find yourself talking about How To Write, I think you should get to grips with How You Don't Write... But Others Do. Forums are hugely useful for this: one aspiring writer member of WriteWords, say, asks about how to handle a daunting report's-worth of revisions, and ten published and ten unpublished writers will talk about what they do and why. Our processes are all subtly or hugely different from each other, plus many of us will add in things we've seen work for others. Offered a bunch of possible tools, anyone with any creative and writerly DNA at all is much more likely to be able to sense what's likely to be right for them.

Reading threads like that has been a huge education to me as a teacher. So if you hear me talking about How I Don't Write, it's not because I don't want to give away my trade secrets. It's because I know that the opposite is also true.