An Idiot’s guide to writing – written by an idiot

Writing fluff isn’t hard, but that’s not to say that it isn’t fraught with road blocks, tar pits and other metaphorically-sound traps. There exists an entire encyclopaedia of things which might put you off of writing altogether. Hello, my name is James. I hold a BA in English Literature, have taught English and creative writing and have mentored young writers (some of whom have gone on to win prestigious prizes). I am not a great writer; I am not a poor writer, but I have studied and taught enough creative writing to pass on some basic tips that might get those who a reluctant to put pen to paper started.
Being a massive fan of the backgrounds that surround GW’s fictional worlds, it is unsurprising that my forays into creative writing have often taken the form of pieces of fluff. I love breathing life into an army or RP campaign by developing narratives for characters, units or even whole armies. Over the next few months I will be writing articles aimed at helping those who lack the confidence to take a stab at creative writing.
I intend to address several writing bugbears including:-

  • Technical skills and editing
  • Planning vs. free forming
  • Perspectives, 1st, 2nd and 3rd person. How they benefit a narrative
  • Ret-conning and navigating the existing material
  • Avoiding cliché or how not to write ‘Storm of Iron’
  • Science fiction tropes, stereotypes and their benefits / downfalls
  • Breaking away from the GW crutch

I’ll start right now.

Technical skills and editing

Writers have different opinions when it comes to the value that is placed on the correct use of the English language. The internet, however, has only one opinion. If you misspell, are grammatically incorrect or don’t know your commas from your semi-colons you will get the following reaction:

What does this mean? Well it obviously means that if you struggle with spelling or are dyslexic, you don’t get to write fluff and enjoy making backgrounds for your characters… Of course it doesn’t mean that, but what it does mean is that you need to recognise where you struggle. I always struggled with spelling when I was younger, still do now. There are words that stump me, but in this modern age where you can either spellcheck or ask Google how to spell words like definitely and beautiful, you have no excuse for not at least trying to find the correct spelling. Much of the rage that washes back and forth across the internet could be curtailed by the application of effort. If you want people to take the time to read and consider your ideas, don’t just sling them together and hope for the best. Your fluff should be something you care for, nurture and them release to the world when it’s able to take wing and fly- don’t just kick it out of the nest and hope for the best.

I have friends who have amazing imaginations but are dyslexic. This doesn’t stop them from writing; it does however encourage them to seek assistance from their friends. Much like licking your own elbow, you can’t proof reading and edit your own work.

‘Self-editing is the path to the darkside. Self-editing leads to self-delusion, self-delusion leads to missed mistakes, missed mistakes lead to bad reviews. Bad reviews are the tools of the darkside.’ – Eric T. Benoit (paraphrasing Yoda)

I know it’s hard to ask for help. Jesus, I’m not going to make anyone read this before I put it on the website, but I trust myself. I’ve been writing on websites for years and I simply don’t honestly care… Is that wrong? Should I not lead by example? Well, I say no. I’m not attempting to put this article in the firing line of fan boys and ask for their critique; I am trying to write an article to help those new to writing. See the difference? When it comes to publishing your work online, on forums and other places where bits of fluff get distributed, it’s worth the extra effort of having an independent proof-reader. Hell – ask someone on a forum if they’ll be your fluffer (as in the person that reads your fluff, what do you think I meant?!), I’m sure you will find someone in a similar situation who would like your thoughts on their work.

So what have we covered? Proof reading, ensuring your work meets the expectations of the community to which you are releasing it. It seems like I’ve just stated some really obvious ideas that you could have figured out on your own, but this is only supposed to be an intro and I really don’t want this article to be about rules like don’t end a sentence with a preposition, because that’s not what writing is about to me.

Indulging in being an oddity

I started by saying that different writers place a different emphasis on the importance of technical accuracy. I didn’t say how I view it. In my opinion it is not the heart of writing. I don’t think that writing starts with technical excellence and is made excellent by simply being well formed and articulate. Writing is about imagination and much of what makes an excellent writer is his ability to play with language, seeing it as a tool rather than a noose. China Miéville’s book ‘Railsea’ stands as one of my favourite examples of this ability to play with language. The premise of the book is that the entire known world is covered with a never-ending tangle of rails which are plied by war-trains, pirates and hunters. This chapter of the book (yes chapter) plays with language in a wonderful way that mirrors the content of the story.

‘There was a time when we did not form all words as now we do, in writing on a page. There was a time when the word “&”was written with several distinct & separate letters. It seems madness now. But there it is, & there is nothing we can do about it.

Humanity learnt to ride the rails, & that motion made us what we are, a ferromaritime people. The lines of the railsea go everywhere but from one place straight to another. It is always switchback, junction, coils around & over our own train-trails. What word better could there be to symbolise the railsea that connects & separates all lands, than “&” itself? Where else does the railsea take us but to this place & that one & that one & that one, & so on? & what better embodies, in the sweep of the pen, the recurved motion of trains, than “&”?

An efficient route from where we start to where we end would make the word the tiniest line. But it takes a veering route, up & backwards, overshooting & correcting, back down again south & west, crossing its own earlier path, changing direction, another overlap to stop, finally, a few hairs’ widths from where we began.

& tacks & yaws, stitches on its way to where it’s going as we all must do.’
– China Miéville – Railsea

China Miéville – Railsea
China makes the loop of the “&” symbol represent the twist of the world’s railways, he also links it to the twists that will inevitably follow in his narrative. He doesn’t once write “and” in 376 pages. This is truly indulging and playing with language, using it as a stylistic tool to shape meaning in his story. Why does it work? Well it works because he’s a brilliant writer. It also works because he is consistent and his playing with language lends meaning to the narrative.

So – what am I trying to say? Well really I’m saying don’t get hung up on the technical side of the writing. Don’t let your creativity be stifled by spelling and punctuation, but at the same time, remember what a tool language and punctuation can be.

Your homework, should you choose to accept it, is to read Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. Look at the way he uses punctuation and then realise that being technically correct is second to being brilliantly imaginative.

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