Today at the Lisbon Book Fair, under the annoying drip-drip of June’s would-be rain, Penguin House’s publisher Companhia das Letras launched an anthology of 21 short-stories celebrating the 21 years of one of Portugal’s most important literary contests, the Young Writer’s National Contest. The anthology features 21 winners of the contest, including some of the most prominent writers of the New Portuguese Literature, as José Luis Peixoto, João Tordo or José Mário Silva. It also includes one of my short-stories, from back in the day, and made me reminisce about my younger years. A lot has happened since then and maybe that’s why I am less tolerant nowadays with some questions young or amateurish writers pose in some Facebook groups I belong to. I shouldn’t. I should be more patient. But I’m not. I just remember not having anyone to ask stupid questions when I started and maybe I’m resentful (poor me).
So I decided today to be more generous and kind than I usually am to my fellow beginners and to my young inner self and answer some common questions I see often asked in those groups. Just give you a peaceful piece of my mind. What do you think? Are you with me?
So, here we go:
1: How do you get started? How do you start writing? How do you become a writer?
I’ve seen this one a couple of times and it puzzled me. I started writing when I was 12 years old and I just started. I picked up pen and paper, and later a typewriter and I started. I never stopped to think how to start. My advice to you, who have this question in your souls, is: don’t take it too seriously. Don’t go to classes, don’t read creative writing books, don’t ask experience writers. You can do all that later. How do you start? You just sit down and write, and write, and write. Just pour it into the paper or the screen. Will it be very good? Probably not. But that’s how you start. You can’t start learning tennis thinking you’ll beat Roger Federer in a month. Just have fun. Be creative. Experiment. Tell stories. Show them to your friends and family. That’s how you start.
And write because you enjoy it. If you’re merely in love with the idea of being a writer, of having published books, signing autographs and earning more money that Stephen King, forget about it. Go do something else. You’re just not taking it seriously. The probability you’ll be able to get there is less than 0.001%. Or even less. I’m serious. More than 99.9% of writers never get rich and are not famous. Write because you enjoy it. Have fun. Otherwise you will not make it. The effort will simply be too much for you. Trust me on this.
2: Should I use a First Person narrator or a Third Person narrator?
The first time I tried to answer this question I figured it was a matter of taste. I use both all the time. But actually, no. I don’t think it is. I use them for different reasons.
Here’re some reasons to use First Person, in my view: 1) Readers identify better with the character, they assume his/her POV so they actually assume his/her ‘skin’ in some sense. 2) You want to hide some events that are happening outside of the scope of the character’s POV, maybe because you want to make it a twist, or something. 3) You want to expose the intimacy of the thinking and feeling of the character and this is the best way to do it.
Here’re some reasons to use Third Person, in my view: 1) You want to follow several equally important characters, and it doesn’t make sense, or it becomes too confusing, to be jumping between several First Person narrators. 2) The story has such a scope that you need to follow the whole more often and give weight to the general ‘up-in-the-air’ POV, instead of being stuck to a particular ‘down-on-the ground’ POV. 3) You want to show important things that the character does not know about and maybe never will. In one of Alexander Kent’s novels (probably STAND INTO DANGER), the MC is in love with a woman who is tortured and killed. We know what happened to her and some of the characters around him also know what happened to her, but they let the MC think she just abandoned him and went on her way, safely. This kind of twist wouldn’t be possible, or it would be more difficult, if the novel had been written in the First Person.
3: How do I open a novel? How do I open a story? How to write the first sentence?
I never gave too much thought to the first sentence. Just start writing. If you think the first sentence is that important, leave it to fine tune in the end. Just start. Focus on the story. Say what you want to say. Just go and go and don’t stop. Honestly, a writer is too often looking for an excuse to stop and not write. It sounds silly but it happens. I believe it’s because of the weight of the responsibility, or of the identification with the characters, or whatever. But it’s important to be determined to go through it. To get to the end. I can’t say I write every day (I wish!). Sometimes I have to stop and think, or am busy with something else. But I have to be absolutely determined to reach the end, or I will not be satisfied with myself.
That said, I have been paying more and more attention to the beginning of a story. It’s the one part I usually re-write, many times because my beta-readers annoyingly ask for it. But what I think it’s important is having the same care as you would in a movie: you want to start in a way that the reader feels chained to the book, compelled to read just one more page. And that means starting with a bang! Starting in an unexpected, strong, sometimes shocking way. Or be very very good, careful, invested, in the writing itself.
When you study screenwriting they tell you that the Initial Image should come back a full circle into the Final Image. I like that, even though I don’t think I always achieve it. But try it. It’s not bad advice.
4: Can I write more than one story at a time?
Well… I do! I’m always entertaining several stories at the same time. Usually, they will be at different stages. I will be researching one and editing and re-writing another. I will be writing the first chapter of one and the last chapter of another. I pretty much let my brain choose the one I absolutely must be writing at a particular moment. Sometimes my unconscious mind really has to come out in one way or the other. Having several stories on the table helps me prevent writer’s block: if I am not able to work on a story I’ll turn to another and come back later.
But some writers can’t do this. They need to stick to one story each time. It just depends.
5: Do characters do things you did not expect? Do characters have minds of their own?
The thread this question generated was filled with polemic and surprising comments. Some people, maybe because they’re addicted to outlines or maybe because they don’t like to feel they lose control, would say it is impossible that something coming out of their wits would do something unexpected. To me, it happens frequently. Characters just ignore what I want and do what they want. What does that mean? It probably means the character is so consistently built it is not coherent anymore to act as I have planned before. Or it means I take the risk of actually empathizing with the character and understanding what he/she would feel in a certain situation, losing a bit of control myself. Or it means that a writer is indeed a bit schizophrenic as David Mamet suggests. But I do believe characters have minds of their own and that’s one of the most difficult things to manage when you write.
And that’s it. For now these are the questions I will give my input to. Don’t take it too seriously. I’m not a guru of anything. I just thought it could be useful to some people, that’s all. See you next week.