A few months ago I entered this competition called The Writer. I’ve participated in a couple of competitions before, but never anyone quite like it – reality elimination style and all. It was a tough one, what with combining work and Lagos traffic. When I entered, it was a spur of the moment decision, something I stumbled upon. After getting shortlisted, I wondered how I was going to make writing one (well written) story a week work with my schedule; it was one thing to write in my free time and quite another to write on someone else’s deadline. Still, I did enter (glad I did) and now I’m able to drop some of the things I learned during the competition. As promised, here they are.
Lesson One: Write
Well, duh! You are a writer, so writing should come as easily as breathing, right? Unfortunately, that is mostly never the case. The thing is, sometimes you just can’t write, even when you have the idea. Even when you know exactly what you want to put down, the words just don’t seem to form. What do you do in this case? Well, you write. You write, and read, and delete, and then write again.
Writing my first story (the Romance theme), I remember times I sat staring at the blinking cursor. I remember deleting whole sections of prose, each time with a sinking feeling brought on by the looming deadline. I remember telling a friend I didn’t like the story, and I expected to get cut in the first week. But then I wasn’t. The story I submitted for the Romance theme wasn’t the story I set out to write, but it was the one I ended up writing, and like it or not it was the one that got me to the second round. So, sometimes the words won’t flow, but if you keep at it long enough, you’ll come up with something terrible or something decent, and terrible can always be cleaned up to decent.
Lesson Two: Keep all unfinished work
At some point in 2013, I was beginning to have a lot of unfinished stories. I would start and stop after a few lines or pages, and these stories started to get to me, like an itch I couldn’t quite ignore. Eventually, I decided to wipe the slate clean. One beautiful day, I read all of my unfinished work, and then deleted them one after the other. But there was this story, just two paragraphs long, titled The Stranger. I liked it and didn’t have the courage to delete it. Fast forward to week three of the competition, and this story would form the beginning of my Speculative Fiction entry. The lesson from this: never discard an unfinished story, or as Stephen King says, “Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea.”
Lesson Three: Be your own biggest critic
There will be people who will like your work and there will be people who won’t. What matters most is what you think about your work. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t take feedback, feedback is invaluable to writers; it’s like butter to bread, water to parched earth in some cases. However, you decide what to do with the feedback you get; you decide when something works or doesn’t, and you decide when something stays or gets cut. You decide if the feedback you’re getting makes sense, and you decide whether or not it is just someone rambling. But for you to decide, and decide well, you have to be willing to take off the lenses of your supposed genius and put on the spectacles of your worst critic.
Sometimes, you’ll hear how bad your work is; maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but you’re the only one that can decide if there is something you should fix, so you must be brutally honest with yourself: Is your prose weak? Is your grammar below par? Does your plot drag?
Some other times, you’ll hear how amazing your work is, but you can’t get caught up in your own hype either, you must still look frankly and decide if your work is worth the praise it’s being given.
There are a lot more lessons than I can write about today; I will probably share them someday. For now, these are the ones I can put down, I hope they help you with your own writing.
Until next time!