Almost 20 years since The Fifth Element came out? Man. Still a great film, though. Visually speaking it’s as mad as a sack of badgers but somehow that works wonderfully in it’s favour.
I don’t do writing advice. It’s not a thing I feel qualified or comfortable doing, chiefly because as far as my writing goes (and if you’ll excuse the layered puns that add a special level of cringe to the cliche) I’ve been literally making it up as I go. But this week I was asked to advise a student who is doing Creative Writing as a project, and I felt honour-bound to at least try. The gist of it was that he was going to write a novel. Or a novella. He wasn’t sure which it would be, but he was certain he would do it. Although first he had a plan to write. And an outline. And character profiles. And an essay on the themes of the novel. Because how else would he evidence it, if he didn’t have all these things?
I got the feeling there was an expectation of validation attached to the proposal more than anything else, but I tried my best to be honest. Here’s what I said.
– Put your arse in a chair, your fingers on the keys, and write. Keep doing that until you finish the book, because you will learn more about the process of writing a novel-length piece of fiction by finishing one more than anything else. And when the time comes to present your evidence, that stack of words – even if it’s a first draft, even if ninety percent of it is trash that you hate on a second reading – is worth more than essays and profiles of a novel that doesn’t exist.
– Don’t say it’ll either be a novel or a novella. They are different things, and you write them in different ways. A novel is a deep-sea dive. It takes skill and stamina to do it, and you spend a long time on that dive slowly uncovering something that was thought lost and bringing it back, whole, to the surface. Writing a novella – writing all short fiction – is like freediving. You dive down with nothing but the gasp of breath you took when you started. Every sentence simmers taut with the desire to surface, and the need to go deeper.
There was more, but it was on the specifics of his pitch and isn’t really mine to repeat. I thought what I’d said was sensible enough; he looked at me as though I had grown an extra head.
I can’t blame him. At that age, I wouldn’t have listened either.