I used to be very dubious about writing mottos.
Show, don’t tell!
Just put one word after the other!
It all feels to me like ways to simplify the writing process or turn a creative activity into a box-checking exercise. I particularly hate “show, don’t tell” – it’s called “story-telling” after all!
But, after every piece of writing I’ve done, I find there is an overriding lesson I’ve learnt from it, so over the years I’ve ended up with a few of my own writing mottos. I don’t follow them slavishly, but they are there in the back of my mind as I write.
Maybe you’ll find them banal and over-simplistic, like most of the mottos I’ve come across in my time. Maybe that’s the point with mottos – you just have to find those which work for you, and which make your work better.
Don’t be clever
I’m as guilty as any writer of writing things that are purposefully intellectual, overly clever and smug. Some people (like Rushdie) can pull it off and it’s part of their brand. For me, it’s a Cambridge thing, something from having a high-literary education. Everything I write now, I try to make it easily understandable.
It must be based in feeling
Similar to the above, the best of my writing it that which is based on a real emotion that I’m feeling and want to recreate. If what I’m writing is based in that real emotion, or wanting to sincerely communicate how it feels to be human, then I’m onto a winner.
Writing is the solution
A bit of an unusual this. I realised a few years ago that, whatever problem there was in my life, my solution to it was writing. When I have an issue or a personal mystery I want to solve, I write about it in my journal. When I’m in a rut or uninspired, it’s because I need to write something creative. It’s also useful when I’m going through a hard time and am stressed or pissed off – being a writer means that every life experience (especially the bad ones) are good research. I also try to give my characters a way to solve their own problems through writing.
Pick a scene and zoom
I’ve never been great at setting scenes, giving a sense of time and place and atmosphere (worrying for a writer, I know!) so I try to remind myself a simple way to do this. Pick a scene, then zoom into it. This saves me flitting around my characters’ lives or skimming over a scene without anything actually happening.
Use all five senses
Another way to help me create mood in a scene. Remember there are five senses and each can help to show more about how the character thinks and experiences their world, as well as giving a sense of time and place.
A problem is an opportunity
I don’t remember the inspiration for this motto exactly – apparently an American president, John Adams, said it. What I mean here is double-sized – a problem for me as a writer (such as a character who won’t come to life or an impasse in the plot) is an opportunity to rework or rethink the narrative. Likewise, my characters should have problems as this gives them a chance to learn, change and grow. (I’m prone to writing characters who don’t have clear desires, never come into conflict and don’t learn anything!)
Okay, your turn. What writing mottos keep you on the straight and narrow?