Last week I had a talk with a friend about writing that I decided to expand into this blog entry. I think I’ve written a bit on some of this before but maybe not in very much detail. I’m a bit hesitant to give advice on writing because I’m far from a master of the craft but I feel all right sharing what has worked for me. Perhaps it will work for someone else as well.
As I know I have said at least a few times on here, I am a big proponent of writing things out of order, basically no matter what it is you happen to be writing. I see no particular need to start at the beginning and write through to the end and in fact, a lot of the time I think that’s detrimental. Start with the bit you’re excited to write, right now, and work from there.
For one thing, I find beginnings immensely hard. You don’t have to do very much research into ‘how to write’ to find lots of people expounding on the importance of your opening line and first few paragraphs (no matter what it is you’re writing, again) and that can be a lot of pressure right out of the gate. You can sit there trying to come up with something that is ‘just right’ for a very long time. Lots of writers have also commented on the intimidation of the blank page, so I think the important thing is to get something down. Break that inertia and get moving.
So I tend to write whatever parts of the piece I feel ready to write or excited about, and then fill in the holes later. I think I wrote the ending of The King in Darkness before I wrote anything else. I think this is, in general, the best way to get started with whatever it is you’re trying to write: if there’s a scene you know just what to do with, or an anecdote that you want to tell, or whatever it is, write that bit immediately. You can figure out how to get there, and where to go from there, afterwards.
Even if you just end up writing a piece of a story (or poem, or whatever else) that you don’t know what to do with, that ain’t bad. First of all, you wrote something, which is always good. I feel that every bit of writing you do makes you better at it. Second, even if you don’t know what to do with it now, you can tuck it away for now and perhaps discover a home for it down the road. For now, you got something down on paper, broke the inertia of not knowing how to get started, and gave yourself a chance to stretch those writing muscles a bit.
Now, not everyone will agree with this. There are many proponents of planning everything carefully before you start to write and writing in order from beginning to end. I know I horrified at least one faculty member when I was doing my PhD by mentioning that I was writing chapters of the thesis before doing the Introduction. They just couldn’t understand how it was possible to do it. I guess, internally, I had a vague idea of what would be in my Introduction, just as a I have a vague idea of what will go at the beginning of every story I start writing, but I wasn’t ready to write it yet, so I went ahead with a part that I was fired up about. They really looked alarmed when I said I would probably write the Introduction last.
Which I did.
In general I think the only way you make progress at writing and get better at it is to just do it. Get some words down on the page, whatever words are ready to come. Don’t kill yourself over the parts that aren’t flowing yet; you can do that later. But write. Write what you’re excited about and passionate about and what you think is cool. Have people whose opinions you respect read it and tell you what they think. That’s how you’ll get better at it. One of the wonderful things about writing in this electronic era is that you can always change it later. There’s (almost) no cost to going ahead and trying out what’s in your head. It may be great. It may need some work. It may end up being adaptable to some other purpose later. There’s one really good way to find out. Write it.
Writing out of order may not work at all for some people and so I don’t pretend to have found The Answer to writing. It does work for me. If you’re feeling intimidated with starting a project or struggling to know how and where to begin, though, perhaps give beginning anywhere a try. Just start. It gets rolling from there.
I was saddened this weekend to see that the actor Nigel Terry had passed away. As I said on my Facebook page, I loved his Prince John in The Lion in Winter, an absolute delight of a movie that you absolutely should not watch the remake of. However, it was his King Arthur in Excalibur that I particularly have affection for; it is my favourite Arthurian film and one I never seem to get tired of watching.
Some of that is Nicol Williamson’s Merlin, which was a fantastic performance, but I truly do love the whole movie. The first time I watched it, in my teens, I didn’t quite – I thought it was a bit daft and silly in parts, although I liked it overall. However, what happened was that the more I learned about the Arthur stories, the more I liked it and the more I think Excalibur is about the perfect movie representation of them.
Of course it’s not the slightest bit ‘realistic’. Lancelot rides around in chrome armour, the sets are generally insane and there is a great deal of yelling. But, of course again, that’s exactly what the Arthur stories are like! They’re full of crazy things happening and over the top situations and absolute lunacy happening every thirty seconds. That’s why they’re wonderful.
No, of course knights (we’ll come back to this!) ‘in the time of King Arthur’ (whenever that was) would not have dressed anything like they do in the film – but in the stories they are armed and armoured and behave like 12th century knights, which is also completely mad, but no-one cared. I am completely convinced that medieval audiences were perfectly aware that people in the 9th century didn’t act or dress like they did, but it was an awesome story that (to them) also taught important lessons and so they didn’t worry about it.
That’s essentially what I think we need to do with the Arthur tales as well. The idea of telling the ‘real’ story or a ‘realistic’ take on Arthur is, to me, completely wrong-headed. It’s not what we want. I haven’t researched the question extensively, but from the reading I have done it seems relatively likely that there is, somewhere, a kernel of truth at the core of the Arthur stories. If you could somehow sift down through all of it, there probably was, at some time, a real leader in war who inspired the tales that have been rewritten and expanded and revised ever since, down through the centuries. Maybe it would even be a warlord from 9th century Britain, although maybe not entirely, if the Celtic mythological connections hold water.
The thing is that even if we found this figure, it wouldn’t be what we’re looking for, not really. There wouldn’t be ‘knights’ in the sense we think of them – that’s at least 200 years away. There wouldn’t be Lancelot, who was a 12th century addition. There would be no Grail quest, which also came in during the 12th century renaissance. It simply wouldn’t be the story we love, although as a historian I don’t doubt it would be interesting in its own right.
But the Arthur stories as most of us today love them are gloriously anachronistic, full of absolutely bonkers events like cannibal giants and blows that lay waste to huge swaths of countryside and invisible knights. It’s not realistic. Not even a little. But it’s wonderful. Just enjoy it.
That’s what they did when they made Excalibur; they just embraced the wonderful craziness of the Arthur stories and threw it up on the screen. It doesn’t actually have a cannibal giant or an invisible knight but it has Excalibur cleaving through steel and shapeshifting and Patrick Stewart screaming at the top of his lungs. It’s glorious. Nigel Terry did a great job as a (I feel) slightly baffled King Arthur and the whole thing works perfectly to me. I love the film for not caring in the slightest about what is realistic, but caring what made a spectacular tale. So thank you, Mr. Terry, for your contribution in bringing that to life.
May all our tales be just as amazing and spectacular.
Meanwhile personally I am breaking the ice on my new project by taking my own advice from the start of this entry and writing the bits of it that I’m ready to write and not flailing away at the part I’m finding difficult. This means I have made some progress, but doesn’t get me any closer to the next piece being ready for Eager Volunteers. Hopefully it’ll be worth it in the end.