Am I a genius and wot r whurds?
Words by Lydia Ruffles
Full disclosure: exactly how I wrote my two books remains something of a mystery to me. Both involved feverish drafting, during which I occasionally wondered if I were a genius, followed by hellish edits characterised by googling ‘wot r whurds’ and ‘how can write right’.
Being contractually obligated to deliver the second was not nearly as motivating as one might imagine, at least not when the deadline was months away, but I took lessons from the Shiny Debut into the Difficult Second Novel and will carry even more into the next.
Each story is its own beast to be wrangled accordingly, and the best advice I could give any writer is to do it their way, but here are some things do and don’t work for me.
'Wherever you go, there you’ll be’
I wrote most of my debut, The Taste of Blue Light, in bed while being treated for a neurological condition. Colour Me In, my second book, came together in Japan, Portugal, Southend, and various writer-friendly spots around London. They were polar experiences in some ways but, as Confucius and Colour Me In’s epigraph say, ‘Wherever you go, there you’ll be.’
A change of scene can be refreshing and inspiring (necessary, even) but, whether I was in my flat in south London or a subterranean capsule hotel in Osaka, all my writerly tricks and trials were right there with me.
Begin with endings (or don’t)
Colour Me In is about a nineteen-year-old actor called Arlo Thomas who flees to the other side of the world, taking only a sketchbook full of maps. I’m not a plotter so rarely have a map when I write.
Instead, I start with an image. For The Taste of Blue Light, it was a young woman unravelling in an art gallery. With Colour Me In, it was a guy exploring an abandoned factory with someone he didn’t know well. I build from there.
With both books, the endings were among the first pages written. I don’t draft chronologically but need to know where I’m going, even if I’m not sure how I’ll get there. Often the destination shifts.
"Leave readers enough room to speculate but know which aspects need to be crystalline for the story to land."
The moment it all starts to amass and you can’t look directly at it in case it disappears is my favourite bit. For me, this comes late – the penultimate or final edit. With Colour Me In, I changed the title around this time too.
The point here is that the more we understand what works for us, the better we can trust our process and the less vulnerable we’ll be to wobbles. So, ignore the ‘rules’ if they’re not helpful to you.
(Things I do that writers are told not to include: editing as I go along; googling myself; and reading reviews.)
If your characters are avoidant, be direct. Both my protagonists are hiding from their own minds so I had to find ways to let readers feel things that the characters can’t. I asked my early readers to call me out on bits I’d written around rather than through so a chunk of editing was focused on delivering emotionally satisfying experiences.
Linked to this is the need to explain things on the page, not just in your head. Possibly I’m being Captain Obvious here but I fell foul of this in early drafts. Leave readers enough room to speculate but know which aspects need to be crystalline for the story to land.
Likewise, if you set things up in the first half, address them in the second - this doesn’t mean everything has to be tied up with a bow.
Daydream with impunity. So much writing is done away from the page. It took me a while to embrace daydreaming as part of the job. I also learned I can’t write or edit well if my tank is empty so I fill it by going to galleries, travelling and eavesdropping.
Ditto having breaks when blocked. Try something non-verbal instead – I walk, pretend I know yoga, or lie on the floor. Whatever gets me back to the page refreshed.
Five final tips
Community helps – find other writers at meet-ups like Riff Raff, writing courses such as Faber Academy or on social media.
If you’re published, ask for reviews on goodreads, Amazon etc. This can be cringy but helps reach more readers. (NB If you’ve read mine, please review – unless you hated it.)
Say hello to booksellers and offer to sign stock.
If writing has gone from being your hobby to your job, congratulations and get a new hobby.
If an idea comes as you’re nodding off, write it down or risk losing it forever in the folds of sleep.
Writing can be messy, magic, tough and tender – I’m two-and-a-bit novels deep now and wouldn’t (/couldn’t) have it any other way.
Lydia Ruffles is the author The Taste of Blue Light (out now) and Colour Me In (out 9 August). She also writes and speaks on creativity, mental health, synaesthesia, and migraine for media ranging from Buzzfeed to the Guardian and Wellcome Collection to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @lydiaruffles.