VG Lee is the critically acclaimed author of five novels and two collections of short stories. In 2012, Lee was nominated for a Stonewall Award for writing. Her most recent novel, Mr Oliver’s Object of Desire was runner up for the YLVA Publishing Literary Prize for Fiction 2017. Her second short story collection, Oh You Pretty Thing was published by Tollington Press in February 2019. Lee is also one of the judges for the prestigious Polari First Book Prize established in 2007.
My 10 Top Writing Tips
I started writing in my 40s, prompted by the unhappiness I experienced at the end of a relationship. I had no intention of becoming a ‘writer’ but getting my painful thoughts down on paper became a way of life for me. So, TIP 1 would be: if something goes adrift in your life, write it down. Try to explain it to yourself. Consider the experience from someone else’s viewpoint. That ‘someone else’s viewpoint’ led me into fiction writing.
The author, Raymond Carver advised, ‘a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing – a sunset or an old shoe – in absolute and simple amazement’. This very much coincides with what a friend’s mother often said, ‘Think before you ink’. So, TIP 2, is to take your time. Let ideas come to you. Particularly when starting a new piece of writing, don’t rush it!
TIP 3 is almost in direct contrast to TIP 2 – if there is some scene, some pivotal point you really need to get written, have laptop or notebook at the ready when you wake in the morning. Don’t get out of bed – just write madly! Set aside for a week and then calmly re-write.
For TIP 4: if the words we choose to use are half-hearted or banal, then we’re handing the reader a blurred photograph, an inadequate story. You will lose their interest. Henry James called this, ‘weak specification’. Be precise, be imaginative.
An artist friend uses multiple sketch books. Not every drawing is a good one but every few pages there is a jewel. TIP 5 for writers would be to use notebooks. If you prefer electronic devices, have an on-screen notebook where you save phrases, thoughts, words, observations. Not everything you write will be good but there will be some rough jewels to polish.
TIP 6 is my own: without any elaboration I write down exactly what I see and hear in my head almost as if I’m writing a police report. Days later, I’ll return to it and re-write, make better, make vivid, knowing the bones of the skeleton have been assembled correctly.
TIP 7 from best-selling author Sarah Waters: ‘Cut like crazy. Less is more. I’ve often read manuscripts – including my own – where I’ve got to the beginning of, say, chapter two and have thought: This is where the novel should actually start.’
But then conversely, I’m averse to whole-heartedly ‘killing my darlings’. For TIP 8, I suggest before you kill them, try moving the extract elsewhere: say to the start of a chapter or just print them out and hold them in readiness.
TIP 9 is so easy: read each day’s writing aloud as if to an audience. You will be amazed at how many repetitions you’ll find or even repetitious sounds. Regularly doing this will train your ear.
And finally, TIP 10: Don’t rely on friends or family for feedback on your writing. They will be dishonest because with the best will in the world, they either love or loathe you. Writing buddies good. Writing classes good. Mum, dad, best friend – NO!