Keep writing

‘Your work is special, however bad you may think it is in its current state. It’s special because no one but you can write it. It may not feel fledged or fully formed or even close to the version of itself that you would love to see, but that doesn’t mean you should stop believing in its potential. Whatever stage your work is at, it carries the seeds of possibility. So don’t knock what you’re trying to achieve or what you have achieved thus far, and, above all, don’t stop writing. The words you haven’t written yet are waiting for you.’

Tim Bowler

Grow through self-doubt

‘I’ve always found self-doubt a strange nomadic creature: a kind of hobo who pitches his tent outside the back door and never quite moves on. Even when the Muse turns up on time, he’s whittling a stick nearby. Yet I’m deeply fond of him and always have been. He may be a little unwashed and he certainly eats too much of my food, but he has virtues. He grounds me, challenges me, makes me fight for my story. So, welcome, friend, stay as long as you want. You make me stronger.’

Tim Bowler

Stay loose with the plot

‘You stand at the edge of a forest. You have never been through it before. There are hundreds of paths in. You choose the most interesting one, walk a few steps, then see more paths branching off it. You choose the most interesting one and walk on. A few steps later, more paths, spreading in all directions, some interlinking with paths you’ve already seen, some creating new green tributaries – and so you go on, through the forest, following the path that seems best. Sometimes you find you’ve taken a wrong path. You go back and try another one, and somehow, eventually, you reach the other side. You don’t have to traverse the forest this way, of course. You could simply stand at the edge, check your compass, choose a path that takes you in the right direction, then stick with that. It will probably still be a good journey. The forest is beautiful, after all. But I’m mindful of lost trees and unseen glades whenever I hear people insist on nailing down a plot before the journey has even started.’

Tim Bowler

Expressing the miracle

‘Sometimes you hunt the words, sometimes they hunt you. They wake you in the night, pull you out of dreams, force you to believe in them. They close round your thoughts and feelings, give them form, substance, reality, help you express the miracle of being alive.’

Tim Bowler

How do I approach writing?

‘I try to make sure my stories are packed with suspense to keep the reader hooked. I want the reader to miss sleep, miss meals, miss everything to keep on reading my story. So I try to make sure that at any given moment there is something exciting just ahead that the reader must read on to discover. On a deeper level, I let my imagination go where it wants. For me the best stories are the ones that cut deep. On the surface is a gripping plot that keeps the reader hooked but running underneath like a subterranean stream is the real story, the heart and essence and meaning of the thing.’

Tim Bowler

Believe in your stories

‘Work as hard as you can and write as well as you can, and when you have something you feel you’d like to send out, go for it. If rejection comes, don’t take that as rejection of you as a writer. You are the same builder of dreams that you were before. The most important thing is to keep writing, keep persevering, keep believing in yourself, keep picking yourself up when you find you’re on the floor, and keep remembering that whatever happens to your stories, they are your stories and they are sacred things for the simple reason that no one in the world can tell them but you.’

Tim Bowler

Go for it

‘Go for it. Give the story everything. Take risks. You can’t really fail with this. You don’t have to show your writing to anybody until you’re ready. If the story doesn’t work, start again. When you think you’ve got nothing worth saying, write another page anyway. If that’s no good, write another. You’ve got self-doubts? Join the club (every writer I know is in it) and write another page. Sooner or later the good stuff will come. But you’ve got to put down the words. You can’t edit what you haven’t written. So be bold and write another page.’

Tim Bowler

Be patient with your story

‘I love it when the words come fast, when they flash and crackle like gunfire, but I also love the opposite: the drip-drip of words that charts the slow evolution of an idea. I have learned to be patient, to trust the story-making instinct when it refuses to be hurried. The best ideas always come from the stillest part of the mind and it’s often when the words seem most elusive that I find the richest fruit has been growing inside me all along.’

Tim Bowler

Murdering darlings

‘You just have to do it. If you want your story to be the best you can make it, you have to be prepared to kill the bits that don’t work, and that often includes your favourite passages. I wasn’t always so heartless. In my twenties and thirties I kept a file of deathless words and phrases that wouldn’t fit into a particular story but which I felt the world couldn’t live without and would have to see at some later stage. Well, the world hasn’t seen them yet and never will now because I threw that file away long ago, contents unused. Why didn’t I use the material? Because words live in the present tense and rise to meet the moment. If they don’t work in the present context, they probably won’t work anywhere else, and the ones that preen themselves just a little too much are usually the millstones round the neck of the story rather than the jewel in its crown. Murdering darlings is painful but here’s the thing I’ve learned. Every word counts, every single one, including the ones you kill. They’re like dead soldiers offering themselves for the others to walk upon. Your good words – the ones you keep – earn their right to live on the backs of those that didn’t make it. So all words count, even the ones you throw away.’

Tim Bowler

Make friends with the empty space

‘Make friends with the blank page, the blank screen. It’s a window into infinity, a net waiting for your words to swim into it. Creation is a mystery. If it has rules, they are not ours, but who cares? Creation doesn’t need to be understood. It simply needs to be cherished and what matters most is not that creation makes sense but that it happens. Writers are midwives, not gods. You own the process but not the source. Your fingers move and the story rolls out, filling the space before you.’

Tim Bowler

Getting it written, getting it right

‘For me every new story is a mountain that has never been climbed before, so there’s no known route up it. I have to discover that route for myself. Generally, my attitude is: first get it written, then get it right. I write the first draft without any particular thought of beauty or style and focus simply on getting the ideas down, getting “black on white” as Maupassant put it, so that I can give some visible form to the shapeless thing that’s chafing inside me. If that first draft is rubbish (which it often is), I might throw the whole thing away and do another rough draft (or however many), again focusing on the matter of the story rather than the manner of its telling, and I keep putting down words until I’ve got the rough-hewn story in place, i.e. until I’ve got it “written”. Then I concentrate on getting it “right” – and the editing process begins. This can cover a multitude of activities: cutting, adding, changing, tweaking, rewriting, revising (which literally means re-seeing), and most of all – in the final stages – honing the words until the text is as smooth as I can make it.’

Tim Bowler

When is the story 'right'?

‘Probably never, if we’re talking about perfection, but perfection isn’t the aim for me because I know I’ll never achieve that. What I’m aiming for is the highest excellence I can manage and there comes a point where you have to stand back and say the story is finished. The honing could always go on longer. There is always something that could – possibly – be better still, if you just squeezed a little more juice out of it. But the story has to live and breathe and have its say, and it won’t do that if you refuse to let it go. You have to be brave and trust your instinct. You’ve written your story, you’ve nurtured it, you’ve cut and changed and rewritten and honed, and there comes a moment when something inside you goes click. It’s a click that’s telling you to let the story go now because it’s ready. So let it go.’

Tim Bowler

The mortality of words

‘Will our words live forever? Of course not. This is wonderfully levelling. It may be notionally true that spoken words perish and written words remain, but I have no illusions about them remaining very long, however well they are used. Words are not equipped to live forever. Our social media posts are sand art that lives until the next tide and our novels are cave art that may live a little longer if we’re lucky, but they too will be erased eventually in the continuum of history. I love being part of this process and knowing that even the very greatest literature will one day be forgotten but it won’t matter because other equally great literature will always be written to take its place. The words will die but the writing will always live.’

Tim Bowler

Ego

‘No question about it. Writing always goes better when I kick myself out of the process. The ego is the noisiest beast in town and I write far better without him. Or someone does anyway.’

Tim Bowler

Your unique voice

‘Never forget that you are unique. There’s nobody else in the world remotely like you. There never has been and there never will be. Your view of the world is unlike anybody else’s. You have magic inside you that no one else possesses. You have thoughts that no one else can think, feelings that no one else can feel. And you have words inside you, thousands and thousands of little gems of power and beauty, fighting each other to burst from you. Use them. Enjoy them. Dive into your imagination and watch the stories tumble out.’

Tim Bowler

Knowing your characters

‘This doesn’t come quickly for me. I have to live with the characters for some time before I get to know them, and by “living” I mean living with them through the story. I don’t sit down and write character biographies beforehand. I know some authors do this but that doesn’t work for me. It’s only when the characters act out their dramas on the page that I start to learn about them. But if I’m patient and listen – really listen – to what they are trying to show me, I find eventually that they reveal themselves in all their wondrous diversity.’

Tim Bowler

Go your own way

‘Writing is a deeply personal activity. There’s no single right way to do it, just the way that works for you. Personally I start from characters and settings. If these are strong enough, I usually find the plot reveals itself to me as I go along. Many writers devise a plot first but that doesn’t work for me because I find the act of writing throws up my best ideas. But if plotting beforehand works for you, then plot. Whatever works for you, do that, and ignore anyone’s advice – including mine – if it clashes with what your heart is telling you.’

Tim Bowler

Paradoxes

‘So many paradoxes in writing. How everything on a page can look right and yet be wrong. How a sentence can be wrong, and changed and changed and still be wrong, then returned to its original and be right. How you can write words down and think you know them, then find they’ve become metaphors for something you hadn’t dreamt of. I love the coyness and thunder of words. One moment they do your bidding, the next they ambush you. It’s as though we don’t own them at all. We just launch them. The mere thought of that makes me happy.’

Tim Bowler

Look in thy heart and write

‘I often struggle with “the truant pen”, as Sir Philip Sidney put it, though not necessarily in the way he meant. My metaphorical pen is rarely silent. It’s just wayward. I’ll be doing OK, then suddenly find it’s bunked off and is busy writing other things, by which I mean wrong things, things that aren’t mine, things that don’t speak from inside me but reflect fear and insecurity and an obsession with what is acceptable, marketable, likeable, sellable, publishable, all excellent writerly objectives provided they don’t pull you away from what is and feels true to you. Because that’s a kind of death, not of ability but of what you stand for. So somehow it’s about marrying what is commercial with what is true. And if one of these must be sacrificed? That’s a choice for each person but I know what Sir Philip would say. He’s said it already in the same poem. Six words which for me are the closest thing I know to a writer’s creed. Whenever I lose my way, which is often, I come back to them and remember why I picked up a pen at the age of five and am still holding it now: “Look in thy heart and write”.’

Tim Bowler

Locations

‘A location is like another character in the story. It has its own personality and that personality impacts on the story just as the characters do. Isolated locations are particularly evocative because they place the characters in isolation, too, where they are often at their most vulnerable. Some people thrive in lonely spots; others fall to pieces. Isolation can bring out fear and it can also bring out courage. The surroundings are a vital element to the story and if well drawn can both reflect and deepen the conflict that the characters are acting out before us.’

Tim Bowler

Words, words, words

‘Keep the words coming. Don’t let weird ideas worry you. Sometimes you have to turn out lots of crazy writing in order to find the good stuff. Don’t be afraid to throw things away if they don’t work. This is healthy. If there’s a good story inside you, it will come out if you’re patient and if you give it the time and care it requires. Writing is an engagement, not just with the readers you are trying to reach, but with your deepest self. So hang in there and write on. It takes time to develop as a writer and the journey of discovery never ends.’

Tim Bowler

Persistence

‘Write as much as you can. Practise your craft. You learn about writing by writing. Don’t give up when the going gets tough. Writing is hard. It takes patience, determination and as much self-belief as you can muster. If you have the ability, it will show in time provided you keep the words coming. If the story isn’t working and you’re starting to doubt yourself, write on anyway. Success in writing is not just about talent. There must be talent, of course, but often this is latent in an individual and it may take you many years and many written words before you find your true voice. So write on, keep faith with your dream, and refuse to give up.’

Tim Bowler

Critical ability

‘You really need this. It’s a skill that you develop by practising it with every single piece of work, however painful it is to admit to yourself that this word or that sentence or this chapter or that character or perhaps even the whole story is no good. You have to be able to look at your own work and separate the flowers from the weeds, then sort out or get rid of the bad stuff. It’s normal to have bad stuff in your early drafts. The imagination can spill out all kinds of whacky things that felt good at the time of writing but don’t stand up to scrutiny later when the more judgemental side of you looks at them. And you need that judgemental side. It’s a necessary counterbalance to the creative side of you that pushed the story draft into existence in the first place. So when it’s time to look more critically at what you have written, stand back, study the story as dispassionately as you can, then see what, if anything, you need to do to improve it.’

Tim Bowler

Ideas

‘Sometimes you have to go looking for ideas, other times they creep up and tap you on the shoulder and force you to write about them. Somebody once said that writers don’t have ideas, ideas have writers. In other words, the idea becomes so powerful it starts to possess the writer. There’s something in that. The main thing is to be alive to what’s going on around you and – more importantly – what’s going on inside your heart and head. Sometimes a picture in your mind sets you off, or a character from real life, or a person you make up, or a melody, or a smell, or a particular emotion, or a moral dilemma, or an invented situation. It can be anything that sets your inspiration racing and the words flying – and here’s the bonus. The process of writing – the physical act of it – unlocks more ideas. You can start with what seems a small idea but the more you work it on the page or on the screen, the more you see its potential for development. You have to be patient with this and willing to go in wrong directions but if you keep following the idea threads that your imagination presents to you, then sooner or later you’re going to write something amazing.’

Tim Bowler

Go the distance

‘Be willing to go the distance on a story. Work over it again and again. Hone the story until it flows like running water. Be patient. It takes time for the characters to reveal their true natures and the story will only have integrity when the people in it are believable. Don’t skimp on the time and effort needed to make the story right. If you nail it in one go, that’s great, well done you, but that probably won’t happen very often. More likely it will take lots of drafts and reworkings to make the story sing. You have to love the labour of that. Not all people do. Some are more in love with the image of being a writer than the writing itself. But if you forget about that image and focus on serving the story rather than being its master, I think you’ll achieve a better result.’

Tim Bowler

High mountain writers

‘A sensitive disposition seems to me a prerequisite for artistic achievement. But it needs its opposite. Just as uncertainty exists, so must the stubbornness that says: I have something to say and I will say it. The two can live together. Integrity lies in the truth of what we seek to write, not in where that writing ends up. It will grow where it will grow. That may be hard to accept in this age of brazen self-promotion where those who shout loudest seem to garner most attention, but that shouldn’t change the foundational motive behind why we write. However insecure you may feel about your work and your aspirations, I would say to you: If you yearn to write, then write. Your work is precious because you are precious and that work is yours. We cannot control the destiny of who reads or doesn’t read our work but if we write with sincerity and speak our truth as honestly as we can, the people who matter will find us. The flowers that bloom high up a mountain will always be cherished by those who make the climb to discover them.’

Tim Bowler

Remember the possibility

‘Pick up a book you admire. Feel its weight, its solidity. Then consider how the physical entity you are holding in your hand with its pages and print, its words and its pictures, was once but a discarnate mixture of thoughts, hopes, whispers and doubts, and before that an empty space in the author’s head with nothing in it but a possibility. Whenever you doubt yourself, remember that possibility. Because the source of it lives in your head too.’

Tim Bowler

Play

‘Somebody once asked me what writing fiction is like. I said it’s like playing in a story factory. It was the first thing that came out of my mouth but I’m glad I said it. Writing is hard work. It always has been. Fighting the words, the ideas, the doubts. Yet I think I spoke truth that day because when I reflect upon it, there is something playful in the spirit that seeks to write stories. Even in times of struggle, some part of the soul is having fun.’

Tim Bowler

Try to disappear

‘For me the best times in writing are when I disappear. It’s kind of a Zen thing. I’ll be putting down words and suddenly realise I’m not there any more. I’ve vanished, as one of my favourite poets puts it, “into the image of the Whole”. He was talking in a different context but it works for writing too. Through some agency beyond my understanding, the perceiver, the perceived and the act of perception become one and all that exists is The Thing Itself – the Story. Such moments are rare. Mostly I find that no matter how deeply I inhabit the writing and the writing inhabits me, I’m always aware of the dualism of Author and Story. But when I do manage to vanish, the work goes better.’

Tim Bowler

Willpower

‘Sometimes, for whatever reason, you just can’t summon the willpower to write your words. If that’s the case, try working in short bursts. Try writing, say, for fifteen minutes at a time. Promise yourself that you’ll give the story fifteen minutes of your very best effort. Set a timer if that helps. When the fifteen minutes are over, you are free to stop if you want to. If you want to carry on, of course, do so, but if you stop after fifteen minutes, make an agreement with yourself about when you’re going to do another fifteen minutes, and make sure you turn up and do those fifteen minutes when you said you would. It’s a question of getting yourself used to some kind of discipline, especially if your will is flagging. If fifteen minutes feels too much, try ten minutes, or five. Five minutes isn’t a lot of time for the story and you may only manage a few words before the timer goes off. But they’re still words that weren’t there five minutes ago and that’s better than not writing at all.’

Tim Bowler