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Ten Top Tips for Filling that Blank Page by Melissa van Maasdyk

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Melissa van Maasdyk

Melissa van Maasdyk

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When I signed up for a summer creative writing course, I had already worked as a writer and sub-editor on magazines for several years, and didn’t think it would be a big leap from features to fiction. But I clearly had a lot to learn about the subtlety of creative writing, and it took those 10 Saturday mornings, followed by a couple of other courses, and much reading in between to produce my first novel, a foodie romance called Love Apples. Apart from reading books on writing, I’ve also always lapped up advice from authors, and the following are 10 of the top tips that helped see me through.

1) Write about a subject you “know intimately”
This was the advice of bestselling author Jackie Collins, who often said when interviewed that the secret to her success was writing about Hollywood mansions from the inside, rather than from the outside looking in. Although she was better known for what’s been termed “bonkbusters” than literary masterpieces, who can argue with sales of over half a billion books worldwide? My novel was born during a writing course at Central Saint Martins in London, which involved writing short stories to different themes every week. The first that truly resonated was one inspired by a travel assignment I did for Marie Claire in Mauritius, probably because it was set in a world that I knew and loved.

2) Mix up what you know with what you can imagine
While Love Apples draws on my experience working on glossy magazines, it wouldn’t be fiction if I hadn’t added a bit of imagined drama too (a cyclone, psychopathic fashion director, torrid love triangle…). I think British author Tony Parsons gets the recipe just right in the following summation, which I tore out of a magazine and attached to my pin board during the writing process (unfortunately there’s an advert on its back and I can’t for the life of me remember where it’s from): “Writers have three tools: experience, imagination and research; what you’ve lived, what you can imagine living, and what others have lived. Good books are a cocktail of all three; the trick is to mix it up so that the reader can’t tell what’s made up and what’s real.”

3) Write to entertain
My writing instructor at Central Saint Martins, the award-winning author and journalist Joanna Pocock was adamant that fiction should entertain first and foremost, and that journalism was the place for lectures and changing the world. A fervent feminist, she said that she sometimes couldn’t help but slip some of her serious ideas into her fiction, but that they were only allowed to stay if they served the story and did not detract from the entertainment factor.

4) Take baby steps
The idea of writing a full-length novel can be daunting, potentially resulting in creative paralysis. One of my best books on writing is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, which offers a number of devices to deal with self doubt, among other things. The book’s name derives from a story she tells about a time her brother had an essay to write on birds, which was due the following day. Since he hadn’t started, he was “immobilized by the hugeness of the task”, she says, until their father sat down at the kitchen table and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Basically, Lamott’s saying that one should take things a step at a time, citing the following advice from the author E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

5) Write even if you don’t feel like writing
“The difference between people who believe they have books inside of them and those who actually write books is sheer, cussed persistence,” says fellow chicklit writer Jennifer Weiner. This echoes a quote by the prolific early 20th-century author and journalist Jack London, who said, “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it, you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it”. Unfortunately, inspiration can’t be turned on and off like a tap, so the only way you’ll complete your novel is by sitting down and writing consistently, whether or not the muse has turned up. More often than not, I’ve found that after luring myself to the computer with a cappuccino, ideas and some decent writing eventually start to flow, and I delete everything that came before.

6) Don’t give up because it doesn’t come easy
At times, writing both features and fiction has felt so hard that I’ve considered trying out banking or accounting instead (I actually signed up for an online accounting course in desperation at one stage, but I was useless at that so it was back to the book). I don’t think I would have stayed the course if not for reading about how difficult a number of well known authors find it. Take this quote from Ernest Hemingway, for example: “There is nothing to writing. You simply sit down at your typewriter and bleed”. Even the great George Orwell stated in a 1946 essay entitled Why I Write: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

7) Read
“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it,” said William Faulkner. “Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write”. You read with a very different eye once you’ve started writing, and begin to take note of how an author structures the plot, describes things and hooks you in. While writing my novel, I returned to beloved classics like The Lover by Marguerite Duras and The Great Gatsby, and found myself underlining beautifully constructed sentences that I’d brushed over when simply in it to find out what happened next. If you’re experiencing writer’s block, this also reminds you how good it is to read and why you want to write, potentially getting you back in the flow.

8) Tell your inner critic to shut the $#%* up
“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read,” says Margaret Attwood. “Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself.” Your first draft should be about getting the story down on the page without worrying what anyone thinks. As a magazine writer, I had to think about the audience I was writing for, so it was hard to make this transition, not to mention let go of my quest for grammatical perfection as a copy editor, but only once I’d silenced the inner magazine editor did the words begin to flow. “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people,” says Lamot. “It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”

9) Edit
French author Colette is said to have referred to this crucial step as follows: “Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it”. It can be hard to erase your carefully wrought prose, but it gets easier, and if you’ve followed Point 8 above, chances are you’ll have plenty of cut-able text to work with.

10) Forget about the rules and write
Somerset Maugham is quoted as saying, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are”. While it’s useful to glean advice on craft and learn the basic rules of writing fiction, at least some of the process is inexplicable magic. When those moments come along, and a book seems to be writing itself, just go with it and enjoy every blissful moment.

(c) Melissa van Maasdyk

About Love Apples:

Why get married? London-based food writer Kate Richmond can conceive of no good reason. She’s seen where it got her mother and so has written her own recipe for life, relishing her career, with men on the side – including a delicious love match in Daniel Price. When Kate heads to Mauritius on an assignment, she seems set to secure her dream job at Be magazine until a cyclone curdles her carefully laid plans for the summer issue. With her career at stake, Kate will stop at nothing to get things on track, shamelessly entangling others in her quest, including the irresistible Fai Li, but when she takes a step too far, she sets herself on a tempestuous course that will upturn some long-held beliefs. Set in the glamorous, racy world of magazines and suffused with sensual descriptions of food – plus recipes – Love Apples delves into love and lust, marriage and infidelity, and why people continue to invest in a convention so prone to failure.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Melissa van Maasdyk has a Masters in Translation, and has worked as a writer, translator, sub-editor and editor on several magazines over the past two decades. These include Elle Decoration and Marie Claire in the UK, Style and Marie Claire in South Africa, and Time Out in Bahrain, where she also wrote a travel guide to the kingdom. Food writing has featured prominently in her career, nurturing her passion for cooking, and adding flavour to Love Apples, which is her first novel. Melissa currently lives in Abu Dhabi with her husband.

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