An Introduction and a Pep Talk
This is an episode of Matt Gemmell's Trouble With Writing, a podcast with focused, hard-won techniques for solving all the problems you might encounter when planning, writing, and editing novels. Brief and to-the-point, with episodes you can listen to in any order.
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An Introduction and a Pep Talk
What the Trouble With Writing is about, and why you can absolutely write a novel.
You can also download the episode audio file here.
Welcome to the first episode of Matt Gemmell’s Trouble With Writing. I’m Matt Gemmell. It would be unusual if I wasn’t, given the title of the podcast. You can find me online at mattgemmell.scot and on social media.
I’m going to be brief and direct — not just right now, but in every episode, because I know that, at this moment, you’re procrastinating from writing. Which is fine! I’m procrastinating from writing too, by making a whole podcast series, so I think we both know which one of us has the bigger problem.
In which case, why should you listen to me? Well, firstly, I have a very nice accent, which you might have noticed already. But more importantly, I’ve written a few novels, and more than a hundred short stories, and a million or more words of blog posts, magazine articles, and so on. I thus know for a fact that you’re going to run into trouble when writing your book, because I ran into trouble too. I have solutions for you to use; at least, things you can try straight away. It’s important to have something to try straight away, because if you don’t, procrastination will of course win. Social media, videos, TV… it’ll all win. That’s how books don’t get written.
Trust me on that. I’ve not-written ten books for every one I actually have written.
You can listen to these episodes in any order, not just because I’m not your father, but because I’ve made them that way, or I will make them that way. I’ll release them in an order that roughly corresponds to how you’ll tackle a big fiction project like a novel — so that’s setting up, finding the idea, planning, writing, editing, the production part of it, probably some other things I’ve forgotten — but you should feel free to dip in and out to suit your needs.
Some words of warning up-front. I record once, don’t edit much, and don’t spend any time on fancy post-production. In exchange for dealing with that, you get episodes that are brief, focused, and which respect YOUR time by respecting MY time. That’s best for both of us. An episode might be five minutes, or it might be twenty minutes. It won’t go much beyond that. If you’re looking for hosts and guests, or ninety-minute discussions on things, you’ll find neither here. Just a Scottish novelist talking to you.
That’s what the show is about, and how it’s structured. The rest of this episode is the very first thing I think you’ll need to hear when embarking on the process of writing a novel: a pep talk. And here it is.
We as a society have a weird sort of double standard regarding what people are capable of, and it depends on what age you are; what stage of life. When we’re children at school, the message is pretty much always that whatever you want to be, whatever you want to do, you can be that; you can do that. Because, implicitly, most people are capable of doing most things. That’s a wonderful message. It’s encouraging and it’s empowering.
But then we become adults, and we adopt a different position. We implicitly and sometimes explicitly say that lots of things are gated by some kind of ill-defined innate ability or talent, and if you don’t meet the requirements for that, you can’t do that thing, or you can’t do that thing really well, no matter how much you might want to, or how much you might try. That’s a rubbish message. Not only is it inconsistent with what we tell people when they’re younger and unfettered, it’s also unhealthy. And I would submit to you that it’s usually not even true.
There are some exceptions to every rule, of course. Some people start with an advantage or a disadvantage in certain endeavours. Some people take to things like a duck to water, and those same people will struggle to acquire the basics of something else. And the things that we excel at and the things that we struggle with are of course different for each person, because we’re all different. Also, life is complex enough to have produced some human pursuits that really do need you to be pre-wired to excel in those areas.
But writing isn’t one of them.
Writing fiction isn’t one of them.
And writing really fantastic, compelling, wonderful fiction isn’t one of them.
I promise you.
In fact, writing fiction is just about as natural as you allow it to be. As natural as scribbling with crayons, or making hand-prints with paint, or talking to a teddy bear, or whatever else. Imagination, which is at the core of writing fiction, is a core human function. Language is a core human function. I’ve got a two-year-old son and he makes things up and tells me about them all the time. Writing fiction is just putting those two functions together, and solving a few problems along the way.
There’s a type of well-meaning encouragement we often give to each other that’s actually counterproductive. I’m sure you’ll have heard it before. See if you recognise it. It goes sometime like this, for example: Of course you can learn to drive; have you seen how many idiots there are out on the roads with a driving license?
I have a neighbor whose 18-year-old son — or 17-year-old son, I suppose — is learning to drive at the moment; that’s what put the example into my mind. Now, as an message of encouragement, that’s unhelpful for a couple of reasons. First, when you’re doubting your ability to do something, it doesn’t actually help you — because your inner voice of doubt is just going to say, well, I’m an even worse kind of idiot, and I’ll struggle regardless of how many others have already succeeded at the same thing. But the second reason it’s unhelpful, and this is the worst one, is that it’s just insulting, both to people in general and also to the thing you’re trying to do. People pass their driving test not because driving is so easy as to be picked up without a thought by idiots, but actually because when properly encouraged and practised, it’s a skill that’s well within the capabilities of almost everyone.
That’s the right way to think about it. That’s the right mindset to have, because writing fiction is even more within your capabilities than something as universal as driving a car.
It’s completely doable, and I say that as someone who has done it and who continues to do it (when he’s not making podcast episodes). I believe it’s as doable for you as it is for me. I believe that it’s doable for just about anyone. All you need is a wee bit of help now and again, and some focused solutions to the problems that you’re going to run into. That’s my position, it’s my belief, and it’s the foundation of this podcast.
You are a writer already. You need only to begin.
I’m Matt Gemmell, and this has been the Trouble With Writing. If you’ve got something to say about this episode, I’d love to hear from you; you can find my contact details at mattgemmell.scot. I’ll talk to you again soon.
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