Umi Sinha’s debut novel Belonging is a beautifully crafted epic of love and loss, ethnicity and homeland, telling the interwoven story of three generations from the darkest days of the British Raj in India to the aftermath of the First World War in rural Sussex. Here are some tips and hints she gleaned from completing the novel, and from her day job as a creative writing mentor.
1. Write in the way that suits you. If you are the kind of person who can work every day, that’s great. If not, don’t be put off by people telling you must do it a certain way to be a writer. There are all sorts of writers. Some people get up at 5 am, some work into the small hours, some work in bursts. Some people, in love with the self-destructive model of a writer or artist, get drunk. I am not recommending the latter – I don’t value art above life – but find what works for you and don’t beat yourself up if your process is not as orderly as other people’s.
2. Use your natural authentic voice. Don’t try to impress by sounding intellectual or ‘writerly’, or by using long words or phrases that don’t come naturally to you. Read your work aloud and watch where your attention flags. Unnecessary words and phrases slow the pace and bore the reader. Make every sentence as clear and concise as you possibly can. Read your work aloud and listen to the way it sounds. Does it flow, or does it sound stilted, awkward or pretentious? Don’t overdo metaphor or imagery – it attracts attention to the writing rather than the story. As a writer, get out of the way of your story and characters. Let them carry the story.
3. Take risks. When writing, don’t do what feels comfortable, what is already within your capacity. It will never have the brilliance of something you have created while walking a tightrope, really stretching yourself. Fear and anxiety are part of the creative process. If you’re not feeling them, your writing will be lacklustre.
4. Trust your unconscious. Dreams are a great source of ideas because they reflect your preoccupations. Ask your unconscious mind (or angels, or whatever you believe in) for ideas. Persist – the mind is very good at solving problems if you prime it by repeated requests.
What I have learnt, over the many years I have struggled with writing, is that fear of one’s own inadequacy is the biggest block. There is always a way through.”
5. If you’re stuck with your writing, don’t persuade yourself that you have writer’s block. There is no such thing. There are many reasons why one may not be able to write. Sometimes writing needs a period of gestation: time to replenish, form new ideas; let your unconscious mind work without forcing it. Sometimes you hit a technical or structural problem, which is beyond your current capacity to solve. What I have learnt, over the many years I have struggled with writing, is that fear of one’s own inadequacy is the biggest block. There is always a way through. You may go down several dead ends before you find it, but when you do, you will be a better and more capable writer and eventually you will learn to take the blocks in your stride.
6. All writing is self-exploration. I have discovered that ideas that engage me are always connected to problems or ideas that I am exploring in my own life. This adds intensity and allows me to connect emotionally with my characters. Sometimes the writing is slow because I have not yet gained enough understanding of the problem and I need to live a bit more before I can go on. I know many writers deny that writing is therapeutic, but I really can’t see how it can fail to be. Writing helps me to understand life and people better. In his advice to young poet, Rilke said it more brilliantly than I ever could.
7. However, to expand on the point above, writing is not about imposing your agenda on the reader. Don’t try to bully, argue or persuade the reader into believing what you do. Fiction must come through your characters and the story – by creating a plot and setting where the issues are being explored by the characters in their own lives. Don’t take sides, or make one character right and another wrong. Everyone is right from their own perspective, however wrong they may appear to be from the outside. As a writer you need to understand and be fair to every character, leave readers free to make up their own minds, and trust that they will make the right decision. They may not, in which case you have succeeded brilliantly in creating three-dimensional characters.
8. Have faith in your own work without being arrogant. When receiving feedback from others don’t be touchy. You don’t have to accept it but you may learn something if you really listen. When negotiating with editors you need to respect their expertise but also be able to hold your own. You know your characters and how they would behave. You know the points you want to make. Don’t compromise on what is important, but give way on things where their expertise is greater than yours.
9. While guidelines are useful, no rule is unbreakable. If it works, do it.
10. Finally, remember that there is only one way to fail, and that is to give up.
Umi Sinha was born in the military hospital in Mumbai (then Bombay) to an English mother and Indian father, and grew up in India in the decade following Independence. She has an MA in Creative Writing and taught at the University of Sussex for ten years. She runs creative writing classes and a mentoring service for writers, and co-runs a performance storytelling club in Sussex. Belonging is published by Myriad Editions. Read more.