Considering that having a ridiculous plan is better than having no plan at all, I have started on a short-story writing project that is an attempt to become the Chekhov of Shenzhen. Because successful artists are so worshipped, the arts tend to attract the kinds of people whose chances of being taken seriously are such that they might as well be wearing a pink bikini. Plus, there is nothing more cruel or vain than a failed artist.
But when you're working in Shunde you have to pass the time somehow so why not do so in the most megalomaniacal way possible? As Scottish academic Alastair McIntosh put it: The world is a ball of strings (economics, politics, philosophy, ecology) and we can't pull on one without unravelling some others. Literature, in my opinion, is the best way of unravelling all these strings at the same time.
Here are some tidbits of wisdom I have picked up so far.
1. Listen to the advice of the greats: This goes without saying. But ultimately, they all have their own idiosyncrasies and so will you. You have to carve out your own way. Here is mine.
2. Have a plot: As screenwriting guru Robert McKee wrote in Story, politics is the art of making lies sound truthful, science garbles with complexity and perplexity, and religion is a series of moth-eaten rituals designed to mask hypocrisy. The medium people turn to nowadays is story, and - as neuroscience will tell you - storytelling is hardwired into our brains. We are our own heroes in our own stories, and every story we tell in a barroom is fictionalised in the sense that it is restructured to have a beginning, middle and end (and usually a hero and a villain).
Don't worry about conveying a message. Your world view will come through if it's written well.
3. Try to stick to the 25-50-25 rule: The story should be structured to have the beginning make for about 25%, the middle account for about 50% and the end be about 25%. The middle 50% is the hardest and most important part to do well. Anybody can come up with an arresting opening paragraph or a heartwarming last sentence. It takes skill to keep the story moving forward without boring people.
4. Write dialogue in characters' own voices: Dialogue should probably count for around 30% of the text but there are successful examples of it accounting for 0% or 100%. Most importantly, the characters should talk in a way that sounds like themselves rather than the narrator or the author. But if a character has, say, a thick Oklahoma accent try not to make it too irritating, e.g. "Well I declare that that was darn rootin' tootin'.
5. Seek unobtrusive ways of evoking the appearance of a character: In 19th century novels such as "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo, when a character is introduced the author tends to spend a couple of paragraphs telling you outright what they looked like and what their personality was like.
Christopher Isherwood's "Goodbye to Berlin," written at a time when novels were competing with the movies for people's attention, evokes the appearance of Sally Bowles by describing her tacky nail varnish and lipstick, giving a good enough impression of what a lost soul she is. To show that somebody is unrefined, have them snort loudly while they laugh or something.
6. Read, read, read, read, read and read: This is the most important tip of all. Read all the good writing you can get your hands on. Bad writing is contagious.
7. Creative writing courses are probably not a good idea: I did one and had a great time, but writing is not a career the way engineering or dentistry are careers (see number 10). People way more qualified than me to have an opinion about it have called creative writing courses the biggest racket in academia. In what Philip Larkin called the "rented, intricate, uncaring world" of offices and factories, a qualification in creative writing is worth nada and to try to convince a young person otherwise is just irresponsible.
What I have done for this project is find a writer who I admire (a published novelist, award-winning poet and prolific journalist) and employed him as a sort of mentor, at least in the early stages. When I've finished a draft, I'll pay a couple of thousand to one of the handful of people who knows Shenzhen well and has a proven track record of good writing to make sure the whole thing makes sense.
8. Go out and hunt inspiration, don't sit waiting for it: At first I thought the inspiration for stories about Shenzhen would be the bizarre news items I covered and the even more bizarre people I befriended. Then I realised that the problem with this is that fiction has to be believable.
It's up to you what you think can be the basis of a good story. In 1905, Arnold Bennett glanced at a peculiar old lady in a restaurant and she was the inspiration for a whole novel "The Old Wive's Tale." The other day I was in KFC (I'm not proud of it, I was hungry) and it was grossly understaffed so the queue was a bitch. When I got to the front, the girl serving me had a gentle smile on her flabby, acned face, not one of those awful fixed smiles you get from staff at 5 star hotels, but a sign that she really wasn't miserable in her work. Or maybe she was daydreaming. Either way, she would make a great character in a novel.
9. Don't try to write beautifully: Language is the window through which people look at the story. No bugger goes to a museum to admire the glass behind which the artefacts lie. Beautiful writing will ensue with practice. Pretty flourishes tend to only distract from the narrative and get cut out by editors anyway.
10. We write because we write because we write: Writing is not utilitarian, neither are smiling, laughing or dancing. Those things make life worth living, so people shouldn't look for usefulness in them.
Anyway, to tell people there is big market demand for good creative writing is neither helpful nor kind. The boom of the 80s and 90s is over and in the post-financial crisis world, the market is small and getting smaller. Even a lot of the well-known ones are struggling.
Plus, worldly success (awards, bestseller lists, 5* reviews, etc...) is not a good thing to think about while writing. You have a star to follow. As Clive James put it: "If would be writers aren't capable of writing a book for its own sake, they shouldn't be writing at all." If you need to go to your grave knowing for sure whether your life's work had any value, writing is not for you. Go into animal psychology or something.
The spirit of self-expression for its own sake is well encapsulated in the poem "Self-Protection" by D.H. Lawrence (who probably wouldn't have passed many biology tests):