Sunday, 8 January 2017

Advice for writers #7 #8 #9: hidden gems or crazy counsel? Gold Dust and Garbage

Next in THIS SERIES of quotes are numbers 7,  8 and 9.

Quote 7 provides some sound practical advice from one of the greats of crime fiction.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learnt in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative” (Elmore Leonard)

Exactly right. It’s all too easy to go with the early programming of school English lessons; no prepositions at the ends of sentences, no ands, ors or buts at the start. But if the reader is always aware of the writer behind the prose, they are not being sucked into the world of the story.

The dialogue must find a direct route from the page into the reader’s head where it manifests as a character speaking. The descriptions must feel to the reader as though they are standing at the edge looking out on the landscape of the tale or looking in on the inner angst of the drama. Neither realistic dialogue nor a view of the landscape comes wrapped in complex grammatical niceties.

Know the rules before you break them, so that you know how and when best to do the deed, but be aware too that many so-called grammatical truths stand on shaky foundations (that’s a whole new blog of course).

And while we’re being practical and useful, here’s no 8:

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” (Robert Frost)

Quite so. If you didn’t laugh or cry or if you didn’t have to write that scene with your eyes tight shut and your breath held, then how is the reader going to find it funny, sad or truly scary.

Yes, that’s great advice, but just for balance and just to show that great writers are not inevitably founts of constructive wisdom, here’s a counter example.

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college” (Kurt Vonnegut)

Come off it, Kurt! What sort of college did you go to? Semicolons are a respectable member of the punctuation tribe. Sure, no one wants to see them spread everywhere with a scatter-gun, and no manuscript will fall apart if every semicolon were to be replaced with a comma, but there are times when the comma doesn’t quite hit the note. Sometimes the elements within a list belong together in a way that the comma doesn’t fully catch. It’s a nuance, a shade, a trace. But then isn’t great writing – as opposed to just OK writing – often a case of catching those nuances right on the nose.

And you know what, Kurt? Your writing at its best can do just that. We used Slaughterhouse-Five in our Writers’ Toolkit as an example of how good it can get.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Advice for writers #6 #7: hidden gems or crazy counsel? The Why and the How

As inspiration for the New Year, quotes six and seven IN THIS SERIES get the treatment.

Quote number 6 is:

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect” (Anais Nin)

There are many ways of putting this one and you’ll find variations on the theme from other writers, some of which I intend to unpack later, but this one just kind of chimed with me.

In a nutshell is it the absolute reason why I write? Well, no. If I’d had to think it out for myself I doubt I’d have said it at all, and if I had I wouldn’t have put it so neatly. And yet... and yet... there’s something in it, and I like that I didn’t think of it myself. It gives me a sense of learning something I didn’t already know.

Now for some pragmatism and quote 7.

“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy and that hard” (Neil Gaiman)

And that is spot on. Agatha Christie said something similar when asked how she wrote her books. You think of an idea then you force yourself to write it.

The planning, the plotting, getting the shape of the thing on paper (or screen) is a process that I enjoy. Getting from the rough outline to a set of words that makes sense is the bit I find pedestrian, a bit of a chore. But polishing that set of words to make a scene spring to life, fly off the page, crackle with tension – that’s the bit I really love.

And there’s something about that final polish that has an air of tasting life the second time, but Neil Gaiman has the nail on its clich├ęd head. It’s a funny business, writing, and it really is that easy and that hard.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Advice for writers #5: hidden gems or crazy counsel? Good advice only when you’re discerning enough not to need it

Happy Christmas and the next in line in this series is:

“If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable” (Joss Whedon)

This is a variation on William Faulkner’s, ‘In writing, you must kill your darlings.’

Stephen King said it too, in his excellent book On Writing. His version is, ‘kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’

Let’s be literal. You’ve written a book, an essay, a play, whatever... It isn’t quite right... What do you do? You cut out all the best bits. What are you left with? On the face of it, a pretty dire piece of prose.

But this was never meant to be taken literally in this way. Faulkner’s words, apparently, were said to someone who wrote ghastly pretentious prose and thought he was writing matchless literature – and hey, don’t we all start out that way? He was saying, take out the bits you think are the bee’s knees and it’ll be a better piece of work.

As you mature as a writer, learn the craft, pen many thousands of words and so on, you learn to be critical of your own work. It never hurts to have a fresh eye over it but if practice doesn’t make you far more discerning about what you’ve written then you’re probably in the wrong job. So, as advice to a seasoned writer this is literally saying, take out the good bits. That’s not great advice.

I’m sure all writers go off on tangents now and then, get caught up in a scene or a character and write beyond what is needed. I know I do. Sometimes it’s a great stretch of prose, but it just doesn’t belong where it was put. It might be at home in a later book or in a different type of writing. That’s the kind of ‘best bit’ that genuinely needs to be culled, but you have to recognise it for what it is.

The learning required is critical evaluation of your own writing – recognise the good from the bad, the self-indulgent from the necessary, the great piece of prose in the wrong place.

A generic piece of advice to ‘get rid of it if you think it’s any good’ might prove useful in a hit-or-miss way to a writer just setting out, but would become worse and worse advice as their writing skills developed. On the other hand, if their writing skills developed without the critical facility to recognise the drawbacks of this bit of advice, then there’s something seriously wrong.

So basically this is goodish advice, but only when you’ve learnt to be discerning enough not to need it.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Advice for writers #3 #4: hidden gems or crazy counsel? A book that is universally loved doesn’t exist

Continuing the advice for writers theme, here are two quotes that I believe come from the writers’ own experience more than any desire to generate clever soundbites. 

No one can challenge the success of either Harper Lee or JK Rowling, but is their advice generally applicable and useful beyond their own writing lives?

“Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e. do not cave in to endless requests to have ‘essential’ and ‘long overdue’ meetings on those days” (J K Rowling)

Many people will relate to this one, not just writers. Anyone who works from home will recognise this issue. People ring for a chat, call round to see if you’ll go out shopping, bring children or dogs to your doorstep so you can, ‘Just keep an eye on them for half an hour.’ They wouldn’t do it if you worked from an office or in a factory, but that home context gets labelled as not *really* work, not *proper* work. 

Saying no isn’t the issue. The fact of the interruption can be hugely disruptive in itself. It might not be meetings, essential, overdue or otherwise, but yes, JK Rowling hits on a good point here. A writing day is not the same as a day off. Don’t let anyone persuade you otherwise.

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide” (Harper Lee)

I see this one as more personal to Harper Lee and less applicable generally. Very few writers will be catapulted into stellar success and the public eye as quickly or as comprehensively as Harper Lee. Likewise the majority of writers will not have to put up with the levels of scepticism that she did with regard to whether or not she was the author of her own book.

The generalisation, in my view, is that those who take up a career in writing will find that they develop a thick hide. The more successful they become, the more people will read and comment on their work and not everyone will like it. Attitudes are subjective, the written word generates argument and debate - and so it should, it's a large part of how progress happens. That said, I wouldn’t advise anyone to work on the thickness of their hide before embarking on their career as a writer, but it’s as well to be aware that success will bring criticism. 

My own view: a book that is universally un-hated stirs so few emotions that it is more accurately described as universally unnoticed. A book that is universally loved doesn’t exist.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Advice for writers #1 #2: hidden gems or crazy counsel? I might be missing a philosophical gem

For the first in this series of looking at quotes from others I’ve picked two to unpack.

“It is perfectly okay to write garbage – as long as you edit brilliantly” and “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written”

“It is perfectly okay to write garbage – as long as you edit brilliantly” (C J Cherryh)

Well, OK in a literal sense but what a waste of time. If you really take no trouble then that initial garbage might be as troublesome to ‘edit brilliantly’ as a blank piece of paper. There’s something here though. Stretching it the other way, the advice not to keep on polishing the current sentence until it’s perfect, but to plough on until the rough draft is complete, is not bad advice. 

Some writers would polish and polish and never get to paragraph two. JRR Tolkien almost didn’t let go of The Lord of the Rings because it wasn’t perfect. Some writers naturally polish as they draft and get the balance right. Valerie Wood rarely rewrites anything once she’s reached the end and she’s written enough books to be able to say it’s a successful technique for her.

Personally, I wouldn’t write garbage unless I was setting out to write garbage (for reasons of my own that are irrelevant here but might generate a new blog at some point). It might not be polished prose but I make sure that what I’ve written – scene, chapter, paragraph – is going in the right direction, before I go on. If I don’t do that, I know I might be led into a dead end from which I will have to do a lot of unwinding and rewriting. 

I probably hold the record for the most times that a 100k word novel has been rewritten from scratch (for reasons that would make yet another blog some other time) but I’d never walk into that trap by choice.

“The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written” (Joyce Carol Oates)

Let’s be literal about this. Er ... yes it can. I’ve done it and I tend to plot my books before I write them, but I know plenty of successful authors who write by the seat of their pants and leap into a new venture solely on the basis of a good opening gambit and with no idea where it will lead.

Is there something in this? Does the act of finishing a book and later going back over the draft lead to a better opening? Does knowing the detail of the way it ends mean that a crisper opening sentence can be crafted? Maybe... sometimes... It’s always worth a look. But... the first sentence *can’t* be written until the final sentence is written? Nah, sorry. 

I might be missing a philosophical gem here but I’m sending that quote to the trash can.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Advice for writers: hidden gems or crazy counsel

A variety of people are asked to give advice on writing. Many are successful writers themselves, so we should listen to what they say in the almost certain knowledge that they’re right. Right?

Wrong! Don’t ever fall into the trap of assuming someone is going to be right. Especially not if you’re a writer. As a writer research and checking should be embedded in your psyche.

Many sayings and words of wisdom become entrenched in the accepted canon of wise words for writers. Some are gems that deserve their place. Some are utter bilge. And many, maybe most, comprise a mix of good sense and dodgy advice. Just look what happens when you unpack that old chestnut, “show don’t tell”.

It all got me to wondering about this professional guidance. What is more likely to stick in the collective consciousness – great advice or soundbite without substance?

Consider that scary phrase ‘no smoke without fire’. People have lost friends, jobs, even their lives because of that one. Yet surely everyone, even if they’ve never struggled to start a fire with damp timber, knows that smoke can billow in huge dense clouds without the glimmer of a flame. How many times has a malicious accusation been made and an innocent party automatically labelled guilty without thought, evidence or due process because ‘there’s no smoke without fire’?

No smoke without fire is the refuge of the lazy thinker.  And writers shouldn’t be lazy thinkers. Why record the words at all if you can’t be bothered to think them through. I don’t want writers to be the sorts of people who gawp glazed-eyed, blank-brained and declare that ‘It must be true cos it said so on the telly’.

No smoke without fire does not come under the general banner of advice for writers. I’m using it to make a point, but I want to pick a few of the sayings that are doled out as good writing guidance and take a closer look as I unpack them, looking at what they really mean and whether they constitute good advice or not.

Will I find cleverly constructed phrases that roll beautifully off the tongue then crumble to inane idiom, or will I find genuine gems of insightful instruction?

Who knows? I don’t.

If I work for long enough I expect to unearth both those extremes and everything in between. But I won’t know until I have a heap of unpacked maxims exposed for what they really are.

Watch this space, and if you know of a saying that particularly chimes for you, for good or bad, then please let me know.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

To plan or not to plan

[This short article first appeared as part of the online launch of The Writers' Toolkit which remains available on Facebook and contains articles, tips, mini-tutorials and editorial comments on work that authors submitted for critique prior to the launch]

To plan or not to plan
There’s no rule. Some writers plan in such detail they have an almost book-length plan before they start to write. Others just go by the seat of their pants. It really comes down to what works for you.

I once wrote a book on the basis of half an idea that I liked the feel of. I simply ran with it and wrote. The book became so tangled that by the time I finished it, I didn't even know who had been murdered, though someone had. And the intended murderer had a cast-iron alibi that I couldn't break. 

Years later a publisher accepted a later book in this same series and wanted me to rewrite that original tangle of words so that the start of the story could be published too. What a nightmare! I rewrote that book from scratch more times than I like to remember. I changed the viewpoint, the style, even the main character. I sorted out the plot and eventually I surfaced with a book that works.

I learnt my lesson from that. I don’t plot meticulously like Jeffrey Deaver or Agatha Christie, but I always know how the story will finally untangle. But I'm not saying that everyone should avoid that seat-of-the-pants style just because it got me in deep water. It’s what works for you that matters. 

The discussion continues in the comments thread following the original article.
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