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.


  1. I'm a pantster, so I don't plan or plot but I do know my destination before I start. I let my characters lead, so my usually loose route is often changed by their actions. But I generally end up where I intended in the first place.
    You're right, though, Penny. This approach often leads to a good deal of rewriting and I ditch large sections along the editing way.
    However, I agree with JCO about the first sentence. Inasmuch as I write a first sentence (how can one start without it?) but that initial starter is invariably ditched, often along with several initial paragraphs, once I start the editing process. I don't think I've ever used an original starting sentence in any book or story I've completed.
    Perhaps the issue here is with the word, 'can't'. Maybe we should be looking at 'shouldn't' instead?

  2. That's an interesting take, Stuart. Thanks for commenting. I think one of the issues for me especially with that second quote is the thing about so-called rules for writers. So many of these things are dependent on what works for the individual. There are some very useful insights along the way but it's very often a mistake to consider something a rule. It's the sort of thing that can mislead someone who's just starting out and looking to learn.
    I would be ultra pedantic and go for, "The first sentence very often finds itself rewritten beyond recognition once the last sentence is in place" but I concede that doesn't exactly trip off the tongue.

    1. Always difficult to combine the pithy with accuracy! But a good attempt.