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.