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Posts Tagged ‘Keillor’

Who’s a pretty boy, then?

One of my maxims is that bad writing draws attention to the author, and good writing draws attention to the content. The corollary is that writing which draws attention to the writer is bad; that which draws attention to the content, and where the hand of the author is invisible, is good.

Glen Baxter

This is not an original thought. Stephen King wrote that: “The object of fiction is ….to make the reader … forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all.” Garrison Keillor talks about “keeping your fine sensibilities out of it.

Elmore Leonard said: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.

The more an author pushes themselves and their message forward in a story, the less effective the story, and the message become. This isn’t very different from real life; the harder you try to persuade someone that they’re wrong, the less convinced they are, and the harder you try to be funny, the less amused your audience is.

To my mind, there’s nothing that pulls a reader out of a story quicker than the author trying to muscle into the action, and saying: “Hey, readers. Look at me, how clever and amusing I am!”

This is very common in journalism and the media these days. If you have ever tuned into BBC World, for example, you are bound to run into the field reporter who says: “Next week, tune into Forgotten World with me, Droopy McFlaccid, when we’ll examine raffia basket-weaving amongst the Congo pygmies.

In truth, I don’t need to know the reporter’s name. But the tendency is to make the reporter bigger than the story. Much mainstream journalism is often opinion disguised as news.

In fiction writing, this is of crucial importance. Nobody is going to wade through 300 pages of wincing self-promotion by an author. Authors must absent themselves from their work, as Evelyn Waugh famously pointed out.

One has for one’s raw material every single thing one has ever seen or heard or felt, and one has to go over that vast, smouldering rubbish-heap of experience, half stifled by the fumes and dust, scraping and delving until one finds a few discarded valuables.

Then one has to assemble these tarnished and dented fragments, polish them, set them in order, and try to make a coherent and significant arrangement of them. It is not merely a matter of filling up a dust-bin haphazard and emptying it in another place.

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Writing when you feel like it

This is the most dangerous concept in writing. It’s an approach which has sunk more writers than self-doubt or poor daily discipline, I believe. If you only write when you feel like it, you’ll never complete anything substantive, and even if you do, it won’t be any good.

In Patricia Highsmith’s excellent novel The Talented Mister Ripley, one of the main characters (Marge) is writing a book, though she keeps up an active social life as well. One day, she is absent from the group, and one of the other characters explains that Marge is in the middle of a “streak” on her book.

The book must stink, thought Tom. He had known writers. You didn’t write a book with your little finger, lolling on a beach half the day, wondering what to eat for dinner.

Indeed not. Writing when you don’t feel like it is an especially valuable exercise. It helps eliminate the romantic notion that writing a book is an easy or glamorous process; it instils the notion that writing is a job, like carpentry, that has to be done, and it provides a writer with direct and vivid insight into themselves and their way of working.

As Garrison Keillor said: “You can write comedy when you’re sick, when you’re lonely as a barn owl and your head hurts and your friends are mad at you. It’s just work, that’s all, and you go do it if you need to.

As you sit there, saying to yourself “I don’t feel like writing today”, and you hear the disciplinarian voice that says “You will write today.”, examine the thoughts that tumble through your mind. Often they will be of the self-doubting kind, “I’m no good at this”, “I can’t do this”, and so on.

Following the disciplinary voice, you go and do it anyway, and gradually those awful self-doubting fears subside, you do your 1,000 words, and end up feeling better than before. You’re a stronger writer for having overcome your doubt and unwillingness.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing dross, that’s what first drafts are for. In fact, some of your best writing can emerge from these sessions when your brain doesn’t want to cooperate and every word is dragged out of you like a decayed tooth. It gives you a different perspective on writing, and on the project you’re working on.

The famous tennis player Martina Navratilova was once asked about her philosopy of the game, and is said to have replied: “What matters is not how well you’re playing when you’re playing well, but how well you’re playing when you’re playing badly.

The same, of course, applies to writing. Anyone can write when they feel like it.

What separates the professional from the amateur, the successful from the failures, is the guts to push ahead when you would rather be doing almost anything else.

Categories: Attitude Tags: , , ,

Break on through

July 26, 2009 2 comments

I’m willing to bet there are far more unfinished novels sitting in desk drawers than will ever be finished, let alone published.

The whole process of writing a book is a winnowing out; for every 10 people who have an idea for a book, only one starts in earnest, for every 10 who start, only one finishes, and for every 10 who finish, perhaps only one goes on to look for a publishing deal. And the odds get much worse from there on.

Perhaps it is the magnitude of the task that is daunting. A typical novel runs between 70,000 and 100,000 words, which is a lot to create from that manic spark which says :”I’ve got a great idea for a book.” Even George Orwell could only find 30,000 words for Animal Farm, although he topped 100,000 in 1984.

How many words can an author write each day? It varies enormously, as do authors’ methods of work. Tom Sharpe said he wrote Riotous Assembly in four weeks, and also revealed his working schedule: early morning to midday and 3pm to 7pm. It works out at about 3,000 words per day over an eight-hour day.

Another fan of the early start is Jackie Collins. No matter what you may think of her prose, she has completed over 25 novels and so presumably has some insight into writing discipline.

The most difficult thing is starting. And this is the secret. You don’t do anything first. You don’t even get dressed. You go straight there and you start to write for half an hour, and then you get dressed,” she said once in an interview.

To confirm that we can learn even from writers whose work we may not personally admire, Jeffrey Archer admits to a rigid writing schedule: “I get up by 5am, write for two hours between 6am and 8am and again between 10am and 12 noon and between 2pm and 4pm and between 6pm and 8pm. You have got to be self-disciplined. Nobody gets anywhere without working hard. Lazy people will get killed. You have got to love what you do.

Garrison Keillor also agrees with the notion that if you don’t start early in the day, you probably won’t start at all.

The best time to write is first thing in the morning, and you simply plow in and go as long as you can, and then take a coffee break, and resume. When the spring of inspiration dries up, usually sometime in the early afternoon, one simply shifts over to editing, which is an unending job and one with its own pleasures, and when that begins to fade, it’s time to close up shop.

I wish I had the facility with words of these writers. My maximum is usually 1,000 words per day, including editing, as I am one of those writers who goes back and tinkers with sentences as I write them. That takes me from early morning to somewhere around lunchtime, after which I will ponder what the next day’s writing is liable to be.

Under ideal circumstances, that means I should complete a 90,000-word manuscript in three months. In the event, FOP‘s first draft took five and a half months, during which time I backtracked several times after losing confidence in my approach.

So I don’t think it’s the discipline which stops most writers; it must surely be a lack of confidence in what they’re writing. If they had the belief that they were progressing every day towards a worthwhile end, they would continue. But for many first-time authors, this is the biggest hurdle. How do they know that what they are writing is worth anything, especially if they’ve had a bad day at the keyboard?

Some writers never have bad days. Stephen King, for example.

For me, not working is the real work. When I’m writing, it’s all the playground, and the worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damned good,” he wrote in his book On Writing.

We’re not all Stephen Kings, though, and most authors face moments of significant self-doubt. It is very liberating to discover the depths of despair that a great writer like George Orwell could sink into while writing his novels.

While writing 1984, he wrote to his agent: “I am struggling with this book, which I may finish by the end of the year — at any rate I shall have broken the back by then, so long as I keep well and keep off journalistic work until the autumn. It is a most dreadful mess and about two-thirds of it will have to be retyped entirely.

The turn of phrase is interesting. Orwell writes of “breaking the back” of his book, as though it were some hostile beast he was wrestling with, which is probably an accurate reflection of how many authors view their novels. Some, like Collins and Archer, seem to sail through their work without a backward look (although Archer does admit to multiple rewrites).

For the rest of us, though, the task is to plough on, to crash through until the day we can write “The End“. Then we must go back and grapple with the “dreadful mess” we have created.

Categories: Attitude, Technique Tags: , , ,