Thursday, 20 November 2014

A small thought on writing.

Good work today. The mists are slowly clearing. Yes, yes, says the unflinching, critical brain (the good critic, who is galvanised and constructive) this part needs beefing up, and this part needs cutting back. There must be more obstacles, it says, firmly. This sounds a bit manipulative and phoney, as if the story is not arising organically, but I have a fatal tendency to fall in love with my characters and so make everything too easy for them. The rule of fiction is that there must be barriers to overcome, or there is no drama and no tension. The rule of life, which is rather different from fiction but also obtains, is that rarely do things easily fall into place, as if mere wishing might make them so.

Therefore: make it a little harder.

Then there is the thing of voice. My other weakness is that quite often many of my characters take on the same cadences of speech. It really is too phoney to give them all their own distinctive tics, but a little judicious differentiation is important. Voice can also reflect character. This fellow does not use adjectives, because he is a direct, getting on with it sort. That kind of thing. I have at the moment one woman who speaks as if she has walked out of a 1938 black and white film, and I’m having a lot of fun with that.

The actual cutting is still not going that well. The thing is still far, far too long. This feels like self-indulgence to me. One must not pander to markets or even readers, but I am keenly aware that humans live busier lives than ever before. I sometimes think a very long book is almost an act of passive aggression on the part of the author. Everyone can sharpen up. I recently read a very, very long book by a very, very famous writer, and the first three chapters could have been done just as well in ten pages. WHERE IS THE BLUE PENCIL? I found myself shouting, furiously. The writer was doing a lot of very writerly writing, as if to say: look at me, with my literary sensibility. I felt it was an awful form of showing off, and it took me out of the fictional world and made me cross.

Even the most brilliant natural talent needs editing. I always think of that famous manuscript of The Wasteland, with Ezra Pound’s frenzied markings all over it like a palimpsest. The sad story is that now, once writers get very successful, hardly anyone dares to edit them at all, so that just as they reach maximum brilliance the quality of their work often goes sharply downwards. It is not that they have been ruined by fame. It is that they are not cut. Also, there are very few devoted editors of the old school. There are few Maxwell Perkins any more, and I feel regretful for that.

For all these reasons, I have to be fierce with myself. I don’t care that you think that sentence sings and dazzles, I tell myself sternly, IT MUST GO.

It will still be a flawed book, because all books are flawed and because I’m not quite in the top rank. When I was young and ambitious, I thought I would be. I thought if I read hard enough and worked hard enough and practiced hard enough, I’d be the kind that won prizes. I’m not. I can write well enough to bring pleasure, but I don’t have that ruthless, diamond brilliance of the very best.

Perhaps that is not a bad thing. The very best gave everything to their work, and tended to be drunk and mad and despairing in life. I think always of sottish F Scott and furious, bonkers Hemingway, and Mrs Woolf with the voices in her head which she could only stop with stones in her pocket and a running river, and Dorothy Parker, who somehow lived into old age, but existed in a twilight of sad hotel rooms, unrequited love for Mr Benchley, and dog shit.

Being in the second rank is not so bad. It’s about right. It does not mean I do not strive. I strive like hell. Even in this funny little blog I strive. I think: if, each day, I can give them one good sentence, then it is worth it. If I can get one passage of prose to dance, then it’s all right. It’s just that I have no false, luring expectations of glory.

What I really love is doing the work. I love that every day I get to play with language. I love that language is my medium, and I know it and understand it and am friends with it. When I was young, I did want a prize. I wanted an outside agency to award me something. Now I know that the very fact that the work itself brings me joy is the prize.

That, and the wild good fortune of flexible hours, so that I can pause for a moment and watch the 3.30 at Plumpton.


Today’s pictures:

Are from the archive. I scrolled through entirely at random, and picked the ones which stood out. One day, I shall manage to tidy up my photograph files, but at the moment they creak and groan like over-filled bookshelves, tottering gently in the bowels of the machine.

20 Nov 1

20 Nov 2

20 Nov 5

20 Nov 7

20 Nov 10

20 Nov 14

20 Nov 18

20 Nov 20

20 Nov 22

20 Nov 22-001

20 Nov 24

20 Nov 27

20 Nov 27-001

PS. Slightly geekish note - I was never so glad in my life to find that Windows Live Writer was working again. It disappeared yesterday, and I had to resort to the horror that is Blogger. I know I should be grateful for any free bit of software, and I do not take it for granted that I have a nice blogging platform for which I do not have to pay. But it really was devised by sadists. Quite apart from making all formatting and the inserting and sizing of photographs fiendishly difficult, it forces you to redo all your paragraphing if you ever want to edit a single line. So much as press the edit button, and you see all your lovingly-placed gaps removed, as if by an evil, mocking hand. Why would anyone do that? At what meeting did everyone sit down and say: oh, I know, THAT’S a good idea?

PPS. As one of the Dear Readers has astutely noted, I am madly writing two books at once. I keep telling everyone, from HorseBack to my family, that soon I shall be back to normal and not rushing everywhere with a manic glint in my eye, fighting time, and it never quite happens. I would not recommend writing two books at the same time, especially when both of the early drafts have come out ludicrously long. At the moment, I am wrangling 154,000 words and 120,000 words. One book is very nearly ready to be seen by publishers; one may take me beyond Christmas. The agent is excited, but flinty, discerning humans, keenly aware of markets and demographics and trends, will still have to say: yes, please. It’s kind of a nutty way for a grown-up to make a living, but, apart from touch-typing at eighty words a minute, it is my only skill. And, as I have said, I do love it so. Even on the bad days, when my shoulders are up around my ears and I can’t see a way through, I still love it.


  1. Two books at once is IMPRESSIVE! Can't wait to see the final edition of both. x

  2. Dear Tania,

    I'm also writing a book at the moment and completely relate to your comments about how tempting it is to make life easy for your characters. I'm writing a comedy of errors, but I love my main character and it really is too painful sometimes to put endless obstacles in her path!

    Do you have any advice on how to silence the Monologue of Doom (as I call my critical voice)? "This is useless, what an ugly sentence," etc does get quite tiresome when it's fairly constant. Full disclosure: sometimes I silence it with a glass of wine, which is probably not the healthiest of habits.

    I recently discovered your blog and love reading it every day. It probably sounds a bit mad but sometimes when I look out of my window in London I imagine I am in Scotland, instead of in the midst of the City, surrounded by offices and seemingly endless construction sites.



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