The fallibility of success

calvin-hobbers bad writing

If anyone reading this is struggling to get ‘good’ work down on the page, take comfort. I am still a pretty inexperienced editor but I have now completed two commercial books and have done enough to draw certain conclusions

Here are my disillusionments:

  • Authors don’t understand commas. It’s possible that this is a US thing rather than an absolute error, but I find commas strewn around willy-nilly. Sub-clauses are only half indicated and dual-clauses (linked by ‘and’ or ‘but’, say) are broken unnecessarily. You can see some previous witterings on commas here
  • Professional, published authors sometimes stuff up point-of-view. I’ve just read a climax where the POV changed half a dozen times over the course of as many pages
  • Authors forget they have characters in scenes. They suggest actions that would leave them a smear between two docking spaceships. Their characters disappear and reappear at will
  • Characters can change remarkably between scenes
  • Authors do not understand that emotions flare instantly. Sometimes they’ll have paragraphs between a trigger and a response
  • Authors will have their characters abandon a loved-one in mid-mortal combat
  • Authors will not provide the reader with a solid, imaginable environment for their action, leaving their characters floating and the reader struggling to keep up with the writer’s ideas
  • Authors will set up Chekhov’s guns all over the place and then never go back to them. In one book I worked on the writer created a whole location, with mysterious characters and foreshadowing aplenty, and then never returned to it. It is the most boggling, unsatisfying thing (and there’s more on Chekhov’s guns here)
  • Authors will explain a stupidity too late and with a kind of off-the-cuff, ‘oh, that’s not important’-ness that simply doesn’t work
  • Authors will mess up cause and effect, like having a note written by a character who dies before they could get round to it
  • Authors will add really lame justifications to cover up the fact that they didn’t think of an issue until their beta-readers called them up on it
  • Authors will come up with limp plots and interminable pages of the protagonist agonising over what he’s going to do – and doing nothing. Yup, this one’s on me, folks

WritingHumour-Criticism

I write this not to damn the writers – really, this is the fault of a publishing system that demands writers produce work to order – but to reassure you. If you’re struggling with your writing, if you feel you’re not very good at some fundamental aspect of the craft, don’t worry. Even those who have ‘made it’ make the same mistakes.

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That’s not to say that you’re allowed the same mistakes. Publishing is unfair; it’s fair harder on debut writers than it is on a proven commodity.

Whether a novel is published or not comes down to a simple cost/benefit analysis. How hard will the agent/editor have to work to get sales?

A submission by a debut author is like an audition piece. You need to demonstrate basic competency – the more errors, the more the editor/agent has to do to get it right: your writing can be crap if the potential rewards are worth the extra time it takes to get it up to scratch.

That’s why celebrities have a head start; the ‘guaranteed’ sales will justify any extra editing – or complete rewriting – that needs to be done.

It’s also why sequels are often less satisfying than the original. The market is there – and, indeed, a sequel will often boost sales of the first book. The cost/benefit scales have shifted. And the writer has, perhaps for the first time, a deadline to meet and all sorts of other pressures on their heads.

Dilbert

So yes, you need to get the basics right. But, after the first three chapters – and with the possible exception of literary fiction, upon which I am not qualified to comment – it’s story that will sell, not technical excellence.

Also, editors like me (and those far more experienced) are here to help. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled clauses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your steaming pen.

Get it down and move on.

The word-myth

Words are the stained glass in the church window: the eye-catchers, the glamour, the individual pieces of shining beauty.

They’re also the least important part of a novel. Really, for most of the time you spend working on a piece of writing, words are the last things on your mind. They’re the most easily changeable aspect, and only a small proportion make it unaltered from first draft to last.

It goes like this. When you first put pen to paper or open up a virgin Word file the most important thing to get down is the story. Of course, writers work in different ways: some make extensive preparations and know exactly where the tale is going. Others fly by the seat of their pants and allow the story to unfold organically, taking them where it will. Most will be somewhere in the middle.

Whatever the technique, the first draft is always about hammering the basic idea into shape. Of course, you can’t do this without words, and some of these will (hopefully) be wonderful, exquisite, evocative. But most will, in essence, be place-holders. Each successive draft will erase whole forests of characters and plant new ones in their place. Or perhaps that section will be wiped altogether as plot-holes are ironed out, inconsistencies erased, precise pace perfected.

This is how writing works. Only a staggering genius can create a perfect novel without editing.

Before you get to the details of individual words, a writer first has to get the whole story down on paper/hard drive. Then you have to beat away at that idea, making sure it has the right shape: that it has a strong central plot, enough side-interest, the right mix between action and reflection… the sort of thing that a reader should feel subconsciously, maybe never noticing the intricate architecture beneath. Like the lead lattice that holds the individual fragments of colour in place in a church window.

Then comes the sharpening. The honing of the blade. Making sure your characters are believable, your dialogue crisp, that there’s no flab on the flesh. More words are erected, lots and lots demolished. Of course, at every stage you’re going to be finding different, better words for your dramatic (or expositional) needs. Sometimes you’ll spend hours on one section, endlessly working to find perfection in your phrasing. And then a draft later you realise you need to get rid of the lot.

I think it’s important to realise this. A lot of people are put off writing because they worry about not having the right words. They’ll start off but then hit a plot-bump (like a speed-bump, but the size of Godzilla in the writer’s mind) and, panicking, suddenly feel like they’re not capable; that they’re writing rubbish, that the words won’t come.

You’ll probably have heard that you should ‘turn off your inner editor’ when writing the first draft. I can’t argue with this, although I am somewhat grumpy at the twee-ness of the phrase. But it’s an over-simple expression and I feel it’s often misunderstood. Let me spell it out: words don’t matter.

It’s always up to the individual writer how best they work. If you go to extremes you could take my advice as telling you to plan extensively, packing all your scenes into a neat little box and doing a first-draft that’s little more that a time-line of events – what you want to happen where. Successive drafts can then be the unpacking of these boxes, building up to form a full story. If that’s what works for you, great.

I can’t do this; I’m a seat-of-the-pants guy. I start with a starting point, have a resolution in mind, they try to steer a line from one to the other. And on the way I try to find as many good, keepable words as I can. Yeah, I’m searching for perfection with every word I put down, and I’ll do a bit of slash-and-burn on the way as my plot temporarily derails or if I realise that yesterday I was really, really, too pissed to write.

But it’s not worth getting hung-up (or hung-over) over. I know that the important thing in a first draft is to nail down that plot. The words will come together along the way, throughout the redrafting process. As ‘Papa’ Hemingway put it: ‘There is no great writing, just great rewriting’.

Words are the stained-glass, the ornamentation; the crowd-pleasures, the attention-seekers. But they’d be nothing more than a pretty distraction without the right foundations, buttressing, stonework (crude or precise, depending on the effect you want to achieve). So by all means enjoy the glitter. But next time you read a novel, spare a thought for the elegant tracery that holds that glass in place.