Warning: may increase your heart-rate by 5 bpm

Month: May, 2013

Being ‘Good Enough’


An unspoken, yet widely held, belief about writers is that they sit down at the keyboard feeling really quite good. They have a sip of tea, smile at the blank page like they’re greeting an old friend, and start typing. In actual fact there are many like this, so brimming with self-assurance that they write with a confidence that never trips them up or leaves them agonising over this word or that word. “Easy reading is damn hard writing” Nathaniel Hawthorne once said, but to these writers easy reading is easy writing, they imagine the prose slipping down as smoothly as they lay it on the page.

You may want to envy them. Why don’t they hate writing at least as much as they love it? Why doesn’t searching for one perfect sentence make their brain spin in circles? The answer is pretty easy. They tried to cheat the system. They saw a mountain and found the ski-lift while the rest of us were fighting tunguskan death leopards halfway up the crags of doom. Introspection never occurred to them. Maybe they’re right. You start wondering if you really are just a stereotype with your brooding torment and emotional see-sawing.

But here’s the thing. Every slushpile; magazine, novel, and agent alike, has earned its terrible reputation because it is inundated with these fearless souls. Old hands think fondly back to the 1950’s as a time when you could submit a story and have it accepted or rejected in the same day, previously recognised author or not. Now, it seems, everyone is a writer. Maybe you can blame the internet for making so many of us think we are adept at communication, or the electronic ease of submissions, but the result is the same no matter the cause.

The short of it is: if you have ever questioned your worth as a writer then you are already far ahead of ninety-nine percent of your competitors. This may come as small comfort when you realise, astonished, that the reason editors often don’t give more detailed feedback is that their reward for doing so is usually abuse that they would dare question that writer’s abilities. I know, I know, you want to choke the life out of these people. It’s okay. The important thing to remember is this: don’t get lumped amongst them. When you submit, submit perfectly. There are numerous articles out there on submission formatting guidelines, if they’re not already detailed by the publication you’re targeting, and you should follow these to the letter. Don’t give them an excuse.

Don’t make them think you’ve taken the ski-lift.


Your Achilles’ Heel


We all have one. That over, or under, indulgence that trips us up and lets our work down. For some writers it can be something as daft as wardrobe inventory: the insistence that we know what each character is wearing in a given scene. For others, it’s the inability to let all that research go to waste, so you end up reading two pages on the formation of Mossad when a paragraph would have better served.

I have a weakness for similies. I knew I loved them, even hoping that it might become my trademark as a writer, but it wasn’t until a recent critique that I realised how much. I read it back, there are too many but I can’t find any bad ones, like I’m someone searching for the runts of the litter. Hey, there I go again. Arthur Quller-Couch famously said of writing: “You must murder your darlings”. You can put metaphors and similies on the shelf, excise entire scenes to be re-framed in new work, but most likely you’ll forget about them and they’ll stay on the cutting room floor.

No matter what our individual weaknesses, we all hate to do that. Second and third drafts are brutal for me because it’s time to impose a sense of order. The words are there just doing their thing, like cute little cartoon bunnies hopping around, and I march through the middle, grabbing ones by their ears, flinging them across pages and forcing them to stand in line. It’s easy to delete bad writing, but a good barometer of how serious you are is the ability to write something brilliant, recognise that, and delete it anyway because it still doesn’t fit.

Murder your darlings, because if you don’t people will forget why they’re reading in the first place. A life is made more remarkable by moments of beauty, a life with nothing but beauty feels as false as a painted backdrop. People won’t trust you if you try to give them the latter, because it usually means you’re trying to sell them something.