Hello dear friends, and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This week I’m doing another Mailbag, because I’ve had some more questions, and I enjoy answering them. It helps mix things up and allows us to deal with some familiar topics in a bit more detail. If you’d like to ask me a question about any aspect of creative writing – perhaps something you’re stuck on in your work, perhaps a broad aspect of theory – then you can email me via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right.
I have to tell you – I had one of the most intense experiences an author gets to have, yesterday. I was at my desk, writing, when I got an email from my editor saying the cover for my first novel was finished, and she was attaching the image.
The whole room fisheyed round the laptop screen. Here I stood at a boundary, of which there are many in life. Every since I was 5 I’ve imagined what my first novel would look like, if I ever got one published. All these authors dreams include a physical book, don’t they? I was about to find out what the reality looked like.
And, if I’m honest, I was nervous. What if I didn’t like it? We’ve all had the experience of listening to someone on the radio for years, feeling like they’re a familiar friend, then one day seeing their real face and it’s not how you pictured it and you’re freaked out like: eeuughh! Some impostor meat-goblin has stolen my lovely friend’s voice! Kill it with napalm!
I held my breath. The room heeled.
I FUCKING LOVE IT.
I know I am not a Credible Advocate for work from sales of which I finanically benefit, but it is the bee’s bollocks. It is everything I ever hoped for and quite a lot more. I cannot wait to show it to you because it encapsulates so much of what I was trying to do with the mood and heart of the story. The moment you see it you are going to want to own a copy, because it is one of those most magical and precious of things: a beautiful book.
Being an author is often thought of as a lonely job – we are the grimfaced lighthouse-keepers of The Arts – but it’s a hugely collaborative effort, and no novel can be successful without contributions from a whole gang of awesome and talented people. Remember, when you sit down to write, that you don’t have to do this alone. Whether it’s interactions with your community of fellow writers, peer advice from professionals, partnerships with agents and editors, input from designers, promoters, booksellers, reviewers and readers, every aspect of your storytelling life is a group sport. Embrace it.
The Honours is out at the start of April but you can pre-order it now. If you enjoy this blog, the best and most lovely way you could support me is to place an order. Pre-orders help to build buzz around a new novel, and they mean you’re guaranteed a first edition. Sharing the pre-order link with your friends and family and essentially lending your substantial cultural caché to my efforts by implying that they’re going to be brilliant, is another great way to help. And thank you. If the book finds readers, it will be because people like you have thrust it into their hands.
If you’re one of those people who does Goodreads, The Honours is on there too and you can mark it ‘to read’.
Anyway, letters. Let’s go.
Sometimes I get confused as to when to keep my writing clear and when to be a bit more expressive. I say this because I recently stumbled across some shite writing I did years ago, and I quote, (painfully and reluctantly) “A tongue of flame ignited tobacco threads, sending plumes of carcinogen-laced fumes down the paper cylinder.” (It actually went on for longer, but I’m cringing too much.) Why didn’t I just write ‘He lit a [fucking] cigarette’?
You cannot comprehend how painfully close to home this question strikes. When I was 15 I began writing my first novel, Psychic Rubber Nipples, (it physically hurt to write that – at the time I thought the title was gritty and archly cynical) and it was 90,000 words of precisely this: clanging, artless, prolix descriptions of some dude smoking. Like, genuinely, his smoking was about a fifth of the novel. The awfulness was compounded by the fact that I’d never smoked in my life. Imagine how skull-implodingly bad it must have been. Keep going. You’re nowhere near.
‘Simplify, simplify,’ wrote Henry David Thoreau. Which is naked hypocrisy, isn’t it? If he really believed that he would have just written ‘simplify’.
You’ve hit upon an important distinction, Liam. On this blog I’m forever telling authors to cull redundant words and strip their language back to the essentials, but at the same time I bang on about the need for detail and ‘crunchy specificity’. How can you be specific yet simple?
The key is to pick your battles. You cannot be specific about everything, unless you’re writing The Mezzanine. Most of the time you’re going to be hunting for the ‘telling detail’ – the little nugget of specificity which suggests the whole.
Your cigarette example is an excellent one, because the reasons for its shitness are clear – we all know what a cigarette it, and roughly how it works. Your sudden defamiliarising of a mundane action, casting it in this high, cod-poetical register, doesn’t materially contribute to our understanding. It doesn’t advance character or plot. It feels like a mock heroic voice, sending itself up.
Despite the highfalutin language in your example, you could still be describing just about any cigarette, couldn’t you? It’s not specificity, it’s a register shift. (which is a stylistic move all of its own, and has its place, especially in dialogue)
If someone’s smoking a cigarette you might want to tell us that it’s a menthol Superking from a crumpled pack or a filterless imported cigarette from a silver asprey case – those two cigarettes imply a very different character, don’t they? If they take out a packet of Golden Virginia and roll their own, that’s another thing again. Do they roll a tight little puffer that they grip between thumb and forefinger and have to do several wincey drags in quick succession just to get it going? Or do they roll a big fat loose one that crackles when they inhale and pulls fast and burns bright?
You don’t have to mention all or any of this. But these are all specifics that imply character on the sly. None of them use big words, but they tighten the narrative focus and sharpen the eyes you’ve given us to see this world.
Different authors choose different things to be specific about, depending on what is important to their story. Very broadly speaking, simpler, cleaner prose tends to be more common in commercial fiction, and more specific, precise prose tends to be more common in literary fiction. But there are huge swathes of exceptions – I can think of dozens of literary fiction writers for whom a pared-back style is a badge of honour, and there are lots of commercial horror or historical authors who lard their elephantine narratives with a great slathering of detail.
When you’re editing, remember that your specificity needs to pull double duty. It needs to make your world vivid and real to us, but it also needs to develop character or advance plot. Inflect detail with mood or narrative purpose so that it is contributing to the story – and if you can’t find a way for it to do so, either change the detail for a different, more useful one, or cut it.
Why do I always feel like a hack describing eyeballs or what eyeballs are doing? Whether beautiful, or glaring, or intense, etc. blah yuck. I figure I’m doing something terribly wrong any time I so much as mention them. Or am I just over-thinking this in the way people come up with 40 different versions of ‘said’?
Again, I really sympathise. When you’re working on a novel you scribble down some broad notes about what the story’s about – maybe you chunk down into a scene-by-scene treatment, outlining the major beats. Then you get down to the business of writing the scene and you know this character’s angry at this other character and ohhh they’ve got an awesome reason to be but there’s a bunch of dialogue exchanges that need to happen and you want to put a little pause in and find yourself for the hundredth time describing their eyes.
I have some old writing manuals that offer such helpful sections as ’50 ways to describe the heroine’s hair… 40 ways to describe eyes’ etc. Like the old ‘Said Books’ of yesteryear, these lists are aimed at saving the author from having to pause mid-flow, and hassle themselves with this silly business of imagination. So you just drop a generic trait or word from the list into your story, and press on.
You’ll see this in a lot of commercial fiction that the author has obviously hammered out at speed – desks are covered in ‘whatnots’ or ‘knickknacks’, characters are ‘portly’ or have ‘a petite figure’ or ‘salt and pepper hair’, we might be told that they’re 5’9” and have ‘short brown hair’. I mean, who gives a soupy warm shit?
I find this aspect of writing really hard, because it takes effort, and it’s not always effort that you can magically do at the desk, in the moment of writing the scene. Sometimes you need to highlight a weak beat (that says something like ‘He shrugged.’ Or ‘She rolled her eyes.’) and put a marginal note saying ‘REPLACE WITH SOMETHING AWESOME AND SPECIFIC’ so you can come back on a second pass and make that line memorable and useful. (that’s not to say you can’t occasional have a shrug or an eye roll – just make sure it doesn’t become your default action for your characters to perform)
So with regards to eyes – be careful you aren’t turning into some douchebag portrait artist every time you encounter a new character and being all: your eyes… I must PAINT them.
I’m not sure we’re that conscious of eye colour, etc, the first time we meet someone. I reckon I could tell you the eye colour of less than 10% of people I know. I could guess, but that’s about the proportion I know with any certainty. We don’t really notice eyes unless we’re in love, or the person has a gammy eye or they’re really close or something.
Maybe you’re just default to eyes because you’re not sure what else to do. And it feels hacky because every encounter feels like your viewpoint character is all cheeseball-infatuated with some Joe-schmoe bit part dude.
So maybe list for yourself some other things to notice; some things that might be more immediately obvious, and that – as in the answer above – might imply the rest of the character so you can just get on with the scene. Remember that different viewpoint characters might be drawn to notice different things, and that – unfortunate as it is – as human beings we often notice a person’s physical shortcomings first. Here we go:
Vocal or physical tics
Body language (confident, big, close, with lots of eye contact? Shy, small, far away?)
State of their clothes (clean? Stained? Ironed? Rumpled?)
Accessories (jewellery, watch?)
Scars, acne, bruises, bitten fingernails
How are their teeth?
Is their hair dry, greasy, thin, messy?
As an exercise, you might like to list a dozen more things a character might notice about another character. You could make a file that is just a checklist of possibilities, then if you find yourself getting sucked into eye descriptions, refer to it and pick something else.
You can definitely afford to get through an entire novel without a single eye reference. We assume they’re present, so don’t sweat it. It’s not like the reader’s going to be flicking through thinking: ‘This is weird… why doesn’t anybody in this story have eyes? WHAT HAPPENED? WHO STOLE THEIR EYES?’
I believe one person can make a difference. Guess what? You’re that person! Pre-order my first novel, The Honours, now. Clicking that link will send a tiny electrical impulse back through time (which science now understands to be non-linear) to 5-year-old me, sitting with his Winnie-the-Pooh lever arch folder, drawing his first ever story on A4 paper (it was about two men who wanted to cross a river and was called Try It Out) and dreaming that one day his stories would be good enough that other people would want to read them. That electrical impulse will arc across his synaptic pathways and – just for an instance – Past-Me will experience an instant of profound existential wonder at how the universe heard his wish, and granted it.
Then he’ll go back to drawing men accidentally setting their bums on fire.
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