I’ve been working as a manuscript assessor for nearly a decade. Jesus. It involves reading aspiring authors’ novels and explaining why I think they haven’t been published yet. I teach creative writing for the Open University. I did the MA in Prose Fiction at UEA. I presented the C4 series How To Get A Book Deal. I wrote an award-winning book about publishing, creative writing and disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts. I have written articles on creative writing for the Guardian, the Independent, the Big Issue, Writing magazine and Writers’ Forum. I have written scripts for several video games, including working as script editor and consultant director on a big space sim called Nexus: The Jupiter Incident. I write almost every day. I read every day.
Before you take any advice off me, you should know – I have never had a novel published. I present what follows as the trail notes of a shambling wayfarer, still lost in the desert, but who can nonetheless still identify a few mirages, some perils and sinkholes for others to avoid. Which is to say: take all my advice with a massive pinch of salt. In fact, any motherfucker who gives you writing advice – before you listen to it, read something they’ve written. Is it any good? If not, you might want to think twice about following their suggestions.
Still, I read a lot, I edit a lot. It’s possible to be a good editor and a shit writer. I hope I’m not the latter, but I’m a touch of the former, and if you’re working on a book or short stories or just trying to hone your craft as a fiction writer, then Thursdays on this blog will dripfeed you tips on making your prose better.
We’re going to write the Great British Novel, one cut at a time.
Incidentally, in my experience, it’s better to teach by example than to spout abstract principles. If any of you are working on a novel or a short story and fancy having your work critiqued, email me your first page and I’ll post it up on the blog along with my feedback. Obviously you have to be okay with my sharing your best work online, and receiving some robust (but friendly) criticism. If anyone fancies taking me up on the offer, please email me via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right, sending me your first page. No context or synopsis please, just a first page and a title. And if you know anyone who might find it useful to get some free, experienced feedback, by all means send ’em this way.
Possibly no one will take me up on the offer, in which case I’ll press on spouting conceptual bollocks in a vacuum. As always, feedback and requests in the comments box below, please.
A man runs.
– The Iron Council, China Miéville
I’m an awful writer. I have a fondness for baroque prose but I don’t do it particularly well. Statements strangle beneath a thicket of qualifiers. Gaudy adjectives bunch together in front of nouns like black rats bottlenecking in the mouth of their nest to escape the cyanide gas. Metaphors go off half-cocked. I waffle.
A lot of these posts have an air of ‘physician, heal thyself’. If I seem oddly splenetic, it’s only because the author most guilty of these crimes is the one listing them. I’ve tried being reasonable with him. Still he keeps taking the piss. Time for the hairdryer treatment.
The above line is the opening sentence of Miéville’s Fantasy novel, The Iron Council. I think first lines are overrated – they’re a very tiny piece of a colossal puzzle, and if you pay them too much mind they can easily descend into tricksy posturing.
The character of Joseph Grand in Camus’ La Peste satirises this tendency – he is working on a novel, but he’s such a perfectionist he won’t proceed until he gets the first sentence exactly right. Of course, he ends up worrying at it for months on end, tweaking a word here and there, declaring that he’s finally cracked it only to descend into doubt. La Peste itself, incidentally, has a wicked opening – rats pouring onto the streets and exploding.
Miéville’s opening is a lovely bit of simple prose. He’s not coyly understating. He’s not bludgeoning us with bombast. He’s presenting us with a character, an action, and an implied question – why is this guy running? (maybe two implied questions, come to think of it – why is this guy running, and who is he?)
I am not advocating that the only game in town is clipped, journalistic prose. I love cadenced, multi-claused sentences – the way they can build and deepen, adding layers of irony, the way they can jack-knife with the final word, transforming our understanding of everything that leads up to it. Andrew Cowan’s novel Worthless Men is full of great, nuanced prose that sinks and rises and subtly undercuts itself. There’s a musicality that makes you want to read it aloud, that rewards slowing down and savouring.
What I am saying is: writers, you gotta have range. Sometimes – often, in fact – the shortest route is the best. We can get caught up in proving our literariness, our right to tell this story. We want to hang a simile on every park bench, every elm, on the fellow impaling leaves with his sharpened stick, on the clouds across the sun, on the rollerblading couple – are they a couple? No? But look how their silver rings wink in the light, how they pass a smile one to the other like note in class, like a snuffbox – on the shitting dachshund, on the kidney-shaped duckpond, screaming look, am I not an artist? Am I not burying this cheerless suburban scene in my words?
Not every scene needs the nuclear option, kids. Simplicity is bold.
Sometimes, it’s enough to say: I’m in a park. The sun is out and my Dad is dead. I can’t stop laughing.
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