Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Apologies for the ever-so-slightly tardy nature of today’s post – I’ve been down at the Arvon Foundation in Totleigh Barton, as the guest writer at one of their superb week-long creative writing courses. My first ever experience of a writing workshop was at Arvon, back when I was 18. It feels weird and kind of lovely to return, years later, as a professional who stuck with it, to work with up and coming writers. I got the opportunity to share some poems and read from The Honours, and talk about why and how I write. It’s strange to realise that this is my life now. I really am a writer. Imagine!
Of course, my fledgling career could be cut cruelly short if you don’t pre-order a copy of my debut novel, The Honours, due out on the 2nd of April but available to purchase now, at a discount, at any of these reputable online dealers. This week Wordery picked me as one of their Top 5 ‘Names To Look Out For In 2015’, calling the book ‘thrilling and unpredictable’, with ‘a gripping, layered plot’ and ‘an original, modern and likeable heroine’. I’m not sure how important ‘likeability’ is as a trait in a protagonist – I suspect reviewers are less likely to discuss a main character’s likeability if that character is male – but otherwise, those are all generous and positive things to say! So hooray, and please help ensure the sweet baby songbird of my fiction career doesn’t get blasted out of the sky by the large-bore fowling piece of public indifference, by clicking the link and pre-ordering. That is the single most impactful act you could take this year to support my career. Thank you.
I read Wild Seed by Octavia Butler this week and it’s terrific. I now understand her impressive reputation within SF and I urge you to read it. I actually wept. To be fair my emotions are on a hair trigger most days and I have wept at dropped toast, but still. She does things I have no idea how to replicate and writes some deeply nuanced, sophisticated characters just spilling over with richness and humanity.
I’m currently finishing Even The Women Must Fight by Karen Gottschang Turner and Phan Thanh Hao, a non-fiction book about female soldiers fighting for North Vietnam against the French and Americans. The first-hand accounts of life keeping the Ho Chi Minh Trail open, crewing anti-aircraft guns and braving jungle conditions are incredible, heartbreaking, depressing and inspiring. War is horrible, you guys! Let’s promise never ever to do it.
It’s Dangerous To Go Alone
Longform fiction writing is a lonely business. Novelists are the lighthouse keepers of the Arts.
Except – imagine if no one had hired you to be a lighthouse keeper. Imagine if, when you were growing up, you saw this weird tower by the edge of the sea, and sometimes this big, sweeping beam pulsed from the top, and it was the colour of the moon.
And one day, without quite understanding why, you wondered up to the tower, and you found, at the base, a door. And the door was open.
So you entered, and you climbed this long spiral of stairs, and your legs jellied and you felt like you were going to fall. And maybe other people had come this way, maybe some people saw the stairs twisting away and thought ‘naaah’, maybe some people got halfway up and they weren’t enjoying themselves and they quit, and as you climb you think and feel all these things, but for some reason, you keep going.
And you found yourself at the top of the tower, alone with this huge, hot light that sometimes burns brightly, and sometimes seems to go out. And you guess you’re a lighthouse keeper now, but there’s no test you passed, no certificate, and you clean the lenses when you can, but you don’t know if it’s making any difference – sometimes the fog gets really thick, and you doubt the ships can see your light at all.
What I’m saying is, writing – the actual act of putting words one after the other to try to communicate events that never happened – is almost always done alone. That is an inescapable part of the job. Even if there are other human bodies physically in the room where you write, the ideas are more or less locked in your head, heard and seen only by you, and only you can transfer them into a sharable form, by choosing words to represent these images, sounds, smells, feelings, notions, objects and people, and by moving your hands so that said words appear on a screen or are written on a page.
But writing is communication. It is about bringing people together. It’s fundamentally about bridging the gap between human minds. What an odd contradiction – that something designed to reduce loneliness, to engender communion, requires solitude.
When knocking out a poem, this isn’t so noticeable – you go ‘aha!’ and grab a notebook or your laptop and start hammering lines down onto the page, grabbing scraps of lines and words and assembling the funky little lexical bricolage that makes up verse. You maybe get your first splurge done in a few hours. You come back to it later, and assemble it into a first draft, with a start and an end.
After that, it’s more or less ready to share – and feedback is easy, because the required time investment of your audience is often 1-3 minutes, i.e. sod all.
Working on a novel is at the other extreme. I’m about 100,000 words into writing a new novel and, up until this week, no one had looked at so much as a sentence of it.
This was for a bunch of reasons:
i. I was shy about sharing it, in case people hated it
ii. I didn’t want to bother anyone by asking for feedback
iii. I worried that maybe getting notes would somehow taint the creative process
iv. It’s a sequel, so unless someone had read the first book (hard because it’s not out), significant elements would be lost on them
Now admittedly, this last reason was the biggest obstacle to sharing, but it’s hardly insurmountable, and I suspect I didn’t tackle it earlier because of the cumulative effect of the previous three reasons.
Sharing work you care about is nerve-wracking! You might think I’m less sensitive because of all the work we do deconstructing first pages on the blog, but I want to do justice to all the big, sparkly whizzing round my head just as much as you do. And, you know… vanity. Part of me, despite all my banging the drum about the value of redrafting, of developing a robust self-editing regimen, wants to perpetuate the myth that ideas and stories come to me fully-formed, and I transcribe them in this exalted state of inspiration.
Actually, I fumble my way through first drafts, getting almost everything, from the pacing to the language to the basic plot of the book wrong. Back in the 1910s, housewife Pearl Curran claimed to channel the spirit of a poet called Patience Worth, who, she claimed, dictated pieces to her which she would hear and transcribe. Through Pearl, ‘Patience’ described her frustration with this process, likening it to dictating to a deaf secretary through a thick pane of frosted glass.
That’s how writing feels to me all the time! Like I’m a quite stupid, tin-eared secretary transcribing the words of someone heard only down a long-distance line, and then only in fragments. I fill in the blanks as best I can, I guess at meanings, some days my hearing is sharper than others, but I’m more or less doomed to failure and the result is a scarcely comprehensible dog’s dinner.
I wonder if some writers – myself included – wouldn’t find it rather helpful to believe in the utter bollocks that is mediumship, and imagine themselves as mere secretaries for the story. For a start, it suggests that the Platonic ideal of the story already exists out there – that we don’t have to panic about destroying it, because it exists independently of us, and we can keep checking our notes against it. Also, it makes our failure and incompetence inevitable elements of the writing process. We cannot win – it would be foolishness to believe that your first transcription is word-perfect. You need to go back to the client, ask them to start from the beginning, and check your version against what they say. This time, maybe other parts you missed with come through loud and clear. Maybe you’ll realise you misheard whole sections, and because of that, some of your later guesses were wrong. Maybe, now you’ve got a sense of this person’s speech rhythms, you can go back to the start and see a whole bunch of places where you misheard them – they’d never have said something like that! And so you change it.
But here’s the other thing. You’re not a lighthouse keeper, and you’re not a partially-deaf secretary communicating with the dead (probably). You can ask for help.
Get people to read your work. Friends, other writers, whoever. If you don’t have a community of writing friends, go online and tout for readers. Do a critique swap with someone else.
And writers – be swell and read your fellow authors’ work whenever you can spare the time. We need to be generous with our time and assistance, so we can work together to make better stories. I have had so much help over the years from other writers and I would never have got to where I am now without that help.
This week, a friend read my first 85k and his feedback has really, really helped. I’ve gone from feeling stressed and all at sea to feeling super-excited and motivated about this new book.
Don’t go it alone. An essential part of writing is cultivating links with other writers. You need to share your work. Storytelling is an inherently communal act, and unless you share your work regularly and solicit strong, compassionate feedback, your craft will never reach the heights it deserves to, and your stories will never shine as they do from the bright shores of your imagination.