Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Each week we take a look at something to do with editing your fiction to make it less bad and more good. Like, for example, with that last sentence, we’d probably say ‘
less bad more good – replace with “better”‘. Most weeks we take a novice author’s first page – usually of a novel – and look at ways to improve it.
If you’d like to read previous posts, there are nearly two and a half years’ worth here. Two and a half years! Crumbs. I really need to pull my finger out and start roadtesting the podcast, and I’m sorry for not being quicker on that. I’ve fallen into a bit of a Netrunner hole and it’s cannibalised most of the useful parts of my brain. Now, instead of using all those spare neurons for daydreaming or cooking up new projects, I’m refining decklists and worrying which cards I’m going to switch out to get more econ. I’ve quit video games until the novel is finished, so I can only play games that get me out of the house – which seemed like a healthy compromise at the time. But it feels like I’ve weaned myself off weed by buying a crack pipe. I’ve had a cold for the past fortnight so that might be something to do with it, but I genuinely find it hard to concentrate because my mind keeps wandering back to deckbuilding. And I’m not even particularly good at the game!
In between rocking the groggy sickness I think all of us in the UK have picked up these last few weeks (my sympathies to you all) and squandering my best years in the squalid nerd dungeons of East Anglia, I have actually been managing to knock out some writing. A cold makes everything that bit harder, but it’s progressing, in its own stressful, ineffable way. I think being prone to severe anxiety probably makes writing a lot harder – I’m not just being a whinger.
And it’s hard, isn’t it? Seeing how prolific some authors are – especially some bestselling authors, who are often producing novels at the rate of one or even two a year. I simply can’t imagine being able to push out and sign off on a piece of work that fast. It’s bewildering.
Until, that is, you read the end product. And then, most of the time, you’re like ‘oh, that makes sense’. I think most of us could crank out a couple of books a year if we didn’t really care whether they were shit. (or if the books were very short – I can imagine an excellent 60k novel being knocked out in a year, certainly)
Which is not to say that novels that have had years and years poured into them are inevitably great. Sadly, there are a thousand paths to shitness, and we will each walk many of them before our time on this planet is up.
Now before this descends into a pissing match between writers of commercial and literary fiction, the former crying ‘Snobs!’ (and claiming that the very act of making a distinction between ‘commercial’ and ‘literary’ is elitist), the latter crying ‘Hacks!’, I… well, actually I can’t quite finish that sentence how I would have liked, because there is no way to stop this perennial battle from taking place. Fortunately, it’s a tiny battle between a few noisy authors with weird insecurities and big mouths (I realise this does not narrow the field a great deal), and the rest of the world gives narry a shit.
My position, when it comes to writing, when it comes, specifically, to your writing, is this:
Your only responsibility, when writing a story, is to do your best. For some, this may appear to dwell in the realm of Completely Useless Advice, for others, it may seem twee, aphoristic and flatly false. Readers don’t care if you’ve ‘done your best’ – they will argue – all readers care about is a thumping good read.
Well, to a certain extent, when you’re writing, readers can get to fuck. This isn’t about them, yet, it’s about you, and your practice, and taking ownership of what you can control.
It always amuses me when some people view an exhortation to ‘do your best’ as mealy-mouthed and half-arsed – as if performing at your absolute maximum capacity is an act of hippyish anti-pragmatism. My position is that, when you write, you owe it to the story, to the characters, to your imagination – and yes, to your notional readers – to do your best. BUT – but but but – I submit that your best is far, far better than you realise.
Your ‘best’ is your imagination and craft supported by a regular, prodigious and wide-ranging reading habit. Your ‘best’ is your scenes supported by weeks of targeted research, of traveling to the places you want to write about, of speaking to people who work in the professions your characters do, of hunting down the out-of-print diaries of a woman who lived in the time and place your protagonist did, of finding the tactile, gustatory, olfactory truth of each fictive moment and bringing it to life so your reader experiences it rather than being flatly informed about it. Your ‘best’ is roadtesting multiple openings to your novel and finding out which one is the strongest. Your ‘best’ is producing background material for your characters – spending half an hour freewriting first-person monologues from them, working out their date of birth, their background, what they want, so this richness can inform your writing without your having to actually include it in the book. Your ‘best’ is undergoing the discomfort of reading your work back, realising you don’t like it, and attempting to improve it – again and again and again, maybe 14 times, maybe 25, draft after draft after draft. Your ‘best’ is cultivating relationships with other authors and informed, articulate readers so they can offer you feedback when your work is ready to share. Your ‘best’ is giving up parts of your leisure time and time spent with loved ones and pleasant, low-stress entertainment activities to sit and fail at something you love, for years. Your ‘best’ is doing all of this, and then, when it’s over, starting the process again, from scratch, while strangers publicly judge your previous efforts.
So I can understand why some prolific authors settle for ‘good enough’. Driving yourself to do your best is punishing. And, to be clear, some authors’ ‘good enough’ is very probably better than my ‘best’ – but even then. Even if you were a fucking genius who could shit gold bricks on demand, would you really want to only be hitting your equivalent of ‘adequate’ because your publishers and the general public weren’t calling you on it? Or would you want to try to do the characters and the world living in your head justice? Would you want to be able to look at the novel you’d written and think: yes, that is my absolute best.
I feel like I’ve slightly gone off on one, so I’ll leave things there, except to say, sincerely good luck with your writing. I find the process incredibly hard and stressful at times, and if you experience that, it doesn’t mean you’re not cut out to be an author. In fact, it’s pretty normal. And if you wake up each morning and find writing fiction a thrill and a joy, I’m not claiming you’re somehow fraudulent and that all real artistes suffer gravely. I’m genuinely pleased for you – and I would love to hear how you manage it! What kind of self-talk goes on in the head of a positive, motivated author? Hmm. If anyone has any leads, let me know!
Oh, and please buy my novel The Honours and let people know about it. It makes my day when you do that!