Top Mutually Exclusive Advice for New Writers March 2014

Almost everyone asks me: "what's your top advice for new writers?"

They're usually hoping for something snappy. Thinking about over the last few days — especially in the light of a book I just finished reading (I have my notes to write up now) by a new writer — I find that the two pieces of advice that I would most like to give are, or at the very least seem to be, in fundamental conflict.

The first is:

If there is a simpler way, use it.

It is painfully common for new writers, either revelling in the sheer joy of language or determined to impress, to use curious extended metaphors, nominal phrases of 6 words or more for the subject and object of single verb sentences, strings of adjectives, "clever" and "cute" turns of phrase, obscure or erudite vocabulary, synonyms*, alliteration, addressing the reader, swapping typefaces, using any POV except 1st-person-with-hindsight (e.g. Sherlock Homes) or 3rd-person-omniscient (e.g. Dickens), flashbacks (and any other anti-chronology), addressing the reader directly, and of course, words and phrases of whose meaning they are not CERTAIN.

All this and more is classed as "running before you can walk". I have been at pains to point out that as a writer you have to make conscious choices about the devices and conceits employed in the pursuit of your craft. And it is all to easy for the novice to respond: but I chose to do all those things.

The problem is that caught up in the maelstrom of all those bells and whistles, the new writer loses his grip on a story that soon becomes like a watersnake: incredibly hard to grasp; once grasped easily fumbled, and once fumbled it'll either bite you or swim way out of reach. You have to know you can nail the story FIRST. Once you do, you have to start chusing with reasons. This means making conscious choices, but able to state your objective for those choices. Messing about with chronology? You want the reader to discover things in improbable orders. Why? Rest assured I will challenge you.

The second is:

Be ambitious.

If you are one day going to become known for your distinctive, personal style; if you are going to keep your creativity open and unfettered, then you need to experiment and keep experimenting. So you need to try out all the stuff that you want to try out. Noone ever got better by sticking to what they know. Don't be yourself. Try to become what you want to be.

It is very easy for the zealous tutor to stifle creativity. A good tutor will provide you with a framework in which to improvise, and introduce you to techniques that you weren't aware of — and then let you use them when you feel like it, for better or worse.

This advice is conflicting. But that's normal. Learning, Creativity and Discipline form a three way love triangle whose conflict can never be resolved and whose conflict might be the key to great writing. You want to be a better writer tomorrow, or you wouldn't be reading my blog. Not that reading my blog will make you a better writer. It might help. If you want to be a better writer then you have to have the ambition, to want to try new stuff even if you don't quite understand it; you have to but the various techniques of the craft into practice before you can grok in fullness their potential. But like any grasshopper, to become a master, you must first accept that you know nothing (or, in fairness, very little. If you knew nothing about writing... I'm sure you get the point).

Yes, sifu.

* <micro_rant> The purpose of Roget's Thesaurus, and the purpose of synonym dictionaries is NOT to help you find an alternative word, but to help you to find exactly the right word. Do you know who uses Roget the most? Translators is who: it is a very effective way of finding the best match for a meaning originally expressed in a foreign language. </micro_rant>


There's no such thing as literature

My missus, who is French, is very proud of the fact that, along with temperature and secretary, she can pronounce literature correctly. All three words are pretty difficult for most foreigners and more horrifying than Cube Zero to French people.

But literature is a pet hate of mine.

"Do you," people ask me, "edit literary fiction as well as genre fiction?"

"How," authors complain, "can I cross over from pulp to literature?"

"It's not literature," readers excuse themselves, "but it's what I like to read."

Definition #4 from Wiktionary knows what I'm talking about:

4. Written fiction of a high standard.
However, even "literary" science fiction rarely qualifies as literature, because it treats characters as sets of traits rather than as fully realized human beings with unique life stories. - Adam Cadre, 2008

I'm very lucky in that I grew up in exactly the kind of household which would traditionally have differentiated fiction between "literature" and "entertainment or light reading", but my mother was an instinctive iconoclast with a deep suspicion of categories of any kind; racism and sexism are forms of prejudice that are communicated and reinforced by lazy and thoughtless categorization. I don't actually remember what her opinion on the question of what literature is might have been. Perhaps I'll ask her.

In any case, the idea that fiction could be sorted into what is, and what is not, literature is a familiar one, but neither instinctive nor natural for me, and with my borderline Marxist anarchist social politics, one which reeks of prejudice and discrimination. Specifically, intellectual snobbery.

Intellectual snobbery is a form of status rivalry. It is perpetrated by people who feel that they have no real power, but have enough education, and are widely enough read, to use that as a means of saying that they are better than others. The label of literature is one of the pillars of intellectual snobbery. It is a way of saying: you haven't read the right books.

My missus, correctly, challenged my assertion that there is no such thing as literature saying that some books are clearly better than others. And some books are absolutely dreadful. This is true. But there is no way of defining a dividing line above which all the books are literature and below which all of them are "light reading". Rather like a Monk of Cool selecting his outfit, what makes a book literature is that it is on the list of books read by, or books to read by, whichever intellectual snob you are unfortunate enough to be talking to.

I'm not accusing you of being an intellectual snob.If you think you know which books are literature and which books aren't, that's because all forms of snobbery are endemic and unconscious in our culture. You're only actually a snob if you think that people who haven't read the literature that you've read are inferior to you.

Mostly, of course, I'm speaking to struggling writers here. Among struggling writers there are various attitudes towards literature:

"I'll never be able to write literature."

"I hope some day to be able to write literature."

"I don't want to write literature."  - often followed by quite sensible reasons.

"People don't think I'm writing literature."

"People don't realize I'm writing literature."

"You don't like my work because you aren't used to reading literature."

No prizes for guessing what I think of the last one. What I'd like writers to think is that it doesn't matter. It matters that you write what you love and love what you are currently writing. (I don't expect you to love what you wrote ten years ago. It's probably awful. Everything I wrote ten years ago is awful.)

It matters that you want to write a satisfying book. It matters that you want to understand and improve your craft. It matters that you want to understand how to give your readers the book that they want to read.

These are far higher goals than getting yourself placed in a category that gives you a spurious, divisive status.

There's no such thing as literature.


Imagination and Description

My theatrical training, in particular studying the theory of theatre, is I think what gives me a particular view of the relationship between the writer's imagination and the reader's imagination.

In the theatre, regardless of where the play is performed, the action takes place in an imaginary space. At first, in workshop and rehearsal, the actors develop a shared imagination of the space, so that by the time they get to the first performance, where one character sees a living oak tree, so the actor sees it, and all the other actors on the stage also see it. Each actor might see a slightly different shade of green, but the experience works for them because they all agree that it is the same tree.

If the actors achieve this, then the audience will join in. They will all also "see" a living oak tree, and will all also agree that it is the same tree - even though the actors and the audience all know that it is imaginary*.

Dramaturgists describe this as "complicity". Most audiences attend the theatre in the expectation of trusting the actors enough to go along with whatever they are told to imagine. This is sometimes called "willing suspension of disbelief". I have already discussed why this is not a useful term. But whatever you call it, what is happening in the theatre is clearly some sort of effort of imagination, where the audience are guided into imagining the right thing by the actors.

But a play is not about imagining things. A play is about enjoyment, about entertainment. So there have to be characters we sympathize, there has to be a story so that we are curious, inspired, thrilled. Consequently, the actors cannot stand about on the stage describing trees to eachother, otherwise they would never get to the story itself.

The theatre has been dealing with this issue for at least two thousand years.

So noone bats an eyelid if the first mention of the old oak tree is when one character says to another:

Go hide behind yonder old oak tree whose leafy boughs cast dappled shade upon the mossy ground.

Suddenly, to the audience, a tree that was absent a moment ago has been there all along. This is partly because of the way we experience the present through memory, and partly because of the aforementioned complicity. Shakespeare (who did everything on  TV Tropes before any of the tropes were named) lampshades this process in the prologue to Henry V.

What has been understood in the theatre since the dawn of time, and which is understood by the masters of the much younger craft of literature**, is that:

The audience can imagine far better than the actors can describe.

The author should make exactly the same assumption about his readers. One of the most predictable weaknesses of new writers is the nagging doubt that the reader isn't quite seeing the picture as the author is imagining it. This doubt leads to careful, detailed descriptions, which for interiors describe the placement of each item of furniture, where the windows are, the color of the drapes, and for exteriors use compass points, and carefully compare the heights of buildings, sometimes giving measured distances. For characters the descriptions become slavish word-portraits that try to convey the precise cut of clothing and the exact line of the nose and jaw.

My most visited article, and not for nothing, attempts to set out some guidelines on how to depict characters in a way that will make them vivid and alive for readers without detailed descriptions. I would go so far as to say that only without detailed descriptions can characters become vivid and alive. I thought  of saying something trite about the way physical description chains the reader's imagination and that liberating a character from physical description frees the reader to imagine them as a real person, but I couldn't come up with a snappy way to say it. I hope you get the general idea.

The reader can imagine far better than you can describe.

It is true that there are times when the precise layout of a room, or the precise disposition of a landscape, is needed, for some feature of the plot to function. One thinks of a whodunnit or a novelized military history. But at all other times, describe the general character of the room (the master's study in an English country house / the grand atrium of the modern head offices of an international bank) and the reader will fill in the rest. Sometimes you can do everything with just the construction materials (the building was all glass and steel / crumbling adobe / modest red-brick). Landscapes are much the same. And so are characters.

The great novelists of the last two centuries have, in most cases, a thorough understanding of this. Take almost any classic of the shelf next to you and look at the way the author sets scenes and describes people. Here's just one example that springs to mind:


No answer.


No answer.

"What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!"

No answer.

The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked through them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for "style," not service—she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:

"Well, I lay if I get hold of you I'll—"

She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching under the bed with the broom, and so she needed breath to punctuate the punches with. She resurrected nothing but the cat.

Who, upon reading this, does not have enough to go on to get a feel for the character of the old lady? But all MT has described visually is her spectacles (at some length). He adds (with the "punching under the bed") that she is reasonably active but no longer as young as she used to be ("she needed breath"). He doesn't need to say any more.

This isn't a matter of laziness, of getting the reader to do the hard work. It is a matter of getting you to do the hard work; the job of deciding exactly how little the reader needs to know in order to get a clear sense of the person or the place that you are describing.

* This is also how money gets its value. But don't tell anyone or the world's economy will collapse. Again.
** According to some of those who have studied the origins of theatre, it is the oldest form of culture, pre-dating narrated storytelling. There is no realistic way of telling if this is really true.