We Writers

Here’s a compilation of previous blogs on the writers’ life, including:

How Do You Write?

Some writers, especially those from a journalistic background, are sufficiently articulate that they can write fair copy first draft.  Write it, read it, make some corrections – send it off. But for most of us, it’s not the writing that takes time, it’s the rewriting. Geoffrey Archer (the crime writer, not the criminal) said that before any of his books was fully complete he was “terrified of anyone seeing what I’ve written in case they find it laughable, infantile, boring, inconsequential and all the other paranoias that I guess bug most writers. Eventually there comes a moment when I decide things may not be quite as bad as I thought and I need to risk a second opinion.” He is not alone. He and I, like most writers, hug our unfinished manuscript close to our chests. We lock it away at night, out of sight.

Writing is a lengthy and essentially private business. Most people can write a letter with few if any corrections, but a book is two or three hundred times longer than a letter, and while a letter can take and even be enhanced by some clumsiness of style, poor prose in a novel is unacceptable (other than one by the other Jeffrey Archer). That grand old master J B Priestley (before your time, maybe, but bear with me) was a painstaking rewriter. He rightly said, “The easier it is to read, the harder it was to write.” We writers toil away at cramped lonely desks, honing our sentences, seeking better words and, most painful of all, cutting and cutting and murdering our darlings. It’s a messy business, it feels dreadful, but it has to be done. Like any dreadful deed, it is best done in private.

Do you think any writer will admit to writing mechanically, churning out well-worn plots and grabbing the first words that come to hand? – I ask because some ‘literary’ writers seem to think that’s how ‘genre’ writers write. Well, no. Most writers – wittingly or unwittingly – bare our souls on the page, revealing secrets and trying out on the reader our untested and vulnerable ideas. Like any child struggling for expression, we start out with blushingly gauche, ill-structured sentences. Initial attempts often sound weak and inarticulate. Often, the more deeply held the sentiment, the harder it is to express.

However tough we may appear on speaker platforms or in the bar afterwards, we writers are sensitive souls – especially as we feel our way through a tentative draft, with its fog of false trails, mis-directions and bleary images, and as we stumble towards a far-off conclusion which initially remains as unclear to us as to the eventual reader.

To help manage this long and difficult journey, some of us follow a detailed route map, a plot synopsis, while others stagger off into uncharted dark territory aided by little more than half-formed ideas and murky hopes. Either method works, but eventually each vaguely anticipated point on the journey has to be faced up to – and written out in detail. Synopses skip detail; novels can’t. Locations must be populated, plot-points resolved. Characters originally conceived as little more than “a man in the bar” or “a thug in the street” suddenly burst onto the page demanding to know who they really are: “why am I in this place; how did I get here; what makes me take any notice of your hero at all?”

Pirandello had only six characters in belligerent search of their author – but we have a whole book full. And not only characters. Which bar is this scene set in – what does it look like, and when did we last place our hero here? Which street are we in – and how did we describe it earlier? Answers sometimes contradict scenes drafted earlier in the manuscript, forcing us back through the early pages to knock them into some kind of crude coherence and consistency. The draft may not be pretty, but it should at least make sense. For myself as a writer, knowing that these significant shifts will happen but not knowing where, I see little point in polishing my first draft as I go along. Why scrub up a scene which may not survive the first cut? That can all be done later – when I’ve worked out what the book is really about.


Why – as I was confessing – do I feel the need for a synopsis before I set out? The same reason that, before I set out for somewhere new in the car, I pore over an atlas rather than rely on Sat Nav or hunch. It goes right back to those early days when I thought I was trying to get published but was actually learning what it takes to be a writer.
You see, my first published book, Underground, was actually my second completed novel. Like many writers, I had a great unpublished first (not so great, in retrospect: I wouldn’t want it published now). That unseen first had been more carefully plotted than anything I’ve written since – and it must have showed: compared to Underground or any of my other books, it was stilted. While it meandered along between publishers picking up kind but firm rejection notices, I spent my next year writing Underground. This time I wrote entirely for my own pleasure – a better recipe, had I known it, for success. Patricia Highsmith once said, ‘The first person you should think of pleasing in writing a book is yourself.  If you can amuse yourself for the length of time it takes to write a book, the publishers can and will come later.’ She’s optimistic but broadly right: the first publisher to see my Underground (Gollancz) bought it immediately.

I tried the same technique with my second, Daylight, (Gollancz again) – but this was a different kind of novel. Underground was a ‘what’s going on?’ novel, where you knew exactly what was in the first person narrator’s head, but you had to stay with him to find what he was doing, why, and whether he’d get away with it.  The puzzle worked well; the reader didn’t know what the hero was up to – because initially, neither did the author! Only in the last quarter of the story did I realise what he was after and where he would have to go to find it.  Only then did I find the book’s title. (He was from the terrorist underground, he’d been hiding underground in London, he travelled everywhere by underground and his quarry was buried underground.)

Daylight was a very different story, a scam in which much of the fun revolved around the frequently changing locations of a Raphael masterpiece and its near-worthless copy. Working without a route map sent me down alleys that led nowhere and landed me in plot situations that simply couldn’t work. When Gollancz wanted revisions the tangle got worse; at eleven o’clock one night when the revisions were finally complete, I had a call from my copy editor: “You remember when he’s standing at that bus-stop on Nevsky Prospekt? But if that was at ten o’clock, then he couldn’t have also been in the . . . “

Back to the drawing board. The frantic rewritings, the discarded chapters, the sheer waste of effort and lost scenes, all conspired to mean that ever since, I have been as I am now: a follower of Linus, clutching my comfort blanket.

On Writing Crime . . .

Some years ago, in the internet discussion group DorothyL, readers revealed their pet peeves – writerly tricks that drove them to throw the book aside or worse, not to start the thing at all. And my, what a picky lot those readers were. What was top of the pet hates list? Novels told in the present tense, closely followed by novels in the first person, and then, at a slight distance and tying for third place, novels told from more than one point of view and novels by writers of one sex writing as the other. Wow. These pet peeves eliminate a lot of fiction.   Dear old Charles Dickens (that wild modernist) offended against every one of these peeves in a single novel, Bleak House, much of which is told in the first person by the maddenly sweet Esther Summerson, but some of which (chapters concerning the washed up aristocrats, Lord and Lady Dedlock) are told first person present tense. Other chapters are third person, past tense, omniscient narrator. No chance for Dickens, then, with the crime fans on DorothyL.

Don’t use first person? Come on!  That would mean goodbye Raymond Chandler and half the hard boiled school. Goodbye in fact to many post-19th century novelists. No writing as a member of the opposite sex? Any number of female crime writers have ignored that one – and plenty of male writers have successfully inhabited the mind of a woman (including, I like to think, myself). Leaving aside tyros like Charles Dickens, crime writers from Cornell Woolrich onwards have changed sex whenever the story demanded or would benefit from a different point of view.  Dorothy L Sayers herself wrote Montague Egg first person male.

Don’t use present tense? OK, it’s a minority taste (if we exclude mainstream writers from James Joyce to Carol Shields and, of course, Mann Booker winner Hilary Mantel) but has been used effectively from time to time by crime writers like Barbara Vine, Bill Moody, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Peter Cheyney, Steve Martini and Russell James. Plenty of serious mainstream authors use present tense, and it was beloved by Damon Runyon – but (and here’s the key) often when a book is written in the present tense, the reader doesn’t notice. Present tense adds immediacy. Many oral anecdotes are told in the present tense, so there is no way it sticks out or grates. And what if it does? Jay McInery told his Bright Lights, Big City in the second person – which, for the first page or two, was weird.  But you quickly got used to it, and the restrictions imposed on McInery by his approach actually helped the story and made it more immediate.

Dear timid reader, please trust the writer. Believe me, few adopt a style purely for effect. They write that way for a reason, and if you stay with them a few pages you may find yourself taken down paths you haven’t travelled before. Give it a try. If after a while you don’t like what you’re reading, give up – but don’t confine yourself to a road that never bends or strays off its predictable course. Instead, look
forward to encountering different styles. Some will surprise you – but writing is meant to surprise you. Surprise is what fiction does.  Don’t set up barriers against style – just read a chapter. If the style continues to grate, it’s failed writing. If it doesn’t it’s because it worked.

A year or so ago I posted:

WHODUNIT? Essential clues for impatient readers of crime fiction:

You wanna know whodunit? In a PI novel the villain is usually the client who engages the PI in chapter one. In a golden age whodunit the perpetrator will be the one person who could not possibly have done it. In a modern mystery the villain will be one of two people (sometimes the two are combined): either he is the man who controls the town or he’s the man who abuses children. These are golden rules; they solve eighty per cent of all mysteries. I should have expanded them into a book, and made more money than I ever earned from crime fiction.

An interesting point in these rules (interesting to me, if to no one else) is that the villains are almost always male. Is it time to break this rule? I read lots of crime books and thrillers, and the villain is rarely female. (My own The Annex was a rare exception and, even there, she was more unlucky than evil.) In most crime books it’s a fact that although villains grow more dastardly, they remain boringly masculine. I doubt this is due to political correctness – more to a failure on the part of we writers to realise that our readers like female
villains. (Think Lucretia Borgia.) The female villain is far more disturbing than the male, no matter how perverted we try to make him. Merely by being the villain she seems to break the rules of nature: she is unnatural. Our blackest stories revel in unnatural villains; we love ’em, and right here we have a vast crop of shocking characters crying out to be exploited. That should be woman’s role, I suggest, for the first decade of this millennium – the writer’s challenge is to exploit women in new and more entertaining ways.

Would that work for you? Am I right or am I right?


Who Will Pay For Proper Writing?

Such was the deadening effect of English lessons in school that you may be tempted to skip out immediately if I tell you that this is based on one of Addison’s essays for the Spectator.  He announced one day that although his daily paper had been sold every day at three half-pence the time had come when he had to raise the price to two pence.  Readers’ letters flooded in.  No longer would they prop his paper beside their breakfast cup of coffee.  One reader said he never thought he’d dislike any passage in the Spectator, but that there were ‘two Words in every one of them which he could heartily wish left out, viz. Price Two-Pence.’

Desperately did Addison rejoin that the extra expense (a halfpenny!) could be easily met if ‘a Lady sacrifice but a single Riband’ or ‘a Family burn but a Candle a night less than the usual Number’ – but no, readers choked over breakfast at the thought of paying more.  Is this not a familiar scene to modern publishers?  An e-book is cheaper, readers cry: why should I buy an ink-on-paper book?  Our daily newspapers are facing down the same attack as did Addison – too expensive, I’ll do without.

At the moment, most of us can read our papers online, though the Times perhaps may persuade us we have to pay for it.  Meanwhile we can read any amount of journalism online – though of what quality?  It’s easy for someone like me to knock out a few hundred words of commentary, but who’s going to pay me to conduct a rigorous piece of journalistic scrutiny?  Who’s going to pay me to go out, dig deep, and ferret for the news?  Not you, dear online reader.  And will you pay me – pay real money – to read my books online?  I hope so – being the many hopeful writers who imagine that when the e-dust settles, some form of revenue will accrue.  But will it?

Addison’s answer was to accept that he would indeed lose a section of his daily readership, but that he could offer a cheaper substitute: collected editions in bound volumes, sold more cheaply than copies bought every day.  The first four bound volumes were already printed, he declared, and ‘they would be a very proper Present to be made to Persons at Christenings, Marriages, Visiting-Days, and the like joyful Solemnities, as several other Books are frequently given at Funerals.’  Indeed, his printer had suggested, ‘a Salver of Spectators would be as acceptable an Entertainment to the Ladies as a Salver of Sweetmeats.’

This did the Spectator move with the times – and those combined volumes did indeed sell very well.  You can find them still in second-hand bookshops, where you’d have the devil of a job to find a copy of an actual daily edition.  So is this the answer, I wonder, for all we bloggists – to combine our ramblings (or the best of them) into single volumes which you can buy ‘half a Year behind-hand’?  Would you buy a copy?  No, I didn’t think you would.

But it worked for Addison.  I remember ploughing through his work at school.

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