I kept a jar of read receipts – they were evidence that you received all my emails, indisputable proof that the information had been sent direct to your brain, subject only to the constraints of fallible technology and the loopholes of a messy reality in which it is conceivable that you may have opened the email but not actually read it, and the evidence only valid until such time as I lost the jar or accidentally knocked it over, or maybe until the read receipts begin to decompose, the very code that wrote them into being succumbing to time, becoming obsolete and then extinct, at which point my collection will mean nothing, nothing at all.
Adventures in Reading and Writing, Part 16
Nowadays, writing advice seems to be big business. You see all these stern lists which inflict rules on the authorial novice – “these things you must do under no circumstances!” Sometimes I feel as though these pointers are totally heavyhanded and probably dissuade some aspiring writers from trying, but maybe they can help to focus the mind in the right circumstances. I think they are probably best perused once an individual has already done some writing, and has an idea of what kind of writer they are, or might be.
Anyway, in a move that might seem to contradict the above paragraph, I thought I would pick pieces of advice from two of my favourite writers, and hopefully explain why they are useful.
One of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing was:
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
This is apparently included in his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, though I must hold my hands up and admit I read it on his Wikipedia entry.
What Vonnegut does brilliantly (and also, just because I’m re-reading One Hundred Years Of Solitude at the moment, Gabriel Garcia Marquez) is that he makes making things up look fun and easy. He reads like a writer who does not stick to any rules, or listen to any advice – which, in its own way, is perhaps a good rule, and sound advice.
So this isn’t advice that tells you, ‘how to be a great writer like Kurt Vonnegut,’ instead it tells you how to start becoming your own kind of great writer. The above is such good advice on how to approach your work, because it acknowledges that not everyone will like what you write. This sounds obvious but I think it is too easy sometimes to lose yourself in trying to create something which is criticism-proof.
It’s also about focus – if you have a clear idea of your own objectives before you start, you will be more successful in creating a piece of work that you are pleased with.
And this piece of advice from Jon McGregor came from a piece in the Guardian about his working practices:
The work of writing is in the revision and the refining. I find that this is more successfully done when working with hard copy. I also find that by artificially creating more “process” (retyping the whole draft from scratch, rather than simply dipping in and making selected corrections), I can force myself to consider the text more deeply. (If I can’t be bothered to type it, I probably shouldn’t expect anyone to bother reading it.)
As much as this is great advice, I have cursed it many a time since I started acting on it. But Jon McGregor is right – of course he is.
Good editing is necessitated by the fact that stories have a tendency of changing themselves from one thing to another between readings, even without any of the words being altered. So, you write something, read it back and it seems fine. Good, even. Bestdamnthingyoueverwrote! Then you leave it a bit. Next time you read it back, it’s all wrong. Everything is where you left it, but it no longer seems like you put things in the right order, and some of the things shouldn’t even be there because… cliched, embarassing, out of character, etc.
I used to edit on the screen, tidying up sentences, copy-and-pasting paragraphs from one place to the next. But this isn’t really effective – it’s just shuffling things around. Now, I tend to edit by printing out what I have, reviewing in pen and then typing it out again from scratch, albeit referring to the original text so that I do not lose any bits I am happy with. It’s amazing what a fresh perspective can be gained from typing something out, being right in amongst the words again. Once complete, I leave it again for a bit and then repeat the process – unless it’s about something topical (and I don’t tend to write things like that) stories don’t go off. There’s no need to rush things.
And let’s sign off with that final sentence from the second bit of advice, because it seems important:
If I can’t be bothered to type it, I probably shouldn’t expect anyone to bother reading it.