It’s part of the process I enjoy – but then I think I’ve been lucky both with this book and with my previous novel Song Of The Sea God to have editors whose work and opinions have brought out the best in what is there. It can be a curious feeling to have your work looked over and commented on by somebody who you don’t know – but, given that it’s going to be published and read (hopefully) by lots of people you don’t know it’s best to get used to it at this early stage!
I don’t really consider myself a controversialist as a blogger. I would much rather say in a careful, measured way what I think than court controversy for it’s own sake. Still, I certainly managed to upset a few people with my recent blog on speed writing – which brought in the whole NaNoWriMo movement.
It was the biggest fuss since the last big fuss and led to people unfollowing me on Twitter, sending me cross messages etc. To illustrate just how cross these people were I have included a picture of an angry cat. I know – that cross!
Oh well, I have lots of lovely followers now @ChilledCH (north of 15,000 at the last count) so I expect I shall survive. Funnily enough the majority of the people who commented on the actual blog string did so in a way which was both thoughtful and constructive. I guess it was because these people had all read what I actually said, rather than imagining what that I might have said before firing off a 140 character retort.
The speed writing blog Write your book in just a week! is here and, as you can see, my issues are with writing fast for its own sake and particularly with the practice among some writers of self-publishing their rushed first drafts and expecting us, the readers, to pay good money for them.
If you aren’t one of the people who is doing that then I don’t think there’s really any need to get upset is there? Surely we can all agree that quality is what really counts with writing, as with other forms of art. And, though some writers write quickly and others write slowly that is no more important than that some write using a fountain pen and others do so on a laptop. Those things are just the medium, not the message.
In the end – all that matters is writing well.
I think that perhaps what upset some people was the idea that I (or anyone) was criticising something they had invested in emotionally, as well as with their time and effort. In fact I accept there are good reasons to be involved in the write a novel in a month thing. It can encourage people to get on with it who feel they need a boot up the backside, it can foster a sense of community around what can be the lonely business of writing etc.
But I don’t, and won’t, accept that writing a novel quickly is ‘better’ than writing one slowly. And I do worry that encouraging inexperienced writers to work quickly could devalue the craft of writing for them and make them believe it is quick and easy. Fast art like fast food.
Of course people rewrite their first drafts and of course this is a vital part of the process. But why the hurry with the first draft? Why the need to do it to someone else’s deadline? Surely a writer should write at their own pace.
The idea seems to be taking hold that the first draft of your book really doesn’t matter – that however bad it is you can sort it out in the rewrites. I’m a huge believer in rewriting but I still say the first draft is important too – it’s the foundation of your novel – and we all know what can happen to even the most beautiful house with poor foundations.
And, here’s a thing. Taking longer over your first draft can often make the whole process of producing the book shorter overall. Because a strong first draft makes the rewrites easier. So if people really want to produce a book as quickly as possible perhaps they should be taking longer over the first draft? On the other hand, if the aim is to crash something out fast and sell it as a self-published download – then I suppose it doesn’t really matter since quality is not an issue.
I suppose my message would be – no part of writing your book is less important than any other part. The care and time and effort you put in will be there at the end for readers to see.
“I have friends who’ve told me they had to hurry a book because they needed the money, their editor or their wife was leaning on them or leaving them – something, some apology for the writing not being very good. “It would have been better if I’d taken the time.” I was dumbfounded when I heard a novelist friend say this. I still am, if I think about it, which I don’t. It’s none of my business. But if the writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave. I wanted to say to my friend, for heaven’s sake go do something else. There have to be easier and maybe more honest ways to try and earn a living.”
If you are a first time writer then nobody is waiting for your book. And when it comes out, the chances are that very few people will care. All you have is that book and really, at that stage, the only person who truly cares about it is you. That’s what’s important – the book, not how quickly you manage to produce it.
So why not make it the very best it can be – however long that takes?
Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.
It’s a piece I go back to now and again and enjoy reading over – even though there are parts of it I disagree with.
If you’d like to read it you can find it in Fires, a collection of Carver bits and bobs, along with some of his other essays, stories and poems – it’s also available online here.
‘On Writing’ is essentially a Carver manifesto, dealing with what he thinks makes a good writer.
He tells us: “Ambition and a little luck are good things for a writer to have going for him. Too much ambition and bad luck, or no luck at all, can be killing. There has to be talent.”
But talent on its own, he says, is not enough – in fact, he’s never met a writer who didn’t have talent. What picks out the best from the rest is a way of looking at the world, and describing it, which is different from everyone else’s way. Every good writer makes the world over to their own specifications.
“It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.”
The essay also includes a bon mot which Carver picked up from the writer Isak Dinesen which he likes so much he say’s he’s going to write it on a card and pin it to the wall above his desk. Dinesen said that she “wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair.”
I like that too – ‘without hope and without despair.’
There’s plenty more in there to cherish – but now to the bit in the essay I can’t quite go along with – Carver’s dislike of ‘tricks’ in writing.
He says: “No tricks.” Period. I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chi-chi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep.”
It’s easy to be seduced by the way Carver writes – but I can’t go along with what he’s saying here. For many of us, short stories are the place where we try out ideas, do mad things – they are our space to be experimental, even if those experiments don’t always work.
Also, there’s the question of what constitutes a trick – Carver himself was prone to the odd literary device, and particularly to the ‘trick’ of leaving a vacuum in his stories so the reader was left to fill it with emotion. It was an astonishingly successful trick which worked at times like magic.
Hmm – so it’s like the president of the magic circle saying: ‘All these other magicians, they do tricks. Not me! I’d never stoop so low as to fool you with trickery.’
So I don’t agree with every word in there – but it’s still a remarkable manifesto. And it extols the virtues of working hard at your craft, taking pride in making each piece as good as it can be and finding precisely the right words in the right order. Who could disagree with that?
Last word to Carver of course – here he tells us how the short story writer should go about his or her task:
“He’ll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things: of how things out there really are and how he sees those things – like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry; if used right, they can hit all the notes.”
I can’t promise you no tricks at all – but, if you get a moment, take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.