Thursday, March 21, 2019


by Catriona (kind of)

Craft: Which writing advice tropes do you follow and which do you ignore?

Okay first: I'm going to finish my book on Friday. It's Wednesday. On Saturday, I'm setting off on a book tour/road trip en route to Vancouver and Left Coast Crime. And there's something else happening on Friday that I can't talk about (yet).

That's my excuse for what follows.

The worst writing advice I ever hear - and I hear it a lot - goes like this:
  • 2nd draft is 1st draft minus 10%
  • Omit needless words
  • Editing is cutting
  • etc etc see what I did there?
And the best riposte to it I've ever read came from the blessed Nick Hornby in one of his BELIEVER columns, which I read in a collection called TEN YEARS IN THE TUB.

I highly recommend it. Hornby wallows in these great books for 464 pages, listing the books he reads every month (as well as the books he buys), critiquing, appreciating, and puncturing pomposity while never compromising. The first chapter - to give you a taste - is called "Some ground rules; predictions for a baby's future employment; the opinions of grown-up critics; Legally Blonde". Who could resist that?

Over to Nick . . .

"Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress. What’s that chinking noise? It’s the sound of the assiduous creative-writing student hitting bone. You can’t read a review of, say, a Coetzee book without coming across the word “spare,” used invariably with approval; I just Googled “J. M. Coetzee + spare” and got 907 hits, almost all of them different. “Coetzee’s spare but multi-layered language,” “detached in tone and spare in style,” “layer upon layer of spare, exquisite sentences,” “Coetzee’s great gift—and it is a gift he extends to us—is in his spare and yet beautiful language,” “spare and powerful language,” “a chilling, spare book,” “paradoxically both spare and richly textured,” “spare, steely beauty.” Get it? Spare is good.
Coetzee, of course, is a great novelist, so I don’t think it’s snarky to point out that he’s not the funniest writer in the world. Actually, when you think about it, not many novels in the Spare tradition are terribly cheerful. Jokes you can usually pluck out whole, by the roots, so if you’re doing some heavy-duty prose-weeding, they’re the first things to go. And there’s some stuff about the whole winnowing process that I just don’t get. Why does it always stop when the work in question has been reduced to sixty or seventy thousand words—entirely coincidentally, I’m sure, the minimum length for a publishable novel? I’m sure you could get it down to twenty or thirty, if you tried hard enough. In fact, why stop at twenty or thirty? Why write at all? Why not just jot the plot and a couple of themes down on the back of an envelope and leave it at that? The truth is, there’s nothing very utilitarian about fiction or its creation, and I suspect that people are desperate to make it sound like manly, back-breaking labor because it’s such a wussy thing to do in the first place. The obsession with austerity is an attempt to compensate, to make writing resemble a real job, like farming, or logging. (It’s also why people who work in advertising put in twenty-hour days.) Go on, young writers—treat yourself to a joke, or an adverb! Spoil yourself! Readers won’t mind! Have you ever looked at the size of books in an airport bookstall? The truth is that people like superfluity. (And, conversely, the writers’ writers, the pruners and the winnowers, tend to have to live off critical approval rather than royalty checks.)" Hornby, N. (2004), Ten Years in the Tub, Believer Books, San Francisco.
And now back to Catriona, who will get this book finished and isn't sorry. 


7 Criminal Minds said...

Love your advice :-) Less does not always equal a good story.

Susan C Shea said...

Just sent this off to a writer who's worried that his manuscript will be rejected out of hand. Thanks!

James W. Ziskin said...