Friday, August 7, 2020

Learning from the Crapometer - How I Made My Work Better

When you have craft questions, where do you go for answers? A particular website? A book? Podcasts? Writer friends?

Abir Mukherjee


Interesting question this week, and I think one that gets to the heart of the type of author you are. I have friends who are meticulous in their planning and their general approach to writing (and life, probably). They have shelves packed with books on the craft of writing – on everything from plot, to character to dialogue. It works for them, and I must admit I’m envious, because I can never seem to make use of such books. I’ve tried. I once bought a book on developing fantastic characters and I read the first few chapters, despite the lack of pictures, but then it started setting exercises for me to do and I lost interest.


I’ve never been good at learning from books, at least not from prescriptive ones. It works for some people, but not, it seems, for me. I pretend that his is because I’m a free spirit that can’t be tamed, but in reality it’s probably down my all-pervasive laziness. There are exceptions of course. The one book on writing that I devoured was, err, ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. Maybe it appealed to me because it wasn’t at all prescriptive, just words of wisdom from the great man, told in a conversational style about what worked for him. I’d recommend it to all writers who are starting out, especially if you’re lazy like me.


When I began writing, one thing I really lacked was self-confidence. I never believed anything I wrote would be interesting to anyone or good enough to be published. Then I discovered the I Should Be Writing podcast, hosted by sci-fi writer and Hugo Award winner, Mur Lafferty. It was a revelation. It showed me that my fears were far from unique and helped give me the confidence to write.

But writing is only part of the battle. To be published, you need to do the professional stuff too, such as researching agents, preparing cover letters and writing a damn good synopsis of your work. For a new author, it can be pretty daunting. Fortunately there’s a blog (now discontinued, but still up on the net) called Miss Snark the Literary Agent where the eponymous Miss Snark provides details of synopses, quer letters and pretty much everything else you need when querying editors, together with copious real life examples of submissions made to her and ranked on her infamous ‘Crapometer’. Mis Snark doesn't have time to sugar coat things. Her time is precious and her Crapometer is the definition of 'tough love', where she provides unvarnished truth, and I found it invaluable. If you plan on sending your work to agents, I would highly recommend you read the material on this blog to help you prepare your submission.


These days, when it comes to improving my craft, I’m with Dietrich in that the basic go-to for me is the work of writers I admire. Indeed, these days I tend to judge a book more on its craft and artistic merit than I do on plot. A beautiful turn of phrase, a thought-provoking description, or a dry one-liner will keep me reading more than a plot twist or a dozen explosions. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of the work of Denise Mina. I think there are very few authors, in crime fiction or literary fiction, who have her ear for dialogue or her sensibility for human interactions. I read her books and think I have no business even picking up a pen.


Another author from whom I’ve learned a trick or two is Martin Amis. His novel, London Fields, is ostensibly a crime novel and also an insight into a certain turn of the millennium English working-class mindset. It’s also rather funny. But what I admire most about it is the arresting prose, the juxtaposition of apparently contradictory words to make an original or thought-provoking simile, and just the imaginative use of language. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write as beautifully as Mina or Amis, but they’ve opened my eyes to possibilities, shown me what can be done with language, and I think it’s only by setting our sights high that we improve.


Susan C Shea said...

You remind me I'm a few books behind in my reading and enjoyment of Denise Mina. I agree, she drives deep into the characters she writes, and I never forget them.

Catriona McPherson said...

I only came to say congratulations on the dagger nominations - plural, right? - but now I've got to waste three hours checking out Miss Snark. Thanks for nothing. (But congratulations.)

Abir said...

Hi Susan - Denise is amazing. Her latest book has just been chosen as the Times Book of the Month. I can't wait to read it!

Abir said...

Ha! Cheers Catriona! Mis Snark is great! As for the daggers, I seem to be a perennial bridesmaid these days. Nice t be shortlisted though!