Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Five Provocations

Creative writing students often hope that there's secret truth about how to write that will be revealed once they start their course, and that published writers possess the keys to the kingdom. But the sorry truth is that there is no secret, there is no magic formula, there is no mysterious How To Write Fiction book that will suddenly make it easy (apart from this one, of course!).

The fact is, there are no rules for good writing. Matters of taste and fashion apart, good writing these days can be as structurally conventional and yet deeply satisfying as Colm Toibin's rewarding look at Henry James in The Master or as original and ground-breaking as Ali Smith's anti-novel Hotel World. So, in the absence of a secret formula, here are five rules to provoke you into thinking again about what and how you are writing.

1. Try to avoid using adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives and adverbs are for lazy writers. (A quick reminder here: adjectives are descriptive words attached to nouns, like "lovely nouns" or "gorgeous nouns", and adverbs are attached to verbs.)
Well, adjectives might be necessary from time to time, but adverbs are definitely to be used as sparingly as harissa paste, she said brightly. She gazed longingly at his adverb-free piece of writing.
2. Avoid exposition. Don't explain things to us; we readers don't like to have things explained to us. We like to see things, we like to imagine things, we like to draw our own conclusions, we like to be illuminated, we like enigma and mystery. We don't like to be told what to think.
3. Use the words "seem" (and its evil cousins seemed and seems) and "just" carefully. Beginner writers just always seem to rely very heavily on these two words. Just is like a verbal tic, I think; we hear it in our heads, so we put it on the page. Just stop. Seemed, well, either something is like something else, or it isn't. Be definite. Be specific. Vagueness is your enemy (NB: Vagueness is not the same thing as enigma and mystery).
4. Don't repeat words ... unless you are going for a specific, repetitive style or voice, like Thomas Bernhard in his novel The Loser where we hear about Glenn Gould's genius, and the narrator's corresponding lack of genius, over and over again. Some writers appear to believe that because novels have lots of words in them, they can be lazy about word choices, patterns, and rhythms. Every word counts in a novel, as it does in a short story, as it does in a poem.
5. Try not to ignore the little voice in your head that says, "Oh, that doesn't quite work." A big part of learning to write (and this is an ongoing process) is figuring out the difference between the loud internal voice that says "THIS IS ALL RUBBISH AND YOU SHOULD NEVER WRITE ANOTHER WORD EVER AGAIN" and that somewhat quieter internal voice that says, "Hmm, that's not quite right, but let's pretend we didn't notice." Learn to trust your gut instinct - listen to that little voice, while ignoring the big pushy one.
The trick with writing well is to convince yourself you can do it, while at the same time telling yourself you can do it better. But you can do it better, and when you do it well, there is nothing more exciting.

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