“Hard writing makes easy reading.”
— George Bernard Shaw
“Hard writing makes easy reading.”
— George Bernard Shaw
This was first published in 2013. You’ve read it often enough that it’s #11 on the countdown of Most Read Blog Posts. Thanks to each of you for following this blog.
We like to think of authors as the sole creators of their work, a romantic notion of the solitary figure alone in his/her garret, spooling out spotless text. Thus John Heming, of Shakespeare: “His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot.” [Preface to the First Folio]
Don’t believe it. It is one of the curiosities of our cultural baggage that we think writers work alone. Are not their names—alone—on the title page? When awards are handed out, is not the author the one who takes it home?
In fact writing—in the professional world—is an intensely collaborative art. No one these days is more important than the editor, who can, and often does, work with the writer to shift, guide, cut, redirect, refine, and sometimes even rewrite the work. The editor has a unique set of skills, perceptions, and the talent to communicate to the writer. It’s highly individualistic. Editor X and writer Y work wonderfully well together, but not editor X and writer Z. Z works better with M. It’s not uncommon for a writer to work with a specific editor throughout his/her career. And if you study an editor’s connections, there are some editors whose writers have been more successful than others. It is not a coincidence.
I’m thinking these thoughts since I just sent in the first draft of a new book to my editor. When I hear from her I’ll start writing the book.
Is there a difference between reading and working on what you are writing on a computer screen or on paper?
Clearly, this is an individual choice, but speaking purely for myself, I think there is a big difference. But I am not sure why. For more than twenty years I have composed my books on a computer. It means less physical labor (and writing a novel is labor intensive). It is vastly easier to revise, change, editor, delete, and add on my computer. I do many more revisions than I used to do on a typewriter. I think that makes me produce better writing. For someone like me, with dysgraphia, it means that what is corrected (mistakes, here) remains corrected. And, not a small thing with me, the spell checker is a wonder.
All of that is a positive about working on a computer.
I get a better feel for my writing, when I read on paper, pen in hand. I sense weaknesses faster as well as strengths. Beyond all else, I see possibilities in plot and characters I don’t see on the screen.
Why is this true? My only guess—and it is a guess—is that the written page is more book-like, and I am responding to my work as if it is a book, not a screen.
As a result of this imperfectly understood but real difference, I go back and forth. When I feel I have reached a certain on-screen point, I print and read from paper.
It is simply part of my process.
Do any of you experience this?
It may come as a shock to those of you who have expressed admiration for my books and writing (thank you!) when I confess that I do not believe I am a good writer. Immersed as I currently am in putting together a first draft of a new book, I am often disheartened by how badly it is going. If I were a painter, or illustrator, I might say I was creating nothing but stick figures. Rather uninteresting ones at that.
Right next to my computer desk are three long shelves of books that I have written—first editions, hardback, paperback, foreign editions—some with awards—and I will gaze at them and wonder, “How did I do that?”
The answer is, while I truly don’t write well—I do rewrite well. That is the way my books come to life, in my head and on the page. And, as I have expressed here many times before, I rewrite endlessly. That is when my stick figures take on heft, and voice, and hopefully, life.
One of the key aspects of that rewriting, is trying to establish flow, rhythm, drive—call it what you will—a sense of energy that moves the story along with seemingly truthful simplicity, a sense of revelation, rather than construction. I say truthful in the context of an old gag: “The most important thing about writing is honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
That notion can apply to many an art form—indeed, I heard it first in my theatre days—but there is some aesthetic truth to it, cynical though it may sound. I could better express it in words I once heard Paula Fox say, “The writer’s job is to imagine the truth.”
But enough of this. I need to get back to that first draft.
A question I am often asked is, “Do you know the endings of your books when you begin?”
There is not a simple answer to this question. Now and again I do know with some clarity what I expect the ending of a book will be. That, however, is rare. More often than not, I have a general sense as to where I am going. I hasten to add that writers differ a great deal in this matter. An editor once told me of an important writer who did not set down a word until she was certain of the book’s last line.
Another fine writer told me she did not begin writing until she had thought out the whole book. Then again, I have listened to writers who say ”I just begin and see what happens.”
Hey, whatever works …
As for me, I do not do outlines when I start a book (I did in my early years) but often these days, when about two thirds of a way through a first draft I tell myself I MUST organize my thoughts and do a rough sketch as to where I am going. I just did that for a current project.
But, let me emphasize, I would much rather discover an ending, than plot one. Which is to say I want an ending to flow out of the plot as a whole, and nothing gives me more pleasure than to be surprised. I think my best writing occurs when the text tells me where to go—as opposed to my forcing the text into a box. It is that old John McDonald notion, “Better to be pulled by your text, than to push it.”
It is not usual for me to approach the ending—as if approaching the edge of a cliff—then back off, and take a run (from the beginning) to see what ending evolves. Leap of character logic, if you will.
That said, if I don’t feel emotion with my ending, I know I have not got it right.
Then there is my own doctrine: I can’t write a good opening sentence until I write a good closing sentence. All of which is to say a successful book is one that has unity start to finish.
And that, dear friends, is always hard to do.
I do not normally quote letters from my young readers, but this one offered such good advice I feel obliged to share it:
In my class, we finished a unit where we revised our writing. We took something we already wrote and tried to make it better. I tried to make my writing better by using transition words in my writing. I also tried to make my writing better by using capital letters. The last thing I tried to make my writing better with was using periods. I think that periods have improved my work by making the reader know when to stop. I also think that capital letter improved my work by letting the reader know when to continue. I also think that transition words have improved my work by making the words flow together. I think I have grown as a writer by making my writing a lot better and I also think I made change to make it better. I think that revising is important because it can make your writing a lot better.
P.S. I LOVE Poppy”
There is, reputably, an old Hemingway suggestion: That you should stop your day’s writing right in the middle of some plot excitement or crisis. It’s not that you can’t go on. The point is you can instantly go on when you return to your work the next day. Instead of staring at your text and asking yourself whatever should happen, you know instantly what that next event is, and you insert yourself right in the flow of your narrative.
It is useful advice, and I’ve followed it any number of times. But I would frame it in a slightly different way. When you feel you have been writing well, it is always wise to go back and rewrite what you have done. You will inevitably discover that it wasn’t quite that good—there will be gaps, glitches and stumbles—and by working on them you can enrich the character, situation, the story as a whole. When rewriting that way you are not stretched so tightly about moving your plot forward, and you can be more leisurely in the subtler aspects of your story.
The energy of your text often comes from the first draft. The quality of your work comes from the many subsequent drafts.
Let me describe where I live: It is in Colorado, in the Rocky Mountains, 9,500 feet up. We are surrounded by mountains. Looking out the front windows I can look down Elk Valley for about seventy miles. We are in the middle of a forest. It is very beautiful. We are adjacent to Routt National Forest, and if you walk due West, you won’t see anyone for a hundred miles. Nearest town, Steamboat Springs, is thirty miles away.
The dirt driveway that leads to our house is three-quarters of a mile long and goes mostly up, steeply, and that includes a hairpin turn at the bottom of the last hill, which some who visit often don’t quite make. The population of Columbine, as the neighborhood is called, is, I’m told, thirteen. I’ve never met them all and the nearest is a mile away.
When I describe this to people they often say: “Isolated! Lucky you. How wonderful for writing.”
And indeed writers often talk of the need for isolation. That famous “room of one’s own” and all that.
There is a lot of truth to that.
BUT…when the writing stops, isolation is not so great.
Speaking for myself, I miss contact with people, even the casual contact, such as when I visit my post office (twelve miles away) to pick up mail. As a human being I thrive in cities, where I see people in their endless varieties, their talk, the way they look. From a writer’s point of view, I need those connections. It feeds my imagination, my vocabulary, my sense of place, my sense of interaction.
Speaking for myself, this writer must live—in part—beyond my mind.
I just came back from The Tucson (AZ) Book festival, a huge event with some four hundred or so writers, illustrators, and others connected with the book world. Thousands of people were in attendance. One often hears these days about the lack of interest in reading. When you go to one of these large events, you see otherwise, and I, for one, have restored faith in the world of the book. It energizes me.
That said, and sincerely meant, there is an aspect of these kinds of affairs that always depresses me. I am often put on the program to talk about how I write, the process, how I began and the like. Happy to do so. But, inevitably, when the time for questions comes, someone will ask, “What’s the best way to start a novel?” Or, “I have written a book. How can I get it published?” “I keep trying to write, but I always get stuck. What should I do?”
I have a number of responses to this.
In my view you can only become a writer by
A fine writer I’ve only recently discovered is Gene Weingarten (a journalist). He writes:
“The art of storytelling is as old as civilization. There will always be a hunger for it. Learn to do it well, and somehow, you will find a way to make it pay … [but) a real writer is someone for whom writing is a terrible ordeal. That is because he knows deep down, with an awful clarity, that there are limitless ways to fill a page with words, and that he will never, ever, do it perfectly.”
Jake from Philadelphia, PA asks: “You’ve been writing for a long time. What’s the difference between the way you used to write and the way you write now?”
One might think a lot of experience, and yes, success, would make my writing come easier. Actually it’s that experience and success which makes it harder.
That puzzled me for a while until I could figure out why.
As far as I know, nobody writes anything very well the first time. That said, when you are a young writer you tend to think rather highly of your first work. Perfectly understandable, except it’s usually not the case. Indeed, I often tell young writers that if they write something, and they think it’s good, they are in trouble. It’s much better to realize that what you have written is NOT good, so you can start to revise it.
Thus it is with me: over the years I believe my standards are higher, my sense of quality more demanding. Beyond all else I am much more in touch with my intuitive feeling about the quality of my first drafts. Thus, when I start, say, a new book, I am painfully aware how bad it is. Very discouraging. Truly dispiriting. I have to remind myself it will take many, many revisions to get me into a comfort zone, where the writing has some value.
What’s the difference between the way I used to write and the way I write now? These days I have to work harder to write well.