‘Do you think Australian trees look like giant, frozen aliens, honey?’
We were driving past some remnants of natural bushland on the way to his mum’s house, and my head was in a scene from my novel.
‘Um, no not really,’ came the response, followed closely by a look suggesting I was the alien. I tried to explain myself:
‘You know, the dead bits of tree branch, sticking out above the live ones.’
It didn’t help. I thought I’d better provide some context. Probably something I should’ve done from the start. But then, he’s used to me by now.
‘I’m thinking of metaphors for my book… to describe the bushland my characters are driving through. I can’t just say they were driving through some trees; some were alive and some were dead, now can I ?’
‘Why not?’ he replied with a glint. ‘I think that sounds much better.’
Typical. An Elmore Leonard fan (and he doesn’t even know it!)
‘But I like to paint a picture, honey.’
‘That’s fine, but maybe the reader wants to paint their own. Just tell me what’s happening. I’ll do the rest. That’s my kind of book anyway.’
Conversations like this are not uncommon between my partner and I. Even though we both enjoy reading a good crime novel, and our reading list will overlap (on occasion), we have very different views on what constitutes good writing.
For me, there’s nothing better than getting absorbed in a book written in the first person. For my partner, the subjective case is unbearable, and he’ll quite happily give the offending book to Good Sammy before giving it the slightest chance.
I like the poetry of words, the visions of beauty they create and the inner struggles of the characters. He likes action, fast paced dialogue and um, explosions. He’s even been known to skip the last few pages of a book because he ‘knew how it would end’. Can you believe it?!
The late Elmore Leonard, cult American crime writer, once said:
‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.’
In ’10 Rules of Writing’, he also advised would-be writers to ‘avoid detailed descriptions’ of characters, places and things, and imparted his most famous tip:
‘If it sounds like writing, I re-write it.’
What is a writer to make of such statements? Especially one like me, who’s not ashamed to admit I enjoy playing tenderly with metaphors, will re-write the same sentence over and over again, until the rhythm of syllables sound right in my head, and will relish finding the right adjective. There’s no hidden writing for my reader: they are reading my book, and they’re bloody well gonna enjoy it. I even open my novel with a description of the weather, for goodness sake (a Leonard big no, no!). He would turn in his grave, I’m sure.
A right way of writing?
But seriously, is there really a right way of writing? Can we really say one way is better than another? Are there really ten rules to abide by at all times? Of course not. There are many styles of writing and many types of reader. From Tolkein’s pages (and pages) of landscape prose to Leonard’s invisible narrator, from James Joyce’s stream of consciousness to Jane Austen’s realism, from poets to playwrights, it would be crazy to think an author writes badly because they don’t meet your particular taste.
And I’m sure it’s quite impossible, from a writers point of view, to please every discerning bookworm (although I’m sure, we still try.) Each reader is different; has a different background, different morals, different dreams and values. One reader, for example, may enjoy the lyrical interludes in ‘The Hobbit’ by Tolkein. Another, may find them insanely infuriating.
So how do we know we are writing well? How can we even hope to emulate the literary greats, if we don’t know what readers like, if we don’t know which style is right, if we have absolutely no idea if we should describe a tree as a tree, or as a giant, frozen alien!? Quite simply, we don’t. However, to produce our best work (which is all we can hope to achieve), I believe we should always endeavour to:
- find our own voice
- play to our strengths, and
- make ourselves happy
For if you let yourself shine, surely nothing else matters.
Find your own voice
You may feel you’ve never lost it and have never had to search, but for me, it’s taken a long time to hone, especially after many years spent pursuing other interests. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to write a story; my pen was dry and my voice was weak. It took me hours to write one paragraph, and even then, I would write and re-write, over and over again, never moving on, always waiting for perfection (which never seemed to come!)
But each time I sat at the laptop, it got easier. I challenged myself to enter short story competitions, so I’d have a deadline. I wrote every day, even if it was just for ten minutes, and I stopped sitting with the thesaurus constantly open, allowing the words to flow from my head. My experience grew, I became familiar with the process and I found trends in the way I was writing, one’s which felt good. I liked writing with humour, I liked the way I could shape words to make a rhythm, I liked creating imagery to run through the story.
All of these components contribute to my writer’s voice. One which is unique to me. And one that feels natural. I mean, imagine trying to talk like someone else every day of your life and how difficult that would be, to keep up the ruse and never relax, always wondering, before speaking, what someone else would say and how they’d say it? Impossible! Now realise how much easier it is to open your mouth and speak as it wants comes out. As we do with our friends and family. Perhaps that’s the key: treat the reader as a friend.
Play to your strengths
Let’s be honest, it’s no good getting a job as an air traffic controller, if you don’t work well under pressure and have the eyesight of a mole. Yes, yoga and glasses might help, but wouldn’t it make more sense to pursue a career, which makes use of your gift of the gab or outstanding writing skills instead? Sometimes in life, we struggle to be someone we’re not, when all along, we could have been great at being ourselves.
If you write good descriptions, revel in the scene setting; if you write good dialogue, expose your characters with conversation; if you love rhythm and form, perhaps try your hand at poetry, or at least incorporate it into your prose. My mother-in-law, an award winning playwright, is desperate for me to write a play. She may very well be biased, but I like to think she sees my strengths in dialogue and characterisation. If you’re not sure what your skills are, ask others.
We can’t all be good at the same thing, so try not to compare yourself to other writers. It’s good to read widely, but only take what you can and leave what you can’t. Instead of sitting in a dark room crying and hating yourself after reading an amazing book by a new, award-winning author, try looking at what made the book great. What are the strengths of the author? If you can incorporate their greatness into your work, then fantastic. But if not, don’t worry. Remember, you have your own strengths.
Make yourself happy
Accept the fact not everyone will love your writing. Do it now. It’s awful, I know. But you’ll save yourself a lot of pain, if you get that straight in your head from the outset. And especially when you’re sharing your first draft.
I didn’t. And I suffered. Perhaps we’ve all been here: squirming in the seat, pacing the room, pretending not to notice every single expression on the reader’s face as they flip the pages of your story for the first time. It’s painful. It’s downright bad for your health. It’s also exhilarating and wonderful. What will they think? What are they thinking right now? What about now? And now?
And when they finally finish, you try desperately not to hover, or look too eager for the feedback, which you both crave and dread, but secretly, you’re about ready to chuck up your dinner. Or cry. Or faint. Do they like it? Do they hate it? Why are they looking so serious? Why aren’t they saying anything? Say something, would you?! I’m dying here! Bleurgh! Sob sob. Arrgh! Blank.
And then they do say something. And it’s bad. All bad. Or at least you think it’s bad, because you didn’t immediately hear the words ‘wow’ or ‘you’re amazing’. Instead, they say something constructive, like, ‘I like your characters, but would they really act that way?’ or ‘can you cut down the scene at the farmhouse a bit?’ It’s like being kicked in the gut. You react, you cry, you feel like throwing it all in the bin.
But does it really have to be this way? Wouldn’t it be much pleasanter for all concerned, if the feedback was taken as intended? Or if the comments really are bad, surely it’s best to know their true opinion. After all, you asked for it. Now, take it and move on.
Move onto what, I hear you cry? How can I carry on writing, when everyone will hate it? Well first of all, one person is not everyone. And secondly, it shouldn’t matter, as long as you have faith in yourself. As long as when you write, you enjoy it; as long as you’re happy to continue and get down on paper the story that’s consumed you; as long as you like your own writing. As long as it makes you happy.
Yes, we ultimately write for a reader, but how can you expect a reader to like you, if you don’t even like yourself? Be happy to be a writer. It’s a fulfilling and noble calling. I say, be proud you are even attempting such a self exposing feat. It’s tough, but imagine the satisfaction when you finally get that novel finished.
I don’t always feel this way, but I’m consciously working on it. Each day brings fresh challenges, but more importantly, new accomplishments.
As for those giant, frozen aliens, which caused so much consternation? I like them. So they’re staying. And every time I drive past a dead tree branch sticking out above the live ones, I will celebrate my voice and be happy there are words to share what others may not see. You know, I might create my own ten rules of writing. The first of which will be:
‘Write what the hell you like!’
So what are you waiting for? 😉