discussions writing & publishing

Things I Don’t Like About Writing

Don’t get me wrong, I love writing books, and wouldn’t want to stop doing it. You’ll have to take this MacBook from my cold dead hands. But the medium of writing is a curious one, and there are some parts about the process which I really dislike.

1) I don’t like that you can’t improvise with words. Not in any satisfying sense. I used to play a lot of music – guitar, keyboards, whatever, and I loved the fact that you could improvise melody or chords, make up the music on the spot. Cool little riffs that sent a shiver whenever the right notes came together at that precise moment. Words don’t do that so easily. Sure you can nail a good sentence at any one point, but the option exists to change it – always, until the book is done. And that’s a good thing. From nailing it, to publishing it could be months, years. With music it’s out there, for better or worse, in that instant. What’s more, there’s a whole new skill-level in that improvisation – not every musician can do it well. When you write, the sentences are worked over so many times, so the final product will rarely, if ever, possess that same sense of immediacy that you get with live music.

2) I don’t like the fact that writing never goes away. Ever. You’re in the car, you think of a plot point, and you stop listening to your girlfriend or partner because that plot point has to make it onto paper somewhere. Or you’re thinking about the story and forget to ring someone when you said you would. A common mistake is to believe that writers just sit down and write, but I don’t think it ever stops. It takes over your mind throughout the day, probably nudging more sensible stuff out of the way.

3) I don’t like that writing isn’t all there is to writing. Writing is only half the craft – the rest is taken up by research, or planning, all the way through to doing promotion, interviews, guest posts, sorting out your website etc. Writers don’t just write anymore. They are a brand. And you have to deal with that fact.

4) I don’t like the fact that a lot of people tell you how you should write. Everyone is an expert on language and grammar and has a thousand suggestions. Listen to a musician and you can hear good notes and bad – they’re obvious – but language is more subtle, which turns concepts of right or wrong (and therefore everyone’s opinion) into a loud and messy grey area. The words are just there. However, there are a lot of people who claim that language is some rigid structure, dictated by the lords of a super-basic Creative Writing 101 classes (they’re usually the loudest crowd). Stray from their gospel and you’re fair game to them. Their way is right! These people, more than others, preach how to write. You probably shouldn’t listen to them either – you’ll end up writing like an uninspiring, soulless machine.

5) I don’t like that the behind-the-scenes people don’t get rewarded properly. There’s an awful lot of work that gets put into every sentence; there are suggestions and a thorough massaging of words, and this comes from people other than the writer. There are structural edits, then line-edits, then copy-edits, then a proof read. (And there’s designers and marketeers that help, too, in other ways.) There are a lot of people involved in presenting readers with a book, or making one a success, but they never get credited with their efforts. And they really should, because they make authors – if only more readers knew just how much it’s a team effort. My editors are Julie Crisp and Peter Lavery, and Chris Schluep in the US. Just so you know.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

10 replies on “Things I Don’t Like About Writing”

1) That’s where poetry comes in. Saw Bright Star in the week (what a tonic after the crass noise of the likes of 2012 and the over-hype of Paranormal Activity). Keats will always and ever be a hero. Pilloried in his lifetime for mixing sublime flights of fancy with what were then colloquialisms. He died at 25. One of the greatest poets in the English language.

2) Is a bit like being a secondary school teacher (in another life: the horror, the horror). You can *never* switch off.

3) I only have experience of the first part of the second sentence. The second part, given where it means you are, is more blessing than curse from this end!

4) The Clear Pane of Glass Prose Brigade. (CPGPB/GPB – KGB?) Partly as a result of the dominance of the American market and the aspiration to get published there and shift more units. (Also might be because there are many more writing courses and creative writing majors there than over here that possibly dictate ‘clarity of style’ and eschew the colour purple on the page.) Not everyone can be Hemingway. Too many people seem to forget that. What you’ve got then is not a novel but an events machine. He also had a distinctive voice. You write prose like that and you haven’t, then it is dead on the page.

5) I wish! There is your wife or partner, though and informed friends. Without whom…

sounds a lot like painting, except I guess you can improvise a bit with paint (which I don’t do because I get too stressed about about making mistakes and ruining expensive canvases and paper) and we don’t have editors. art representatives are a similar deal though.

I’m sorry, but language is more subtle than music? I don’t even know the proper words to fully exclaim how WRONG that is, which is slightly ironic, I suppose. I appreciated the rest of the post, though.

Thanks for the comments, Nick, though it’s too early for me to start looking for that comma. Yeah, I think those creative writing classes do that infant school thing of teaching what not to do so people practice certain things, without reminding them that they can in fact do it. Like starting a sentence with “And”.

Hey Christa – yeah, I thought about art in that way. I guess in final pieces it can take ages to produce, but you can still sketch!

Mats – what I meant was that it’s very black and white when a musician makes a wrong note (outside of jazz!), but it’s a more subtle error when a sentence is wrong, and not everyone can see it. Which, I suspect, is also irony.

Your first point is simply(!) the difference between a live performance and a recorded one isn’t it? Different with music is that being one generally goes hand in hand with being the other, whereas with what we do it doesn’t. Fancy doing a bit of stand-up or improve theatre? I’ll come and watch…

I *think* I know what Mark means. And it perhaps has much to do with the fact (I imagine) he has been in a very intensive phase of drafts, redrafts, proofs etc finally reaching that plateau above the one that most of us chew the cud on (there’s a gradual long and winding worked incline to it, I’m sure, but I’ve yet to bloody find it! Or maybe some lucky happenstance that spirits you there). It is about plateaux and it is *very* hard to reach the next one. When you do get to it folk around you are likely to be hands on, I expect. I also suspect that there is a difference between making a lot of books the very best they can be and making them publishable. The process of fighting your corner for the former over the dictates of the latter is likely a mighty one. Sometimes the two coincide.

Mark (if you haven’t already done so) read some Keats (1820 collection contains his greatest poems, he died in 1821), some Ted Hughes (Wodwo, Crow), some Seamus Heaney (Field Work, Seeing Things) some Derek Walcott (The Arkansas Testament, Midsummer), some Eliot (The Waste Land, Prufrock, The Four Quartets, Journey of the Magi – this last could effortlessly slot into a trad fantasy novel as a monologue), some Sylivia Plath (Ariel), some Carol Ann Duffy (The World’s Wife) to see beautiful violence performed upon the rules of the English language. It is a liberation for a prose writer. It never surprises me (not saying that includes you, I don’t know whether it does or it doesn’t) not only how few novelists read poetry but how few actually get it.

I have read novel after novel (including lots of genre, I’m reading a couple now) and however neat the ideas may be, the story great even, I cannot remember a single bloody memorable sentence in most of them. Something wrong there. Very often the *way* something is said *is* its meaning. There is almost an editorial fascism (not everywhere, but it seems out there because I read the end product) that dictates: if a line or sentence draws too much attention to itself it must be changed. Because too few of them stick in the mind: a memorable turn of phrase, a vivid simile or metaphor, the cumulative momentum of sentence cadences within a paragraph.

Some writers have great ears, others are tone deaf even if their story is a memorable one in itself. Where the two together exist the art is on another plane, call it high art of you like, but do so at your peril. We have become so culturally relativist and so ashamed of celebrating surpassing excellence. Very often the knee-jerk response is to say: who are you to define what it is? Well I don’t, there is a collective common sense (remember that?) consensus that can be arrived at. To be a master of both those things for example: a memorable tale memorably told (with memorable lines enhancing meaning) raises it a notch above only a memorable tale artistically – that’s common sense, surely? (And let’s not even begin on thematic variation, resonances, foreshadowing etc and mastery of that.) The mere notion of ‘high art’ seems a cause for condemnation and mockery out of the mouth of the person suggesting it. And yet it is great to discover it where it exists.

I expect that within this general atmosphere as a published novelist it might well feel that you can’t improvise with words. Hopefully I will get published one day and then I’ll learn!

Eliot, The Waste Land:

On Margate sands. I can connect
Nothing with nothing…

That full stop has no place where it is. It shouldn’t be where it is. But it is precisely because Eliot is in a state in which he can connect ‘nothing with nothing’ that it should be there. Just like sometimes the only way a sentence can begin is with ‘And’.

C.S. Lewis writes about it being the business of the novelist to put that kind of thought into his or her work, even if it is hidden, because it has a cumulative effect on atmosphere, on the depth of overall meaning. (Ward argues in the brilliant ‘Planet Narnia’ that it is just so in The Chronicles of Narnia, the seeming jamboree bag of each book modelled on the Mediaeval planetary system and the symbolic meaning of each planet infusing the books).

There are frankly a lot of writers out there who haven’t even got a grasp of that concept, let alone execute it. Indeed, WYSIWYG. That’s not enough for me as a reader, never has been. But it is very likely the case, given what is shifting on the shelves, that I am among the minority and my over-wrought prose is destined for the small press, if even that!

Hi Stephen, yes – I guess it is very much that. But even the whole take of a song in the studio is made up of live performances, to some degree. As for doing stand-up – not a chance! I’ll happily hide behind my editors. 🙂

Nick – I do read poetry from time to time, though not as often as others. About one or two books a year – I dip in and out, and find there’s so much else to read, and so little time! Thanks for the reading list – I’ve read some of those, yes. Loved Eliot, though intense, and I’d probably need to re-read again to speak with any use on the subject.

I think it’s always tough to say what will end up being memorable or not, in cultural / art terms. I mean, I dare say that “popularity” is something that dictates who ends up being revered. Dickens et al were all very popular in their own time…

That works both ways, Mark. Writers who have died in obscurity have gone on to be recognised as genuises and seminal voices for their time. (Kafka is a case in point. Actually, Keats is almost more or less another.) I tend to think the hugely popular contempoary authors likely aren’t that. For every Dickens, who was tremendously popular in his time, there are a hundred others who have sunk into obscurity. The sift of time has not remaindered the substance from them that Dickens for all his serial popularity at the time did and does possess (Conrad professed to read Bleak House once a year to remind him how it was done) and they did not. They may have some socio-historical interest for a thesis, but as art, intrinsically, they do not.

For the same reason composers with as much or more popularity than Beethoven in his day are rarely heard of now. Judgements can be made. Some things are palpably better in a given creative form than others. They define, nail, encapsulate its quintessence at its highest. Call it Darwinism if you like, or snobbery, but it palpably is so. A cruel fact (and I don’t for one moment believe I am anywhere other than near the bottom of the food chain).

Why do folk keep pussyfooting around this? It isn’t all relative. That is the death of art in any meaningful sense if people buy that. This is the same drive to excellence, presumably, that makes an editor suggest a writer remove this or that superfluous adjective, or clarify a plot thread or excise a passage that adds nothing to the ongoing momentum of a tale. Once again, I maintain that not *my* consensus, but a common sense consensus can be made about what is a surpassing achievement in a given artistic sphere and what palpably is not.

I think over the years contemporary popularity is the last thing that will dictate whether a book is great and lasting as literature or not. There is every indication that contemporary popularity is a beast with no telling, discerning artistic taste which can be relied upon to stand the test of time at all. You can study the medium and come to an understanding of why something is great, why it has stood the test of time. You don’t have to either sound like or be a comic book Brian Sewell characature to be party to, arrive at that awareness. Cultural relativists denounce hard-worked, hard-earned informed judgement as mere elitist snobbery. That’s where Tall Poppy Syndrome comes in (few nations do it as well as we do). Relativism, while it might appear to be the enemy of it, is in fact its agent.

If my thoughts have convinced me of anything it is not to blog or forum post any more, just to get on and write some fiction. It’s hard enough trying to do that as it is. Thinking out aloud like this adds nothing to the pursuit for me personally, in fact I am finding it diminshes it! Anyway, I shall now proceed to attempt removal of that poker from my behind.

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