‘I liked how it was before’, and other things never to say to a writer

This is draft 29. Since the project began you’ve had 23 names for your lovingly-crafted protagonist (hard to believe she began as illiterate – now she’s a linguistics professor!) and 52 versions of chapter eleven, and losing the first eighty pages was one of the best decisions thus far in your writing career (not to mention the brilliant new twist at the end – Booker judges, look out!), and you lovingly parcel your putative book with the digital version of string and brown paper, and bundle it off to the friend/family member/significant other who read drafts 14, 17 and 20.

And one merry day, when you’re happily minding your business, the feedback arrives: ‘I liked how it was before!’

And the person who offers this feedback invariably seems to think it’s a nice thing to say, for some reason I’ve never quite managed to fathom.

For the writer it’s rather like laying the very last brick in the flat-pack house you’ve built for yourself – from your own skin and bones – to be told by a clipboard-wielding bastard that you’ve got to knock it down again.

Dear People of Planet Earth, there is a rule of thumb to be used (with your nearest and dearest) in such situations: sharing one’s writing with friends and/or family members is rather like sharing one’s body. If you wouldn’t want to hear it post-coitally, then consider the chance that your friend/spouse/significant other is equally un-keen to hear it post-novelly.

For each of my Top Five Most Hated Responses imagine – go on; you’ll enjoy it, I bet – that you’ve just done the deed for the very first time with the (wo)man of your dreams, and you’re naked in all of your pale English glory on top of their tumbled silk sheets and you’re asking – you’re actually asking! – said conquest to rate your technique twixt those sheets.

1. It was fine!*

2. I only got halfway, but… it was good until then!

3. Well, obviously it needs work, but I’m sure you know that!

4.  It was quite interesting!**

5.  It reminded me a bit of something else!

* Exclamation marks, I’m sorry to say, seem obligatory in these circumstances.

** Never use the word ‘quite’ except to say ‘quite, quite’, as in ‘quite, quite magnificent’.

Sharing your writing really is that exposing. No writer expects (no serious writer expects) kid gloves from a paid editor/mentor, but when it comes to friends and family – jeez, go easy. Pause for a second – with fingers on keyboard, or pen in your fingers – and run your response through the post-coital sensitivity filter. It takes many years – perhaps decades – to write something really worthwhile: if you hobble a writer mid-stream on that journey they might just give up and do something more boring instead. And the world – as I’m sure we agree – has enough boring people already.

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Why writing is not the same as reading, and other painful truths.

Ah, reading.* How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

1) A nice chunky novel = soaking your brain in a long, hot bath. (Although anything by David Peace = an episode of tachycardia.)

'The Bath of Knowledge' designed by Vanessa Mancini.

‘The Bath of Knowledge’ designed by Vanessa Mancini.

2) A good short story = an invigorating dip in the North sea. 

3) Most poetry = ten seconds of toe-tickling, or an accidental pinprick. (N.B. The very best poetry = blinding flash of glory, or leg mangled horribly in man-trap. Which brings me back to David Peace…)

Each experience may, of course, feel different for you. But the odds are, if you’re reading this post at all, that you somehow – in your own unique manner – derive at least a modicum of pleasure from the act of staring at words on a page. And if, like me, you attempt to place words on a page yourself there’s a fair chance you like it a helluva lot.

There’s an outside chance that you might even like reading about other people’s lives a little more (sometimes) than you enjoy living your own. But, ssh, we won’t go into that. 

It’s important – if you’re one of these people, like me, who would shrivel and die without books – that you take a few moments to remind yourself of the following fact: Writing is Not the Same as Reading.

Well, duh, you might be thinking. But, actually, I’ve a theory that most of us – at least once in our writing ‘careers’ – have fallen prey to the following thought:

(S)he makes it look so easy. 

From this thought we move rapidly to: (a) If it looks easy, it must be easy… (Reaching for laptop and/or pen and paper.) Closely followed, an hour or so later, by (b) What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do this? (In manner of Marlon Brando wailing, Stellaaaaa!)

I thought rocket science was hard. Then I tried writing!

I thought rocket science was hard. Then I tried writing!

The thing is, you see, the more you love reading – the more you equate it with soaking your brain in a long hot bath – the more likely it is that you’ll come to assume that writing is similarly pleasurable. And, yes, in its own twisted way it is pleasurable – very – and yes, you are right to assume they are sister activities (writing, for instance, should never be done without first having liberally steeped one’s brain in the bathtub of literature). But – and as I often say when catching sight of my rear end in a mirror, it is a big but(t) – if reading is the blue-eyed photogenic child with the nicely brushed hair who remembers her pleases and thank yous, then writing, I’m sorry to say, is the family’s black sheep that they generally keep locked away in a Mrs Rochester-style attic arrangement to wheel out, under duress, on special occasions.  

That squeaking noise, yes, it’s the Bath Tub as Metaphor being dragged out again, and if writing a novel is in any way akin to the wallowy soak of reading one then you’re likely to find it’s a bath tub with horribly faulty taps that spurt cold water over your toes every time you relax, or a wobbly cat stalking perilously around the rim with its claws out, poised to fall in. Think this scene’s going well, do you, Lynsey? SPLASH. Think again.

As a reader you plunge yourself into a ready made world of another’s invention, and everything – if it’s done as it should be – feels wonderfully real. Organic, you might say. As if it just happened to bloom on the page, like a plant or a flower. As if there was never a poor fool, like you, fiddling endlessly (painfully, sometimes) with every last page. When you enter a room in a novel and marvel – oh look – at details they’ve chosen to etch in the scene (the frost-stars on a window; a sunrise of bright yellow wallpaper; a fly on a cobweb trapeze) just remember you’re only a guest. And, like guests in real houses, you won’t be obliged to take part in the manual labour of styling the place (anymore than your host would expect you to take out the rubbish or sweep up the gunk down the back of the oven).**

You know where I’m going with this As a writer (and this is the painful bit) you’ll have to lay your own bloody floor before you can even set foot on it (let alone lay the carpets). A few leggy strides and, yup, you’ve run out of floor again: time to get down on your knees and build it. You strip off and dive in your bath tub – to find out (with chilling effect) that it hasn’t got taps yet.

So only know this: writing is locked in that attic for good reason. Forewarned is forearmed. Approach with caution.

I’ll leave you with this quote, from Jonathan Myerson in The Guardian, in the hope that it jollies you up as it did me (with its appreciation of the trickiness and slowness of it all): ‘good writing comes from someone sitting alone in a room, undergoing a distinctly unphotogenic process of self-discovery. Good writing comes from experimentation, word by word, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter, and thus it grows into something that probably even the author did not predict and could not have foreseen. The writer needs a chance to try again, fail again, fail better.’

*This post is about the pursuit of reading, as opposed to the Berkshire city of Reading. (I did, however, have an excellent weekend at the Reading Festival in 1990. Just thought I’d mention.)

** My own personal house porn comes in A.S.Byatt’s PossessionAmong the many (better known) delights of this novel, Byatt also Gives Great Room.

To doll or not to doll? That is the question.

Any writer currently tiptoeing through the cliché minefield that is the Ghost Story will likely have pondered this question at some weary, uninspired point in the wee small hours: can I, or can I not, have a scene with a Scary Doll™ in it?

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The Scary Doll™, as we all know, has been Done to Death. But so, too have shadows and candles and sinister disembodied giggling – and I’ve happily included all those clichés in my Magnum Opus. But is the Scary Doll™ a step too far across the cliché minefield? Will the Scary Doll™ explode in your face?

For this particular writer the answer is: yes.

In draft 1 of the novel I bravely attempted to ‘doll’ (And now came a clack as it hauled itself up and sat stiffly in lace dress and bootees, the hint of a tooth in its sluttish red mouth). Other drafts have been burdened with kilt-wearing dollies and dollies with teapots and balding monstrosities smothered in lace. But, in each case, the sinister hellspawn I’d set on the page was not, in fact, a Scary Doll™ but, rather, its devious (and far more terrifying) cousin: the Hilarious Doll.

So, regrettably, I’m putting the dolls to bed. There may yet be mileage in a one-eyed teddy bear, but for now I’ll leave with you Hugo, a genuinely terrifying doll from the 1945 horror classic Dead of Night

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