‘A story needs rhythm. Read it aloud to yourself. If it doesn’t spin a bit of magic, it’s missing something.’ Esther Freud
‘Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.’ Will Self
‘I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth–what clothes they’d choose, what they were like at school, etc . . . And I know what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I’m dealing with.’ Alice Munro
‘Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. This sounds easy, but in practice is incredibly difficult… Common phrases have become so comfortable that they create no emotional response. Take the time to invent fresh, powerful images.’ George Orwell
‘Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.’ Zadie Smith
‘Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.’ Elmore Leonard
‘Don’t say it was delightful; make us say delightful when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers Please will you do the job for me.’ CS Lewis
‘Be daring, take on anything. Don’t labor over little cameo works in which every word is to be perfect. Technique holds a reader from sentence to sentence, but only content will stay in his mind.’ Joyce Carol Oates
‘My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.’ Anton Chekhov
‘Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.’ Margaret Atwood
‘Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion.’ Franz Kafka
‘Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.’ PD James
Step away from the vehicle – and put your novel in a drawer
This is the final piece of advice I wanted to share with you from Zadie Smith in this series on writing wisdom.
When you finish your novel put it in a drawer for as long as possible. A year or more is ideal, says Smith, but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work lies in the fact that you must become a reader instead of a writer. Smith says that there have been many times where she has sat backstage with a line of novelists at a literary festival, all with red pens in hand, frantically editing their published novels so that they might go onstage and read from them. Unfortunately the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is apparently two years after it is published! And ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood are distressingly obvious to you as a writer.
Several years previously, when the proofs arrived, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place. And by the way, that’s true of the professional editors, too; after they have read a manuscript multiple times, they stop being able to see it. You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel, and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in 12 different versions. It’s the head of a smart stranger who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get into the head of that smart stranger and forget you ever wrote that book.
Personally, I left my novel for three months and began a Masters in Theology. Needless to say, the theology fell by the wayside once I picked up the book again, cut out a whole family, added two chapters, released it into the hands of my editors and completed the edits once they had finished their job. You don’t need to change course or take up something new, but at least begin some other writing and let it rest.
Here are some of my previous articles which you mind find helpful for editing your work:
Some interesting articles on leaving a gap between finishing your book and editing your work:
http://www.scriptmag.com/features/rewriting-is-writing (this advice is for screenwriting but it applies equally to novels.)
To continue with Zadie Smith’s words on writing, I’d like to look at her breakdown of writers into two categories. They are a little over-simplistic but give a good idea of how differently people plan their writing.
You will recognise a Macro Planner from his Post-its and notebooks. A Macro Planner organises material, forms a plot, and moulds a structure before deciding on a title for their work. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement. Many Macro Planners, she states, begin writing their novels in the middle. As they progress, forwards or backwards, their difficulties multiply with their choices and they exchange possible endings for one another, take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters and perform radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title.
Micro Managers, in great contrast, have no grand plan. Their novels exist in the present moment and are written line by line.
Smith says, ‘When I begin a novel I feel there is nothing of that novel outside of the sentences I am setting down. I have to be very careful: the whole nature of the thing changes by the choice of a few words. This induces a special breed of pathology for which I have another ugly name: OPD or obsessive perspective disorder. It occurs mainly in the first 20 pages. It’s a kind of existential drama, a long answer to the short question What kind of a novel am I writing?’
Opening a variety of novels, you can recognise Micro Managers – there will often be a block of stilted wording which loosens and relaxes after the 20-page mark is passed. Yet while this is happening, somehow the work of the rest of the novel gets done. It is much like winding up a toy car and then letting it go. When you can settle on a tone, the rest of the book will find a groove. Worrying over the first 20 pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters—all of which, for a Micro Manager, she says, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence. Once the tone is there, all else follows. You hear interior decorators say the same about a shade of paint.