The Writer is Missing

Unlike the disappearing blogger of the previous post, The Writer in this one is a category.

Today I visited a place used by many different people on a drop-in basis to promote their business.

It was an old building, the interior spacious and full of light. I wished I had my camera so, guess what, I was invited back again to take some shots.

Corn Exchange, Leith

I brought some leaflets back to show my wife, whose reaction was interesting. ‘Ceramicist, actor, musician,’ she reads, ‘animator, dancer, filmmaker, jeweller.’        Giving me a hard look she adds, ‘You know what’s missing, don’t you? Not a writer in sight, don’t writers count?’

She was right. I suspect the reason is that writers can easily work from home and don’t require a place like this. Unless, of course, they intend to market themselves as a brand. Now there’s a thought.


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The Role of Editing

Sometimes we edit ourselves, sometimes others do it for us. What is the purpose of this process? Quite often it is to ‘tighten up’ the narrative, which raises the question why we would want to do that? Do we really want to be tight? We probably do if we are writing a page-turner or a crime story. We try to keep the reader wondering what will happen next.

Some editors are more interventionist than others, how successfully we don’t know since we seldom get to see original, unedited texts. Robert Carver’s editor appears to have made his style more laconic, changing the import of his stories in the process. Going further back, it is known that Stendahl’s publisher reduced the length of The Charterhouse of Parma. Since we cannot compare the draft to the published version, there is no way of telling whether he improved the book or not, though given the chance to read the original I would take it.

Another reason for wanting to tighten up is that our draft is prolix and repetitive. If so, we would want to improve it. But I have come across a reason which doesn’t impress me so much. This is how it goes. Nowadays, people expect instant gratification. They know what they want and they want it now. Used to surfing as they are, their attention span is less than that of previous generations. They expect a story to skip along at a brisk pace and will lose interest if it doesn’t. So writers must adapt their work to the spirit of an age when many are more articulate with their thumbs than their tongue.

Yes, a spare, lean style can be very effective, but is that the only style open to us now? Can’t we be expansive any more? Are digressions out of the question? I hope not. Not only is there nothing wrong in principle with the expansive, in the right hands it has a lot to offer. I am left with the feeling that cutting too much flesh from the bone might not be the best idea. Who wants to cuddle up with a skeleton? Not me.


Advice for Writers

There is a great deal of information available to anyone intending to publish, whether fiction or non-fiction, and some of it is very good. This post concerns two aspects of advice sometimes given to writers of fiction.

The first is to write within a defined genre. If you write crime, fantasy or romance then your work will easily fall into a given genre and you won’t have to give this further thought. But beyond the clearly defined genres life may become more difficult. Assuming there is one, where is the dividing line between general fiction and literary fiction? Does it lie in the quality of the prose, or perhaps in the references which literary fiction might safely assume the reader will pick up but which the author aiming at a more commercial market could not safely include? What if an author combines two genres? And what if humour is involved?  I think we must try to avoid, as best we can, being totally confined within the bounds of a given genre unless it suits us. This may make marketing more difficult, but we should not let marketing considerations dictate how we go about writing unless our sole motivation is to make money.

The second piece of advice is to have more than one title to hand when approaching a publisher or agent. They like to know the well won’t run dry. What is the point in creating a profile for a writer who stops after one book? No one likes wasted effort. This is probably good advice, though tough for a one-book writer. You would not want to be Harper Lee today.

And when it comes to writing several books, the advice is to go for a series rather than a several stand-alone titles. The attractions of this are obvious. When readers move on to the later titles, they already know some of the characters. The experience might be compared to watching a soap rather than a sequence of one-off dramas. For writers the same applies. When moving on to the second and subsequent titles, they have already created several of their characters and don’t have to go through it again. You could say it appeals to laziness all round or, if that is too negative, that this approach, because it saves energy, is more efficient. It can and does work well, though some series have peaks and troughs (Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series is uneven) and others outstay their welcome (Henning Mankell’s Wallander series ends on a weak note).