In the last of my current series of guest posts from authors with new books out, a big welcome to Drew Gummerson with his thoughts on that most crucial aspect of writing – the editing process.
Certain books, written quickly, are infamous; Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, dashed off while on the bog, written in a cramped hand along the length of a single roll of toilet paper(*), Charles Bukowski’s Post Office, 2 weeks in the making, squashed between Bukowski’s bar brawls and unsuccessful attempts at picking up Women(*), (his next book, 3 days later(*)).
(Sequestered once in hotel room Bukowski refused to appear on same bill as one and only Burroughs, William (now he was editor; cut text with scissors, scatter text across floor, shoot heroin, piece text back together. For many years Burroughs carried pages of Naked Lunch (deconstructed / constructed) gripped with single elastic-band in suitcase across Paris / Tangier / Interzone.(*))
But for most of us, as Morrissey sang, These Things Take Time.
(And I know that I’m the most inept that ever stepped…)
The best advice I ever got about editing came backwards through a crude joke on The Inbetweeners. This crude joke was about having a numb hand and masturbation.
It’s better all round if you no longer feel it’s yours. (**)
When I finished the first draft of Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel I put it away for six months.
It was only then I had the right perspective to be brutal, see what worked / what didn’t. So I could slash and burn. And, I honestly couldn’t remember where it was going.
It was fresh.
And that’s where the real work started.
In this excellent New York Times article, Jenny Offill talks of how she put extracts of her new novel Weather onto poster-boards and it was only, through time, by looking at them, she could ascertain which ones sparkled, which ones weren’t merely clever.
In that first draft it’s all too easy, like Alice falling down her well, to be pleased with yourself. Time gives clear head to tidy up (delete) these sections which don’t sparkle, aren’t clever (I mean, who wrote this shit?).
On twitter Ronan Hession (writer of the wonderful Leonard and the Hungry Paul(**)) gave the Sound Advice of, when editing, to read the chapters in reverse order. This,
“1. Stops you getting distracted by the story.
2. Reveals a lot about flow… if a book reads well backwards it’s a good indication that it reads well forwards.”
Same as putting text away in drawer it is about finding a different way of looking / disrupting gaze.
I pleased to welcome children’s author Emma Rea as my guest this month, with her thoughts on writing rules and breaking them, in particular that vexed issue of showing versus telling.
When I was at school, I had a wonderful English teacher (who herself was taught by CS Lewis) and she said several things that stayed with me. One of them was her explanation of the trellis and the rose.
She was teaching us Shakespearean sonnets, and she showed us the form: the three quatrains rhyming abab, cdcd, efef, followed by a couplet, rhyming gg. She explained the iambic pentameter. We all knew the rules.
Then she started telling us how Shakespeare broke the rules. Using half-rhymes, caesura, enjambement. We grew confused.
And she explained that in all writing, there is both form – the trellis to which the writing must cling – and the author’s insight and imagination – the rose. Without a trellis, the rose will flop. But if it follows the trellis rigidly, left, right, left, right, there will be no life in the writing at all.
I write children’s fiction, not sonnets, but her words still ring usefully in my head. I’m always trying to work out what form, or ‘rules’, work in writing and which rules can be bent.
And one rule I’m wary of is ‘show don’t tell’. We’re always told this, and of course it’s important, but a confident writer will know when to break it, and simply tell the reader certain things. This confidence is enormously appealing. Dickens’ first sentence of Bleak House is ‘London.’ A later paragraph starts ‘Fog everywhere.’ He goes on to show us, but he hasn’t been afraid of telling us, too. And we immediately get that delicious feeling that we’re in the safe hands of a writer who knows exactly what they’re doing.
I think this tension between telling and showing is pleasurable for the reader. They want to know some things – just as you want to know the rules before you start playing a board game – but they also want intrigue and nuance, so their curiosity is aroused and they can start trying to work things out for themselves. You have to have on the one hand, absolute clarity, and on the other, obfuscation, and the two hands have to be clasped, fingers intertwined, so that the text is both strongly rooted and yet open to interpretation.
Over ten years of writing and writing groups, I’m getting better at spotting in my own work which bits need clarity, or telling, and which don’t. I love checking out first chapters to see how authors find a balance between the two, and I like experimenting with telling to see what works.
I’ll leave you with an opening line which makes me feel grounded and safe, and yet curious. We’re given the location, the season and the time of day – and a springboard into the story.
‘It was an ordinary spring day in Istanbul, a long and leaden afternoon like so many others, when she discovered, with a hollowness in her stomach, that she was capable of killing someone.’ Elif Shafak, Three Daughters of Eve
Emma Rea is an author, reviewer and proof reader. She is the author of MG novels Top Dog (Gomer 2014) which was shortlisted for the North Somerset Teachers’ Book Award and My Name is River, published this June by Firefly Press, and listed as Sunday Times Children’s Book of the Week in July.
In the latest in my series of guest posts by authors of new books, Anna Vaught tells how returning to short story writing in a lull between working on novels proved to be a rejuvenation.
‘I believe in complicity and its special heat. See what I have. Eat.’
Where, I was asked, do short stories fit into your writing? This is how.
I had written short stories for a blog I kept, entered a couple of competitions, and had had two stories published in anthologies; I also read many short stories of varied provenance, but that was it. Now, in the early spring of 2019, I found myself feeling jaded between projects and unsure what to do, though I thought I needed to do something. My third novel Saving Lucia was placed but still a year away from publication and I was yet to work with my editor; my first two books, autobiographical fiction and novella, had lacked exposure and, partly because of this, I lacked faith in myself to make a new novel do well. I write quickly, so I had already written a follow-up novel to Saving Lucia, but understood that this would not be read for some time, and I had had a couple of meetings with agents who had asked to meet for a chat about what I was up to. One of them, incidentally, is the greatly supportive woman I now refer to as my ‘not-agent’ and the other, the goddess who was soon to sign me on the back of a short story collection I had not written – or even thought of – yet. Possibilities hung in the air, but also a lot of self-doubt. I wanted to keep busy to assuage it.
I decided I would try some short stories again. I had written a good deal about memory, trauma and testimony in fiction and creative non-fiction; I had also written food journalism, was interested in culinary history and, owing to a rather colourful past and many strange familial events in childhood and teenage years which revolved around food, its preparation, purveying and sharing (or not), an idea coalesced: how about a collection of stories involving adventures at table, feasts, consuming and being consumed; about food and trauma. Funny, peculiar, entertaining and with language you could get your teeth into; I would draw on my reading and experience and the rest would be new literary horror and weird to which I naturally incline.
Up bubbled a book, and it came out very quickly. I feel embarrassed to say this: I wrote it in two weeks, in a wonderful fury, sometimes getting up at four to make the stories on top of my other responsibilities. I do not recommend this practice, but it was what I wanted here. I wrote about being held back, being terrified (I know this is weird) by trifle, tripe, and tapas; I drew on old stories, food journals and apocrypha. I wrote on food as metaphor, but also about food as something plainly and brutally literal. I did not know I could do any of this; I only knew that once I had started I did not want to stop and particularly enjoyed the concept of an overarching theme and some overlapping details in terms of characters and psychological or erotic tryst. I felt rejuvenated. Then, when a submissions window came up at Influx Press – exciting: I had loved Attrib. by Eley Williams and How the Light Gets In by Clare Fisher – I sent it to them (and to the second of the wonderful literary agents I had met at the same time) and, within three weeks, I had both an offer of publication and an offer of representation. I did not know I was capable of that, either.
There might be a moral here: when you feel jaded, lacking in confidence or that sense that you are drifting and want to crack on with something, then try writing in a different genre, as I did. As I said, doing so rejuvenated me. So, try something new (or newish) and you never know. If you lack confidence, do it anyway. I found, having written a collection of short stories, I could move on to another one then another novel – the one I have just finished for my agency. What is more, my follow-up to Saving Lucia has not been taken up for publication, but I am pleased to say that I was able to take a section of that and make it into a long short story about trauma, memory and recovery for an Unsung Stories anthology out next year. I felt more confident in my craft now, so this was something I could do. I also took up disappointment and, from it, I made a new thing, and that is a good thing to learn, because not everything will work and not every book ought to be published. As to where short story writing fits in going forward, I hope I will always be able to write short story collections and novels, though I know that stories are a harder sell for my agent. We shall see. It will be an adventure, won’t it?
Famished: seventeen stories to whet your appetite and ruin your dinner. I hope you like them.
‘I believe in complicity and its special heat. See what I have. Eat.’
Anna is a novelist, poet, essayist, short fiction writer, editor and a secondary English teacher, tutor and mentor, mental health advocate and mum of 3. 2020 sees the publication of Anna’s third novel Saving Lucia (Bluemoose) and a first short story collection, Famished (Influx). Anglo-Welsh, she splits her time between Wiltshire, Wales, and the Southern US, where her husband is from. She is currently finishing a new novel and waiting on exciting decisions. Anna is represented by Kate Johnson of Mackenzie Wolf, NYC.
In the latest in my series of guest posts from authors of new books, Dominc Brownlow discusses how, in his writing, he uses location as more than simply a setting.
Location, surprisingly, is often underused in writing. All books and stories possess one or more of them; characters can’t simply float through space, levitating from one scene to the next. They must be placed somewhere, like actors, in order to play out the intended narrative, but once that stage has been decided upon, the backdrop painted, the curtains raised, the role of that setting should not then be over. Location should be treated as a character and accorded the same luxuries. And, most importantly I think, used as one of the senses.
When I wrote The Naseby Horses I had a post-it-note above my desk reminding me not to ignore these essential faculties: touch, smell, colour, sound. It is still there now as I write my second novel, the ink a little faded from the sun. Isolation is a fundamental aspect of my writing – I’m only on novel two but they are both centred around this theme.
For me, it is the Fens; huge open swathes of flat agricultural land stretched beneath wide infinite skies. That, in itself, is fairly self-explanatory. It is an obvious stage for remoteness. However, it is the perceptions evoked beyond remoteness that can, if you invite them in, assist the story so. It is the way both the landscape and its inhabitants behave; the attitude of locals, the manner in which nature and wildlife react, and how this effects, or is used by, the characters in the novel.
The same method could be employed with a major city, or beach or mountain or alien spacecraft. All these locations are in possession of sound, smell, colour, touch, as, similarly, is a kitchen, bedroom, school, garden, sports field or courtroom. By introducing the sensual nuances of a location a writer is, by default, connecting the character to that place, and, in the same metaphorical vein as how pathetic fallacy works, eases these perceptions into the subconscious of the character and, hence, reader.
“Show not tell” is the axiom waved about like Colours in the How To Write books, and one, as a literary waffler, I struggle with the most. However, by describing the mood and essence of a setting, wherever that may be, as long as an initial connection has been made between place and person, the writer is, in part, showing not telling. He, or she, is using location as the shadow of the character. One of my favourite lines in The Naseby Horses is ‘somewhere in the distance sunlight glares off a moving car.’ I like to think this issues a latent sense of escape from a desolate backdrop, without actually saying it.
John McGregor’s Reservoir 13 uses this brilliantly and, of course, the ultimate example of how to use location as a character is Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. Ray Robinson is also a modern day master of this in The Mating Habits of Stags, and for the claustrophobic seedy panicky senses of the city Martin Amis’s London Fields excels beyond all.
Dominic Brownlow lives near Peterborough with his two children. He lived in London and worked in the music industry as a manager before setting up his own independent label. He now enjoys life in the Fens and has an office that looks out over water. The Naseby Horses is his first novel. It was long listed for the Bath Novel Award 2016. The paperback edition is published on 24 August 2020. He tweets @Dominic Brownlow.