I can particularly relate to the email which Harry Bingham sent out on Friday.
It starts out with a quote about having fun: “Benjamin Jowett was a Victorian professor of Greek, a theologian and a college reformer. Photos of him have a somewhat stern and whiskery air, but he is responsible for one of my favourite quotes ever:
We have sought truth, and sometimes perhaps have found it. But have we had any fun?
I love that. As writers, we’re not all that interested in truth, so perhaps we can rephrase: We have sought a decent story, and sometimes perhaps have told one. But have we had any fun?
That quote is in my head because it occurred to me this week that perhaps my best books are also the ones I most enjoyed writing. It’s certainly true that the ones I most laboured over ended up proficient enough, but less joyous in the reading.”
He goes on to mention several books that he has written that he enjoyed writing and people have enjoyed reading. He says, “Overall, I think it is true that a joyous writing experience leads to a better reading experience. That’s nice to know in one way. Most writers could make more money in other jobs – or indeed, use those other jobs to fund their writing time – so it definitely matters that writing is fun.
But life ain’t always easy and writing isn’t always pleasurable. What happens if you are finding the writing a slog? The joyous writing = good writing rule is a comfort if you’re having fun. But doesn’t that also mean that painful writing = bad writing? In which case, the rule seems to double your troubles.
I think maybe it does.
I do strongly believe that you should write mostly for the fun of it. If you’re not actually under contract to a publisher, then why write if you hate it? Of course, in any book, there’ll be tough patches that you just have to push through, but that’s the same as any challenging hobby. Overcoming those challenges is part of the joy.
But some books have the joy/challenge balance wrong. The joy’s never quite enough, the challenges rather too constant.
So what to do? As usual, I don’t really know the answer, but my personal cocktail of solutions includes the following:
- KBO. This was a core part of Winston Churchill’s philosophy on life. If women were around, he expressed it as “KBO”. If they weren’t, he said it plainly: Keep Bu**ering On. In the end, an ability just to push through the tough patches is the single most important quality of any writer.
- If possible, take a break. And the breakier the break, the better. A sharp change of routine – a holiday, a love affair – is going to work better than “everything the same, but no writing”.
- Figure out if there’s a technical flaw somewhere. A big one this, especially for less experienced writers. So often enough, you start a project with enthusiasm. At about the 30,000 word mark, that enthusiasm starts to dissipate. Then you write more text, but it just seems pointless. You don’t like what you’ve written. You give up. And often, often, often it’s because of an identifiable and fixable technical fault. So it could be something you’re doing wrong in terms of points of view. Or your sense of place. Or your plotting. Or almost anything. Those things will make your writing seem bad (because in this one specific way, it is bad). Then, since you don’t know what the issue is or how to fix it, you just give up. That’s where a professional can help.
- Cut. Oh my goodness, this is so simple and so powerful. If you are telling a good story in 120,000 words that you could express equally well in 90,000 words – and it’s very, very common to see such things – then you have attached a huge drag anchor to your narrative. It can never leap free because you are burdening the reader with 30,000 purposeless words. Cut, my friend. Cut more than you think you can cut. Take joy in cutting. You will feel your manuscript lift and surge forward in the water. It’ll love you for the surgery. Be ambitious.
- The dagger in the table. And sometimes, simply enough, a narrative starts to drag because it’s a bit draggy. The set-up is great. The ending you have in mind is fantastic. But the bit in-between? It’s all a bit ho-hum. So kill someone. Or have a bank robbery. Or have someone get abducted or buried underground. Offer a mid-story incident that shatters the shape of the story that the reader was expecting. Write a novel with two climaxes. Plunge the dagger into the table and watch it quiver.
- Ask yourself: have a nailed the basic concept for this novel? If you don’t have a stellar concept, your novel will never be stellar. If your concept – your elevator pitch – just isn’t all that strong, the novel will essentially be unsaleable no matter how many nice little plot turns you have in chapter 22, and no matter how quirky you make Aunt Maisie. And if you have embarked on a novel with too little zizz, then add it. You don’t have to scrap what you’ve written and start again. You just have to find the ingredient – a ghost, a murder, a secret letter, a splash of magic, a something – that gives life to all the rest.”
I think Harry is right: that fun can make big difference in writing. I’m working on a collection of short stories, and I’m having a lot of fun writing them. But I’ve decided to stick to some rules. First of all, my idea for a new story has to be thoroughly tested in my mind for at least a week until I’m sure that readers would enjoy the story. My second rule is if the text starts to lose momentum I stop and fix it, taking whatever time it takes. So far, I’ve had only one story that I just didn’t like after three pages. And my third rule is to look at my completed work through the eyes of a sceptical reader. I keep finding little flaws that are fixable.