When I first started to write a novel, I thought I knew what I was doing. After all, I figured, I’d read lots of them. What could possibly go wrong?
Just in case there was something I might have missed, I enrolled on a 5-day residential novel-writing course. I won’t mention the name of the organisation. Suffice it to say it is very highly regarded in the field of literary endeavours. Maybe I just hit a bad week, but it was a pretty expensive waste of time and I won’t dwell on it, except to say that I’ve since heard an interview with one of the tutors where she actually admitted how bad she’d been that week. (I think she only did it once; she wasn’t temperamentally suited to the concept of coaching at all.)
However, the one thing I did take away from the whole sorry experience was the suggestion that, now I was working on my own novel, I would never view others’ work in this field in the same way again. Writing my own novel might even destroy my pleasure in reading them. They were right about the first part.
Now, I read everything with my critical eye switched to hyper mode all the time. It’s like a laser beam, picking up all manner of minor transgressions that I wouldn’t have even noticed a few, pre-novel-writing years ago. I let a lot of stuff go – it’s fiction, I tell myself – but lazy writing really makes me cross. You know what I mean – sloppy style, the over-use of clichés, or vague and indeterminate words and too many adverbs and adjectives. Too much telling. And my own pet hate that instantly betrays a lack of experience – the exclamation mark. Don’t shout at me, I can hear you.
Maybe I need to get out more.
In my quest to write the perfect novel – stop sniggering at the back, we’re all in this together – I have, in the past, fallen into the trap of spending too much time reading about how to write, and not enough time practicing the art of writing itself. It’s very tempting and my bookshelves are stuffed with self-important how-to-write tomes. Some of them are useful and I refer to them often; others are just taking up space, but they look quite nice.
One I really enjoyed is, ‘How not to write a novel’ by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark, which is a beautifully observed and very funny guide to the pitfalls that all beginners fall into and how to avoid them. I suspect we’ve all got our favourites, but it’s the ones that manage to be humorous rather deadly serious whilst imparting their wisdom, that have me pulling them off the shelves again and again.