Any seasoned writer will tell you that writing ‘rules’ abound. Over the past hundred years or so, it has become de vogue for renowned writers and impassioned grammarians to publish ‘rules’ by which others should, they are certain, abide.
Sometimes, these rules have merit – for example, Elmore Leonard’s ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’ and Henry Miller’s ‘Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand’.
Sometimes, these rules are far more arbitrary – for example, Stephen King bans adverbs, declaring, ‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs’, and Kurt Vonnegut detested semi-colons, saying, ‘All they do is show you’ve been to college.’
For a student of literature – as I was at university, and have remained since through my reading list, which always comprises both modern and classic texts – a truth emerges: a modern style of writing has evolved that is quite different to the classic style.
Today, writers are faced with these core rules:
- Show, don’t tell.
- Write succinctly (omit needless words).
- Choose short words rather than long words, and carefully control the length of sentences and paragraphs.
- Write in the active voice (he opened the door, not the door was opened).
The essence of this modern style is formalised in a very influential American guide called The Elements of Style, first written by William Strunk Jr. and published in 1918, and then revised by E.B. White in 1959. It’s a book that many writers have read and followed. It’s also a book that some – academics among them – have criticised, for being far too rigid and prescriptive.
According to proponents of the modern rules, the resulting narrative is ‘tighter’ and ‘cleaner’. Just as films have become faster paced, with cuts to new scenes more frequently, so do many books have galloping paces and only the bare essentials required to set the scene. ‘Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue,’ Elmore Leonard advised; thus the average novel may employ that verb many times.
Personally, in my own writing I stand somewhere between the old and the new. I take on board modern rules and guidance, but I will always be the writer who was born and shaped out of a love for classic literature. I don’t always use the simplest, shortest word; I use the word that best encapsulates the meaning, and that works poetically. I don’t always break my prose into short, choppy sentences and paragraphs – I write romantic fiction, and the rhythm must be flowing and beautiful. I don’t live in horror of moving into the passive voice; sometimes, the writing is all the better for it. I do use semi-colons, and certainly I use adverbs – there is such a difference between the connotations of ‘Please, he said’ and ‘Please, he said desperately’.
The final popular rule, ‘Show, don’t tell’, is the most interesting to me. It harks back to Chekov’s advice to writers: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ This, above all other rules, most affected me as a novice writer. He is talking of description – of masterfully setting the scene for the reader, so that it is vivid in the mind. All authors of great classic literature adhered to this rule; how well we can picture Dicken’s Fagin, and Brontë’s windswept moor, and Leroux’s Paris Opera House with its disturbed phantom. But Chekov’s guidance has come to be seen as a call for avoiding the time-old tradition of storytelling in favour of story-showing.
Recently, writer Namrata Poddar wrote a fascinating piece for the Lit Hub website entitled ‘Is “show don’t tell” a universal truth or a colonial relic?’. She explores the modern preference in the West for ‘visual’ over oral storytelling – the way people have told stories for centuries. Having found a strong oral tradition in the works of various writers, her conclusion is that ‘what we consume as universal in story craft, literary history, or aesthetic taste is anything but universal’.
Thank goodness, I thought as I read. For each time I have written the word ‘convention’ or ‘rule’ in this article, something deep inside me has clenched uncomfortably. In truth, writing is art, and in art there are no rules – or if rules are laid out, then surely they are made to be broken, for that is the very creation of art.
Did you know that it took Victor Hugo 12 years to write Les Misèrables, and Margaret Mitchell toiled over Gone with the Wind for an entire decade? That, conversely, Stephenie Meyer wrote Twilight in three months, and Charles Dickens penned Great Expectations in eight months – while in the realms of frantically fast writing, Anthony Burgess created A Clockwork Orange in three weeks, and Robert Louis Stevenson got The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde down on paper in only six days?
With such a differing timescale for novel first drafts, I wonder: is there a right speed for writing?
Ray Bradbury advised, ‘You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.’ This is the thinking embraced by those who write a first draft quickly, getting the bare bones down on paper before reality can encroach much at all. I suspect these writers are also what’s commonly known as ‘pantsers’ rather than ‘plotters’; they write by the seat of their pants, directly connected to the subconscious, the muse, lost in creativity.
At the other end of the scale, it strikes me that you have two kinds of writer. The first is the writer who wants very much to write a book, but can’t quite get around to actually writing it – the writing process elongates because the writer doesn’t prioritise the writing. The second is the writer who wants very badly to write a superb book, one that will go down in history: it doesn’t surprise me at all that JRR Tolkien spent 16 years crafting his Lord of the Rings trilogy; clearly, he put so much thought and effort into each and every word (and there are many).
What, then, is the right speed? I would argue that the middle ground is where the best, most informed and good-quality writing is often to be found. All of the following books were written in nine to eighteen months: Wuthering Heights, Nineteen Eighty-four, Frankenstein, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Jungle Book.
Personally, I aim for around nine months per book: three for research and meticulous planning, and then six for the writing itself and editing. My aim has always been to write not just one book or two, but many, so I have created a rhythm for each year that allows me to create, on average, a book annually. During the writing period, I know just what I am writing, and I know I have allotted time in which to write – but I also have time off from writing, to rest and rejuvenate, which I believe is essential.
If I wrote faster, I think I may become exhausted by the writing process and I worry I would not write as well. If I wrote more slowly, I think I may become jaded by the work in progress, and have itchy feet to move on to the next project – or I may even lose the mood and thread of the current book.
No blog post on writing speed would be complete without considering marketability. For authors these days, there is a constant need to write the next book; spending many years on a single book is a luxury that is usually incompatible with the business side of publishing. I write ‘usually’, because a notable exception at the moment is George RR Martin’s forthcoming book in the Game of Thrones series, which has been a work in progress for five years now. But outside of bestselling epic fantasy fiction, most authors have to always be working toward the next book even while penning the current one.
Whatever the speed at which you write, one fact remains: writing is an engulfing and time-consuming pursuit, but when you reach those words ‘The End’, the sense of accomplishment and fulfilment eclipses the memory of all the sleepless nights.
Since I started publishing my romance fiction, I have lost track of how many times people have asked me about my process: just how exactly do I go about writing a book – and beyond that, writing the next book and the next and the next?
I think the fascination with a writer’s routine comes from two camps: readers, who enjoy the writer’s work and like to visualise the writer in the act of creation, and writers, who admire the writer’s work and want to learn from and thus emulate the writer in the act of creation. State any of the following facts to such readers and writers, and their eyes will light up with interest:
* Ernest Hemingway wrote in the mornings, ‘as soon after first light as possible’, through to lunchtime, and then let ideas fill him in the afternoons and evenings ready for the next day’s session. (source)
* Maya Angelou paid for a hotel room by the month and used it as her writing base until two p.m. each day, at which time she would go home and edit what she’d written that morning. (source)
* E.B. White liked to write right in the thick of activity in his family house; he believed ‘a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper’. (source)
* Stephen King has everything just so when he writes: a drink, a vitamin, his music, the same seat, his papers in the same place as yesterday. ‘The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.’ (source)
Recently, author Lionel Shriver told the Observer newspaper all about her routine, which has evolved over the years into writing late in the day and evening, so that she goes to bed at around four a.m. (which makes the postman knocking at nine a.m. very inconvenient). The interviewer really hit the nail on the head with this question: ‘Is there something about the solitude and quiet that fits with writing?’ Most writing routines come down to this need to be alone, in a writing bubble, where the outside world cannot permeate.
Prolific, long-term writers have always been my role model, and I think the fascination with writing routine is closely related to a respect for the author’s organisation and discipline. Early on in my writing career, I realised the need for a fairly rigid routine, to ensure I could always spend enough hours of the week writing. My routine includes the following rules:
* Always write with a view – in France, my desk overlooks the Mediterranean; in Kent it overlooks the garden.
* Be at the desk straight after breakfast.
* Spend no longer than an hour on marketing and administrative tasks (I set a timer).
* Do not waste time fiddling with yesterday’s writing; read it back, make light edits, and then move the story on.
* Take a short break for lunch, and then continue.
* When the pace slows, step away from the desk. Rest. Bake a cake. Take an ‘inspiration walk’. Daydream. Be with family.
I don’t think it matters, in fact, what the routine for a writer is, so long as one exists. Without a routine, writing is a chaotic, jerky affair, and that can come through in the writing itself. A routine allows a writer to take the work of writing seriously, just like any job, and it creates the space for the muse to speak. A routine also banishes writer’s block; there is no waiting for ideas to come, you simply turn up on time, sit down and write. In this way, you can hone your writing craft by writing regularly, and you can write not just one book but, over time, many.
Do you like to write? Do you have a routine that serves you well? Are there any writers’ routines that inspire you (or, conversely, that you think are a little crazy)? I would love to hear your thoughts.
George Bernard Shaw said, ‘The British and the Americans are two peoples divided by a common language.’ I have always been intrigued by this quotation, and the truth behind it, especially when it comes to book publication.
No doubt you are aware that British and American editions of the same book frequently have different cover art. Here are some examples:
You probably also know that a British edition and an American edition of a book differ in terms of the text itself: British and American English are stylistically different.
Many changes are to spelling, punctuation and grammar changes; for example, changing ‘color’ to ‘colour’, shifting the placement of a closing quote mark and pulling back from pluperfect tense usage.
Others differences, however, come down to terminology – which can rile readers. For example, while Harry Potter fans largely accept changes like ‘car park’ to ‘parking lot’ and ‘jumper’ to ‘sweater’, many disagree strongly with the US publisher Scholastic’s editorial decision to change the title of the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, arguing that it belittles Americans who are quite capable of understanding the original term ‘philosopher’.
On the subject of book titles, these can also differ. Did you know that Diana Gabaldon’s successful novel Outlander was published in the UK with the title Cross Stitch? That Where’s Waldo becomes Where’s Wally in Britain? Here are some more notable examples:
* Cecelia Ahern: Love Rosie (US), Where Rainbows End (UK)
* Agatha Christie: What Mrs. MacGillicuddy Saw! (US), 4.50 from Paddington (UK)
* Lucy Maud Montgomery: Anne of Windy Poplars (US), Anne of Windy Willows (UK)
* Louisa M. Alcott: Little Women, Part II (US), Good Wives (UK)
* Philip Pullman: The Golden Compass (US), Northern Lights (UK)
Like it or not, variant editions on either side of the pond are accepted by most readers as necessary, given the differences in the two forms of English. But what of differences in editions that are nothing to do with the British and American English? In that case there is potential for readers to become quite hot under the collar.
Recently, a professor from Birkbeck, University of London, published a paper entitled ‘“You have to keep track of your changes”: The Version Variants and Publishing History of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas’. Dr Martin Paul Eve, Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing, was examining David Mitchell’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel using both a UK paperback version and a (US) Kindle version when he happened to notice striking differences between the two editions that went far beyond simple British/American language translation.
The differences are widespread; the paper includes some thirty pages of examples. The Guardian cites the following one:
From the UK text: “Historians still unborn will appreciate your cooperation in the future, Sonmi ~451. We archivists thank you in the present. […] Once we’re finished, the orison will be archived at the Ministry of Testaments. […] Your version of the truth is what matters.”
From the US text: “On behalf of my ministry, thank you for agreeing to this final interview. Please remember, this isn’t an interrogation, or a trial. Your version of the truth is the only one that matters.”
I confess I was quite shocked when I read these two extracts. They are so markedly different that it seems impossible that both would be simultaneously published as the same work.
In the abstract to his paper, Dr Eve explains how the differences came about:
In 2003, David Mitchell’s editorial contact at the US branch of Random House moved from the publisher, leaving the American edition of Cloud Atlas (2004) without an editor for approximately three months. Meanwhile, the UK edition of the manuscript was undergoing a series of editorial changes and rewrites that were never synchronised back into the US edition of the text. When the process was resumed at Random House under the editorial guidance of David Ebershoff, changes from New York were likewise not imported back into the UK edition.
It is difficult, therefore, to settle on which is the ‘definitive’ book – and the issue arises of which book award panellists and educators (the novel is widely taught and studied) are reading.
Have you read Cloud Atlas? Is so, how do you feel knowing that what you have read differs to what others have read? If not, would you read the book now – and which version? Do you think it is important that a definitive work exists? That books are only ever ‘translated’ and not significantly edited and rewritten in new editions? I would be interested to hear your thoughts.
The lost manuscript has long been a source of fascination for readers and for writers. When an author’s work is beloved, there is an insatiable desire for more, and the discovery of a ‘new’ old book can cause quite the sensation. In the past year alone the publishing headlines have been full of excited reporting of treasures brought to life:
* Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman
* Beatrix Potter’s children’s book Kitty in Boots
* JRR Tolkien’s poem ‘The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun’
* Mary Shelley’s novella The Wind off the Small Isles
* Michael Crichton’s novel Dragon Teeth
Media reports are peppered with language like ‘lost’ and ‘undiscovered’. But in fact there is more to the story behind these works. Controversy surrounded the ‘discovery’ of Harper Lee’s 1950s manuscript; some suggest that the author, who long declared she would not release another book, was taken advantage of by those who would prosper from its release. Beatrix Potter’s book was reportedly ‘lost’, and yet it was safe in the Victoria and Albert Museum archives. Neither Tolkien’s nor Shelley’s works were unpublished, even; they were out of print. Quite simply, those words ‘lost’ and ‘undiscovered’ are geared towards marketing, playing on a fascination for what was once in the shadows and is now brought into the light.
Having established that a ‘new’ old book is fantastic for the publisher and its market, what of the author behind the book? This is a question that niggles at me whenever I read a headline declaring a new, fabulous find: did the author want that book found?
Take Kitty in Boots. The Guardian reported that this Beatrix Potter story was never finished; she sent it, incomplete, to her publisher in 1914, but then ‘“interruptions began” – and continued: from the outbreak of the first world war, to marriage, to sheep farming and colds’. We are told she ‘intended to finish the tale’, but by her death in 1943 she had not. As a writer, I am left wondering: did she honestly intend for that work to be published? If so, why did she not complete it in nearly 30 years? And how would she feel now, to see it published but without the illustrations she no doubt would have drawn for it, had she wanted the book to be shared?
How about Michael Crichton? His work Jurassic Park was a bestseller. So why did he keep to himself another story he’d written concerning palaeontology and fossils? His publisher, HarperCollins, clearly sees the book as the goldmine it will no doubt be: ‘Crichton’s many admirers and fans are going to be very happy,’ it declared in its press release announcing the novel’s acquisition. Why didn’t Crichton himself want it published in his lifetime in that case?
I am a writer; I have written nine novels now, five of which are published. I know well the writing process. I know that some words written are to be shared, and some words are not. I also know that a writer does not forget about a work; he or she only makes a deliberate choice to keep it private.
The question of respecting an author’s right to privacy when it comes to their literature is most pertinent in the ‘leaking’ of JD Salinger’s ‘The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls’, whose story interconnects to The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger had agreed to publish the work with Harper’s Bazaar, but changed his mind, and he gave the manuscript to Princeton University on the condition that they may not publish it until 50 years after his death (i.e. 2060). Yet in 2013 the manuscript was leaked, and read widely. A reviewer for the Guardian wrote, ‘One has to wonder why Salinger changed his mind about the publication of this story.’ Absolutely; and, I would add, a need to respect his right to control the publication of his own art himself.
What do you think of the issue of ‘lost’ books? If the infamous Hemingway manuscripts, lost in a Parisian train station in 1922, were discovered, should they be published? Perhaps, given that Hemingway made it clear publicly that he was devastated by the loss. But other writers surely have reason to wish their unseen manuscripts remain so. Thriller author Robert Ludlum, for example, lost his debut novel, written while a young man, and when he returned to writing years later ‘he was cured of his literary pretensions’ (source: the Guardian). No doubt he would not like to have his first attempt at writing published posthumously.
The crucial point is that to publish a ‘lost’ work is to contribute to a writer’s legacy. Which leaves the question: does anyone have the right to do so, other than the writer him-/herself?