Diet hard

litmap

I want to write well. I want to write a book that people will enjoy for the story but also admire (or at least not notice) for the writing. I’d rather not do a Dan Brown or an EL James and produce something wildly popular but critically reviled. The problem is that no-one can agree on what good writing actually looks like. It’s a problem that what constitutes good writing has changed over the decades.

Virginia Woolf would not be published today. Neither would Tolkien, nor Asimov, and certainly not Philip K Dick. Angela Carter would find it a struggle. Dickens would be told to put his writing on a diet. And yet we’ve had a rash of humongous coffee-table-breaking Booker winners; literary fiction at least seems to have an attitude of more-is-more.

Where does this leave us mere mortals? A (literary) member of my writing group is always trying to make me add in more description, more feeling, more atmosphere. Another tells me I slow the pace too much with unnecessary wordage. Where do I go? Lean and slick or full and florid? Will Dan Brown still be mocked in a generation? Will he be forgotten, or will he be held up as a paragon in university literature courses?

At the moment I have Oneiromancer in Fat Camp. I’m doing my best to slim it down, carving around 5k from my latest draft. It still tips the scale at over 130,000 words. Do I carve yet further, really take the axe to it in an attempt to leave it at the 115k I originally envisaged? There must come a point where I lose important detail. Characters need time to stew, to percolate and simmer. It’d take some severe telling-not-showing to condense all that I want to convey into a pocket-book sized paperback. There are limits to what can be cut.

I have a feeling I’ve said all this before, and probably more than once. This is because, though I can say I’ve improved as a writer – both in terms of the words I use and my knowledge of structure and the shaping of stories – over the years, the doubt never really goes away. I still worry.

I’m approaching forty and I’m in a dead-end job. I’ve prioritised writing over financial security. I have a family I can’t support. I’ve been told I’m wasting my life (although not by my wife, who not only encourages me but has a vocation that pays). I’ve given a lot to a dream I know might never come true.

My aim is to make a living from writing fiction. To do this I need to have a novel published. That needs to sell well enough to support a second book. Only then can I begin to think I have a career. And only then can I look to ‘success’ – in my terms, a basic living and respect from my peers.

My brain knows that I’m going the right way about it. I’m producing material. I’m reading, both for pleasure and to learn the dark arts of structure, plotting, character and the like. I’m editing other people’s work. All good things.

But the future is still a long way away. My heart frets. I’m getting old; I have some of those stupid grown-up responsibilities to stress over. Time is the real enemy. How long do we have to struggle before we get where we want to be?

A punch in the gut

Punch me in the gut. Go on, hit me hard. Wind me, knock me down. Make me weep.

That’s what I expect from a novel. I want to be moved. I want to surface, gasping for breath and blinking at my surroundings. I want to feel. I want to be reminded of my humanity. I want the experience to have meaning.

Not all novels have a punch-in-the-gut moment, but many do. It usually falls either just before the climax as a driver for the protagonist’s final absolution (ie revenge) or in the climax itself at the bittersweet ‘won the war but lost what really matters’ moment. At its best it’s a leftfield blow that leaves you devastated and numb. At its worst it’s cheap melodrama. You can find good examples in Sarah Waters’ Affinity and Cole & Richards’ Dr Who: Shadow in the Glass. Bad examples probably include everything I’ve ever written.

The punch-in-the-gut is so common as to be almost ubiquitous. It’s what gives the novel resonance and depth and bind you, the reader, into the emotions of the survivors. It’s not quite the same as the plot-twist although there is a lot of overlap, and often they’re combined. And I love it.

Except I kind of don’t.

Just because something is good doesn’t mean it’s pleasurable. I had this argument with a die-hard literatus regarding McEwan’s On Chesil Beach; yes, I can admire the skills and talents and feel like I’ve gained as a person when I’ve hit a tragic ending. And it is a great book. But that doesn’t mean it’s a fun experience.

Working-class people go to the theatre to be entertained: middle-class people go to be made miserable.

So the saying (or quote; or simple homespun wisdom – I only ever heard from my Dad and was never sure of its original provenance) goes. It’s wisdom I’ve always wondered about. Because it’s not true. Is it? Was there ever such a division – when the workers would go to the music halls to be entertained whilst the prosperous would go to Shakespeare and opera to be reminded of their humanity?

I am poor but educated: although my wife roundly mocks me when I deny my middle-classity, I have never felt like I belong. And I like happy endings. Sorry. Can’t deny it. Which leads me on to the next piece of wisdom that has never seemed to quite fit in my soul:

Write the book to want to read.

I read widely. I try to get as diverse a diet as possible, make an active effort to fit ‘classics’ into my body to make it as fit, strong and flexible as possible. But I have my favourites. My cake-books: the ones I read purely for pleasure. I like wit and intelligence, and adventure and if all these can be combined with something I can learn from the experience then so much the better. It should come as no surprise, then, that I love Pratchett. I love Gaiman, especially Neverwhere. I feast on Dr Who novels, although they tend to be empty calories: the SFF equivalent of Mills & Boon.

Also cat books. I like cats, okay? Sue me.

But I don’t write like this. The books I produce are dark and fear-filled; lost little orphans with nightmares and visions no mortal mind can hold. And I don’t know why. There always has to be a punch-in-the-gut moment near the end, where either a hero dies or some revelation breaks her heart. Possibly both.

I don’t know why I do this. Is it because I’m so deep in character that the fundamental tragedy of the situation needs to be felt, or is it just because I’ve been inculcated to think that this is what a novel needs to be ‘good’? Or is it just a manifestation of the darkness within my soul?

What do you think? All you writers and readers; I’d be interested to hear good or bad examples you may have come across in your literary voyaging. Do you enjoy being punched, or do you seek out comfort and warmth?

A question of literature

Is there a difference between literature and genre fiction? Where are the lines? Is there any practical difference in the way you go about writing one rather than the other?

What it all comes down to is that I want to write the best novel I possibly can. I don’t want people to say, ‘well, it’s okay for sci-fi’. I want people to think my work’s good full stop. But I’ve spent the last week mulling over some criticism I received and also the faint praise I garnered in response. My writing, it was said, was not descriptive enough – it was crying out for detailed, harsh, uncomfortable nouns and soulful sweeping sunsets. Other people said that the amount of description I used was ‘fine for genre’.

What does ‘fine for genre’ mean? That crime novelists inherently write weaker prose? That horror is just blood and shock? Of course not.

So now I don’t know whether I want to be re-writing to work on psychology, characterisation and plot, or whether I want to be filling my worlds with texture and beauty. Can you have it both ways? That’s really what I don’t know. Of course you want the words to be as communicative as possible, but there must be a point at which literary flourishes diminish the flow of the story. I just wish someone would tell me where that line is.

It’s fun. It’s fun to ask questions. To think things in a way you’ve not considered them before. But now I have a tiny invisible man on my shoulder telling me ‘no, it’s not literary enough! You can do better!” Is this a good thing? I really have no idea if I’m improving the work or just thickening up the stew.

So what, really, is the difference between genre and literature? Someone out there must know. It can’t be the location or the form of the plot, can it? Because setting is just a medium for ideas, and every novel has a story, right? And if it’s not those it must be something in the quality of writing.

Or is it time to dispense with the term ‘literature’ altogether as a meaningless relic of another age?

Revisiting the classics

My Mum, when I was younger, used to read me the books of Ellis Peters. I loved them. In my innocence and naivety I never realised that they are, in fact, pretty poor. The crime-solving (and let’s not forget that the Ellis Peters award is still given to the best historical crime novel every year) is weak; the romances that always went hand-in-hand aren’t even worthy of Mills and Boon. But they’re loved and still a most pleasant way of passing an evening.

Same goes for Agatha Christie. Hugely important, the first name of the Golden Age of crime-writing – but are her novels actually that good? Not really. You couldn’t expect them to get published today.

See, I have a theory that books – like popular music, in fact – are much better now than they ever were in the past. There’s been a massive improvement throughout literature and now classics are held as such more for what they did at the time than for their actual literary merit.

Take James Joyce’s Ulysses. By all accounts that’s a fearsomely difficult read. Can you really hold that out as genius when most people can’t get past the first few chapters? Take Philip K. Dick. Now PKD’s been a huge influence on me. He was, is, and will be the first person you turn to if you want ideas. Just look at the influence he’s had on movies, all the novels he’s had adapted. But he too was, by modern standards, a pretty poor writer. He jumps from mind to mind so you often don’t know whose thoughts you’re sharing. His prose is unnecessarily complicated. You often have to re-read his paragraphs three times to get what he means.

(Same goes for William Gibson’s Neuromancer, by the way. Another genre-progenitor that’s fearsomely difficult to read. Asimov’s not great either.)

This is not a criticism of these particular authors, by the way. I admire them all hugely and it’s never possible to divorce a writer from the times and circumstances they wrote in. Without them we’d never have their successors – like me. If I can write it’s because I was raised on Peters and Christie, Tolkien and Dick. They taught me a huge amount about literature and stories and craft.                                                                                

But do they stand up as good novels by modern standards? I say no. I say they’d never be published today.

I’ve never read any of Dan Brown’s stuff; seems to me there’re a lot better things to choose in a big old literary market. But everyone who enjoys his books says that they’re incredibly easy to read. Isn’t that, first and last, what we need from a novel? Something that sucks you in, drags you along, and turns you out as a slightly different person at the end? In terms of craft I think you could make a pretty decent argument that he’s a better writer than all the aforementioned.

And what of Tolkien? Lord of the Rings – most popular novel in the UK, a creation that’s influenced every fantasy (and historical) novel ever since. Single-handedly this work created the epic fantasy genre.

But there are faults. Some, the songs and poems, I don’t actually mind so much. But the characters are all drawn so shallowly. Only Sean Bean shows any real character development. The plot holes are legendary. It’s my assertion that this book never would have been published in today’s market – certainly without a hell of a lot of editing. Ditto Kerouac’s On the Road. Not sure about Catcher in the Rye. I reckon Catch-22 might have scraped into print, although the non-linear structure might frighten more than a few agents.

For all the talk of a decline in literacy in the Western world, the standard required to be published has improved enormously. More than that, the number of good quality books that are being rejected for publication is incredible. Is this a sign of the democratisation of reading? That it’s not just a hobby for the ‘intellectual’, the ‘elite’; reading is now for everyone and the hoi polloi require books that are easy to read – even if they lack the depth and psychological truths of a Virginia Woolf?

Maybe that’s a bit cynical. Maybe it’s that we expect more these days. We expect reading to be a pleasure, not a duty. We expect books to be properly constructed, the laws of point-of-view to be obeyed strictly. We demand an absence of errors. And whilst a good story can still blind us to obvious plot-holes, we’re looking for these things more and more. We’re less forgiving, perhaps.

It’d be fascinating to know what the luminaries make of our modern tastes. Would Tolkien enjoy Terry Pratchett? Would PKD be a fan of Ann Leckie? Dostoyevsky – would he like Akunin?

In a hundred years time which of today’s books will be classics? And will they be the ones that are most read?