Here’s a few wise words on writing,in the quotes below. You’ll know some of them,no doubt,but others may be new to you. Not all are directly about writing,but may provide you with a spark to illuminate things when the way gets dark.
I found while writing my first novel ‘The Perfect Murderer’ in 2014,that the observations of E.L. Doctorow and Gracie Harmon came true. My characters did things that I couldn’t have predicted while planning the story. Staying true to their characters in the writing meant that they did,thought and said things that surprised me.
Since finishing the writing of this psychological thriller,I’ve been immersed in editing,fact checking,adding hyperlinks,formatting and pondering the vagaries of marketing. Editing is a catch-all term that includes spell checking,spacing,punctuation,clarification of meaning,paring excess and inserting words that had somehow been missed out.
I spent six weeks doing this,always working at least eight hours every day,and often twelve to fourteen. Through all of this,I came to appreciate the rueful pronouncements of Churchill and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This stage of preparing a book for publication is tedious,and by its nature repetitive. An author becomes a slave to what they’ve created,to what they’ve said – and I never thought that I’d ever agree with General Franco.
In the early stages of planning and writing the novel,it felt like constructing a mansion-house at a distance,swinging the building materials into place by crane and unsure if they’d fit. Whatever blueprint I’d prepared in notes and mental jottings was definitely open to interpretation and modification.
As the tale came together,I could see better what worked in the edifice I was creating. Writing a crime story is different to conventional narrative,as there are lots of red herrings that need to be laid – dead-end corridors in my metaphorical building. I was happy with how things were looking,though judging whether the story worked as a thriller was hard – as I knew what happened next !
What I hadn’t anticipated was how painstaking and time-consuming the ‘building’ inspection would be. I’d built a mystery story that stood up OK,but I spent weeks crawling all over it like some critical lizard. At one point while writing,I’d had the hubris to think that my chronicle of a serial killer was blessed with a rich variety of vocabulary. Using the search function of the OpenOffice Writer programme,that I use,showed this wasn’t necessarily so.
To my amazement and annoyance,I found that I’d used some words and expressions multiple times. Without noticing,there were fifty examples of ‘red’,forty-eight times I’d said ‘pale’ or ‘paled’ and in navigating the intricacies of the tenses to describe recent and historic events I’d written ‘had’ about 600 times. None of this was apparent while writing the story,for after all how could I be expected to remember exactly what noun,adverb or verb I’d used ? Granted,there are only a limited number of ways one can say that a person has been done away with,so ‘murder’,’killing’,’homicide’ and ‘slaying’ made a lot of appearances.
In modifying these repetitions,I needed to consider who was having the thoughts described or who was speaking. A strung-out drug addict expresses things differently to the calculating detective interviewing him,and an experienced forensic pathologist will describe the murder scene in yet another way.
This fine-tuning ran the risk of trying to make things too neat and pat. There’s not an elegant solution for everything. Sometimes things just happen,and can’t be explained away – this is particularly true in a crime story. Through it all though,I tried to bear Barbara Kingsolver’s advice about creating empathy with the characters I was creating.
If the reader doesn’t care about the person they’re reading about,then why should they read on ? As the writer,you may well have built your own lunatic asylum,but the inmates of your story deserve to be respected and heard through their own voices.
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‘First a mistress you dally and play with,then she becomes your master and finally your tyrant.’ Winston Churchill,on writing a book.
‘People’s memories are maybe the fuel they burn to stay alive.’ Hanu Murakami – novelist ( 1949 – )
‘For all sad words of tongue and pen,the saddest are these, ” It might have been.” ‘ John Greenleaf Whittier – poet ( 1807 – 1892 )
‘The greatest masterpiece in literature is only a dictionary out of order.’ – Jean Cocteau ( 1889 – 1963 )
‘There are years that ask questions and years that answer.’ – Zora Neale Hurston (folklorist and writer, 1891 – 1960 )
‘The pages are still blank,but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there,written in invisible ink and clamouring to become visible.’ Vladimir Nabokov ( 1899 – 1977 )
‘The great danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss,but that it is too low and we achieve it.’ – Michelangelo
‘It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare ; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.’ – Seneca
‘We write to heighten our awareness of life…to taste life twice,in the moment and in retrospection.’ – Anais Nin
‘A ship in a port is safe; but that’s not what ships are built for.’ – Grace Hopper ( computer scientist and USA Navy Rear-Admiral 1906-1992)
‘One is the master of what one doesn’t say and the slave of what one does.’ – General Franco
‘Being an author is like being in charge of one’s own insane asylum.’ – Gracie Harmon
‘ A story is not an explanation,it is a net through which the truth flows. The net catches some of the truth,but not all,never all.’ – Patrick Ness ( from The Crane Wife )
‘Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights,but you can make the whole trip that way.’ – E.L. Doctorow
‘Ultimately,literature is nothing but carpentry…With both you are working with reality,a material just as hard as wood.’ – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
‘ Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person,to live another life.’– Barbara Kingsolver
‘ Fiction gives us a second chance that life denies us.’ – Paul Theroux
‘ Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what,without this book,he would perhaps never have seen in himself. ‘ – Marcel Proust
‘Why are you trying so hard to fit in,when you were born to stand out ? ‘ Ian Wallace ( science-fiction author,1912 -1998 )
Walter Wellesley ‘Red’ Smith,a popular newspaper sports writer,was asked if turning out a daily column wasn’t quite a chore. ” Why,no” he dead-panned,” You simply sit down at the typewriter,open your veins,and bleed.”