Here’s a great response to that advice chestnut (write what you know) from A. L. Kennedy. (Read the entire excerpt from her new book On Writing):
Rather better advice – should it be absolutely necessary to offer any – might well be: ‘Write about what interests you. Write about what excites you. Write about what speaks to you. Write about what obsesses you. Write about what you need to. Write about what outrages you. Write about what alarms you, but won’t leave you be. Write about what you love. Write about what you feel you may come to love. Write about what you can come to know.’
I posted on Friday about how I’ve been studying Hilary Mantel’s novels, trying to learn how she works her magic. Tim Weed posted a great essay on her use of backstory and flashbacks on his essential website, Storycraft.
It struck me, as I greedily devoured Bring Up the Bodies, that much of the genius of these novels comes to us through Cromwell’s backstory. Mantel’s protagonist is compelling not only because he’s a bold man of action; it’s because he’s a thinker, a dreamer who spends many a late night running over his colorful past. Mantel gives us access to Cromwell’s rich inner life, which contributes greatly to the sense we get of full immersion in the historical period – and gives us insight, more broadly, into what it means to be human… In a sense, Cromwell’s backstory in these novels is his character, and Cromwell’s character is what makes these novels great. For a writer, that seems like something worth exploring.
Indeed it is! Weed explores Mantel’s technique by posting excerpts from the novel, then taking them apart to show their elegant construction.
Bonus: To hear from Mantel herself, watch this podcast.
When Tracy Chevalier (author of Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Last Runaway) left a publishing job to get a master’s degree in creative writing, her boss gave her an eraser with the words “Less is more” written on it.
Her essay tells how she paid attention to the eraser and developed a spare, focused style by imitating Vermeer’s style. (It’s well worth studying a marked-up manuscript page from The Last Runaway that shows how she cuts every word possible.)
A poet friend taught me how to do it. He took a few pages I had written and went through each sentence, suggesting I cut this word, that word. It’s surprising how much flab there is in most writing. Now when I edit I ask that each word justify its place. The process is exhausting, but it works.
Taking away concentrates what’s left. Restraint is powerful. In Girl With a Pearl Earring, the two main characters touch just twice—a hand, an ear—but readers tell me those are some of the most erotic moments they’ve read.
Aimee Bender wrote a lovely essay for The New York Times about the writing lesson she learned from reading “Goodnight Moon” to her babies.
“Goodnight Moon does two things right away: It sets up a world and then it subverts its own rules even as it follows them,” she writes. “It works like a sonata of sorts, but, like a good version of the form, it does not follow a wholly predictable structure.”
She teases the elements of this seemingly simple story apart in a wholly satisfying (and thought-provoking) way. It touches on unexpected choices, surprisingly compassionate moments, and following your instincts. Well worth reading at the beginning (or middle or end) of your next writing project.
What would she do, that is, if she were writing a novel today?
The Austen Project asked six contemporary writers to each write a unique take on one of Jane Austen’s novels.The crime writer Val McDermid took on Northanger Abbey. Her article about how she dealt with this daunting challenge offers a fascinating glimpse into the creative process — in particular, how to deal with prosaic but thorny issues posed by modern life.
(How many books/plays/movies that appeared before, say, 2005 would run into serious plot difficulties now that smartphones allow characters to a) call for help as the zombies/vampires/deranged killers approach; b) look up directions with GPS, thus not getting lost in the wilderness or dangerous city streets; or c) easily text a boyfriend/girlfriend without worrying that a vital message will be lost in the mail?)
As McDermid writes, “When I was asked to join five other writers in the Austen Project, feeling daunted at the prospect merely added lustre to the invitation. Rework Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey in a contemporary setting? How many pitfalls lurked behind that suggestion?”
She answers that with a step-by-step explanation of how she created a believable background for her Catherine Morland, determined the best setting for the novel (Edinburgh), and dealt with our pesky modern technology.
“I can testify from personal experience,” she writes, “that there are large tracts of the Borders where there is no mobile phone signal.”
One of the hardest parts of revision is deciding what to cut. Surely the reader needs to know the kind of ear muffs people wore in Buffalo, NY in 1890? Or that one of your characters has freckles and is left-handed? Or what a character’s dental records reveal about their childhood?
Here’s John McPhee’s advice:
Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got. Forget market research. Never market-research your writing. Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.
This is just one paragraph from a long, wonderful essay that goes into much more depth: The advice McPhee got as a young writer, the writing exercises he gives to young writers today, and why General Eisenhower didn’t include grapes in his still life painting.