How To be A Great Writer - Is Your Writing Ambitious Enough?Sep 22, 2019
“ I'm afraid, I just didn't warm to Cheryl.”
I get to see a lot of novels-in-waiting as you might imagine. Sometimes my writers will share with me the editorial reports or feedback they have had from other writing courses and agents and ask me to interpret them. I don't read them before I make my own diagnosis. But after I have read the work and made some recommendations, I do take a look.
"The action feels generic and doesn’t feel specific enough for the predicament to be entirely engaging in my opinion." Er, ok.
But sometimes, and especially when you get feedback from agents who want a product that's more or less finished on their desk, you'll get something like the remark above - that they just don't like the main character. Of course, at the end of the day, the problem is in the writing not Cheryl!
Remember, you are not defective as a writer, this is not about you. A novel can be fixed.
Yes, we can and we will fix it. That's what we do at The Novelry.
Some writers tell me their agent wants less detail, but another editorial report they commissioned praised the detail. What to do? What to do?
If you've been too long in the dark, come into the light. And when you get here, as my writers know, our first session together is all about you, you, you.
What's your ambition as a writer? What's the ambition for the novel? Ambition is a fine and filthy thing. When you come clean about it, you’re halfway to achieving it. You've got to own up, now's the time and here's the place. Honour your intentions first and foremost. The problem is usually over time the author develops so many, they conflict and cause confusion on the page.
So when I start work with my writers, I ask them about their intentions, both as an author and personally. What are your authorial intentions for the book? What do you want to show or prove here? How about you? What do you want from the writing?
I reassure them they can confide their unholy aspirations in me. We make a pact to do our damnedest. You're the author, you get to play God in this one part of your life butI'll always have your best interests at heart. Your ambition.
These good days, my ambition amounts to getting a little time off the grid now and again and at its grandest I envision it as the photograph with this blog, being in a remote place, to potter in my head and look fondly at the world from a distance. I guess you couldn't call it ambition in the worldly sense.
Ambition is a bit like libido. When it ebbs it's a relief to see clearly again. I used to be very ambitious, I suppose that sweet deluded state was helpful to me once.
Here's me on record, interviewed by Time Out in 2006.
On the one hand I have an unholy ambition to be the finest living writer. On the other I wouldn’t mind simply being left alone. In either case, I know I feel grateful that I have something of my own that I love to do, and that it helps make sense of what seems to have no sense at all.
Even in that statement, there's an obvious split between the mania of ego-driven ambition and the desire for space. I have always clung to Philip Larkin's poem 'Wants' - 'beyond all this the wish to be alone.'
The Wall Street Journal gave me the dubious honour in 2010 of being one of the world's five most underrated authors. And just then, I fell down.
Fortunately, as it turns out, life gave me a kicking and it took me some time to recover. My ambition for fiction was pretty much destroyed by the events of real life.
"One fails in all sorts of ways in life, doesn't one, which are much more important than writing books. In human relations and that sort of thing." Graham Greene.
Those necessary but unforeseen losses accumulated, one loss brought another, and they gave me the space to be alone that was my root desire. But I wasn't writing right.
An author friend and I had a grin last year when he quizzed me about the lost years. “I just always thought I'd write the great English novel,“ I said, by way of excuse for the books unfinished. “How's that working out for you?“ he replied. We sniggered darkly about it. Just write what you write, he counselled me.
You know there's a place reserved for all of us in the 'good' camp, don't you? As Steinbeck said - "and now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good". In fact, there's lots of space there.
My losses created space and nature hates a vacuum they say. The space was filled by new ideas, new desires, and those desires and ideas don't all belong to me. My ambition is now co-occupied by tenants who are wonderful to have around, milling about being brilliant in their spare time, keeping lives together, seeing through to the other side of other lives while they do it.
Lately, I've been reading Don DeLillo White Noise, Shena Mackay The Orchard on Fire, Katherine Heiny Standard Deviation, Mario Puzo The Godfather and Lucy Ellman Ducks, Newburyport.
Don DeLillo's White Noise is a breathtaking work. It's peppered with brilliant insights of such standing that I've been doffing my writer's cap page by page. Remember Hemingway said he could kick Turgenev's ass but wouldn't even get in the ring with Tolstoy? Graham Greene described himself as a 'mouse' next to Henry James' 'mountain'. This is how I feel about DeLillo's prose. Sample some of these:
He’d once told me that the art of getting ahead in New York was based on learning how to express dissatisfaction in an interesting way. The air was full of rage and complaint. People had no tolerance for your particular hardship unless you knew how to entertain them with it.
Alfonse Stompanato looked hard at Lasher. “Where were you when James Dean died?” he said in a threatening voice.
The boy walked next to his mother, holding her hand, still crying, and they seemed a picture of such amateurish sadness and calamity that I nearly started laughing—laughing not at the sadness but at the picture they made of it, at the disparity between their grief and its appearances.
DeLillo, Don. White Noise.
Were it me, I'd end the chapter when I hit one of these high notes, but DeLillo doesn't need to, he's got more.
Have I finished reading the book? No.
True, I'm reading promiscuously right now, but there's something else. He doesn't need me. There's not necessarily any space for me to figure anything out, he's telling me everything. What's more, I think that there has to be an emergency - literally in commercial fiction - or a moral emergency perhaps in literary fiction.
Shena Mackay's book The Orchard On Fire is beautifully written and so admirable, and has space for the reader. Heiny's Standard Deviation is accomplished and comfortable, and as for Lucy Ellman's Ducks, Newburyport? It's a work of genius.
Ducks, Newburyport is wholly original and authentic. We are living in someone else's head and the accumulation of colour, sight, sound, ideas is extraordinary. After a few pages, your head will ache.
Ellman uses the device 'the fact that' over 18,000 times in the book. Galley Beggar Press, who have published this book beautifully, send a bookmark with the book (which weighs in very heavy on arrival - it's over 1000 pages) and the bookmark bears the slogan THE FACT THAT. The Guardian couldn't resist spoofing the device in their review, using 'the fact that' on every line of it.
"I liked the plaintive repetition of “the fact that,” so I built the book around that." Lucy Ellman. "We all have thoughts, memories, worries, associations, dreams. I was interested in burrowing deep into a consciousness. Don’t we all long to know what other people are really thinking? You never even know what you yourself are thinking, or not without years of therapy anyway. But we know a lot about how Emma Woodhouse thinks. It’s what novels are for."
It's a little wearing.
After a while, you may find you've muted it. That's when the novel really grabs you.
Ducks, Newburyport is important because it reveals all the things we hide as women. This is the first time anyone has come clean about how we keep things clean, and how we manage the hiding process. How our given purpose as a woman and mother is to hide things, how our lives are contrived to work at keeping things hidden, day in, day out. Here may be the root of the horrible acceptance of crimes against us; domestic violence and the #metoo movement. So this book is very important indeed.
In our fiction as woman, hitherto, we mostly have concealed what we conceal. We have been ashamed of showing women doing women’s work. We'd rather show 'go-getting womenfolk' office sorts, professionals, doctors and assassins and so on, doing men’s work the way men tell us to do it. (For less money, shortchanging most of all our kids.) A double sucker punch self-administered.
Read this way, the recurrent full stop of 'the fact that' falls away like a damaged toenail and you get drawn into the fleshiness of a fully realised existence. By God, it's good. Ellman breaks the artifice of past and present in fiction (how we toil over should I used present or past tense in this novel is swept away by her method) weaving her pressing immediate concerns using the threads of all time and experience. She writes the way life is lived in our consciousness.
the fact that it really doesn’t take all that long to do a few dishes, ten minutes tops, big deal, so why all the resistance, the fact that every day I have to force myself, like ten times a day, the fact that I don’t exult in housework somehow, but dirty dishes are depressing, Anat always said, and I don’t want the kids to be depressed by them, or Leo either, or me, the fact that Leo really has no idea what goes on here all day, the fact that he’d probably flip out if he ever found out what’s really involved in feeding, clothing, housing and shepherding four whole kids, kidherding , the fact that my entire life is now spent catering to their needs and demands, cleaning toilets, filling lunchboxes, labeling all their personal property, shampooing and brushing hair, discussing everything, searching for lost stuff...
the fact that then there’s all the dusting, sweeping, ironing, making beds, washing sheets, towels and clothes, itch, sore eye, ironing pile, tending the chickens, feeding the goldfish, washing the windows, valeting the car, and myself, hunting down dust bunnies
the fact that there’s also the vacuuming, and holding the fort, and fielding the phone calls, planning the meals, settling the disputes, trying to keep track of everybody’s cell instead of my own, Rebel Without a Cause , mending, sewing, making handmade pencil cases for everybody, just because I made one for Stacy years ago, and then of course, in my spare time, baking a million pies, the fact that, seriously, my life’s all shopping, chopping, slicing, splicing, spilling, frilling, fooling, cooling, heating, boiling, broiling, frying, and macrophages, Tuesday, dentist, trash, mush, the fact that if I’d known what I was in for, like all the work involved, the endless chaos, before I had them, well...
Lucy Ellmann. Ducks, Newburyport.
But then, like a tic or tinnitis, you become aware of 'the fact that' again and long for the home comforts of Shena Mackay. 'The fact that' is repeated every couple of sentences in the book. You'll soon pick that it's a device which is used to replace the full stop or period. A device is also a gimmick. I don't like gimmicks. Raymond Carver's advice to writers was - no tricks.
What Ellman's doing in this book is really important. Too important for 'tricks'.
The Stop Sign.
“No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.” Isaac Babel.
It creates the necessary space for the reader to enter in. I have admitted to being a philistine, so let's look at the first passage again without the device, but with the humble and gorgeous poignant full stop:
It really doesn’t take all that long to do a few dishes, ten minutes tops, big deal, so why all the resistance. Every day I have to force myself, like ten times a day. I don’t exult in housework somehow, but dirty dishes are depressing, Anat always said, and I don’t want the kids to be depressed by them, or Leo either, or me. Leo really has no idea what goes on here all day. He’d probably flip out if he ever found out what’s really involved in feeding, clothing, housing and shepherding four whole kids, kidherding. My entire life is now spent catering to their needs and demands,
Full Stop. Period. Pause. Wait here.
The 'period in the right place' grants the reader time and space to think and be present in the text, knowing this place has been set aside for them like a bench with a view. It's an editor's number one tool in the toolbox.
Carver's editor Gordon Lish forced Carver to be more Carver-esque than he wanted to be. Many stories were cut by 50% to 70%.
"More generally, Lish's edits become slices that depend on silence and suggestion, on the reverberations of the barely glimpsed. Carver's original characters did a lot more talking – they told drunken anecdotes, they wept, they felt, they contemplated, confronted, confessed. These differences are not stylistic – unless you consider earnestness and emotion to be a matter of style rather than heart or disposition. In the most changed of these stories, the edited characters simply would not behave the way Carver's original characters do; if they could, if they had the words or the taste to, there would, in a sense, be no story, since so much of Carver as we have known him until now is about what's unspoken. The edited characters well up; the original characters spill over." The Observer, Gaby Wood.
At times, Carver felt Lish went too far. It's got to be a collaboration and a conversation in which the author gets final say as to what he or she will provide, and the editor has final say as to what he or she will publish. But it's a conversation that must be had. An argument if needs be.
Ellman's longtime publisher, Bloomsbury, refused to publish this novel. They should have had a god-almighty row about it with the author.
I used to go to bed grumpy after my editor's observations (Ben Ball now publishing director of Simon and Schuster Australia) on my novel This Human Season, set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, but I'd wake knowing he was right, and grateful to him for wanting to publish it at its best.
Ellman's book is a work of genius. But is it good?
I can read a couple of pages at a go, then 'the fact that' takes over and I am hearing nothing but that phrase. This makes me sad. Because the book should be better than a work of 'genius' and should be read more widely than by the few who will claim they have read it.
Now that my literary libido is waning, I wonder if I don't like 'good' a lot,
Mario Puzo's The Godfather is on my night table right now. As a young man, Mario Puzo had serious literary ambitions. Working as a civil servant in New York, he began to place stories in magazines in the early 1950s and had his first novel, Dark Arena, published by Random House in 1955. The book was extremely well received - critics likened Puzo to Malamud, Bellow, even Hemingway - but sold very poorly. Married and with five children to feed, Puzo soldiered on as a civil servant but continued to write. His second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, 1965, is a semi-autobiographical account of immigrant Italian-Americans in the New York of the 1920s and 1930s. But it didn't sell to well either.
"I was 45 years old, I owed $20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks and assorted bookmakers and loan sharks. It was really time to grow up and sell out."
He decided quite consciously to write a more commercial story. He submitted an outline for a novel about a Mafia family first to his previous publisher, Atheneum, who were sniffy, then to Putnam, who were not. Out of this 10-page outline came the 450 pages of The Godfather, published in 1969.
When the paperback rights to the book were suddenly sold for $410,000, he telephoned his mother. She misunderstood and thought he said $40,000. Three times he told her the real figure, and then she said, ''Don't tell nobody.'' Earlier his mother had been sceptical about his work. After ''The Godfather,'' she called him ''a poet.''
It became a No 1 in the United States bestseller lists and staying on them for well over a year. Translated throughout Europe and in Asia, the book sold over eight million copies in paperback even before the film of the book was released in 1972. It's now sold more than 21 million copies worldwide. Puzo described himself once as ''a Romantic writer'' with ''a sympathy for evil.''
He gives us light and shade, and it's the distance between the two which create the glamour and charisma of the bigger stories.
''I wished like hell I'd written it better,'' Puzo said. ''I wrote below my gifts in that book.''
Really? So why was it such a success?
For me, as a reader, it's because of the spaces within the prose and between scenes, not to mention the combination of physical and moral emergencies, and the central dilemma of the character of Michael Corleone “Tell my father I wish to be his son.”
Perhaps I'm getting old, but I want to write good books.
But so long as you honour your intentions and know the price of them, the risks and rewards, you can and should write what you like. Every device, ruse, sleight of hand, joke a little edgy, plot twist a little twisted has a price. When you know your ambition, have named it and owned up to it, you'll know what you're doing, and you can assess whether it's a price you wish to pay.
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