This year has been a mixed bag for writers. Some have kept on with their daily, solitary routine pretty much as before. Some have found more time to write than before. Many, it seems, have taken the opportunity to send out their novels to agents. One agent recently announced she’d closed for submissions after receiving an incredible 400 a month since March.
Other writers, like me, have found it hard to create. What’s the point in writing fiction when hospitals are overwhelmed, people are dying and livelihoods are being decimated? What voice do I have to add to the other voices that are finally and rightly being pushed towards the forefront of the social agenda?
Instead of embarking on something new these last months, I’ve gone back to editing an already completed novel while trying to keep sane with weekly doses of Bake Off and taking up running.
I’ve also attended a couple of author talks via Zoom. One of these was hosted by a writer I greatly admire who delivered a tutorial on character. She had lots of useful stuff to say about how we should get to know our characters and bring them to life. In response to a question of mine, she warned against using people from real life and adapting them for fiction. Making people up from scratch, she reasoned, was freer and more fun.
Thinking about this subjective response, I was reminded of a number of other pieces of writing advice I’ve heard over the years. Here are some examples.
Write what you know.
Write what you don’t know.
Never use a prologue.
Never write about abuse.
Avoid domestic settings.
(And the latest doing the rounds right now) Don’t write about pandemics.
I think we can safely say that none of these should be set in stone. There are countless examples I could cite to debunk them all.
It made me wonder what the aim of all this advice is exactly. Is it geared towards creating a fabulous work of fiction? Or simply towards securing a publisher?
With so many courses, books, editing services (my own included) abounding, there is a huge market dedicated to helping writers find an agent and a publisher. What will agents like? What do publishers want? In the face of a mass charge to get through the gates, the gatekeepers have become the arbiters of taste and quality.
A quick glance at the list of past Booker winners will, however, tell you how many books slip into obscurity. If these last few months of great uncertainty have demonstrated anything, it’s how ephemeral our world is. As we now emerge (hopefully) from this most insecure and unsettling episode, I’ve given up worrying about my own puny standing in the world. My advice to myself right now is to write what the hell I want.
Yes, bear in mind all the things that can make a book enjoyable and satisfying to read. Bear in mind what techniques can help lift the quality of a work of fiction to the next level. Hone your craft. Harness the essential tools and skills that will help channel your vision into something that can be shared. But don’t be a slave to the tastes of others or the dictates of a fickle market. Rather than trying to second guess what agents want, give them something they don’t even know they want and see what they do with it.
Perhaps it’s a recipe for failure. But what is failure? Writing something that never gets published? Writing something that you don’t quite pull off? Writing something that’s excruciatingly bad? So what? If you have your eye all the time on recognition and affirmation, you risk overlooking the thing that makes you unique. The elusive quality that makes your writing stand apart.
Here’s another piece of advice I’ve heard in the past: give the reader what they want but not in the way they’re expecting it.
It sounds like a requirement to be technical and clever. But could this not be achieved by simply being true to yourself?