During my career in book publishing, I don’t know how many millions of words written by aspiring authors have passed over my desk in 20 years as an editorial manager. But I do know they run the gamut from unimprovable (perfectly crafted prose that does the job it’s supposed to do) to… let’s say a different kind of unimprovable (so beyond help that it’s not clear where to even start).
I’ve now become a published author myself and hope that my own effort, How Words Get Goodreveals some of the secrets to the editing and publishing process – showing how we take enthusiastic pitches and guide writers to make their books as brilliant as possible, snipping out and replacing clunky, ugly and quite simply bad words.
But during the research for my book, it became unavoidably apparent that – despite the best efforts of people like me – bad words all too often make good their escape. Indeed, it’s inevitable given the sheer volume of words published every year in the UK – more per citizen than anywhere else in the world.
Of course, one reader’s bad words are another’s guilty pleasure. Bad words are the junk food of our literary diet: we know we shouldn’t, but sometimes we just can’t help ourselves.
Have a nibble on these words, for example, from 2001’s Deception Point: “Overhanging her precarious body was a jaundiced face whose skin resembled a sheet of parchment paper punctured by two emotionless eyes.” Their author, Dan Brown, has sold over 200 million copies of his books worldwide and they’ve been translated into 57 languages – though I’ve no idea if they read any better in Italian or Spanish.
How about this excerpt from Morrisey’s List of the Lost? “Sexual success is a logically given reality, and it simply becomes a question of weighing a sexual force that races ahead of rationale against the great poetry and drama of thought, whilst checking on the time minute-by-minute as if it were ticking towards death (which it is).” It sits right at the Venn intersection labeled Bad Words by the various circles of literary opinion-formers I have access to. Rebuttal is a tough gig.
The truth, for any wannabe authors reading this, is that you don’t get to write good words until you’ve written plenty of bad ones first. Sadly, there’s no shortcut here except for the most rarefied of geniuses – but I’ve come up with 10 tips that I hope will help you get off to a good start.
My five dos of writing
1: ‘Just get it down on paper, and then we’ll see what to do with it’
So said Max Perkins, who was Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald’s editor. Once you have written something, you can then refine, polish, revise and edit it. But you must take that first crucial step. The blank page is a tyrant; spoil it immediately. Doing so is the difference between someone who wants to write and someone who does write. William Faulkner expressed the same: “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”
2: Research the market, your subject and your potential readers
Unless you are happy writing a secret diary, the act of publishing is to find your readership. A readership is the difference between being a writer (private and personal) and being an author (publicly broadcasting). In our digital age, there is more information than ever available on what sells and what doesn’t. You don’t have to be a slave to literary trends, of course, but it helps to put your writing into context. With what does it share similarities? How does it differ? Is there an established market already? A book only has to succeed on its own merits – different genres and topics have different market expectations and parameters of success – but that information can give you big clues about how to pitch an idea to give it the best chance of publication.
3: Think about the conventions of plot and structure
“The fundamental idea is that stories have shapes that can be drawn on graph paper, and the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as its pots or spearheads.” This is American novelist Kurt Vonnegut explaining the simplest of story outlines: “Man in hole”. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a man, and the character doesn’t have to be in a hole – but we can all relate to and follow the structure of a story where the protagonist loses their good fortune by encountering some sort of depression (literal or figurative), and then against the odds finds a way to escape it. The “man in hole” plot is as old as storytelling, which makes it as old as humans, which means your readers will recognize and respond to it.
4: Respect your readers
Words must be conceived thoughtfully and birthed precisely for maximum narrative impact. Your writing – and the world it conjures – must be strong and true enough that your reader doesn’t just fill in the blanks but is unable to do otherwise. “If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit,” explained Ernest Hemingway in The Art of the Short Story. This is the essence of how words get good: knowing which to leave out.
5: Honor the pact of communication between you and the reader…
…otherwise, you’ll only ever be writing for yourself. Readers are investing their time, money and attention in your words. Help them out in every way you can. They need to be rewarded for their efforts. That means you need to respect the rules of punctuation and grammar (or at least, if you subvert them, do it with good reason) and understand how and when to divulge information.
And my five don’ts
1: Assume knowledge on the reader’s behalf
All good editors will highlight when a writer does this. Let’s face it, it’s easy to do – you as the writer know exactly where the story is going. Making that assumption ultimately runs the risk of frustrating and disappointing your audience. The writer is the guide and has to provide safe handholds; make it easy for your reader to travel through the text with you, and trust that your editors will help you clear the path first.
2: Let perfect be the enemy of good
When you plan a career as a writer, you might feel that your writing must be perfect before anyone else gets to read it. But publishing is generally a collective effort. It’s a rare writer who can create something perfect in a vacuum. Accept that your words will almost certainly be improved by the attentions of a whole supporting cast of agents, editors, copy-editors and proof readers. Your words need to be good enough to get them started on the journey towards publication, but it’s this collective refining that can help them towards perfection. “To write is human,” said Stephen King, “to edit is divine.” Every attentive pair of eyes will bring to yours something else to consider.
“If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” Often attributed to Faulkner, it was English writer Arthur Quiller-Couch who said this. When when you see yourself as a writer, it’s tempting to toss your currency – words – around far too much. But giving in to that temptation can lead to overwritten (and overwrought) “purple prose” – a phrase coined by Horace in Ars Poetica. Instead, interrogate every word and be sure that it is doing a job, rather than filling a space. It’s a subjective task, of course, but it must start with you. If in doubt, delete.
4: Be derailed by what other writers are doing
Picture the scene: inspiration strikes, a book idea so vivid it makes you leap to your feet and grab a pen in excitement – only to sink back on the sofa when a flurry of feverish Googling reveals that someone has got there before you. But originality in the purest sense is too lofty a goal; there is nothing new under the sun. Including that very phrase, in fact, which was used in a sonnet by Shakespeare (“If there be nothing new, but that which hath been before”), echoing the Book of Ecclesiastes (“The thing that hath been is that which shall be ; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun”). This is not an invitation to be derivative or, worse, plagiarise. But consider this: the average novel spans 80,000 words. That’s 80,000 opportunities to express an age-old idea in a fresh and exciting new way.
The overnight success doesn’t exist in publishing, so be prepared for the long haul. “Time: the Future. Absurd & uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atom bomb on the Colonies. A group of children who land in jungle-country near New Guinea. Ruby & dull. Pointless.” This was Faber & Faber’s slush pile reader’s assessment of the manuscript that eventually became William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It was only by chance that Charles Monteith, a new arrival at Faber, picked up the manuscript to read on a train journey and was impressed enough to publish it. The path to publication can be long and arduous, but you will be in good company.
‘How Words Get Good: The Story of Making a Book’ by Rebecca Lee is out now (£14.99, Profile)