Monday, January 09, 2006


An editor’s advice to writers

Much of writing is the difficult task of rewriting, rewriting and rewriting, followed by more rewriting. And revising. And more revising. Successful writers attest to this mode of writing.

Isaac Babel is a genuinely great writer. He rewrote constantly. He revised and revised and revised. The stories that read so effortlessly from his pen probably were the result of months of painful struggle to rewrite and revise. Babel was always in awe of the perfect sentence and was driven by a need to achieve that.

And then there are good writers who writes slowly, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and never rewrites or revises what they have written. William Styron, for instance, never goes to another page until he is satisfied with what he has written on that page.

But Styron’s method does not work for most writers. If you are not satisfied with a page, just go on to the next and come back later. There are no hard and fast rules. Write what works best for you.

Criticism is often a difficult animal. After all, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. The publishing world is a dicey affair. There are good novels that are critically acclaimed, yet go on to sell next to nothing, while mediocre novels sell by the loads despite less-than-favourable reviews. However, what new writers can do is to compare what they have written with those that have been published and have received favourable reviews.

Nowadays, the marketplace decides everything. The days of writing what you want to write are long gone. The publishing industry no longer takes a long-term view; marketing is where the power lies. Writers have to write what the market demands, but with their own style and variations. Of course, every now and then, something unexpectedly different comes along and stunts us with its freshness and originality, and the literary world is all the better for it.

The first chapter is vital and always the most difficult task. Publishing decisions are usually based on the first three chapters of a book. If they don’t engage the agent or editor, the novel is as good as dead. The thing is, not every agent is willing to try something different. There’s too much at stake for them.

However, there are essential ingredients that make a good book. There are criteria of what is considered good writing. Of course, personal taste matters too, but only to a certain extent. When you feel something undefinable when you are devouring a sentence is one way of gauging wonderful writing. There are lots of good writers, and among these there are those who shine the brightest. And then there are of course lots of mediocre ones. But those that shine have been blessed with a special talent and they work hard on developing that talent. The great writers of the world struggle every day with what they produce, and have doubts all the time. Talent’s just one thing; you have to work at it. Or else what we have is just wasted talent.

Every novel seeks to create its own realm and entice the reader into it. In fiction, the writer has absolute control over the world he creates, and if one of the main motivations of art is to bring order to chaos and so make sense of the world, there is much opportunity here for that.

STYRON William [1925-] Novelist, short-story writer. Born in Newport News, Virginia, U.S. NOVELS Sophie’s Choice (1979: winner of the 1980 National Book Award for Fiction); The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967: winner of the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction); Set This House on Fire (1960); The Long March (1957); Lie Down in Darkness (1951: winner of the 1952 Prix de Rome) STORIES A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales from Youth (1993) NONFICTION Fathers and Daughters: In Their Own Words (1994: with Mariana Ruth Cook); This Quiet Dust and Other Writings (1993); Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990)


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