BOOKISH: On Writing Well
ERIC FORBES on the arduous publishing process and why writers need to focus more on learning to write better
MANY MALAYSIAN WRITERS somehow do not seem to understand the arduous process of publishing a book, getting it out into the bookshops and developing a readership. A publishing house, first and foremost, is not a production or typesetting house. (“I want my book out within a month. I’ve booked the venue and ordered the red velvet cake and champagne for the launch. By hook or by crook, I want it ready by then. I want international distribution. I want my book to be available at every Waterstones and Barnes & Noble and Kinokuniya in the kingdom. I want ...”) It is definitely not a babysitting service where you dump your horror of a manuscript and hope a magnum opus will miraculously emerge from it. (“Could we like turn this into a book with a lovely cover and all the usual trimmings? It would make an ideal Christmas pressie for Mama and Papa.”)
Potential authors do not seem to understand the rigorous and painstaking process of creating a good book. (“Here are some photographs I took with my digicam; I want a glossy coffee-table book with my name in bold letters. The wonderful thing is, there are not many words in it. You know, people just don’t have time to read nowadays. It shouldn’t be too expensive to produce. After all, I do want everyone to be able to afford it.”) The publishing house is not a dream factory where your books are manufactured and your dreams realised. (“I dream of becoming a writer one day. Can make my dream come true?”)
Of course, I can make your dream come true, but first you have got to do something. Like write. Yes, write. And write reasonably well. Is it too much to insist that you write well if you wish to get published?
There is a lot of good old-fashioned hard work involved in publishing a book, much of it hidden from the view of the world. It is, however, very difficult to maintain standards because there are more bad than good writing floating around. But, for a publisher or editor, that is where the fun (or heartaches and nightmares) is, I guess! (“Here is Harry Potter’s magic wand: go and turn yourself into a good writer!”)
Write only if you are serious about good writing and producing a book that will stand the test of time. Write a book that will make you proud to be the author. Write a book that will make your mummy proud to have a son or daughter like you. Write with confidence; write with humility; write with empathy. Lose the unbecoming arrogance and the I-am-cleverer-than-you attitude. Do not be afraid to admit mistakes; learn from them and move on. Always strive to be a better writer. We do not want the world to think that we celebrate mediocrity, do we? Wouldn’t you want to write a book that will be remembered and reprinted for years to come? Or do you prefer to write one where it will only be printed once and that’s it?
As a writer, you must ask yourself whether people are willing to fork out their hard-earned money in exchange for your book. Will reading your book make any difference to their lives? Is your book worth more than the paper it is printed on? These are just some of the questions writers must ask themselves if they are serious about writing.
What you write about is as important as how you write it. As an editor of books, a good manuscript is like a dream come true, a shooting star across the vast open heavens, a breath of fresh air, a fine-dining experience at Nobu or The Fat Duck, the coming of rain after a season of drought, a harvest after the paddy-planting season. I believe you get my drift?
There is a world of difference between a good and bad manuscript. Not only is a good manuscript well written, it is also well edited before being submitted to a publishing house. A good manuscript is like the proverbial needle in the haystack. When you are editing a reasonably good manuscript it feels like being in heaven; there is beautiful music in the air and the sound of angels singing. Editing an egregious manuscript is like burning in the pits of hell, with fire and brimstone your eternal companions. What I dislike most is that good manuscripts are so difficult to find. Sadly, there aren’t that many good ones to choose from. Most are execrably under- or overwritten and repetitious, full of vague and meaningless sentences that do not add anything to the subject. Well, as they say, life’s like that. However, in real life, we do publish the unreadable … and the occasional good book that actually sells!
We not only need more writers, but more writers with original and exciting ideas, thoughts and opinions that matter and appeal to as many readers as possible. We need writers with a sense of intelligence and storytelling in their prose and an eye for telling details. We need writers who can write well and are able to string sentences grammatically and syntactically, and punctuate them at all the right places. We want writing that is entertaining, gripping, compulsive and thought-provoking—all at the same time. We crave writing that keeps us at the edge of our seats. We want original pieces of writing that challenges us as readers. We want writing that gets us excited about books and make us jump with joy. Otherwise, what’s the point of publishing? There is nothing like the sound of luminous prose; they crackle like dried leaves being trampled upon in the heat of a summer’s day. (This is actually harder to write than it sounds.)
If fiction is not your thing, try nonfiction. However, don’t for a moment imagine that nonfiction is a piece of cake. It’s not. Piecing together research coherently and seamlessly is no easy task. Not everyone can do both equally well. Go on and write the book that you say you were born to write. And when that happens, perhaps we will meet at the bookshops one of these days and celebrate your success!
ERIC FORBES edits books for a living and has been in bookselling and publishing for over 30 years. He is reading Mary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (W.W. Norton, 2015) and is thoroughly enjoying it.