Briefly Noted: The Guardian, How to Write Fiction


I enjoy reading about how writers write about writing — whether what that is ends up striking a chord with me, or whether I find myself  in complete disagreement — there’s always bound to be something useful in it. Geoff Dyer shares some sage and even uplifting advice:

“Writers are defined, in large measure, by what they can’t do. The mass of things that lie beyond their abilities force them to concentrate on the things they can.”

Sometimes the notion of thinking about writing about anything and everything can be more crippling than the prospect of having nothing to write about. Limitations can be a blessing in disguise to focus on the things you can do well. Take, Kafka or Beethoven, for instance —

“Was ever a writer so consumed by the things he couldn’t do? Stitch together all the things Kafka couldn’t do and you have a draft of War and Peace. The corollary of this is that what he was left with was stuff no one else could do – or had ever done. Stepping over into music, wasn’t it partly Beethoven’s inability to conjure melodies as effortlessly as Mozart that encouraged the development of his transcendent rhythmic power? How reassuring to know that the same problems that afflict journeymen artists also operate at the level of genius.”

 I’m a firm believer that one’s reading diet is an essential part of the preparation that goes into the writing life. It’s refreshing to see an honest discussion that encourages reading broadly — high literature and “what’s happening on the lower slops” — because one never knows which words you read will end up leaving their mark on you.

“There’s a lesson here. One’s reading does not have to be confined to the commanding – and thereby discouraging – heights of the truly great. Take a look also at what’s happening on the lower slopes, even in the crowded troughs. We tend to think of ambition operating in terms of some ultimate destination – the Nobel Prize or bust! – but it also manifests itself incrementally, at the level of pettiness. To read a well-regarded writer and to find the conviction growing in yourself that he or she is second- or third-rate, that, in Bob Dylan’s words, “you can say it just as good”, is both encouraging and, if acted upon, a niggling form of ambition. (If it is not acted upon it becomes simply corrosive.)”

Ambition is great. And so is thinking and planing carefully about how to move from Step A to Step B. “I’m going to write a novel” is a goal, but not a plan. Slow and steady wins the race, doesn’t it?

“As with ambition so with practicalities. It’s a daunting prospect to sit down with the intention of writing a masterpiece. If it has any chance of being realised that ambition is best broken down into achievable increments, such as I will sit here for two hours, or 500 words or whatever. Keep these targets manageable and you will feel good about your progress, even if that progress is, inevitably, measured negatively.”

What makes writing great is also what makes it so wonderfully challenging:

“The satisfactions of writing are indistinguishable from its challenges and difficulties. It is constantly testing all your faculties and skills (of expression, concentration, memory, imagination and empathy) on the smallest scale (sentences, words, commas) and the largest (the overall design, structure and purpose of the book) simultaneously. It brings you absolutely and always up against your limitations. That’s why people keep at it – and why it’s far easier to give advice about writing than it is to do it.”

The ebook version of How to Write Fiction: a Guardian Masterclass (which includes the Dyer article and ten additional chapters), visit http://amzn.to/nV7b5W

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