Writing is not about wanting to say something, It’s about having something that you must say. However, to say it effectively you have to be focused on exactly what it is that you want to convey and how it you want it to be understood.
In 1946 George Orwell wrote an essay called ‘Politics and the English language’ which is as pertinent today as it has ever been. Too often we read novels that have been ill-conceived in their construction to the degree that their content is lost in a mire of worn out clichés and over complicated prose. The proliferation of the E-book (and the ease in which new writers are able to market their unpolished works) has done little to halt the tide of incomplete literature and does nothing for the propagation of the craft of writing.
Writing is a craft at its highest level. The works that stand the test of time (and enjoy the most success) have a succinctness and authority about them which is undeniably and indisputably unique. Conversely, the amateur writer feels obligated to garnish every sentence with as many ‘tried and tested’ phrases and as much ‘purple prose’ as they can in the pursuit of not only self gratification (in terms of ‘creative expression’) but also in the naive belief that these elements are the core of literature itself.
Whilst reviewing my own work just recently, I was struck by just how guilty I am of these same crimes which actually highlights another aspect of writing which many self-publishers overlook. There is nothing more constructive and cathartic than editing in the process of creating concise and engaging literature. Surely, all writers would want their readers to hang on every word and if this is the case then they should make every word count. Each syllable should be a stanza within a symphony which unfolds like an organic whole revealing the story as a breathtaking adventure.
In George Orwell’s essay (which I strongly urge you to locate and read) he talks about the essential ingredients of good construction which are a solid framework for constructing a piece which is spectacular rather than simply adequate.
Orwell claims that every writer should, in every sentence that they write, ask themselves six questions. These basic pointers give gravitas and sincerity to each single line of typography and ensure that not a single column inch has been wasted in delivering the crux of the events. In the first question, a writer should ask: ‘What am I trying to say?’
This might appear obvious but it is an enquiry that many lesser writers overlook as they describe events that have no bearing on the plot in progress nor the characters within it. By leading us up a dead end street the writer has either confused us (which leads to a gradual loss of interest) or distracted us with unnecessary information which is, as a reader, frustrating as we don’t know whether to retain the information or disregard it.
Secondly, Orwell suggests that we examine what words will express it. This might seem a minor point to the casual reader (or writer!) but it is in fact the very thing which separates the mundane from the epic. When Shakespeare wrote:
“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?”
He wanted us to see how it would feel to be an adolescent royal, intent on avenging his father’s death. This reference alone is material for a much larger essay and not one that I intend to pursue here but you get the idea.
Next, Orwell urges writers to examine the idiom which might make the idea clearer in the readers mind. In the case of Shakespeare this is clearly the visual impact of ‘slings and arrows’ as being an actual vision of not only conflict but death itself (which is the intent in this instance). The worst crime that a writer could make at this point is to use a jaded simile which does nothing for the impact of the premise.
This takes us neatly on to point four of Orwell’s formula: ‘Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?’ In most cases of modern popular (genre) fiction I’d have to say: ‘no’. There are far too many examples of over used phrases in most E-books for me to even quote such an example as I am sure you already know what they are. Suffice to say (as the saying goes) avoid clichés like the proverbial plague (as they say).
Next (but not any the less important) is the question which begs the answer: ‘Could I have put it more shortly?’. There is no harm in being concise. It makes for terrific tension in a novel. The shorter your sentences are the better they scan. The faster you get your ideas over. It’s exciting.
Finally, George Orwell asks us: ‘Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?. This is a question that is simply demonstrated by the (very often observed) clunky sentence. Whilst writers enjoy the indulgence of wafting eloquently, they miss the, rather obvious, problem (or otherwise) of ugly or run-on sentences which do (by and large) look, if I might say so, cluttered with punctuation - and what have you - to the point of obscurity. Just like the previous sentence.
Finally, I would like to quote Orwell as he translates ‘English’ into ‘bad English’ in his translation from the Bible -
“I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
Here it is in modern (Orwellian Pastiche) English:
“Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”
The first is literary, the second is almost ‘office speak’:
“Let’s diarise a window of potential to extrapolate the potentiality of the blue-sky, out of the box concepts we have at our fingertips on a get-go basis.”
Some clichés, however, have a lot of weight in them:- ‘Keep it simple stupid’.
(Edited and corrected: 28/2/12)
What literature has had the most influence on you?
To be honest, I have to say that it was children’s books that have always had the biggest influence on me. As a father, I have spent nearly thirty years reading aloud to my children and though all that time have absorbed the ‘inner truths’ of simple story telling: there’s a character, they want something, they try to get it, they succeed, they feel better and then they live happily ever after.
From the classics to the modern - all the books (of any merit) that I have read follow this same, timeless path through desire, quest, achievement and solution. But, unlike ‘so called’ adult stories, they do so in ways that are clearly marked and strongly outlined. Each character’s place in the story is very easily understood (they have to be for a child’s mind) and the timeline for each of them follows a defined and logical path.
It’s not surprising then, that when people ask ‘who are your favourite authors?’, my first thoughts are always: Enid Blyton, Hans Christian Andersen, Alfred Bestall, Theodor Seuss, AA Milne, and over recent years: Roald Dahl, Jacqueline Wilson, Jo Rowling, Kate DiCamillo and many others. I’m not saying that their writing represented ‘high literature’, it’s just that they are the names that come most easily to mind. But for me, it was Rupert Bear that struck the strongest chord. With his smart casual clothes, congenial friends and cozy-comfortable family, living a blameless life in rural middle England.
I was captivated by the idea that, following a hearty breakfast, Rupert could go out into the world and for no particular reason, would find himself on a Pirate’s treasure island, or in a Magician’s castle by lunchtime, with the peril of having to save the day for all concerned (which he always did) and yet still managed to get home in time for buttered crumpets at teatime. But that was the secret for me - it reassured me that magic was in the air and all you had to do was look for it. It also gave me a great sense of security, knowing that there was always hot cocoa waiting when the dragon had been slain (or given a jolly good telling off, at least).
In my view, the best adult literature has a little bit of Rupert in there. The only thing that is different, is that the conflicts, solutions and language are more complicated. We all want to know that, come teatime (whether metaphorical or not) things will be restored back to normal but they’ll be just that little bit better because of what our hero did.
The problem with most people is that they just don’t ‘think’. I don’t mean this unkindly, I simply mean in that today’s media rich lifestyles, the tendency is to be swamped with stimulus that invades our consciousness and pushes out not only our ‘inner commentaries’ but also our natural tendency to critically analyse the experiences we find ourselves in.
As a writer, I feel it is essential to observe all of life’s intricate tapestry to be able to talk about it. This was never more apparent than when I recently took a bus ride to the coast. Normally, I would take the car and drive but on this occasion decided that public transport was a safer option (my vehicle not being in a fit state to cope with such a lengthy haul being the primary motivator!).
It has been a long time since I used a bus and I had forgotten how it changes one’s perspective on the journey: whilst driving you are held captive in one position, with eyes firmly fixed ahead and thoughts that are focussed (through necessity) on the road and the actions of other motorists around you. However, when you submit the navigating to a designated ‘captain’ the mind is free to wander with the prospect of having nothing of any significance to do for a period of time. In my case, it was a ‘coast’ to the coast.
I was immediately struck by the diversity of ‘characters’ who shared my crossing and I was engaged in the process of ‘people watching’ for much of the time. It occurred to me that I was surrounded by a film’s worth of engaging figures, from the protagonists and antagonists to the villain’s sidekicks, supporting heroes and walk-on actors. Each one of them was rich with backstory, mannerisms, dynamics and dimension but I had a feeling that I was the only one who was feeling this way.
There was the young man I dubbed ‘the comic book guy’ who spent the whole ninety minutes on his web-phone (with earphones tightly plugged in) who checked his mail, updated his Facebook status, bought stuff on Amazon, read a film review, uploaded some photos and all the while was completely oblivious to the fact that he was on a bus with fifty or so complete and deeply interesting ‘strangers’.
I, on the other hand, was vividly aware of the smell of lavender, wood fires and cut grass that was blowing in through the open windows. I saw lambs leaping, cows feeding, and crows circling recently ploughed fields. I saw a farm and sheds and houses with people gardening, a darkly inviting woodland, people on bicycles and a Muslim praying on a mat in gas station forecourt. Inside, I saw a multitude of clashing and exquisitely intertwining lives and I pondered for a moment on how we would all interact in the event of a catastrophe.
Opposite me was an old man. His brown-skinned hands clasping the rail in front, the purple veins and brown nails telling a tale of a life rich with adventure and hard work. He wore a dark green raincoat, a tweed cap and had thick, gold-rimmed glasses and throughout it all, he smiled to himself. But behind him was someone, I felt, held a darker secret. He was dressed in a dark sweater over a checked shirt with a baseball cap, the brim pulled down to his green-tinted aviator shades. On his lap was a black holdall and through the slightly open zip I could see the head of a doll.
After a while, I noticed that the old man had made a ‘silent connection’ with another old man further down the bus and this seemed to unsettle the ‘ex-marine’ with the baby in the bag - I wondered about him for a moment as I studied his unease. Was he a paedophile? a baby murderer? (were there real body parts in that bag?) or was he simply a grandpa off to see his granddaughter? - These possibilities and many more, cascaded through my imagination as we trundled on and after a while I decided to read - to take advantage of my brain’s ‘downtime’, (whilst waiting for the bus I had bought a paperback from a second hand store - James Herbert - and immersed myself in ghosts for the remainder of the journey.)
Arriving in the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough in the early afternoon, I wandered with my daughter and her friend through the bustling shopping street down to the sea front’s ‘main drag’. While they went into various stores I waited amongst the chattering throng and was drawn to a street preacher with a placard claiming that ‘THE WORLD WILL END IN 2012’. Naturally, I was deeply curious.
He handed me a poorly photocopied leaflet outlining his ten reasons why the world will end and I was stunned by his proclamation. So much so that I would like to share with you his chilling vision as it provided the final piece in my ‘movie’ outline of the whole day - so far, I had the characters, the scenario and now the plot for a cataclysmic disaster movie that was going to take millions to produce. As the pamphlet was quite detailed (and enthusiastically rambling) I would like to paraphrase, just to get to the meat of the matter:
TEN REASONS WHY THE WORLD WILL END.
1. According to the Bible, God has allotted just 6,000 years for the world to run its course. The deadline being just two years away.
2. The Pope is the most evil man in the world today. It is written that he is the ‘last one’.
3. The Roman Catholic Church are the ‘Anti-Christ’.
4. The New World Order is already taking shape.
5. When the world starts talking about peace and safety then destruction shall come upon them.
6. World-wide problems are deliberately manufactured.
7. Resources are running out.
8. Aliens are deceivers and non-religious ‘teachers’ are to be mistrusted.
9. Only God is in total control of the world
10. Satan’s followers would look foolish if nothing happened.
And finally, a rather awkward number eleven crept in right at the end -
“The Church is controlled by Satan”.
If you don’t believe me, you can read all about these ‘Conspiracist Christians’ at the home page - The Church of God’s Remnants - and see how we must all repent and join them, in case that, on the glorious day, we are swept aside in an avalanche of retribution and anger.
All of which made me think. Perhaps the ideas expressed by the preacher were extreme, misguided or even inevitable but more than anything it showed that someone, somewhere had taken time to think about it and I started to come to a few of my own conclusions. What I would like to leave you with, are my ‘ten reasons why writer’s creativity will be at an end’ if they don’t follow the ‘universal laws of the muse’.
TEN REASONS WHY CREATIVITY WILL END.
1. THINK. Turn off the TV, the radio and the internet (for a while) They stop you from ‘thinking’ (which is what the media giants want in any case)
2. LISTEN. That voice you hear as you read this? That’s YOU. Pay close attention and let yourself describe what’s going on.
3. ASK WHY. Question everything, assume nothing. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet (perhaps the sky ‘isn’t’ falling!)
4. TAKE A DIFFERENT TACK. Learn about philosophy and discover new ways of thinking, analysing and experiencing.
5. MAKE NOTES. Carry a notebook at all times (ideas are like fish - they must be speared on the end of a pencil before they swim away.)
6. WATCH AND LEARN. Writing is merely describing life and you can’t do this unless you know what it looks like.
7. GIVE YOURSELF SPACE. Listen to your inner voice. Encourage it to talk to you.
8. BE OPEN MINDED. Open your senses to the current experience. Take in every detail. Let your ‘writer’s radar’ be on red alert at all times.
9. TRUST YOURSELF. Publishers are fickle. Don’t read so much that it influences your writing.
10. WRITE IT ALL DOWN. Every thing that you see, hear, smell, taste or feel is essential detail that can one day fuel the fires of an almighty story.
THINK FOR YOURSELF, and listen to your own voice.