Having a quick visit to the blog of Terry Finley who commented here yesterday on the writing – or not – of historical fiction, I discovered an interesting article from the Times by South African academic Leon de Kock.
In it, he says:
If you’re a writer, a learner- writer or a journeyman, there’s one certain way to know if you are, in fact, half as good as you hope to be, or think you are.
How much are you enjoying yourself while you write?
This is also a certain way to know if a writer — any kind of writer, but especially an author of fiction — is really good.
It’s also the biggest (if most obvious) secret in the whole writing game. When a writer is hugely entertaining herself, she’s likely to be entertaining you too. On the other hand, if you’re the one writing, and you’re labouring, groaning inwardly under the sheer weight and unwieldiness, the difficulty of your own creation, you can be quite, quite sure that’s exactly how it will read. Badly. Heavily.
Interesting, but is he right? Certainly, I enjoy myself most when the writing flows and I know I am putting words together in the best way I know how; when metaphors and images just spring to mind without having to be sought for; when characters say things I was not expecting them to say but which turn out to be exactly the right thing for them to say at that particular moment. Sometimes, I am just so excited by this kind of thing that I have to get up from my desk and walk around – I literally cannot contain all the excitement generated in me and have to let it out.
But that’s not to say that when the writing flows it’s always good. Sometimes my writing flows because I am being self-indulgent and – of course – that, too, is enjoyable. Often this self-indulgence has to do with expressing my own thoughts and feelings and not those of the pov character and – for me at least – this tendency has to be expunged with ruthlessness bordering on the fanatical. I am most certainly not here to write autobiography or to indulge in some kind of sub-genre self-analysis or therapy. Sometimes, at the end of an hour or two’s writing when I have barely lifted my fingers from the keyboard I will feel a lot better, I may even have enjoyed myself, but I have a pretty shrewd idea that when I come to read that passage the following day with my editing hat on it will end up marked and deleted. Or just left in the directory and a new file with the same name plus ‘2’ appended.
I don't think enjoyment as a test of good writing isn’t infallible. You have to know what kind of enjoyment you're talking about. The enjoyment of hitting a rich narrative seam? The enjoyment of chiming perfectly, for a whole day, with your pov character? The enjoyment of a particularly poetic or elegiac passage which is needed, just there, in your book? That is the kind of enjoyment, I guess, that Leon de Kock is talking about. But there’s also the enjoyment of letting off steam, of over-identification, of letting your characters have conversations you should have had and never did. And those are bad enjoyments for a writer. Well, for this writer, at any rate.
So what about his other implication. Is all slogged-at writing necessarily bad? Presumably, it depends on the slogging. I assume that when Mr de Kock talks about ‘labouring, groaning inwardly under the sheer weight and unwieldiness, the difficulty of your own creation’ he isn't talking about the entirely legitimate and wholly necessary labour of craft but about those times when it just ain't working folks.
And yes, unwieldiness is deadening. I have deleted sentences, paragraphs and chapters because of it. In fact, one of the things I have learned, over the years, is that if a sentence/paragraph/chapter proves incredibly difficult to write, it probably shouldn’t be there. It's hard to write because, subconsciously, you know it doesn't belong in the flow. Take it away and work out what really goes there instead.
Which is my signal to get back to the w-i-p and the elusive current chapter…