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What’s your hidden mantra?

Here’s a thought:

You will, consciously or unconsciously, have a philosophy of writing, a set of assumptions or beliefs that underpins everything you do. But what is that philosophy? And is it helping you? Or (more probably) does it partly help you and partly block you?

I had that thought because I’ve definitely had a philosophy that has partly helped and partly hindered. My first novel (The Money Makers) was a playful, enjoyable, highly commercial romp. I started the book while still working full time in the finance industry and, before I’d been in finance, I’d studied economics and philosophy at Oxford.

I came to writing fiction deeply aware that all my recent training – Oxford and finance – was deeply unhelpful when it came to writing popular fiction. I needed to chuck out the long sentences, the jargon, the fancy words. I needed to bring in tight, clear, physical, compelling writing.

So I developed the habit of checking my prose for readability – literally checking my readability score for each chapter. The metric I used was the Flesch-Kincaid score which looks at sentence length and complexity of vocabulary, then gives you readability measure in terms of what high school grade would be capable of reading read what you’ve just written. I aimed for a score in the 6-7 range, meaning that kids of 11-12 would in theory be able to read the book. In practice, of course, it was an adult novel, but beach reads ought to be nice, easy, fast reads, so that’s what I aimed for.

In practice, I probably overdid it, but my theory was sound. I managed to erase my past training and sprung into print as a fully formed commercial writer.

I developed some other ideas too. One was an absolute horror of boring the reader. I wanted something on every page to prick the reader’s interest. That might be a plot movement. It might be some snappy dialogue, or a joke, or anything else – but I wanted to sustain the reader’s interest from very first page to the very last.

As a result, I also became relentless at tightening my prose. A nine-word sentence that could equally well be a seven-word sentence struck me as baggy and weak.

Many of those habits stuck with me. I’ve become a much better writer over the years, but I still have that horror of being boring. And it’s mostly worked out for me: my books have sold for decent amounts and my readers have enjoyed reading them. That’s a win, right?

Except that even healthy habits can become limiting. What if I took the risk of a few slower or less vibrant pages, in the hope of gaining some deeper reward? Gone Girl, for example – which is a commercial novel in my genre – took those kind of risks, and the risks paid off massively, not just literarily but commercially as well. You could say exactly the same about The Talented Mr Ripley. You could say the same, in fact, about Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I’m not saying I could have written those masterpieces under any circumstances, but my “gotta be interesting at all times” credo meant I was never even in the game.

Other things too. I used to believe that I had to write / think / edit my way into fluency. I sometimes had an eight-hour writing day and often enough, four hours in, I’d thought plenty, and tinkered with some of my previous prose, and tried out two or three approaches for the next chapter … but not actually got any meaningful new text down on the page. I thought that this three- or four-hour approach march was just the way my creativity came.

Then, along came the kids. I never had an eight-hour writing day again. If I even managed five or six hours, in bursts, over the course of a day, that was a highly unusual day. So out went my arid approach march. I just got more productive.

Another example: I used to think I wrote old-school adventure fiction. (Plenty of excitement, but not much violence.) Then that career dwindled, because my book sales didn’t keep pace with my advances. So I undid my previous belief about what I could write, and turned to non-fiction. But I’m a fiction writer at heart, so I came back to fiction again but in a markedly different genre and written in a markedly different style.

And all this makes me wonder: what beliefs or methods do you have that help you and simultaneously block you? Here are some possibilities:

  1. I can only write in genre X”. I bet that’s not true. I don’t think that’s true of any really passionate writer.
  2. I have to get this book agented before I can start another.” Maybe. But what if this isn’t going to be your breakthrough book? At a certain point, you have to ditch the project and start another.
  3. I would never self-publish: it’s beneath me.” Right. Mark Dawson was published by Macmillan, who sold very few books. Now he self-publishes and he’s sold millions and is one of the highest-earning authors on the planet. But sure. Of course, you wouldn’t want that outcome. Think how awful it would be.
  4. I have to write the kind of prose that my university workshop group would admire.” Right. Except those guys aren’t the ones handing out contracts, are they?
  5. I have to write Great Literary Art. I wouldn’t stoop to anything less.” But debut literary novels need to sell. If you aren’t thinking commercially (as well as artistically) your Great Literary Novel is likely to entertain the contents of your bottom drawer and nothing else. That box of pencils and those day-glo Post-It notes will love it, though.
  6. I like books from the 1930s / 50s / 70s / 80s and I want to write like that.” People sometimes think that because (let’s say) Agatha Christie was and is a huge bestseller, they could write a book like that and do as well. But of course they can’t. If people want a Golden Age crime novel, they’ll turn to Christie or one of her peers. If people want contemporary fiction, they’ll buy something recently published. By all means, write Golden Age crime fiction with a contemporary twist, (The Seven Lives of Evelyn Hardcastle being an obvious example.) But bring something of the now into anything you write.
  7. I need to write with hand-turned pencils in a badgerskin notebook in only my favourite café and only in the morning and only if they’re playing Chopin on the music system.” Yeah, right. You aren’t actually going to write anything then, are you?

Those are some commonly held, and unhelpful beliefs, but I’d be genuinely interested to know what ideas you have that may or may not be helpful … or, better still, which are both helpful and unhelpful, useful and limiting.

So tell me. Or – better still – tell each other on Townhouse. These beliefs are really fruitful if they stimulate. They’re destructive if they restrict. And they’re not static. Something that was helpful last year might be holding you back this year … and quite likely, you haven’t yet noticed.

So notice.

Here endeth this epistle. Oh yes, and they’re charging us by the word for PSes this week, damn their eyes.

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Comments (51)
    • A pretty impressive rejection is good news on the road to acceptance. Definitely keep trying 👍 

      Was it your Derbyshire - I hope I've remembered the right county - detective? 

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      • My mantra is more about motivation than craft: "Keep at it, keep asking." I've always considered those two phrases a good encouragement, but this post made me look more carefully at them. Now I realize there's an inherent DISCouragement there. It's assuming the long slog toward publishing may just go on and on and on. I think I need a new mantra or at least a new, third phrase to tack on: "Keep at it, keep asking, Your YES is imminent!" Thanks, Harry. Valuable stuff!

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        • My mantra is "write what you would like to read and have fun doing it". Aside from that, I don't have any special requirements aside from having any recording materials available.

          Also I wouldn't self-publish, but because it's way above me: I don't have the stamina necessary to bear with such a huge workload. Otherwise I might try.

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          • Probably my most helpful mantra is, just start when you sit down, that very second, no excuses, no distractions. No I can't find the flow, the muse or the words. Really that's all rubbish -- a right brain to left brain switchover malfunction or something. Just start.

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            • I was convinced I had to write my historical thriller The White Rooms the way you would see a movie or television series, i.e. with no inner thoughts 'audible'. On screen, you would know what people think, kind of, by body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. On paper, it's really hard to be very precise about thoughts people are having. Sometimes, I made the character say their inner thought out loud. But that didn't always make sense in the story. So, I had to 'stoop' to writing down some inner thoughts, in italics. I hated it, but didn't see a way out of it.

              Then I had your Becky Hunter edit my manuscript. She wanted a whole lot more inner thought! Or IM, as she calls it. I grumbled, I dragged my heels. But I did it. And I love it! The characters are coming to life!

              I guess, secretly, I was just fantasising too much about some day having my manuscript turned into a movie or television series...

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