Pick up a 'cruel' pen and fillet your writing, says Jim Crace. Richard McComb sits in on a master class with the prize-winning author.
It is uncompromising advice but it is among the best any would-be novelist could wish for: “Don’t fall in love with your own prose.”
Jim Crace isn’t here to win friends, although he would like to influence new writers. It’s not that the lauded Birmingham-based novelist is being unkind. In fact, the encouragement he conveys to tonight’s intimate audience is inspirational.
It’s just that there is no point polishing egos in the publishing world. Polish your prose by all means, says Crace; this is essential. But the road to publishing oblivion is strewn with the corpses of deluded narcissists.
Hence Crace’s advice to the writers assembled in a meeting room at Fazeley Studios in Digbeth. He is addressing a dozen students on Tindal Street Press’s first ever Academy Masterclass. The 10-week course is nearing its conclusion (a new masterclass series is due to start in April) and Crace is the third prize-winning author to impart their practical wisdom, following sessions by fellow city-based novelists Helen Cross and Catherine O’Flynn.
He is in a particularly upbeat mood, having finished his 13th, and possibly final, novel just two weeks ago. Crace, 66, who has a wry, yet warm manner, has previously gone on record as saying he will stop writing novels out of self-preservation because he does not want to become bitter.
He says: “It is a tremendous feeling when you complete something and you are told it is satisfactory. When you start writing a novel it is really scary, it is a massive undertaking.”
It takes skill and dedication to complete a novel but Crace offers hope for struggling writers.
“Fifty per cent of your problems are over when you have written a quarter of your novel,” he says.
‘‘Writing a novel is like pushing a boulder up a hill. The boulder turns into a balloon when “the narrative abandons you. It should happen about a quarter of the way into the book.”
And thus does the novel take flight.
Crace’s first novel Continent was published in 1986. It picked up the Whitbread First Novel Award and the writer has gone on to become a serial award-winner, collecting the Whitbread Novel Award for Quarantine (also shortlisted for the Booker Prize) and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Being Dead.
His success can be attributed to all those things we expect of good writers – a gifted imagination, originality, deft prose – but this would count for nothing, suggests Crace, without the author’s greatest friend and most feared enemy: editing.
The editing is all; and submitting to it, and doing it, takes guts. “You have to learn to be tough on yourself and learn for others to be tough on you,” explains Crace.
“When you reach the stage you are going to start editing you are in a wonderful position. You have cleared the mountain. You have your 70,000 words. You have a complete package. It is such a joyful moment. What you are going to do now is look for mistakes and blemishes and polish and improve them.”
The writing, he says, is in the rewriting. To make his point, Crace recalls taking a writing workshop at the Midlands Arts Centre. One woman could write powerful stories but she had a block when it came to her own particular fault.
Crace says: “Her blemish was always weighing down her sentences by saying the bleeding obvious.”
He recalls one example: “The black and white magpies flew across the empty field.”
Aren’t magpies always black and white? If they were purple, that would be noteworthy. Saying they are black and white is “padding, to no purpose”.
Henceforth, whenever the student read out an extraneous “blemish” in her writing Crace would encourage the class to flap and squawk like (non colour specific) magpies.
Crace leads an impromptu editing session for our class, asking one of the group to volunteer a piece of their work to be “filleted.”
We will just be looking at the first paragraph, he says. EC hands over a short-story, turns pale and starts shaking. Crace issues a solemn warning. “Praise is no good to you. You cannot work on praise. We are probably going to say some critical things and be picky and that is to your advantage.”
He tells the rest of us to get a “cruel pen” and go through the text, word by word. He wants us to be brutally honest, but the process is non-adversarial. In fact, we are all jealous of EC. Never has having your copy filleted been so enjoyable.
Crace says he always advises writers to read out their own work. Some sentences can be “beautifully modulated” and run on; others have too many “engines.”
Reading aloud helps to identify any problems. “When your tongue starts to hit the back of your teeth, it is time to break up the sentence,” says Crace.
He admits the manuscript of his own barely completed novel is plastered with his “cruel pencil marks.” He says: “If I thought there were going to be so many I would have thought, ‘Sod it.’”
It is worth persevering, though, adds Crace: “It is a wonderful profession. The heavens won’t open but there is nothing like writing a finished published book.”
* For more details about Tindal Street’s next Masterclass Academy, got to www.tindalstreet.co.ukh
Write your first book – in 12 easy steps, by Jim Crace
1. Set your hurdles high. Be ambitious. Attempt the impossible. There are already too many excellent, unpublished novelists who haven’t taken enough risks.
2. If you must research your subject matter, don’t make notes.
3. Don’t write autobiographically unless your life is fascinating. (It probably isn’t.) But do write about something that interests you.
4. Don’t use feeble excuses, such as writers’ block or absence of the muse, for not starting your book. Stop making a fuss. Get on with it.
5. Don’t allow yourself to be terrified by the unmarked page or the blank screen. Your first version is bound to be, at best, imperfect.
6. Don’t worry if you don’t know where your book is heading or how it should end. All will become clear as you proceed.
7. You should be entertained or provoked by your own writing. If you’re not stimulated by what you’ve written then your readers won’t be either.
8. Don’t seek the critical approval of your family, neighbours or friends. Even if they know what they are talking about, their endorsements will make no difference. Join a writing group, by all means, but otherwise keep your writing private until it’s finished.
9. We want to share the feelings of your characters, not simply observe them. So, for example, describe the coffin not the grief. Don’t shout.
10. Revise, rewrite, review. Then do it again.
11. Never waste your time or money on a vanity publisher. If your book is any good and you are tenacious, then you will be published and you will be paid for your efforts.
12. Don’t expect the heavens to open just because you’ve written a book.