The Write Stuff

The psychology of the amateur writer is a marvel to behold. Of late I’ve been reading quite a bit of fiction by aspiring amateurs, and the variety of contretemps in which they flounder is an ongoing source of … well, of amazement or agony, depending on one’s mood.

A few days ago a local writer sent me a PDF of the opening of his time-travel novel. He plainly regards it as finished; he has gone to the trouble of formatting it on Lulu and having a copy printed out so he can wave it around, though it’s not yet available for sale. He’s submitting it to agents. Yet he has quite evidently not thought it necessary to have the book copy-edited.

Setting aside the larger story problems (which are also foreshadowed in the opening chapter), he has written a book set in 14th century England, in which, for the sake of local color, people speak something vaguely resembling Shakespearean English, and yet he has not managed to use “thee” and “thou” correctly. He alleges that women’s hair is concealed beneath a veil, but a veil is a face-covering. Any decent editor could have told him he meant “wimple,” not “veil.” He uses “pence” as a singular, when in fact it’s the plural of “penny.” A character says, “I hath,” but of course “hath” is 3rd person singular. “I have” would be correct.

And all this is within the first five pages. Amazement and agony both.

Also this week I’ve looked at a plot outline for a novel that a fellow in a critique group is planning to write. His lead character is entirely passive: has no goal, takes no action. Implausible, Kafkaesque things happen to the character. And then a year passes (this is in the outline) before the story picks up again. This is not how plot works. I did suggest to the writer that his story structure might possibly work in literary fiction, but I cautioned him that in literary fiction one of the primary desiderata is prose that is luminous. The only way this particular writer is going to achieve luminous prose is if he hits the typewriter keys so hard he punches holes in the paper and then shines a flashlight through them. But I didn’t tell him that. I am cruel, but I am not infinitely cruel.

What seems to be operating in cases of this sort is that the amateur writer is simply not aware of how professional writing is put together. Now, if you want to write purely for your own satisfaction — as a means of self-expression — then of course you can do whatever pleases you. But at the point where you’re planning to show your work to anybody else, you’re no longer engaged in self-expression. At the very least, you’re hoping to communicate with other people or hoping for some ego-boosting comments from your friends. With respect to both of the books described above, I think we have to dismiss the notion that the writer is engaged purely in self-expression. These writers are hoping, in some modest way, for success.

Admittedly, my view of the craft of writing is different from theirs. (Or is it “different than”? I rather like “different to,” which is the British variant.) For more than 25 years I earned a nice living as a professional editor and writer. Of nonfiction, but still, I’m a pro. If you believe the magazine’s circulation figures, and I never had any reason to doubt them, every month my work was read by about 20,000 people. So yeah, I know which side of the bread has the jelly on it.

Maybe I should be charitable, even if it means being dishonest. Maybe I should just smile politely and say, “Yeah, that’s pretty good!” But I keep hoping that somewhere along the line, a writer will say, “Wow — thanks! I knew I needed to work on this some more, but I never knew how much work would be needed. Can you recommend some how-to-write books I could read?”

That never happens. Somehow a great gulf has been fixed between the amateur and the professional. There’s a bridge, but nobody seems to want to walk across it. And generally speaking, the problem is not mental incapacity. If you’re smart enough and industrious enough to write a novel at all, you’re smart enough to figure out how to do it reasonably well. So what are we looking at here? Ignorance? Insecurity? Irresponsibility? Muddled motives? I wish I knew.

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