Knowing When To Quit

So. You’ve written that first draft and decided that there’s something to it. How long do you have to keep at it before you can decide that it’s either a) finished, or b) unfinishable?

On first starting out as a writer, the temptation is to decide that a text is final and irrevocable the moment you set it out on a page. Your writing is precious, sacred even, dictation taken direct from the mouth of God; bad writers may compromise, make edits, but you? You hit it out of the park first time, every time.

A good stage to leave behind, but the incessant tinkering you then take up isn’t much better. Every text is a free-for-all, with everything up for grabs. Like Joyce, you can spend all morning switching around two words, then all evening switching them back again. Time spent editing is never a waste, not really; but if you could have written two or three new stories in the time it’s taken to bring a substandard one up to scratch, it’s not really an efficient use of your time. Most of us have a limited amount of time to write, and we can’t really afford to squander it in this way; yet we do. Why do we do it? Well, here are my own personal faulty rationales for sticking with something long after you should have stopped.

You’re on a roll. You’ve written two, maybe three good stories in a row, and you definitely feel like you’ve turned a corner. Therefore, you are clearly incapable of writing bad prose ever again. Whatever the vital spark is that’s going to bring this story to Pulitzer-winning life, YOU ARE GOING TO FIND IT.

Darling-harvesting. Killing your darlings doesn’t just mean getting rid of a good metaphor, or binning a nice turn of phrase. It can sometimes mean jettisoning an entire story altogether. If the ship is sinking, the passengers are going down with it. You can’t save an entire story for the sake of a couple of lines.

But I need it for… There’s a specific reason you need this story to work. Maybe there’s a competition on the theme of “returns” or something, and it’s the only one you’ve got that fits. In that case, you’ve already lost. Forget the competition. Move on.

It won’t be GREAT, but… Of course, one of the most exciting things about writing is that you never know if what you’re working on is going to be great. Pre-emptively deciding that whatever you’re working on is going to be brilliant or significant is one of best reasons in the world for putting it aside. But if you’re labouring over something that has clearly gone badly wrong just in order to make it borderline readable, you’re wasting your time. (Kind of – it’s a good exercise, and it might stop you from making the same mistakes again in the future. But it’s also depressing, and winds up making you feel like a bad writer or, at the very least, the long suffering Jekyll to the madcap Hyde who wrote this crap.)

The truth is, the easiest way of judging whether you’re spending too much time on something is thinking back over your best stories, and how long it took you to write them. Relatively to the length, odds are it probably wasn’t that much time. The myth of instant inspiration is pernicious, but overwriting can be just as damaging and certainly more time-consuming. The other day I started editing a story which has already been published. Why? Know when to quit.

The Old Toad Work

I was reading an interview with George Orwell the other day in which he was asked whether it was desirable that a writer should have a second job, and if so, what sort of job should he have. Orwell (surprisingly to me) was hugely pessimistic about the prospects of any writer trying to earn an honest living from his work, even back in the Forties – and as he was very much against what he referred to as “the burden of an unearned income”, Orwell thought it was imperative that a writer should earn his or her keep in other ways. Orwell’s preference (again, to me surprising) was that writers should not have as their day jobs occupations of a literary or creative bent, since this would leave them too depleted at the end of the working day to write. Instead, he recommended work of a sort neither intellectually nor physically demanding – clerking at a bank or insurance firm, for instance.

It’s a conundrum, anyway. The romantic notion of the starving artist in a garret (itself debunked by Orwell in “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”) is dominant, and there’s even a certain sniffiness about the moonlight crew who work ordinary jobs from 9 till 5. Ideally, of course, writing would be a job sufficiently remunerative as to allow a reasonable amount of financial security. In Scandinavia, for example, state support for writers is miles ahead, although Orwell himself would probably have noted this with some disapproval, since a writer (in his opinion) should be first and foremost divorced from even the subconscious prompting to please his patron. In any event, it’s not even an option for a writer to sell out to the state in the UK, since the state is by and large uninterested.

What I would say about the idea of throwing caution to the wind and writing full-time is that, in my experience, it’s an option almost exclusively open to the middle/upper-classes. I know several working-class folk in other fields of the arts who have taken the plunge and are earning a crust through their art alone, but it’s usually in those arts where there is a certain amount of regular, well-remunerated work and/or “hackwork” available, such as music or photography. But nobody ever hires a poet to declaim at their wedding reception. Novelists don’t get far on “Britain’s Got Talent”. The lack of paid derivative work for writers means that, with very few exceptions, the only way to survive on a writer’s income is to supplement it with another; a job, a pension, a spouse’s work or a parent’s generosity. Financially, the average writer would do better on the dole.

Philip Larkin, who invented and was dominated by the idea of “the old toad, Work” was a librarian. So am I. The greatest poet of the 20th Century (Larkin, not me – that ship has sailed) told his inquirers that society valued his work as a librarian more than his work as a writer. It was broadly true, although Larkin was also the sort who couldn’t see green cheese go past him, nor an honest pound go unpocketed. But he, at least, like me, had a job which allowed him some latitude for writing in his spare time. How is a fast-food worker, or a cleaner, or a postman, or a bricklayer, expected to come home from work and sit down to write? It’s impossible – but we, as a society, need them to. If writing is to flourish again, we need readers and writers of every stripe, books about everything there can be books about. No, we can’t do much about the lack of money in writing, or about the exhausting drudge of minimum wage – but what we can do that would help is dispense with the discouraging fiction that “full-time writing” is a evidence of one’s genuine dedication to one’s art, rather than just an indication of a private income.

Scatter My Ashes At Claggan Park.

Much cheer. My story “Scatter My Ashes At Claggan Park” finished second in the Derby QUAD’s Offside Stories competition. There were some very good writers on the shortlist, too. Here’s the link:

Claggan Park, by the way, is where Fort William F.C. play. The team themselves have finished bottom of the Highland League virtually every year since their inception (which means that’s who I’d have played for, if I’d been from the Highlands), but have a very striking ground, which can be seen here:

Most non-league grounds are picturesque in a similar way, especially in rural areas like the Highlands and the Scottish Borders. Picturesque perhaps isn’t quite the word: touching, maybe. Hans van der Meer has a photography book called “European Fields” (stupidly expensive now) which consists entirely of amateur and lower-league football games across Europe. It captures footballers often so tiny that their struggles are almost completely lost against the sprawling landscape; just to be seen becomes a titanic endeavour. Also very funny too; a photo of a Dutch goalkeeper staring longingly into a canal where a misplaced ball bobs enticingly out of reach. Even if you can’t get hold of the book, some of those marvellous photos can be seen here:

Home again, home again.

It’s been about ten years since last time I had my own website. It was a lot easier back then, since it was actually a cadged corner of someone else’s and I didn’t have to do anything. Nowadays it’s amazing the amount of stuff you have to know just to be able to ASK for help with websites. Looking for solutions to even “beginner” problems on the Internet is like that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David is trying to get people who help him change a car tyre. Hopeless.

Apparently there is now a lucrative cottage industry in the construction of websites and social media for creative types, but as none of the creative folks I know have any money, and none of the folks I know with money are creative, I’m not sure quite how this has come about. Needless to say, I don’t have two thousand pounds to spend on this (or anything), so for the foreseeable future please enjoy this shoddy approximation of what I’d like you to think is actually happening.