Friday, 22 June 2012

Writing Badly by Guest Author Conrad Mason

Hello Edge readers, and thank you to the Edge for having me! I thought I'd write about one of the most important steps I took towards becoming a published author: writing badly.

It's well known that many authors get through several 'drawer novels' before they finish one that's fit to be published. I have drawer novels too, except that none of mine are longer than a few paragraphs. I've started hundreds of stories, but for years I never got further than the first page.

The trouble was that I was so determined to write beautiful prose that I never got anywhere. If you spend a quarter of an hour crafting each sentence, how can you ever finish a 300-page book? I had no idea how the professionals did it. Presumably they had some special skill that I lacked. 

Then I read a book called How To Write A Novel by John Braine. It's got some startling pieces of advice in it, some of which I've chosen to ignore ('try not to get married or permanently entangled before your novel is finished'). But overall it's the most inspiring book about writing that I have ever read (and I include On Writing by Stephen King in that – although that's also wonderful).

Here's the epiphany bit: 'With the first draft all that matters is writing the maximum number of words.'

It felt dangerously illicit – was I really allowed to obsess over word count and throw quality out of the window? I had to find out. I set myself a goal of at least 300 words a day, every day, and I kept writing. No checking back. No obsessing over details. No stopping, no matter what. There were times I lost my way, but I just carried on, writing bad sentences and even bad scenes in the knowledge that I'd go back and fix them later. The editor part of my brain was screaming at me all the way, but I ignored it. John Braine had set me free!

Of course, what I got at the end was a mess. Half-formed characters, awful prose, plotlines going nowhere... But that didn't matter because it was 50,000 words of mess. Something that I could edit, and hone, and turn into a novel.

I think the problem before was that I had been trying to write and edit at the same time – and for me, separating those two processes made all the difference. In the first draft I allowed my ideas to come tumbling out as fast as possible, no matter how incoherent they were; then in the second draft I picked them apart and put them back together again.

So to this day, if I'm ever struggling to write well, I just write badly instead. I'd rather do that than write nothing at all.


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    1. Great post, Conrad. I've read Stephen King's On Writing, which is very good, but not John Braine's How to Write a Novel. Sometimes getting the first draft down is the hardest part. I try to write an average of 2,000 words a day on a first draft (not including weekends!) and the discipline of that system works for me. But knocking a completed manuscript into shape for submission takes as long as it needs!
      By the way, I'm sure that drawer full of story openings you have will prove its worth one day too...

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