Sunday, 11 January 2009

Murder Your Darlings

I was fifty-five yesterday. It was a very enjoyable birthday (apart from a trip to the supermarket in the morning, which is always grim). I spent the afternoon in the company of my daughters feeling like Mr Bennett from Pride and Prejudice being indulged by Jane and Elizabeth and the evening sitting in front of a fire, watching DVDs and eating halva (my favourite sweet. I have occasionally been asked if I will ever retire from writing. Only if I’m made redundant, I reply. But it does happen.

Once, about ten years ago, I was sitting on a train with a group of other writers, going to a conference on writing for young people. Suddenly the woman sitting opposite, to whom I’d been introduced only half an hour earlier and who was about the age I am now, burst into tears, and fled the carriage. I looked in dismay at my colleagues. ‘Was it something I said?’ They shook their heads. ‘She’s been writing children’s books for fifteen years,’ one of them told me, ‘and her publisher has just dropped her. She doesn’t think she’s ever going to get published again.’

I don’t know whether she ever did get published again because I’m afraid I can’t remember her name. However, it’s as clear an illustration as you could want of the old maxim that you are only as good as your last book. And, to be honest, I’m inclined to think that’s the way it should be. So often a writer produces one really good book and then each subsequent work is a little less inspired, but you, the reader, keep buying them in hope that he or she will strike gold again.

One of the most important qualities that any writer should possess, in my opinion, is the ability to change, to re-invent him or her self. As I’ve said before, I work with a lot of developing authors and the ability to take on board criticism, to reassess your own writing, and to throw away what isn’t working is what makes the difference between those who will grow into compelling and successful voices and those who will just go round and round in circles, recycling the same material endlessly.

Of course you always have to have your own vision. Otherwise what is the point in writing at all? But you also have to be ruthlessly self-critical. As I mentioned in an earlier posting, for a number of years I wrote theatre in education and community plays with a director whom I felt to be tyrannical, manipulative and utterly self-obsessed. (No doubt she felt the same about me.) However, she did teach me one thing. ‘You have to learn to murder your darlings, Brian,’ she would shriek, her voice always seeming to tremble on the edge of psychosis. ‘If it doesn’t work, rip it out!’ And credit where credit is due, she was right.

1 comment:

Pau Lamb said...

The sword cuts two ways, I think. Some writers have made hugely successful careers rehashing the same themes, plots, or characters. (Insert name of well-known genre writer here.) If there is a demand for it, and the voracious readers want to have the comfort of familiarity, then the writer can pull this off. The problem is that . . . the writer can pull this off.

I suppose I'll let you know when it happens to me, but it seems to me that a writer doing this is trapped in a way. Imagine if well-known genre writer did publish something avant-garde or experimental or in a completely different genre and it wasn't accepted by the fan base (and disdained by those who see the well-known genre writer as merely a well-known genre writer). The writer tries to branch out, to grow, to flex the creative wings, and gets slapped down. Back to cranking out the same stuff for another twenty years.

I appreciate your thoughtful posts.