The Fitzpatrick School of Scatterbrained Writing
23 April 2017
MY wife and I have moved from Queensland to a small coastal town on the far west coast of South Australia. We thought it was time for a change plus we’ve got a daughter and her family here.
It’s the sort of place where people don’t bother to lock their doors when they go out. Hopefully, when that ‘rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem’ arrives we’ll be far enough away to miss it all.
The nearest large town is Port Lincoln, a fishing and grain exporting hub.
Like a lot of isolated towns, this one has a lively arts scene. This month they’re holding the inaugural Eyre Peninsula Writers’ Week as part of their broader SALT Festival of Arts.
One of the best discoveries so far in Port Lincoln is a marvellous second hand bookshop. It is a secular affair run by a bunch of dedicated volunteers who donate the proceeds to a wide variety of charities.
Discovering it was a huge relief because our local library is mainly filled with Wilbur Smith, James Patterson and others of their ilk sprinkled with a smattering of chick-lit.
It is a wonderfully organised shop. Books are catalogued by subject and arranged in strict alphabetical order. There are standardised prices – hardbacks $5 and paperbacks $3 with only a few rare books specifically priced.
The shop is tidy, clean and doesn’t have that musty smell usually associated with such places. If I’m looking for particular authors I can go straight to where they are on the shelf, there’s none of that unnecessary rummaging required, enjoyable as it might be to some people.
On my last visit, which was a browsing expedition, I stumbled across several shelves in the non-fiction section simply labelled, ‘Writing’.
I was amazed at the number of books that have been written about the art of writing, especially those designed to show new writers how to do it and, especially, how to make money out of it.
The section is only beaten in size by the collection on ‘how to become a millionaire like me in 10 easy steps’.
In both cases the only people making any money are the people selling the books on how to make money.
The nascent Eyre Peninsula Writers’ Week also has workshops on how to write run by writers I’ve never heard of. There’s a session on ‘creative writing’, a term I’ve never quite understood.
I guess, apart from the monetary aspects, all these people are well-meaning.
However, I’m not sure you can actually teach people to be writers. Perusing the Port Lincoln collection, the main themes seem to be about process rather than writing as a craft.
Some of the advice includes: write every day; achieve daily word counts; set aside dedicated quiet times to write; get up really early every morning to write; always keep your sentences short; avoid the use of adjectives; carefully plot narratives; keep journals and notes; get a good editor; fastidiously check spelling and grammar. And so on.
I like order but I don’t do any of these things.
I’ve never plotted or planned a narrative in my life. I mull things over in my head a lot, sometimes for months at a time, but there’s never been anything systematic about it.
Most of the fiction I write just begins with a vague idea or even a colourful phrase. After that I just follow along in its wake.
And when eventually the time comes to write, the words never come out as I imagined anyway. Something mysterious happens and the result always surprises me.
I don’t write every day either, and certainly not at a set time. I might get up at odd hours and scribble stuff but there’s no logic to it, it just happens.
I write when the urge is there. I’m not sure where this urge comes from. Sometimes it builds up and at other times it happens spontaneously.
Sometimes I might write just a few paragraphs, at other times it might be 20 pages or more, it all depends on how it’s flowing, usually it’s hard to stop but I always know when I’m done.
I once tried keeping a notebook but it didn’t prove especially useful. In most cases I couldn’t decipher my cryptic scribbles and I’d forgotten what prompted them anyway. The nearest I get to note taking is when I’m writing non-fiction and there’s a need to use facts and other data.
Short, sharp and lean sentences are great but there are circumstances when lengthy paragraphs loaded with juicy adjectives are effective too. It’s knowing when to use them that matters.
A master of this was Ernest Hemingway and another American writer called Robert Ruark. Ruark produced long, pungent and awe inspiring paragraphs loaded with juicy adjectives that are a delight to read. It is only when either style is overused that it becomes a problem.
I’m not a great fan of grammar. If you stick to the rules, it tends to get boring, Victorian literature for example. Fractured grammar is much more interesting, try James Joyce or perhaps Leonard Fong Roka.
Spelling is different. An incorrectly spelt word grates and spoils.
I’ve got mixed feelings about editing. I write everything out long hand first. When I type, I edit as I go. When that’s done I leave it for a while and then re-read it. After a bit more tweaking I’m usually happy with the result. If not I worry it for a bit longer until it works.
The finished product is usually the way I want it. If an editor comes along and changes stuff, apart from obvious errors, I get resentful. I figure that if I’d wanted it that way I would have written it that way.
There are exceptions of course. A well-tuned editor who knows what I’m up to can be a boon.
I guess my approach to writing could be defined as scatterbrained and disorganised. However there weren’t books on the shelf in Port Lincoln about that style of writing. Perhaps it explains why I’ve never made millions from writing.
My method is certainly not something I could teach. How do you teach someone to be disorganised? It’s a god-given talent.
When there is a comment like 'I think you'll agree that the lazy habits of PNG writers which result in half-baked manuscripts require a lot of editing and it is extremely difficult to retain the writer's voice sometimes', it burns into my seams and wants me to give up writing.
Em kisim stret bun bilong rait, tingting bilong noken rait moa kamap long pes. That is taking the easy way out and self publishing is not the answer to this.
Then again, never mind what Phil says, I want to continue with my writing, and if what Phil says is the truth, then it is the truth; I need to accept that comment and work with that truth.
I and PNG writers need and must:
1. stop our lazy habits and
2. stop giving in half baked manuscripts to people who have good intentions to help us and
3 find that writers voice.
1 and 2 is something that we have control over. 3 will happen if 1 and 2 are corrected.
How do we put in counter measures to correct these truth? Firstly we need to write and rewrite and make sure that the sentence and the paragraph and chapter and the whole of the story rhyme and work together.
We need to have the manuscript typed and in a form that has clarity in structure and content for an editor to have an eagerness to read our works.
Secondly we need a sounding board, someone who can read our works and manuscripts before they go to the editor.
I believe a writer does not see their mistakes. I have others read my works and make suggestions and improvements and I use my family.
I do despair that my family also are lazy and give me half baked comments or they are not that too critical for fear that they may offend me or they simply think that I am a fool wasting my time in writing nothings when I could do other useful things and ridicule me by not even reading my pieces.
I can either accept their suggestions or disregard them. I can make those choices. If I accept these suggestions, I try to work them into my manuscripts. If they think I am a fool, I take that on the chin and continue in my foolery.
But discussing work before it is given to the editor helps to cut out on the editor rewriting the works for me or simply throwing in the waste basket; something that is a reality and what I must accept if it has to happen that way.
Tenk yu Phil, wat yu tok em acid, na bel i pen tru tru.
Tasol em tru tru toktok na mi na ol lain PNG raiters mas kisim dispela long bun na mekim senis.
Ol gutpela editor i sot long PNG na wan wan i kamap imas igat gutpela wok manuscript igo long ol. Ol editor imas igat belsut long wok editor na mipela ol raiter long PNG mas noken kilim paia bilong ol idai.
Em nau tok ikam long mipela ol raiter long PNG long skelim wok pasim bilong mipela long givim les pasin wok igo aut. Mipela mas stretim nau.
Posted by: Baka Bina | 26 April 2017 at 06:55 AM
Epithets aside, Phil has a ken on what best fitz.
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 24 April 2017 at 04:09 PM
Adlai Stevenson, a politician of some stature, once quoted......" An editor sorts the wheat from the chaff and then prints the chaff"
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 23 April 2017 at 04:47 PM
Pukpuk is still alive and well Chips, just enjoying a new location.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 23 April 2017 at 01:07 PM
The way my memory seems to be giving up the ghost I'm starting to think that notes might be a good idea after all. It's only my short term memory that seems to be affected. I can remember stuff from 50 years ago (or an unreliable version thereof) with no trouble at all. And the delightful thing about putting those on paper is they prompt a whole host of other memories.
On the other hand, if I write an idea or phrase down in a notebook it tends to kill it. It's much better to get an idea and pursue it to its logical end immediately.
Another principle I work with, notwithstanding the above comments about faulty memories, is that if something can't be remembered it probably wasn't that crash hot anyway.
I really like Richard Ford too Ed.
I think you'll agree that the lazy habits of PNG writers which result in half-baked manuscripts require a lot of editing and it is extremely difficult to retain the writer's voice sometimes.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 23 April 2017 at 12:53 PM
Sorry to hear you left Queensland, Phil. And what has happened to Pukpuk Publishing? Has that moved to South Oz also?
Posted by: Chips Mackellar | 23 April 2017 at 11:33 AM
A few random responses, Phil:
I’m inclined to agree that it’s difficult to teach someone to be a writer. Everyone has stories to tell, but not everyone is a ‘natural’ story-teller.
Teaching the mechanics and techniques of story telling and writing is straightforward enough, but much depends on the motivation and the depth of feeling that the would-be writer has about the subject matter/the story.
Like you, I’m also skeptical about some of the advice on offer, e.g. the advice that one should set and achieve daily word counts is, frankly, a nonsense. Writing is not about the number of words, it’s about the events, ideas and feelings that you wish to convey.
Keeping notes is one of the better ideas – if only to safeguard against forgetting an event, thought or observation. But I also accept that one can forget why the event, thought or observation is/was important in the first place.
One of my favourite writers, Richard Ford, said during an event in Melbourne that although he sets aside 2-3 hours a day to write, he is satisfied if he manages to write only one acceptable sentence during that time. Which is why, probably, he took 10 years to complete his last major work, ‘Canada’. He also keeps a notebook.
A good editor, I was once told, always retained the writer’s ‘voice’ and worked with an invisible hand, leaving no evidence that the work had been edited at all.
Posted by: Ed Brumby | 23 April 2017 at 09:48 AM