Wednesday, 29 February 2012


(From the archive)

As I near the end of my reading for Short Fiction this year (about 550 stories), I have to say there’s a lot of  good writing out there. If you’re going to take the trouble to submit to a quality journal, chances are you can write a bit. But every once in a while, say one piece in fifty or sixty, the words sing from the page, they become a delight. I forget I’m reading, so immersed am I in the writer’s world, compelled almost breathlessly to continue, happy to relinquish my time, my self, to the words in front of me.

This, as writers are aware, is incredibly hard to do. To stand out from the ordinary, to rouse an editor/publisher/agent with prose that refuses to be ignored. For me, the first sign a piece of writing is exceptional is when I start to wish I’d written it. Not in an embittered sense, just that a small admiration has occurred. It happened last night, reading Denis Johnson’s short story, ‘Work’. I read:

The wind lifted and dropped her long red hair. She was about forty, with a bloodless, waterlogged beauty. I guess Wayne was the storm that had stranded her here.

I stopped and read that second sentence again and again, in awe of its simple brilliance. Why is it so strong for me? Well, that's not always easy to pin down, but I love how it exudes control, how it's not overwritten, that it's the antithesis of cliche. The words, the voice, work hard without seeming to. Now without knowing details of the story’s composition, we can’t know how these words were born. Perhaps they emerged in seconds, without need of revision. Maybe they were painstakingly sculpted over days. Doesn't matter; their strength endures regardless.

My point is not a new one. Writing like this doesn’t just happen. And if it does, it’s because you are already very good. I’ve looked before at whether you can teach creative writing; course attendances suggest people seem to think you can. But I’m not so sure you can teach that elusive quality that turns good, formulaic writing into the sort of remarkable work we should all aspire to produce. I think that can only come from reading the best fiction out there, considering how it achieves what it does, then giving yourself about ten thousand hours to be in a position to do the same.


Charlotte said...

Good point, Tom. I think the thousand hours are key - that really good writing comes with practice.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Hi Charlotte. I read it somewhere, that 10,000 hours' practice was what you needed at anything (violin, juggling, parenthood!) to truly master it, becoming a maestro.

Anna-Marie said...

So the red head was anaemic and oedemic? Pale and puffy - an unusual type of beauty :D
I can appreciate what you mean about only very occasionally reading something outstanding, but when it happens the effect is always very emotional for me.
By the 10,000 hour rule I think I might now be a master washing machine and dishwasher emptier/filler. And here I thought I was merely a jack of all trades.

Max Wallis said...

Hello Tom. I didn't know where to contact you so I thought I'd do it here. I believe in the 10,000 hour theory. I've tallied about 8,000 - 9,000 hours of writing so far. Anyway, if you could email me a quick one at max.robert.wallis@ I'd love to chat more about it all.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Ha, Anna-Marie. I am a virtuoso at supping beer.

Hi Max. Thanks for stopping by. Like your blog. The 10,000 hours might be a little prescriptive/simplistic, but I always find it funny when people think you just start writing and become a writer. Or that you can just dip your toes in, dabble, and be any good. 'Yes, I fancy a bit of brain surgery; how hard can it be?'

dirtywhitecandy said...

Tom, you're so right. It can take me age to read a good novel because a good sentence will trap me in suspended animation, compelled to read it again and again and to wonder at how it came about.

Tania Hershman said...

Tom, I think it was Malcolm Gladwell who made the 10,000 hours thing famous. It makes so much sense, eh? What's interesting to me in your blog post is how you are clearly reading as a writer, because when you read those lines of Denis Johnson's, you stopped. If you were just reading as a reader you would have carried on. But you registered that here was something you should take notice of, pick apart. That is extremely useful to us writers, but sometimes I do wonder whether I am unable to read "normally" any more, unable to just enjoy without wanting to open the bonnet and examine how it works.

Echo your point about singing words! I have just put up a new blog post, half of which deals with something major to avoid if you want me as a judge of a competition to notice the singing words, and not let anything else get in the way! I'd be interested in your comments.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Hi DWC. Lovely point.

I often think like that, Tania. It's not, I suppose, as if we have a choice any more. I've got a holiday booked, 2 weeks in France in July, and I'll choose my reading wisely. No work, just indulgence, but a certain deconstruction will be inevitable. I think for the most part that the reading experience is heightened as a writer, despite the loss of innocent, unadulterated pleasure.

I also think the 10k hours can include critical reading.

Will have a loook at your blog post immediately.

Douglas Bruton said...

Yes, Tom, and I think we have to add that it is not just 10,000 hours of turning up at our desks. it is 10,000 hours of real application, of wanting to know and understand, of wanting to be better and be striving towards that better we think of. It's 10,000 hours of real application (worth repeating, I think).

As to whether creative writing can be taught... you seem to say that it can be learned, ergo...

You just might mean that it cannot be taught in a single day workshop or a 40 hour module... and I can agree with that. Give me someone who wants to write, seriously, and give me them for 10,000 hours and surely it can be taught.

What the creative writing courses can do is encourage and direct and inspire. Nothing wrong in that.

I'm having a non-writing Sunday and just browsing the internet and felt the urge to comment here. hope that's ok.

TOM J VOWLER said...

'What the creative writing courses can do is encourage and direct and inspire.' Absolutely.

'I'm having a non-writing Sunday...' After a Saturday of cricket and beer, mine almost always are too, Mr B.