Writing describes a range of activities, like farming. Plowing virgin fields – writing new scenes – demands freshness, but there’s also polishing to be done, fact-checking, character-autobiography writing, realigning the text after you’ve made a late decision that affects earlier passages – that kind of work can be done in the fifth, sixth, and seventh hours. Sometimes, at any hour, you can receive a gift – something that’s really tight and animate and so interesting that I forget the time until my long-suffering wife begins to drop noisy hints.
– David Mitchell, on how he could write for ten hours a day.
Having seen more than a few author events while working at Books & Books, I know how often authors are asked for writing advice – especially ones who are as gifted as David Mitchell. Thankfully, he needn’t answer the question again, because readers can look to the advice his character Crispin Hershey offers a class of eager students in The Bone Clocks. Crispin Hershey is not David Mitchell, by any stretch, but they share some sensibilities about the writing life. In other words, Crispin’s advice is too oak-solid to be anything but legit.
Adverbs are cholesterol in the veins of prose. Halve your adverbs and your prose pumps twice as well… Oh, and beware the verb “seem”; it’s a textual mumble. And grade every simile and metaphor from one star to five, and remove any threes or below. It hurts when you operate, but afterwards you feel much better.
– Crispin Hershey, “Wild Child” of British Literature
He clarifies that if you can’t decide whether a metaphor is a three or a four, then it’s a three.
Crispin also urges his class to write five letters to themselves from five leading characters.
Your characters’ potted life histories. Whom or what your characters love and despise. Details on education, employment, finances, political affiliations, social class. Fears. Skeletons in the cupboards. Addictions. Biggest regret; believer, agnostic, or atheist. How afraid of dying are they? Have they ever seen a corpse? A ghost? Sexuality. Glass half empty, glass half full, glass too small? Snazzy or scruffy dressers? It’s a letter, so consider their use of language. Would they say “mellifluous” or a “sharp talker”? Foul-mouthed or profanity-averse? Record the phrases they unknowingly overuse. When did they last cry? Can they see another person’s point of view? Only one-tenth of what you write will make it into your manuscript, but when you knock on that tenth you’ll hear oaken solidity, not sawdust and glue.
When a student points out how deranged that is, to sit alone in a room writing letters to yourself, Crispin agrees.
A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synesthesia and embraces obsessive-complusive disorder. You feed your art, your soul and yes, to a degree, your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardize your relationships and distend your life. You have been warned.
I should have listened to the advice Mitchell laid out in his first book, Ghostwritten, by way of Tim Cavendish; “I tell this to anyone who’s trying to get a book finished – steer clear of Nabokov. Nabokov makes anyone feel like a clodhopper.”
By that token, if you’re working toward finishing your own novel, then you should avoid reading David Mitchell.