Words on Writing; Why your writing needs a service

I think there's something wrong with my car...

I'm writing this in the waiting room of a local garage while two mechanics service my car. There's nothing specific I can put my finger on, but I have an underlying suspicion that it's not driving as well as it used to.

... and I have similar feelings about my new book.

The car has been getting me where I need to go, and my writing has been doing the same, it's just that the journey doesn't feel quite right.

The problem

In England, I drove a Skoda. It had a loud diesel engine and a tape deck. Now I drive an American SUV which has a Bose stereo (natch), some kind of complicated noise reduction system which means I never hear the children fighting in the back seat, and a lot of buttons which I haven't yet dared to press. I was very fond of my English car, but the car salesman assured me that this one is better.

I was fond of my last novel too. We spent a lot of time together and I understood how it worked. I knew everything about my main characters, I'd found a 'writing voice' which created a seemingly authentic view of 1908 New York (to borrow from T.S.Eliot, 'He do the police in different voices'), and the structure felt balanced (to borrow from endless writing websites, it had a beginning, a middle and an end). This new novel is different. I'm still trying to catch the idiosyncracies of the main characters: a modern-day Mrs. Alcott, her philosophizing wastrel of a husband, and the illustrious chick-lit writing twenty-first century daughter, Louisa May Alcott. The words aren't coming easily, and the ending isn't quite clear.

And so, surrounded by car handbooks and posters, with the sounds of the hydraulic lift and car engines in the background, I have decided that the solution to my problem is to give my writing a full service.

  • Basic Mechanics

Good writing depends on good foundations.

(And I can already hear the dissenters citing examples of great books using bad grammar - 'Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo' - but my point is that the people who confidently craft writing which breaks the rules are able to do so because they know what the rules are in the first place.)

In the olden days, I was taught both grammar and penmanship by the formidable, iron-haired Miss Smith. In those days my father was able to service his own car: tinkering away for hours under the bonnet with a collection of spanners and rarely used swear words. Nowadays, everything is computerized. Right now, I imagine, my car's computer is being plugged into some mothership which will flag up any fundamental errors. And when I arrive home and type these words into the computer, the spelling mistakes will be highlighted and the computer will 'helpfully' put squiggly lines underneath bits of my grammar.

It's useful to have those tools, but I want to keep hold of the past as well. On my desk, I keep a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style; since arriving in the US I have used the Chicago Manual of Style for reference; and I often wonder what would happen to Miss Smith's eyebrows if I place the verb at the end of the sentence or include an exclamation mark too many.

According to the notice stuck to the side of the garage door, this process of checking and double-checking is called quality control. Despite the computerized element, I suspect it's not all that new.

  • A Little Va-Va-Voom

Good grammar, or even carefully chosen bad grammar, is not enough however. A good journey - a truly memorable journey - will always do more than merely carry you from A to B. According to Renault, we all need some Va-Va-Voom.

In relation to my new book, I have a sense of the journey I am about to make. I know where I want to go. The plot mirrors real-life events from the lives of the Alcotts, but they happen to fictional people about 150 years later. The Va-Va-Voom will come from the ways in which I bring the people and the setting to life, the pace I give to the plot, and the additional quirks and details I discover along the way. And there isn't any one handbook which will tell me how to do this.

For inspiration, I think nothing beats conversations with other writers - at conferences and retreats, through online fora and other virtual spaces. Sometimes it's about scaling back, sometimes it's about adding in. It's always about trying something new. You know all those extra buttons around my steering wheel? Well, if I work out what they do, I can decide whether I want to use them. Or not.

  • A bit of spit and polish 

I took part in a reality tv show last year which was aimed at discovering new talented writers. It was unfortunate (but became increasingly unsurprising as the fiasco unfurled) that the show was not talented enough to find a distributor. However, I learned many valuable lessons around how to present, and how not to present, my work. 

If one wants one's work to be published and to find an audience, it needs to look good from the outside as well as from inside the middle of chapter fourteen. There are conferences aimed at helping writers develop a pitch for their work, and many agencies also provide advice around the kind of pitch they would like to see. You might want to look at: 
One size will never fit all. The pitch is intended to fire the enthusiasm of the kind of person you think will enjoy reading your book. I'm looking at a picture of the Mazda MX5. It's great marketing, but I won't be asking for a test drive. I live in New England, it's winter, and when the snow finally melts we'll have two months of mud. The red sports car looks beautiful, but I'd never have the time or inclination to use it. I feel the same about Steampunk. 

  • And a bit of confidence and companionship
As a postscript to this rambling article, the mechanic interrupted my writing to tell me everything was fine with my car. He'd checked the basic mechanics, rotated the tires, changed the oil, and found nothing to worry about. He patted my hand, gave me my invoice, and told me it was always better to be safe than sorry. I believed him, but I checked out what he said with a friend who knows about cars as soon as I got home. 

And that is the same as my writing too. (I promise this metaphor is nearly finished now, and I can almost see the joining of Miss Smith's eyebrows as she frowns over the relentlessness of this comparison). 

The most valuable support I received while writing my first novel - and the reason it became something I was proud of having written - came from the confidence my friends and mentor gave me. That wasn't about proof-reading every word, highlighting chunky grammar, and correcting spelling mistakes. There are handbooks and word processing programs which can do that. My friends didn't over-analyze my novel's structure or ask to see any of my pitch letters. The best times were when they felt like travelling companions who had come along for the journey and were enjoying the ride. 


  1. I'm really excited about your new novel and hope Abby is the heroine. Have you yet been to Fruitlands?

    Another good source for us transatlantic writers is Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson, who advises American and British writers how to proceed with caution when driving on the right or the left with their prose.

  2. I think the writing of the novel is definitely all about the journey: about the detours taken along the way (the dross we have to remove at final edits) and the breakdowns the characters might experience before getting up and running properly again (check of their development); about the hitches to operations ( writer's block) and how it gets you to the final destination- the end. I enjoyed this post but don't quite know who to thank. ;-)

  3. Thanks for this article. It's encouraging to know that I'm not alone in losing my way with my writing from time to time, and the back to basics advice is most timely so I'm off to do my own MOT!


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