In my last post I introduced the term ‘shit detector’ as coined by Ernest Hemingway. The shit detector came up in the part of the post where I talked about the quintessential writing ingredient of ‘urgency’, and how to know when you’ve hit it:
So if you can’t take your own feelings as a guide, how do you know when you are in touch with the urgency of your story? I think the crucial factor is ‘looking for what is NOT it’. You can’t see the blank, but you can see where the blank isn’t. Last week I found a great Hemingway quote that seems to apply here:
“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar, and all great writers have it.”
In the end, that’s all we can do, I think. ‘Just removing everything that is NOT the sculpture’, by prodding around with our shit detector and being merciless to whatever bullshit we come across.
So yeah. The shit detector. Since that post I’ve thought about other ways to hone the shit detector and to separate the good from the shit in your writing. Am I tired of saying shit already? Shit no! Read on to discover some more tips and tricks to beat the bullshit.
Tip 1: Externalize the shit detector
We all have them in our lives: people who are not necessarily better writers than we are, but who seem to have a sharper eye or are simply extremely critical (in a good way). Last week when I was reworking my treatment, one of my friends popped into my mind. She’s an editor for a Dutch publishing house who handles a lot of foreign authors, and she’s promised to give my finished manuscript to some agents she knows. When she showed up I immediately noticed myself making different editing choices. Apparently, seen through her eyes, some things started to look like shit which hadn’t seemed so bad before.
You can have many externalized shit detectors in your life. For a while there, Paul Auster used to read every sentence aloud with me (and after that he would shake his head and stare at me with those eloquent eyes). In the end I got rid of Paul because he was too scary, I used to wake up in the middle of the night and- OKAY DIFFERENT SUBJECT
The point is: Depending on the level of shit detection you need and where you’re at in your process – final edits or first outline? – you can choose different externalized shit detectors with varying levels of intimidation, and they will give you sharper eyes and a better sense of good, shit and ugly.
Tip 2: Read some good shit
Another thing that happened over the last few weeks is that I discovered Mo Hayder. What’s notable about that, is that Hayder happens to write in a tone of voice which comes very, very close to what I think the tone for my book needs to be. I was delighted, and I’ve started implementing ‘a little bit of Hayder’ into my process since.
The way this works is very simple: Before you start writing, read a little bit of text by the author of your choice. The goal is not to mimic them, but you’ll find yourself automatically carrying on in their vein, so to speak. This helps you to focus on your tone. Think of it as a torch light that shows you the path through the dark.
(and be careful: Paul Auster likes to hide in the bushes and jump unsuspecting authors)
Tip 3: Read your shit out loud
It’s astonishing to me how few people actually read their texts out loud. This seemingly simple technique is an amazing shit detection tool. I repeat: THIS IS AN AMAZING TOOL. I can’t count the number of people who have looked up from a ‘sentence-by-sentence’ reading of their texts and told me ‘I only I’d KNOWN…’
That is the thing, exactly. By reading aloud you are forcing yourself to know. You can’t gloss over the mediocre parts or that one sentence you know is too long but somehow skip over every time you edit. Reading aloud lays that shit bare, yo. Even better: let somebody else read your text out loud (unprepared). This is sometimes not pretty, but hey- what shit is?
At the end of the day, you don’t want a pat on the back; you don’t want an easy, pretty, glossed over experience. You want to dig up all the dirt there is. You want shit.
Because the better you deal with that shit now…the easier, prettier and glossier your reader’s experience will be.
Except maybe if your reader is Paul Auster.