Pick up a 'cruel' pen and fillet your writing, says Jim Crace. Richard McComb sits in on a master class with the prize-winning author.
It is uncompromising advice but it is among the best any would-be novelist could wish for: “Don’t fall in love with your own prose.”
Jim Crace isn’t here to win friends, although he would like to influence new writers. It’s not that the lauded Birmingham-based novelist is being unkind. In fact, the encouragement he conveys to tonight’s intimate audience is inspirational.
It’s just that there is no point polishing egos in the publishing world. Polish your prose by all means, says Crace; this is essential. But the road to publishing oblivion is strewn with the corpses of deluded narcissists.
Hence Crace’s advice to the writers assembled in a meeting room at Fazeley Studios in Digbeth. He is addressing a dozen students on Tindal Street Press’s first ever Academy Masterclass. The 10-week course is nearing its conclusion (a new masterclass series is due to start in April) and Crace is the third prize-winning author to impart their practical wisdom, following sessions by fellow city-based novelists Helen Cross and Catherine O’Flynn.
He is in a particularly upbeat mood, having finished his 13th, and possibly final, novel just two weeks ago. Crace, 66, who has a wry, yet warm manner, has previously gone on record as saying he will stop writing novels out of self-preservation because he does not want to become bitter.
He says: “It is a tremendous feeling when you complete something and you are told it is satisfactory. When you start writing a novel it is really scary, it is a massive undertaking.”
It takes skill and dedication to complete a novel but Crace offers hope for struggling writers.
“Fifty per cent of your problems are over when you have written a quarter of your novel,” he says.
‘‘Writing a novel is like pushing a boulder up a hill. The boulder turns into a balloon when “the narrative abandons you. It should happen about a quarter of the way into the book.”
And thus does the novel take flight.
Crace’s first novel Continent was published in 1986. It picked up the Whitbread First Novel Award and the writer has gone on to become a serial award-winner, collecting the Whitbread Novel Award for Quarantine (also shortlisted for the Booker Prize) and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Being Dead.
His success can be attributed to all those things we expect of good writers – a gifted imagination, originality, deft prose – but this would count for nothing, suggests Crace, without the author’s greatest friend and most feared enemy: editing.
The editing is all; and submitting to it, and doing it, takes guts. “You have to learn to be tough on yourself and learn for others to be tough on you,” explains Crace.
“When you reach the stage you are going to start editing you are in a wonderful position. You have cleared the mountain. You have your 70,000 words. You have a complete package. It is such a joyful moment. What you are going to do now is look for mistakes and blemishes and polish and improve them.”
The writing, he says, is in the rewriting. To make his point, Crace recalls taking a writing workshop at the Midlands Arts Centre. One woman could write powerful stories but she had a block when it came to her own particular fault.
Crace says: “Her blemish was always weighing down her sentences by saying the bleeding obvious.”
He recalls one example: “The black and white magpies flew across the empty field.”