Brain surgery

A good friend of mine – I’ll call her Carol – asked for my help with a tricky client. Carol is a professional book editor and a very meticulous one – although she’s not a creative writer and doesn’t have any desire to join the circle of the damned.

She’d edited non-fiction books by her client, and they had been professionally written. But now he had asked her to edit his first novel. She contacted me because she could sense there was something wrong but lacked the experience to identify exactly what was amiss. Would I give it the once over and let her know what I thought?

She sent me the first three chapters to read, but I only had to look at the first couple of pages to see that the writer had committed many of the sins of the inexperienced novelist.

He began with a leisurely exposition of the weather rather than in the middle of the action – it wasn’t exactly “It was a dark and stormy night”, but it wasn’t far away. There was a generous sprinkling of clichés – people sprang to life and crouched in the darkest recesses. And there were unnecessary words, especially adverbs, like the character who twitched nervously.

He freely used an authorial voice in an intrusive way. He spoke for example of a character having an assurance that suggested authority – but suggested to whom, I wondered?

Much of this could be fixed by editing and, indeed, it’s still as true as ever that good books are not written they are re-written, so there is no shame in having a first draft that needs work. But there was also an unfathomable something else hanging over the whole piece: an unnameable and worrying quality, the quality that had prompted Carol to seek my help. It wasn’t until I met her for lunch the following week that I began to get a handle on what the something was.

I handed her my notes – prefacing them, as always, with the words, “Of course, this is only my opinion” but feeling pretty certain that any writer would come to similar conclusions. She looked through them and then handed me the missing piece of the puzzle. The client was a world famous brain surgeon, a man who had saved countless lives and who was a leader in that most difficult of all branches of surgery.

It still took a day or two longer for my unconscious to telegraph me with the solution to my mystery. A brain surgeon is someone who is intelligent, ruthlessly exacting, unusually calm under stress, who has studied for many years until he is familiar with every detail of his profession. He must go to extraordinary lengths every time he performs his job: scrubbing up meticulously, choosing precisely the right set of surgical instruments to use in precisely the correct order, acting coolly and deliberately when slicing the scalp, sawing open the skull, directing the laser beam or the scalpel and remaining cool and resourceful when the unexpected occurs during the operation. Above all else, he cannot afford to make a single mistake, even of the most trivial kind, or the consequences may be fatal.

It came to me that the man who had chosen to put himself through such fearsome discipline, and subject himself to a relentless need for perfection had decided to write fiction as a means of respite. He wrote to relax.

Now, had he chosen poetry or literary criticism or a study of the role of medieval plainsong chants in the history of music, no-one would have even noticed. But he had chosen fiction – arguably the most difficult and demanding branch of writing with which to relax. And it was here that I felt the problems lay.

A writer of fiction is someone who is intelligent, ruthlessly exacting, unusually calm under stress, who has studied for many years until he is familiar with every detail of his profession. He must go to extraordinary lengths every time he performs his job: scrubbing his plots and characters meticulously, choosing precisely the right set of literary devices to use in precisely the correct order, acting coolly and deliberately when slicing sentences, sawing open subordinate clauses, directing the laser beam of his mind and remaining cool and resourceful when the unexpected occurs during the operation. Above all else, he cannot afford to make a single mistake, even of the most trivial kind, or the consequences may be fatal.

My friend’s client, was a brilliant brain surgeon, but a sloppy writer. Having endured the training of a Shao Lin monk in his chosen profession, he adopted the ways of Homer Simpson when off duty.

Instead of using writing as a mean to unwind, he should have been using every ounce of his demanding training and experience to recognise the need for an equally rigorous approach to writing. He should have seen that writing fiction is a profession that demands exactly the same kind of perfectionist approach as the medical profession and redoubled his efforts to master the art and the craft techniques needed.

It may not be brain surgery, but writing is also a job for professionals. As Thomas Mann put it, a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.

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