Image: Matthew Loffhagen
In 2008, Martin Amis, the maverick son of celebrated novelist Kingsley Amis, was named by The Times as one of the best British writers since 1945. This wasn’t such a shock; along with Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, Amis had dominated the British literary world since the 1980s, with classics such as Money, Time’s Arrow, and London Fields cementing his reputation as a sharp stylist, an acerbic commentator, and a much-discussed literary celebrity.
While he’s arguably lost the iconoclastic edge that defined his early work (years in the literary establishment will do that) and he’s not without his controversies, Amis’ career has been both long and successful. As his students at the University of Manchester would surely attest, he has a lot to teach the up-and-coming writer.
1. Recognize the throb
Just how authors begin novel-length projects is often treated as something of a mystery. How developed does the initial idea have to be? How do you recognize whether it’s good or bad? How do you know that the idea you’ve thought of is suited for a novel instead of, say, a play or a short story or an interpretive dance?
In his interview with The Paris Review, Amis tears down the common image of character plans and lists of themes and plot frameworks and instead suggests novels come in the form of what Vladimir Nabokov described as a ‘throb’:
A throb or a glimmer, an act of recognition on the writer’s part. At this stage the writer thinks, Here is something I can write a novel about. In the absence of that recognition I don’t know what one would do. It may be that nothing about this idea – or glimmer, or throb – appeals to you other than the fact that it’s your destiny, that it’s your next book. You may even be secretly appalled or awed or turned off by the idea, but it goes beyond that. You’re just reassured that there is another novel for you to write.
The trick, then, is in recognizing these throbs. Ideas come and go; perhaps you’ll think of something engaging on the bus or you’ll start awake, unable to shake what seems like a world-changing revelation. Learning to assess these ideas in terms of quality and feasibility is its own challenge – but, without these ‘throbs,’ says Amis, there can be no novel.
An idea might be good, but knowing you can see it through to its final form is a different quality altogether.Click To Tweet
How to identify a throb? Well, Amis’ seem to be pretty vague, meaning there’s a lot of wiggle room (the throb for Money was, apparently, ‘a big fat guy in New York, trying to make a film,’ and, for American writer Jennifer Egan, the throb for Manhattan Beach was simply ‘New York, World War Two.’) The whole process is incredibly personal – the most important thing is that you find the image or idea compelling. You need to feel strongly about it – maybe that means you’re excited or maybe, as Amis says, it means you’re ‘secretly appalled or awed or turned off.’ Amis said it better than me: ‘You need an obsession. A desire to put your thumb on historical seals, to alter the impossible.’
2. Treat plot as a hook
Now, this is some style-specific advice; if you’re utilizing workhorse prose primarily to tell a story, then your plot is far more important. For Amis though, who considers himself a ‘B-writer’ – a term British author Anthony Burgess (of A Clockwork Orange fame) used to describe a ‘user of language’ as opposed to ‘A-writers,’ who are ‘storytellers’) – plot acts simply as a ‘hook’ to get the reader interested:
Plots really matter only in thrillers. In mainstream writing the plot is – what is it? A hook. The reader is going to wonder how things turn out.
Money, Amis explains, is essentially ‘a plotless novel,’ what he calls ‘a voice novel.’ I love this phrase because it captures what’s compelling about the aforementioned Money and about literary novels from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to Don DeLillo’s Underworld – nothing really happens, and yet they’re compelling because of the voices of the narrator(s) and characters.Plot is important, but sometimes you only need a few key events to prop up excellent voice and characterization.Click To Tweet
Of course, these are risky ventures. You can’t rely totally on voice; things still need to happen, and you absolutely need that initially intriguing ‘hook’ – plotlessness just means there doesn’t necessarily need to be any build-up or progression of the events that occur in your book. And, as Amis points out, your ‘voices’ need to be in top shape: ‘If the voice doesn’t work you’re screwed.’ He elaborates on this by discussing his own work:
Money was only one voice, whereas London Fields was four voices. The eggs weren’t in one basket. They were in four baskets. I was fairly confident that the hook, this idea of a woman arranging her own murder, pricked the curiosity. So although nothing much happens in five hundred pages, people are still going to want to know how it ends.
Here, we see that although nothing really happens in his book, Amis is still conscious of reader engagement; that initial hook still needs to do its work.
3. Take your time
Unlike American writer Stephen King, who suggests tearing through your book and getting it done as quickly as possible (King, it’s worth noting, is definitely an ‘A-writer,’) Amis suggests slowing down. Like the uber-literary David Foster Wallace, who preferred writing in longhand because it took longer and thus allowed him more time to think, Amis thinks patience is a virtue; he too champions writing in longhand, but for reasons of accumulation rather than pace:
When you scratch out a word, it still exists there on the page. On the computer, when you delete a word it disappears forever. This is important because usually your first instinct is the right one.
This approach, I feel, is especially helpful for those who have trouble getting started. Perhaps you write an opening sentence and delete it dozens of times; if you do this on a computer, after an hour you have nothing to show for your effort; if you do it by hand, you at least have a dozen crossed-out options to examine and, maybe, rediscover.
Similarly, Amis echoes other writers and artists who conflate creative work with actual, nose-to-grindstone work – if you want a fantastic, glittering, flawless sentence, he says, you’re going to have to work for it. Go, he says, one sentence at a time, word by word. The trick is:
Saying the sentence, self-vocalizing it in your head until there’s nothing wrong with it. This means not repeating, in the same sentence, suffixes and prefixes: if you’ve got a “confound,” you can’t have a “conform”; if you’ve got “invitation,” you can’t have “execution.” … I think the prose will give a sort of pleasure without you being able to tell why.
This eye-opening idea made me want to scour every great sentence I’ve read by my favorite writers to see whether they conform to Amis’ own method! Next time you’re writing, test it out for me: see if you create an inexplicably pleasure of your own.
Want to write a beautiful sentence? Begin by not repeating prefixes and suffixes.Click To Tweet
The zone of interest
Amis is a helpful writer in that he provides advice on each stage of the writing process, from the conception of ideas through to the planning of plot through to the formation of individual sentences. It’s always gratifying to see how exactly great writers piece their texts together, and Amis provides!
So, next time you’re struggling over a detailed story plan or are trying and failing to type that first sentence, perhaps step back, reconsider, and follow your nose; what throbs? What demands your attention? Using an actual pen and paper, write something and, if it doesn’t work, scribble it out. Progress is progress, after all, and that includes all our scribbles.
Finally, put Amis’ good-sentence formula to the test! Share your results in the comments, and check out What You Need To Know About Literary Fiction for more tips that work alongside Amis’ style. You can also try 5 Things Jennifer Egan Can Teach You About Writing and 7 Ways Kazuo Ishiguro Can Help You Improve Your Writing for more advice from literary greats.