How to write…

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I’ve always wanted to be a writer, sort of. Apparently my junior school teacher told my mother that my subject would be English. It wasn’t. It wasn’t anything. I was far too busy playing truant, misbehaving and generally having a good time. I took an interest in books in my late teens, but was still far too lazy and preoccupied to get seriously into literature. I loved foreign holidays because I’d take a dozen books with me and read them all. To me that was what holidays were for. At home I was too busy drinking, chasing girls, taking drugs and being bad, to read. I probably read as much during one holiday as I did during a whole year at home. I wanted to read; I bought loads of books – I loved them – I just didn’t read many of them.

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Times have slowly changed. Now I read a lot, have done for many years, but I still allow myself to be distracted by TV and the Internet. I write a lot too. I have actually written all my life, jotting down ideas, starting short stories, even novels, but never really sustaining anything the way real writers do. Only age has made me slow down and write and I’ve become fairly good at it: one published memoir and a novel just submitted. But it took me forever to do it. The memoir was the result of ten years’ work, on-and-off; the novel has taken me a year, although it was roughly complete in a couple of months.

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And when you come to write: How do you write? I must have read a hundred books on writing, but I’m not sure I’ve taken one bit of advice. I still sit down and write the way I always do, always have done, with some learning on the way that has been absorbed rather than learned. A sort of osmosis. And that osmosis, the absorption has come about through reading and thinking about what I’ve read, all the time; even in those lazy early days I realise that I was reading and writing and thinking and absorbing, watching people, thinking about it, storing it. And I love books. I love stories.

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But how do you write? Can it be taught? I think the churning out of stories: vampire stories, love stories, detective stories and all the other variations can be taught, especially in the techno-age. I think real writers are born, not taught: Tolstoy, Balzac, Shakespeare, Steinbeck – they wrote because they couldn’t help it, and they don’t get forgotten. They are with us always. They told great stories.

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In How I Became a Famous Novelist, Steve Hely wrote:

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But as I walked out through the shelves, I looked at the work of my colleagues. There was Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls – all those pseudo-epic titles with women dying in the rain, bullfights, and Italian vistas. He knew the deal. He knew doomed Mediterranean romances would pay for Key West beach view and a new fishing boat. And Fitzgerald, who’d tricked the eye with an Ivy League pedigree and convinced the world that a rich guy who threw parties was some kind of metaphor. There was Faulkner, a southern huckster in the Bill Clinton mould, who suckered you in with his honey voice and tales of landscapes soaked in tragedy.

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Is this true? The great novelist as con-artist? It made me think. I like Hemingway’s short stories. I loved The Old Man and the Sea when I was very young, but found it mostly awful when I returned to it recently. I didn’t like a Farewell to Arms; it read like the script to a very bad ‘B’ movie. I liked The Great Gatsby, but not that much. It’s OK, but I’ve never understood its reputation. I’ve never read Faulkner. Con-artists? Hely continues:

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It went on back to Homer, who’d written stories so ridiculous, so full of special effects and monsters and busty, half-divine sluts that Hollywood would be ashamed to make them. And he’d pulled it off! He’s punched it up with rosy -fingered dawn and the sickeningly cloying scene of Prium begging for his son’s body. That blind old trickster probably got more chicks (or dudes) than Pericles.

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On through Dickens, with his pleading orphans and sweetheart aunts; Mark Twain, with his little cherub-faced rascals and mock rural slang; James Joyce with his whisky-soaked-stage-Irish blarney – they were all con-artists. They weren’t any better than the guys who write beer commercials or sell car insurance over the phone. They just had a different angle.

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Now, Dely is writing tongue-in-cheek here (I hope), but is there any truth in what he says? I’ve read very little Homer (I find it difficult), but I like Dickens and Mark Twain a lot. James Joyce’s early stories were great but then he lost me – I’ve tried Ulysses several times and it always defeats me. But no better than the guys who write commercials?

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Norman Mailer wrote that

‘It’s as hard to learn to write as to play the piano’.

It is. Even for the jobbing writer who turns out average stuff. Sitting down in front of a blank page is a real challenge, it can be daunting, and it was just as hard for Joyce and Hemingway. Being a writer is not easy. Take this from someone who invents fresh avoidance tactics every day. I would do anything to avoid writing. Con-artists? I don’t think so. Lucky, in a few cases, maybe, shysters, no.

But back to how to write. For all the books I’ve read on writing, I think I’ve only picked up a few rules, and I probably knew them anyway. One of them is Elmore Leonard’s favourite rule: Do not use adverbs: ‘said’ with the name of the speaker at the end of a piece of dialogue is enough, and only occasionally to identify the speaker. If I pick up a book in a shop and read ‘John said hopefully’ or ‘sadly’ or ‘doubtfully’ or whatever, I put the book straight back on the shelf. The reader does not need to be told. They can and want to figure it out for themselves. If the writing is good enough the reader will know how the words are spoken or they will work out their own version. Don’t tell them.

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Don’t tell the reader how your characters are feeling.

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Chekhov this time:

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Shun all descriptions of the characters’ spiritual state. You must try to have that state emerge from their actions. The artist must be only an impartial witness of his characters and what they said, not their judge.

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Let your readers judge character and feeling. Let them do the work. That’s half the pleasure of reading. I remember when I wrote my memoir, describing a policeman (who had caused me a lot of trouble) skidding away from a police station on his motorbike, leaving me standing in a cloud of dust. A woman who later read the account said she liked the description. Why? Because you didn’t say how it made you feel.

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Sis Field writes screenplays but his advice applies to any writer of fiction:

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Without conflict there no drama. Without need there is no character. Without character there is no action. Action is character. What a person does is what he is, not what he says.

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Action is not necessarily people fighting or shooting or special effects. It can be a knowing smile or the way someone smokes a cigarette. Elia Kazan, someone else who worked with the screen, said

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‘It’s twenty times better if violence is suggested rather than if you’re explicit. What you imagine is much more frightening than what is seen.’

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The same applies to writing novels. Take your reader into another world, tell them a story, but let them imagine the most important aspects of it.

Those are the only things I’ve picked up on from all those books on writing, and I think I knew them already. I absorbed what made good writing from the hundreds of good books I’ve read. And of course you need a modicum of talent. And the most important rule of all?

Work hard. Really hard. The aspect that I find the most difficult.

As G.K. Chesterton said, there is only one way:

Apply the seat of the pants to the chair and don’t get up until it’s finished.

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Write or type?

penI am fascinated by how writers write and how the process of writing has changed with the advent of technology, from the pen and typewriter which dominated until comparatively recently, to now, where in theory, one could write a novel on a tiny handheld phone. Some writers still write in longhand, believing that they work better that way, sometimes for practical reasons: to avoid distraction or because pen and paper do not need batteries, but also because they feel there is an intangible relationship between mind, hand, implement and creation.

Stephen Fry’s recommendations for writing poetry include:

“Buy a notebook, exercise book or jotter pad and lots of pencils (any writing instrument will do but I find pencils more physically pleasing).”

JK Rowling says she

“still likes writing by hand. Normally I do a first draft using pen and paper, and then do my first edit when I type it onto my computer. For some reason I prefer a black pen to a blue one, and in a perfect world I’d always use narrow feint writing paper.”

Jackie Collins’s Goddess of Vengeance comprised of 2000 handwritten pages. An assistant then types the work and Collins edits that version. She says

“I write in longhand. It takes me a long, long time to write my books. I do a lot of things on the computer but when it comes to writing I want that black felt tip pen and I want that yellow legal pad and I’m good to go anywhere in the world.”

Cecilia Ahern, author of PS I Love You, uses

“pen and paper because I love the physical act of writing – and that you can sit down anywhere and do it longhand without worrying about low batteries or Internet connections. I can write pretty much anywhere.”

These writers stress the practicality of longhand but are also specific about what they prefer: Rowling’s ‘black pen and narrow feint writing paper’, Collins’s ‘black felt tip and yellow legal pad’, while Ahern emphasises ‘the physical act of writing’. There seems to be, for some writers, a relationship between brain, hand, implement, paper and, crucially, what is actually written, something corporeal but mysterious that affects what eventually appears on a mechanically printed page.

Many writers admit when asked that most common of questions

“Where do your ideas come from?”

that they don’t know. Stephen King says

“and we know we don’t know…your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognise them when they show up.”

Ideas have ‘shown up’ to writers ever since people have told stories; before writing was reproduced and printed, stories were told from memory. Until very recently, mechanical aids were not used for writing; Shakespeare, we know, used a quill pen. It was said that he never blotted a line,

“Would that he had blotted a thousand”

said Ben Jonson, a statement of both envy and respect.

Even in the office “paper still matters” according to Phyllis Korkki in the New York Times. She cites David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, describing paper as

“in your face. Paper reminds us that we’re physical beings, despite having to contend with an increasingly virtual world,”

he said

“People complain that writing by hand is slow, but that can be good for thinking and creating. It slows us down to think and to contemplate and to revise and recast. Its physical presence can be a goad to completing tasks, whereas computer files can easily be hidden and thus forgotten.”

Some of his clients are returning to paper planners for this very reason. Although Allen does much of his writing on a computer, there are still times when writing with a fountain pen on a notepad

“allows me to get my head in the right place.”

Getting one’s head in ‘the right place’ is a difficulty most of us experience daily, but for a writer, having one’s head in the wrong place is probably the greatest obstacle to creation. So does the method of writing affect the process of getting the head in smooth writing mode? And what is the right place? To simplify matters for my purpose here, let’s just describe it as that blessed state where writing flows effortlessly. And to simplify further let us abandon the office, journalism too, and concentrate on the novelist.

John Steinbeck, in his Journal of a Novel, described writing as

“a strange and mystic business. Almost no progress has taken place since it was invented. The Book of the Dead is as good and as highly developed as anything in the 20th century and much better than most.”

Steinbeck always wrote longhand with pencil and felt that

“sometimes when I am writing I am very near to a kind of unconsciousness.”

That unconsciousness may well describe those periods when something else takes over (the Muses?) and we write as if driven by something other than ourselves, when a story becomes autonomous and seems to unfold in a way that it decides, rather than being controlled by the writer. In 1951, when Steinbeck wrote East of Eden, he could have used a typewriter. Did he, like many other writers, even today, find that writing flowed more through this relationship between hand, implement and paper than via a machine?

Steinbeck certainly had a minor obsession with pencils. In his Journal of a Novel, the diary he kept of the process of writing East of Eden, he wrote

“For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones but never the perfect one. And all the time it was never the pencils but me. A pencil that is all right some days is no good another day. For example yesterday, I used a special pencil soft and fine and floated over the paper just wonderfully. So this morning I used the same kind. And they crack on me. This is the day I am stabbing the paper. So today I need a harder pencil. I have my plastic tray you know and in it three kinds of pencil for hard writing days and soft writing days. Only sometimes it changes in the middle of a day, but at least I am equipped for it. I have also some super soft pencils which I don’t use very often because I must feel as delicate as a rose petal to use them. And I am not often that way.”

Steinbeck complained that pencils were a great expense to him and that he used at least sixty a day. His best friend was the electric pencil sharpener,

“I have never had anything that I used more and was more help to me. I like to sharpen them all at once and then I never have to do it again that day.”

But he had another motive:

“I have lost the sense of rush with which I started and that is exactly what I intended to do.”

If, as Steinbeck suggests, no progress has taken place in writing since The Book of the Dead, does how we write make any difference? Will technology, the ease with which the physical book can be produced, along with automatic spelling and grammar checks produce better or worse writers? And does writing with pen or pencil improve one’s writing? Is it an aid to thinking and inspiration?

Half of the chapters in my first book were written with pen and paper. I use a Grey Pilot V5 Hi-Tecpoint 0, 5. I find the effect very similar to a pencil and of course it never needs sharpening and is good for a hundred pages or so. I keep a constant supply, always having at least ten in reserve. I can’t write with anything else; I find writing with a ballpoint resistant to flow. I do love pencils but can only write a few lines (I press too hard) before a sharpener is needed to restore a pleasing feel and appearance to my words.

Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel Prize winner for Literature, uses a graph paper notebook. He writes one full page, and then leaves the next page blank for revisions. I too like this method. Despite using a computer most of the time now, I still prefer to edit on paper, printing off a few pages and making changes with a red pen before adding them back into the screen version. I find reading and editing much easier on paper; everything is much clearer to me and the edits feel more satisfying that way – they feel right. There is certainly something very natural to writing on paper, something lacking on the screen, and I feel it’s much easier to miss errors on screen, errors which leap off the page on paper. Despite their convenience, particularly for holiday reading, I am unable to read more than a few pages of books using a Kindle or other software aids. I get no pleasure from it – something important is missing.

Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japanese-British novelist, organises and writes his novels with pen and paper. Only when the novel is complete does he type his own pages; before that he uses flow charts, folders of narratives, plot and narrators in a two year process – all hand-written with edits in pencil. John le Carré prefers to write his novels in longhand; he says that he’s allergic to computers. He writes from 4 a.m. until midday, when his wife types up the day’s work. All Le Carré’s papers were kept in a barn until he donated 85 boxes of manuscripts to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Much can be learned from paper manuscripts about a writer’s methods and thought processes that cannot be easily discovered from a computer. Of course, once deciphered an archive can be simplified and made available on line, but that archive would not be available in the first place without the meticulous, handwritten record.

Many of my ideas and parts of stories are in notebooks which are easily found and referred to. I find these much more accessible than those in my computer, where I have more than a thousand files containing one-line ideas, chapters, potential blogs, articles and short stories. I sometimes find stuff on my computer that I think is good and wonder who the author was, then I realise that I wrote it, often many years previously. Opening a computer folder full of files, I can’t remember what work goes with the titles given to each piece and it is very time consuming to open and check each file, whereas flicking through the pages of labelled notebooks is easier, quicker, more efficient and satisfying. For me it is, anyway. I’m sure the technically proficient could show me more efficient ways of storing work on a computer, but I think I would still come across five year old work that I’d forgotten about that would have been worth pursuing. Perhaps I’m just hopelessly disorganised and anti-technology, but I find books and notebooks a better method of storing and retrieving information.

Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen blogs on the computer, but for novels, only pen and paper will do. She uses a Bic pen and sheets of unlined paper. Comfortable composing articles at the keyboard, she struggles with novels, finding that she wastes too much time

“perfecting them.”

Gerritsen appreciates pen and paper for its physical properties:

“I like knowing that once the ink’s on the page, it can’t magically disappear when the power goes out. I like being able to write notes in the margins.”

This is not to suggest that everybody should suddenly revert to using pens and pencils. Nor am I implying that those writers using longhand are better writers, or that keyboard writers are worse. I am merely theorising about the mysterious source of inspiration (my blog on Muses) and its possible relationship to the physical process of actual writing, rather than typing.  Computers are fantastic aids to general writing, for most business uses, for journalists, for articles and those with deadlines.

Whether one writes longhand or not, pens and notebooks remain indispensable; I always carry both. Watching TV, I have an open notebook beside me for those ideas which come from the news or drama or just arrive from nowhere. You think

‘that’s a great idea. I’ll work on that later’

but you won’t – you’ll forget. The best ideas come only once; they vanish as quickly and easily as they arrive. They must be recorded somewhere, quickly. Perhaps some writers make notes in their phones or other gadgets, but what if the idea needs expanding? You can’t draw arrows, margin notes and fast alterations with a gadget. Not yet anyway.  Writers who use longhand speak vaguely of a physical relationship, physical properties, hard and soft writing days, the physical act of writing, a physically pleasing aspect. There is something there, but we are not sure what it is, how to describe it or why it helps. What I am getting at here is that the pencil (or pen) is an aid to the imagination. It is certain that even some modern novelists still prefer to write this way; when it comes to creating something more than the quotidian it appears that for some, only pen and paper will do.

Victor Hugo did it Naked

Victor Hugo did it naked, standing at a lectern facing a third floor window of his Guernsey home, overlooking St Peter Port harbour. Tennessee Williams couldn’t stop doing it and worried constantly about it. George Orwell thought it “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness”, while Evelyn Waugh required “merely silence” to do it; he preferred his children to be “away”. John Lennon thought it ‘torture’ and GK Chesterton believed there was only one way to do it.

penFor many authors, writing is not a pleasurable experience, although Victor Hugo may have discovered a fun element.

Why am I writing about writing? Well, I’ve written one book and I’m desperately trying to write a second. I didn’t begin writing my first until into middle-age and it took me a few years to complete.  I’d always wanted to write, so why did it take me so long?

Because I will do anything rather than sit down and write; tasks I normally hate: cleaning, paying bills, laundry, suddenly take precedence over writing, even though it’s the writing and the ideas for writing that are constantly swirling around in my mind. When I finally force myself to write, the early stages are the hardest, the period when nothing will come, when I believe I’m an utter moron and question my ability: “who are you kidding, thinking you can write?” This is often the stage where I just have to do that extra piece of research, read the latest book on how to write or the latest author biography, switch on that must-see TV programme – or just give up and open a bottle of wine.

But why is writing so hard?

John Yorke, in his recent book Into the Woods, shows that stories follow a pattern, a common structure. This is not a new idea, far from it, but Yorke believes that the archetypal structure matches deep psychological needs within us all: order from chaos, characters changing, confronting their demons to become the people they were always capable of being. This supplies a need for the reader, who is comforted by the process, identifying with the character that brings order from turmoil, confronts and slays the enemy. The detective story is a perfect example: a problem is solved; there is resolution. Most of us do not confront what we fear; we hide and play it safe. This explains the hunger for stories, be they in books, films, soap operas or reality TV shows: secret fears are confronted and overcome.

I have oversimplified outrageously, but I believe that for many writers the process of sitting down and writing is also, like story structure, a confrontation with the enemy: self-knowledge, not only in the sense of revealing oneself but in conquering doubts over one’s ability. In practical terms writing should be easy, you just sit down (or stand naked at a lectern) and do it. But it isn’t easy. Steven Pressfield in The War of Art puts it bluntly:

“How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumours and neuroses, succumbed to painkillers, gossip, and compulsive smart-phone use, simply because we don’t do that thing that our hearts, our inner genius, is telling us to? Resistance defeats us.”

I love the idea of writing, I want to write but hide from its practice, unless … unless I force myself to sit and write, probably awful stuff, for at least an hour. Then, miraculously, something happens – not always, it’s not that easy – and the awful stuff begins to make sense: it flows, ideas appear from everywhere, ideas that had been locked away, ideas locked away by me while I resisted and wasted my time, pour onto the page, ideas I didn’t know I’d had; plots change, characters change, and for a blessed few hours I am creating something, something worthwhile and I am enjoying writing. But that initial process of beginning – it’s hard, and I resist it much more often than I embrace it.

The truth is that writing is very hard work; you have to be dedicated and professional to keep going. Norman Mailer put it well:

“One must be able to do a good day’s work on a bad day, and indeed, that is a badge of honor decent professionals are entitled to wear.”

Apparently more than 80% of people say they want to write a book, but less than 1% do. Not all those would-be writers have the ability to write – The X Factor shows us that believing you have talent and actually possessing it are two very different things – but I’m sure there are many talented people among that group telling themselves every day that they will start that novel tomorrow or next week or after they’ve finished researching the history of Florentine art for that Renaissance murder mystery they’ve been planning for five years. Steven Pressfield, straight as ever, gets right to it:

“We don’t just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed.”

And GK Chesterton’s

“one way to do it”

his method of getting it done?

“Apply the seat of the pants to chair and remain there until it’s finished.”

I’m about to do just that, right after I’ve cleaned those windows, they’re filthy.