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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Somebody Say Something

Graham Greene wrote that:

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The writer’s duty is to make trouble for any dominant power, forcing complacent authorities and submissive followers to confront difficult questions.’ They should be ‘grit in the state machinery.’ He says that disloyalty is essential against anything that is ‘part of the establishment – churches, universities, businesses, social and cultural groups, even great literary figures such as Shakespeare. If any of these institutions or people are deserving, they can survive the criticism directed at them. Otherwise, no one will suffer unduly except the pretentious, the humourless, the dogmatic, the corrupt.’

There is nothing contentious in this statement, it is just common sense. Any power should be able to tolerate and absorb criticism. Criticism is necessary for democracy, or at least a healthy society, to thrive. Yet I see very little criticism of authority today. Of course it is there, perhaps more than ever, but it is mostly hidden, confined to the Internet or minority, specialist outlets. In the mainstream there is little of any relevance.

V.S. Pritchett described Greene as ‘genially subversive’ and suggested an appropriate maxim for him and those like him:

The world is too complacent. Let us catch it out.’

Greene was a very good writer and an extraordinarily interesting man. There were many like him: George Orwell, John Steinbeck and, later, Norman Mailer to name just a few. Orwell wrote of Charles Dickens that he was:

Generously angry…a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.’

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Orwell wrote that in 1939 about a man who wrote in the previous century. What would he think of the standard of writing today? Who confronts our ‘smelly little orthodoxies?

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Orwell also wrote about ‘the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality.’  That describes almost everyone in authority in the Western world today, particularly where I live in England – public schoolboys and girls are everywhere, completely out-of-touch with reality, living in a strange cocooned world of privilege, but nevertheless possessed of a disturbing certainty that what they are doing is right, that there is no other way. It is much the same with TV, journalism, in fact the media as a whole.

Far too many people are only interested in trivia. Twitter, Facebook, computer games and porn are all escapes from reality, time spent on them provides an excuse not to think. Authority conspires in this, often unthinkingly, until we are all engulfed in nonsense. Meanwhile a significant minority goes on its merry way, leading the world to disaster. Here is not the place to discuss what that disaster or disasters may be, I am merely addressing the reporting of it, the writing about it, particularly in books, newspapers and magazines. Many people believe that print is a thing of the past. I don’t agree. Generally, most people do not absorb or remember what they see on their screens; they don’t really learn anything – it is just an escape from thinking.

So, who in print is addressing real problems? Where are the influential writers of today? Who is publishing them? Where can I buy their books or read their articles? I hope I’m wrong, but I know of very few, especially novelists. Is there anybody out there who isn’t just playing the game, just lining their own nest?

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Norman Mailer wrote of the American WASP that:

They were not here on earth to enjoy or even perhaps to love very much, they were here to serve, and serve they did in public functions and public charities (while recipients of their charity might vomit in rage and laugh in scorn).’

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Mailer wrote that in the sixties; he was still genially subversive in 2006, not long before his death at 85:

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‘Global capitalism does not speak of a free market but of a controlled globe. It is alien to the creative possibilities that have not yet been tapped in legions of people who’ve never had a chance to be creative, who work and die without creative moments in their lives. Their hopes have been buried. When talented people emerge from no apparent cultural background, I see them as the product of ten generations of frustrated people who wanted more than their lives gave them.’

Some fine writers have died recently, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Christopher Hitchens among them. Far from perfect human beings, but thinkers, writers, troublemakers – they always had interesting things to say. I find it hard to think of anybody now who is challenging today’s awful orthodoxies. Is there anyone?

Britain produces an extraordinary amount of commentary, in print, on television and on radio: so much that the production of opinion seems to be our dominant industry, the thing we are best at and most enjoy doing. Most of it isn’t bad commentary. If the broadsheets were badly written, if the sermonisers and pundits couldn’t speak in coherent sentences, if you routinely tuned in to hear people not making any sense, it would be much easier to dismiss. That though is not the problem with what passes for discussion in Britain. The problem isn’t that it’s low-grade: It is mostly fluent, clear, coherent and often vividly expressed. The problem is that it is almost entirely free of fresh ideas.

You can go whole weeks without encountering a new idea; you can listen to hundreds of hours of media debate and encounter nothing new. The void is at its worst when there is a conspicuous attempt to fill it: the frowning politician pretending to think, as he mimes sincerity; the pouting celebrities spouting forth on the issues of the day, when their only motive is to draw attention to themselves. You witness these performances (and that is what they are – acting) and you think: I wish somebody would say something. Because this is the feeling I get about British life, a bizarre feeling given how much talk there is, but one which goes very deep: you get the feeling that nobody ever says anything. You watch the television, read the newspaper, and wait for somebody to say something…and wait…and wait…and wait…

John Lanchester wrote the above in the London Review of Books. He wrote it TEN years ago. We are so, so much worse off now.

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