How to write…


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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:


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.


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.


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?


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.


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


Chekhov this time:


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.


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.


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


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.


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


‘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.’


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.




“There are 150 books which contain everything that literature has to offer”

In the film Before Night Falls, about the life of poet Reinaldo Arenas, his poor background and persecution at the hands of security police in Cuba, there is a scene where he visits the library of a wealthy Cuban writer, José Lezama Lima.

Arenas has just come second in a national competition; according to the film he should have won. Limas says to him:

‘People that make art are dangerous to any dictatorship. We create beauty, and beauty is the enemy. Artists are escapists. Artists are counter-revolutionary and so you are counter-revolutionary, Reinaldo Arenas, and do you know why? Because there is a man that cannot govern the terrain called beauty, so he wants to eliminate it. So, here we are: 400 years of Cuban culture about to become extinct, and everybody applauds.’

‘There are 150 books that contain everything that literature has to offer. Read them and you don’t have to read anything else.’

‘So what will be the first?’

‘The Bible. You have to read the Bible. Just read it like a novel. I’ll tell you what. I’m going to give you five books. Correction, I’m going to lend you five books. You return them and I’ll give you five more.’

The five books chosen by Lima are Sentimental Education, Flaubert; Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust; Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka; Moby Dick, Herman Melville; Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson.

Now, I have read the Bible, not much, but some and I liked it. But I am not able to judge it either way and am happy to take the word of those who have read it and decided that it is great literature.

Sentimental Education is said to be best novel of the nineteenth century. I’ve read it twice, find it acceptable, but without its reputation I don’t think I would bother with it. There is too much that lacks interest; everybody is too concerned with financial dealings; I couldn’t (even after two readings) keep track of everybody; a revolution was going on while the second half of the main story played out, but I remained as unaffected by it as the author. I know Flaubert was obsessed with finding the mot juste – the perfect word; that he was one of the first authors to ‘show don’t tell’. He once said

‘Around man all is shadow, all is emptiness. The moment I don’t have a book on hand or dream of writing one I could howl with frustration. Life is tolerable to me only if one can conjure it away.’

I didn’t care about Frédéric, about Madame Arnoux or Sénécal; his novel had no effect on me.

Remembrance of Things Past, I’m trying to like, people keep saying you must read this but I don’t like it. I don’t want to go too deeply into why I don’t like these books; perhaps it’s because I see them as anti-life – especially Kafka – just to say here that I do not like them. I have tried three times to get into Proust (I will probably re-try the other authors, but Kafka has probably defeated me). I was just thoroughly bored.

Metamorphosis is difficult. I find all of Kafka unreadable (apart from his letters to his girlfriend). I can barely read one sentence of him. I’ve attempted to read other stuff. I’ve tried The Trial; I appreciate the sentiment, one man caught up in a swirl of bureaucracy, but I can’t read it. I’ve even tried the graphic novel. Believe me, I’ve tried. I don’t like Kafka.

I read Moby Dick when I was still at school, then recently tried again. I enjoyed parts of it but they were few and far between. As Clive James said,

‘Melville’s ocean clung like tar. It’s one of those books you can’t get started with even after you have finished reading.’

But the filmmakers chose those five. After seeing the film (which is great), I tried to read Lima’s Paradiso. It was the only novel he wrote (he was a poet) and I can see why. Arenas too, was a poet, but he wrote some fiction too, all of which I find unreadable. This is not to say that I am right and the writers or their critics are wrong. It is a matter of opinion.

Treasure Island I’ve only read once (and fairly recently). I liked it, maybe because it was meant to be a children’s story or a tale to be taken at face value, perhaps because it’s a

‘tale [that] sprang, effortlessly, from his pen at the rate of a chapter every morning.’

Perhaps I liked Jim’s sneaky heroics, Long John Silver’s survival instincts or Dr Livesey’s steady, cheerful demeanour. It doesn’t matter why I liked it or why I disliked the others.

They could have chosen five different books for the film, for example, The Wings of the Dove, Little Dorrit, Anna Karenina, Middlemarch and The Great Gatsby, to name just five; there are many more I could have chosen. I won’t name them here because I’m sure you have your own choices. I’d like to hear what they are. And Lima chose 150 books; he chose five at random. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that three of the five are my least favourite books, a fourth very close and only the fifth rescued the scene (in my eyes).

There is something life-denying about four of the books, excepting Treasure Island (and the Bible of course). Perhaps it’s an attitude to life; an attitude that life isn’t worth living. I would like to add other authors to the list. My list is very conservative; I wanted to make sure that my writers were literary greats: I think James, Eliot, Dickens, Tolstoy and Fitzgerald are greats in anyone’s language.

Perhaps story should be king, as it is (I think) with the five writers I have mentioned. Perhaps I am too stupid to ‘getKafka, Melville, Proust and Flaubert. I don’t know. But the scene in the film stayed with me; it’s now seven years since I saw it and I return to it every two years or so.

What do you think?

Lists, rules and things to do

lists-001Do you make lists of things to do and then make rules for carrying them out?

Do you find writing lists easy and fun?

Does writing a list make you feel as though you’ve achieved something?

Do you come across old lists and rules that you’ve written down, and then realise that you haven’t done a single thing about them?

Are you beginning to despair, feeling that you’ll forever be a writer of lists and nothing more?

Take heart.

Below is a writer’s list of things to do. The writer’s response to what was achieved is in italics.

Take a guess as to the identity of the writer before it’s revealed.


 1)     Study the whole course of law necessary for my final exam at university.

2)      Study practical and theoretical medicine.

3)      Study languages: French, Russian and German.

4)      Study practical and theoretical agriculture.

5)      Study history, geography and statistics.

6)      Study mathematics and the grammar school course.

7)      Write a dissertation.

8)      Attain an average degree of perfection in music.

9)      Acquire some knowledge of natural sciences.

I have not managed to do these things.


New List

Write down new rules.

I wrote down a lot of rules all of a sudden and wanted to follow them all, but I was not strong enough. So now I want to set myself one rule only and to add another rule to it only when I’ve followed that one.

The first rule which I prescribe is as follows:

1)      Carry out everything you have resolved must be carried out.

I haven’t carried out this rule.



The lists above were taken from Tolstoy’s early diaries when he was a student at the prestigious Kazan University. Tolstoy was a bad student, the beginning of a lifelong contempt for authority. He behaved very badly and then castigated himself in his diaries.

 “He had a raging uncontrollable spirit leaping off in all directions.”




But he did not lack ambition. He had rigorous plans, parts of which are related above. Tolstoy was forever making lists and plans and promises to himself to be the strongest, the cleverest, the most saintly model of manhood. However, in diary entries that remind you more of Adrian Mole than a future literary giant, he discovers that writing lists is the easy part.

I find it enormously encouraging that the writer of War and Peace and Anna Karenina had similar problems getting started that I suspect most of us do. It certainly prompted me not only to write fewer lists, but to make much more effort to actually carry them out and, crucially, not make promises to myself that I don’t keep.

I hope it inspires you too.

More on Tolstoy later.