Friday, 19 August 2011

On Writing

Four things that happened last week have got me back into finishing my novel.

Having been accepted for Flashmob - one of Lancaster Litfest's publications I was invited to a professional development workshop for writers, which reminded me what my own priorities are, helped me set goals and reinvigorated me.

Before going there, I re-read the 60,000 words I've written so far of my novel (untouched for months) to see if it was worth pursuing. It was funny (it's ok, it's supposed to be) and readable and I got excited about it again.

Then, on the train to Lancaster I finished Stephen King's 'On Writing' - a book that is often highly recommended to writers by other writers.

It's a curiosity - part interesting autobiography, part no frills 'how to write' guide from someone who's work I find very readable. Like many writing manuals, the author has strong ideas on the best way to produce a novel, things you must or mustn't do. Fine if it works for him, but it's best to take from writing guides the advice you recognise as appropriate for your own way of working. Some great common sense hints and tips.

Key tips:
  1. Write
  2. Read
  3. Assiduously avoid adverbs.
These first two are pretty obvious but plenty of 'writers' don't do that much of either - I've been guilty myself.

And fourthly, I've been reading Elmore Leonard's 'When The Women Come Out To Dance' - an inpsiring masterclass in short fiction packed with sparely-written mini dramas, fascinating characters, evocative locations. (Elmore Leonard's top tips - which also have it in for adverbs - are at the top of this excellent Guardian list of Top Tips from Authors)

So that's what I'm doing when I'm not doing this.


  1. I doubt I shall ever finish any of the novels I have started to write. I expect a ghost writer will finish them after my death.

  2. A few idle notions - I can't say I follow them slavishly:

    *Read your writing aloud: you will soon hear any infelicities, and the reader's brain will not easily assimilate sentences which are longer than it takes a lungful of air to express

    *If it translates readily into Latin, your writing is automatically clear

    *Horace: Put your writing away for 7 years. After that interval, take it out again and re-work it. You will be surprised by the room for improvement

    *Dr Johnson (1): 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money'

    (2): 'Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.' (To be fair, he was quoting a college tutor, not one (as far as I know) to be found just now at Lancaster.)

    Don't mind me, BB. Just carry on, and good luck!

  3. It's great to hear that you're bashing on with your novel, and I wish you every success with it.

    I watched a 'Culture Show' interview with Elmore Leonard in March of last year. What he said, made so much sense. I'm usually wary of 'how to write' guidance, since Keith Waterhouse advised me in the 80s, ...the people who publish writing are publishers. You write the book, you send it on its way, and hope that one of them will take it – that's how it's done, and I don't know of any other way. And if they won't take it, you write another. Hard life, isn't it?

    Some advice is hard to shake off.

  4. Good luck with your novel. I'm afraid I can't offer any advice, but if you enjoyed it I'm sure others will feel the same.

  5. "Assiduously avoid adverbs" is sarcastically ironic isn't it?

  6. Ah, yes, the adverb avoidance thing. Remember it well, and seem to violently violate it all the time. Well, I for one can hardly wait for your novel to appear!

  7. Well good luck with the novel; it all seems to be sound advice from someone who knows, but I would guess that the answer lies in your fourth point - being inspired by real writing, by a real writer.

  8. Dave - That sort of talk will get you nowhere!

    Christopher - Thanks for sharing those tips. I know about the reading aloud one, and putting it away for a bit but I'm not sure my Latin ('O'level standard, many years ago) is up to the task of translation. As for 'killing your darlings' - this is often said in poetry but sometimes your fave bits turn out to be other people's fave bits too - maybe it's more 'check your darlings very carefully, sometimes they are cuckoos!'

    Martin H - Thanks! I followed your link, and the link in it back to those Elmore Leonard tips and have taken the liberty of adding it to the above.

    Martin L - Ooh - two Martin's together! That's lucky isn't it? (Or is that two magpies?)

    Rog - That's abundantly obvious! ;-)

    Susan - It's a good example of an extreme rule that it's ok to break in an emergency. Emergency adverbs are sometimes required.

    Little Nell - Thanks! I find I need to strike a balance - read brilliant works until I grow despondent, then some tat to remind me I could (probably!) to better. 8-)

  9. I think your novel will be wonderful, and I look forward to it!

  10. I think 'On Writing' is probably the best book on writing I've read. I've recommended it to so many people. Looking forward to your novel - it just has to be good. And properly funny, I bet.

  11. Thanks for the encouragement MsCaroline and Fran! 8-)