In this post, I share the experiences of writers who have dreamed up novels which at least in part becomes reality true post-publication.
My process is the same every time I write a novel – and I’ve written 12 of them now – I start by jotting down ideas in a notebook.
Once they’ve had a chance to percolate in my unconscious, usually for many months, and sometimes fpr years, I wrestle the ideas into a rough outline of the plot. Then I begin to write, using the outline as a prompt, chapter by chapter, until I reach the end.
As I prepare my talk for Wrexham Carnival of Words next week, offering answers to FAQs (the most frequently asked questions) about writing, I’ve been revisiting some of my favourite advice from writers I admire. I hope you’ll enjoy it too, whether you’re a writer or a reader or indeed both.
George Orwell’s Six Rules of Writing
In my teens, I read the complete works of George Orwell for the extended essay that formed part of my International Baccalaureat at Frankfurt International School. His politics, his integrity and his rules of writing have stayed with me ever since.
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
While I don’t follow Orwell’s rules blindly – for example, I will use a long word if it feels more natural than the short equivalent – I think any aspiring writer would do well to pin them over their writing desk.
Just Write, says Ray Bradbury
Fear of breaking rules should not deter the would-be writer from putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and just getting on with it. Many writers, especially when they’re starting out, spend far too long dithering, thinking about writing, talking about writing, and admonishing themselves for not writing at all. They should listen to the hugely prolific (and entirely wonderful) Ray Bradbury:
Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.
Stephen King on Concision
Possibly the most useful English lesson I learned at school was the art of précis. I’m amazed it isn’t taught more widely.
I’m naturally garrulous in conversation and with the written word. Knowing how to cut out superfluous words without losing meaning was therefore invaluable in my early careers as a journalist and a PR, when I had to write articles to fit precisely into a given space or to match a specific word count. Ruthlessly editing down other people’s text, or pieces I’d written on clients’ products that weren’t close to my heart (eg cat litter, frozen peas, drainpipes), was great practice for when I began to focus on writing fiction.
Novice writers are often disbelieving when I tell them it’s possible to cut 10%, 20% or even more from something they’ve written – and return pleasantly surprised to find that not only did they manage it, but that the edited piece is more powerful. Stephen King, whose memoir On Writingshould be on every writer’s shelf of reference books, sums up the process well:
When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt: revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.
More Murderous Recommendations from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
Stephen King is not the only writer who invokes murder. Although the next piece of advice has been attributed to many authors over the years, it was author and critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who originally coined the phrase in On the Art of Writing in 1916:
Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to the press. Murder your darlings.
I love this particular tip so much that I made it the playful title of my mystery story set at a writers’ retreat, published last year. It now feels like a lucky charm, as Murder Your Darlings has now made it to the shortlist of six novels for adults shortlisted for The Selfies Award, given by publishing industry news service Bookbrunch for the best self-published books in the UK.
A more succinct version of Quiller-Couch’s recommendation comes from Elmore Leonard:
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
I like to think George Orwell would approve!
Above All Else, Read!
But probably my favourite piece of advice to writers, and the one that irks me most when aspiring writers ignore it, is simply to read. I have no patience with those who say they can’t spare the time. Would you trust a chef who never tasted food? Over to Samuel Johnson:
The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.
Without wishing to sound smug, in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve read part of all of these:
From the Oxford University Press’s “Very Short Introductions” series, American History by Paul S Boyer
A collection of classic children’s stories, Mary’s Plain’s Omnibus by Gwynned Rae
The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie
The Times newspaper
Join Me at the Wrexham Carnival of Words (online this year)
If you’d like to hear my own writing advice at Wrexham Carnival of Words, which is being held online from 17-24 April, you’ll need to buy a ticket – but the good news is that just £15 will gain you a pass to the entire festival. Visit their website to find out more about the huge array of events on offer and to book your ticket now: www.wrexhamcarnivalofwords.com
For the Wrexham Audience
I’ll be sharing with delegates the following list of recommended further reading…
The Art of Writing Made Simple – Geoffrey Ashe
Polish Your Fiction & Writing in a Nutshell – Jessica Bell
Self-editing for Self-publishers – Richard Bradburn
Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury
Becoming a Writer – Dorothea Brande
Write Every Day – Helena Halme
On Writing – Stephen King
Nail Your Novel series – Roz Morris
Use the Power of Feedback to Write a Better Book – Belinda Pollard
Punctuation without Tears – Dominic Selwood
… and this list of recommended membership organisations for writers:
This week I’m sharing my love of passport-sized books
With the summer holidays upon us, in the northern hemisphere at least, my recommended reading for this weekend is something that you can easily fit in your pocket along with your passport: tiny books.
Why I Like Small Books
At first glance, that might seem as shallow as recommending, say, books with blue covers – but actually, it’s not as daft as all that, and here are some reasons why.
The content of any tiny book will have been very carefully selected, as so little space is available, so whether it’s a single short story, an essay or a small collection of poetry, it jolly well ought to be worth reading.
With the reading material effectively rationed, you tend to linger longer over every word, because your impulse is to spin it out and make it last. This makes it a highly suitable format for reading poetry and for thought-provoking essays.
They allow you to easily sample someone’s work before deciding whether you want to commit the time required to read a longer book.
They’re the ideal gift for someone in hospital, as they’re not tiring to hold and they’ll fit easily into the patient’s limited storage space.
They are relatively cheap – so you can buy them with a clear conscience!
Pick Up a Penguin
I always loved the Penguin 60s (tiny books retailing at 60p to celebrate the publisher’s sixtieth anniversary), then the Penguin 80s (ditto for 80p for their eightieth). The slightly larger Penguin Great Ideas series, retailing at £4.99, includes intriguing titles such as Books vs Cigarettes by George Orwell and Days of Reading by Marcel Proust. The latter provides an easy way to be able to say you’ve read Proust without ploughing through the six volumes of À la recherche du temps perdu.
But I’m especially pleased with my latest discovery: Souvenir Press‘s vintage collection of small hardbacks, about the same size as classic Beatrix Potter books (and who doesn’t love that format?), each one featuring a single, thoughtful poem, with understated monochrome linocut or scraperboard illustrations. The simple charm of these pictures has made me want to have a go at scraperboard art myself.
I picked up Agatha Christie‘s My Flower Garden a few weeks ago for a couple of quid at a rural market in mid-Wales, more out of curiosity than anything, as I didn’t know she wrote poetry and wondered what it would be like. I’ve since acquired another, Remembrance, online at a similar price. The series includes some of my favourite poems, including John Donne‘s No Man is an Island.
I feel an addiction coming on. But the good news is, it won’t take up much room in my already overflowing bookshelves…
What I’ll Be Reading This Weekend
Meanwhile, I’m off to read Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach – another very short read, which I’ll be discussing on Tuesday at noon on the BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book Club on Dominic Cotter’s lunchtime show. It was his turn to choose our Book of the Month this month, and neither fellow guest Caroline Sanderson nor I had ever read it before, and I can’t wait to compare notes with them. If you’d like to tune in to join us, here’s the link to Tuesday’s show: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p056q800 (also available on iplayer for a month afterwards).
Happy reading, whatever you choose!
PS Fancy reading one of my books this weekend?Best Murder in Show, a lighthearted modern mystery story, is the perfect summer read, set at the time of a traditional village show. Now available as an ebook for Kindle or in paperback – order from Amazon here or at your local neighbourhood bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223139.