Monday, 21 March 2016

Hugh and the Writer’s Bookshelf

 My monthly conversation with my friend Hugh is always a delight.

We ramble through our own idiosyncrasies and preoccupations, our families, current films, politics and theatre - and books, always books. Hugh encourages me to re-read the Victorian novelists. I put him onto my more contemporary favourites. Sometimes we happen to talk about my own novels, which he has been reading. He also reads my work in progress with enlightened interest. (New novel now - going full steam ahead…)

At one point last week he asked me how old I was when I knew –

just knew – I would be a writer. I had a think and said, ‘I would be eight or nine.’ His eyebrows raised and he gave a little smile.

But it’s true. As often happens, Hugh made me think of my process: how the acquisition and maintenance of  my tools, for becoming and being the writer I am, has taken a lifetime to acquire.

You need to start early - reading voraciously and writing almost continually are the surest foundation. . 

When I was nine I regularly borrowed five library books a week. I also wrote stories and published little books of my own, made of folded paper and hand stitched spines. I used to keep this practice a secret but as I met more lifetime writers I discovered quite a few had made little books in their childhood,

One necessity for any writer aiming for success in writing novels is the ingenuity and skill to create physical and mental space in your life to free up your spirit and unleash your imagination; to make space and time to spin up ideas and make ever new and ever better stories. To  prioritise your writing before all your other preoccupations. - Not very easy for girls or women I feel - the aristocratic Vita Sackville West with her tower, and the self-evident genius Virginia Woolf with her meticulous husband might be the exception here.

So,  child into adult,  you read – from Fairy Tales to children’s
comics, From Jane Austen to Wilkie Collins, From Virginia Woolf to John le Carré, from Dorothy L Sayers to Ian Rankin, from Willa Cather to Ian McKewan, from RD Blackmore to Catherine Cookson,. And on. And on.

The intense process of reading good writers alongside your own writing process has a profound effect. Even so, one should never assume that you’ll find universal answers to your writer’s questions that will transform you unto JK Rowling or JR Tolkien, Alice Hoffman or Zadie Smith.

The effect is more subtle than this. You read these novels, imagining they can read you. In the process your own writing somehow clarifies itself in terms of category, syntax and style. It improves because your sense of writing as a skill deepens and you come to define and develop your own style and essential themes.

Inevitably reading as a writer becomes part of your natural creative process. You notice how good writers in every field have this or that effect. Even while enjoying a novel for itself you will notice vivid characterisation, the dynamics of pace, the evocative locations, the elegant structure.

Of course, being your own original writer, you won’t mimic, or

copy such things in your own work, or else your novel will become a parody - if not a travesty. But the awareness of such fine approaches will embed itself in your subconscious and will find a natural place in your writing and influence your style.  

 So, from the very beginning I have discovered that reading

leads to writing leads to more reading and better writing.

And now I come directly to books that focus more deliberately on the technicalities of the writing process. 

Today one can almost drown in the plethora of advice on this subject, on the authorweb, in articles, between the covers of a book, or in course books for the thousands of ‘Creative Writing courses..

I am always coming across lists (I have written some myself …) that promise to ensure your success with their top tips for :-:
Creating great characters
Editing your book
Ending your novel
Increasing your pace
Enhancing your prose
Pitching your novel to an agent, publisher
Promoting your book

Of course these can be important aspects of improving your writing and require your close attention - but, ensuring success?

If only! I say, with a wry smile.

In my workshops I often tell people that every writer should have
behind them their own writer’s  bookshelf  - books specifically focusing on the writing process and creativity, written by writers whose own writing has an appreciative audience out there in the difficult field of published fiction.  

It’s good to avoid the sources that can be very shallow pools, sometimes written by writers whose creative output consists of instructional books on the writing process. Writing a novel creatively and organisationally, is the hardest most disciplined creative task. Writing a book about writing a novel is easy compared to this,

I ask you! Would you take advice as a potter from a person whose only output had been recipes for, the constituency of, and the location of clay?

We writers all have our chosen books – to pick up at the end of the day; to tap into the creativity of accomplished writers from across the world and recharge our own. Glancing at my shelf I see I have books for all seasons. You will have your own.

Amongst mine are:

  • Stephen King’s: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft  - Honest professional self knowledge from a master practitioner.
  • The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. - Reminds us that writing is part of a creative family incorporating art and music. We borrow from and create with our brothers and sisters
  • Zen and the Art of Writing:  |Releasing  the Creative Genius Within You. Ray Bradbury – what it says on the tin.
  • This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosely. A practical guide offering structure and inspiration to beginners and more experienced writers

  • Almost anything by Susan Sontag including Against Interpretation and Other Essays   Pure inspiration towards your liberated creative self.

  • A special mention for Avril Joy’s  From Writing With Love. Ane enabling and inspiring book  from a novelist and artist.  If you are looking for inspiration and encouragement, sign on of Avril Joy’s newsletter. The best weekly source around,

  • But even such great books are only of helpful if your own talent for prose and story is already highly developed by the lifelong reading/writing/reading process described above with the proviso that your writer’s confidence is mature enough for you to incorporate good advice and reject advice that doesn’t enhance you own unique writing.


I now come to the book that would be on my shelf if there were only room for one.

I sometimes think I have read every book on the writing process in the world and now can learn nothing new.
However came I recently across How Fiction Works by James Wood and keep going back and back to take it all in. This book is beautifully written, highly informed, drawing writing inferences from hundreds of novels, stretching right back Don Quixote from to Ian McEwen.

Most importantly James Wood makes a passionate and compelling case for the novel as a form, arguing that it puts other forms of creative writing firmly in the shade.
This absolutely coincides with my view and I have been waiting for someone to put this case as well as this.

How Fiction Works is inspiring and full of ideas which are now spurring me on the stretch my writing game and not settle for anything less than my best.

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