Tuesday, 23 February 2010

On Advice

Fannying about on the Guardian Website yesterday, as you do, I came across this rather lovely article bringing together writing advice from all sorts of fabulous writers.
Having started reading it I realised of course that I had seen it linked in Neil Gaiman’s blog, and via writerly people on Twitter, but I had skipped over it somewhat, as I am normally a little reluctant to look over such advice. This is because it can either fire me up to get on with some writing now now now (and if I’m reading an article on a website, I’m normally in the wrong place for that) or it just irritates me and I spend ages stewing over it in a pointless nark.
But, to be fair, there are some gems in here, particularly from Roddy Doyle:
“Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide”
“Do not search amazon.co.uk for the book you haven't written yet.”
“Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.”

I really like that last one. The book often seems to take on its own identity once I’ve figured out what the title is, as if it is somehow more real once it has a name. And names are important. But no one ever talks about how we name our books...

Other lines of advice from other authors I found less helpful, such as those that suggest reading a certain person’s work, as if this is somehow essential. I know there are people out there who will froth at the mouth if I suggest that actually I can’t be arsed to read Austen or Chekov or what-‘ave-you, but I believe that we find our essential texts ourselves, through a process of trial and error and bloody mindedness. What is earth shattering and profound for me may not be for you, and I wouldn’t expect it to be the case. Read what you love, and you’ll write what you love.

(I firmly believe that in the future people will be saying “You must read Pratchett” alongside “You must read Dickens”, so I’m just getting in there early)

Several people suggest going for a long walk when you’re stuck on a plot point; I would love to have the time for long walk. That sounds fantastic. But the idea of a walk without a reason for getting somewhere, without a destination, is completely alien to me. I live in London, you have to be going somewhere, not meandering about. Meandering gets you evil looks. From me, mostly.

Anyway, whether or not the writing advice is appropriate or useful really depends on the writer receiving it. Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for example are very famous and for good reason; but I look at them and feel a little depressed- no physical descriptions of characters? No descriptions of place or surroundings? The science-fiction and fantasy genres would be somewhat sadder and drabber without such things; or perhaps I’m a little bitter because I love a good prologue, me.

From my own (limited) experience, the only writing advice that matters is also the most obvious. There are two rules:

1) Write
2) Read

After all, the writing only actually gets done if you sit down and do it, and it’s also the only way you learn and get better. And if you’re not a reader, why on earth would you want to be a writer? (Believe it or not I did know someone who was attempting to write a book despite only having the vaguest interest in reading themselves- the mind boggles!). There’s other stuff that I’ve learnt along the way, but the more in depth you get the more tailored it is to me alone- write every day, keep a notebook with you, don’t have the internet on when you’re trying to get something done, don’t let the cat get comfy in front of the screen, have motivational post-its and a My Little Pony in your writing space, use chocolate as a reward… You see what I mean. In the end, Rule 1 and Rule 2 are the ones we have to stick to, and if we do, we’ll get there in the end.