PD James: 10 tips for writing novels

PD James tips

A few days ago, upon hearing of the death of the novelist PD James, I blogged about how inspiring I found aspects of her writing career and her approach to the craft. I also found a link to this: her ten tips for writing novels.

I have mixed feelings about such lists of rules, tips or whatever you want to call them. On the one hand I’m always interested in hearing what others have to say on a subject of such importance to me – and especially when the opinions are of a writer I admire. On the other hand, you have to take such guidance as just that: read it, mull it over, and apply it (or not) according to what works for you. The rules are rarely (if ever) unbreakable.

To be fair to James, she more or less admits this in her tip #3 (Find your own routine):

‘I think all we writers are different. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how different we are?’

There are two other tips, however, that I want to pick out. The first is because I agree with it so much – #5 (Read, write and don’t daydream!) – and I quote it in full:

‘To write well, I advise people to read widely. See how people who are successful and good get their results, but don’t copy them. And then you’ve got to write! We learn to write by writing, not by just facing an empty page and dreaming of the wonderful success we are going to have. I don’t think it matters much what you use as practice, it might be a short story, it might be the beginning of a novel, or it might just be something for the local magazine, but you must write and try and improve your writing all the time. Don’t think about it or talk about it, get the words down.’

Amen to that.

The other I one I’ve picked because, although I think I broadly agree with it, I can see that some might not. It’s the very first one (which might indicate its importance to James) – ‘You must be born to write’ – and again I quote in full:

‘You can’t teach someone to know how to use words effectively and beautifully. You can help people who can write to write more effectively and you can probably teach people a lot of little tips for writing a novel, but I don’t think somebody who cannot write and does not care for words can ever be made into a writer. It just is not possible.

Nobody could make me into a musician. Somebody might be able to teach me how to play the piano reasonably well after a lot of effort, but they can’t make a musician out of me and you cannot make a writer, I do feel that very profoundly.’

I don’t know how that strikes you, but to me it makes sense. I would never want to discourage anyone from writing – far from it (see #5 above) – but it probably is the case that some have more innate talent than others. Like James, I don’t think I could ever get very far as musician – or a football player, or a dancer, or a hundred other things – because I have something between limited and zero natural gifting for those things. The best I might become, with much hard graft and good teaching, would be an enthusiastic amateur able to give enjoyment to myself and maybe some others. And that’s great. But if I ever entertained serious dreams of playing for the London Philharmonic, turning out for Manchester United or pirouetting for the Bolshoi Ballet, then I fear I’d be in for a disappointment.

(I am not claiming to possess a massive talent for writing; but I am at least pretty sure that I’m not as bad at it as I am at most other things!)

Of course this is an over-simplification. There are many factors that contribute to how successful a writer might become, and almost as many ways that ‘success’ might be defined. And also we’re probably all unreliable judges of how much ‘talent’ we might have. If we have a passion to write then that’s what we should do, and in so doing we will do justice to whatever talent we do possess.

I wonder what you think of James’s tips, and in particular on the role of natural gifting in our progress as writers?

 

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