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?

 

My rabbit ate my shoelaces … and other excuses for not writing

Simba

Above: Simba, the Destroyer of Shoes. Don’t be foooled by that cute furry face …

If you are hoping to read one of those inspirational, inspiring blog posts about writing, then I apologise in advance, because this isn’t going to be one of them.

No doubt my zillions of (well, OK, 83) followers will have noticed that I haven’t posted anything for a few weeks. I’d really love to tell you that’s because I’ve been closeted away in my attic, labouring night and day at my latest epic novel and have triumphantly banked a word count that would render the most committed NaNoWriMo disciple speechless with envy.

But I haven’t been doing that either. The truth is, I did virtually no writing in May, beyond my last flash fiction piece. How inspiring is that? What happened?

Life, that’s what. And not all bad stuff. Yes, my rabbit did eat my shoelaces. This morning I went to put on my new work shoes and found the laces half chewed off. It’s my fault for putting them on top of Simba’s cage – the laces must have dangled through, and the aforementioned pet (whose dietary tastes are, shall we say, eclectic) duly helped himself.

But in all honesty, nothing much worse has happened to me than that. Just, you know, stuff. A lot of pretty good stuff too. I’ve been on holiday with my family. My eldest son’s had his tenth birthday. The day job’s has been going OK, and I’ve got two big work trips coming up in the space of three weeks. It was even warm enough here in the UK to dust off the barbeque and kids’ paddling pool a couple of weekends ago (and if you don’t know England in May, you don’t realise how semi-miraculous that is – you just have to make the most of it). In short, it’s all been a bit crazy and it all takes up time.

I did fiddle about a bit with one new book idea, but haven’t (so far) made much progress with it. And that’s one of my problems, as I think I’ve shared before. They say everyone has a book in them – well I’ve had at least two (the ones I’ve actually written so far) and there are lots more ideas teeming around it my head. It’s just that, at the moment, they’re not having much luck in escaping from my head on to paper (or rather, into Word). I’ve developed a worrying tendency to play with ideas for a while and then get bored with them.

Yes, I know writing is hard work and you’ve got to stick at it. As many more disciplined and inspirational bloggers will tell us, you have to make time. You have to prioritise. And truly, I am in violent agreement with them. From writing my novels I know first-hand just how many hours, how much sweat-and-tears (and possibly blood) it takes to wrestle them into fully-formed existence. It’s just that, recently, too many other things have got in the way – or I’ve allowed them to get in the way, perhaps.

But my family is important to me, so is church, my job pays the bills, and even Simba has his place in my schedule (even when – or especially when – he’s vandalising my footwear). I am passionate about writing – my novels were a labour of love for me (a lot of labour and much love) – but it just doesn’t necessarily always come top of the heap. It enriches my life but it doesn’t control it

So should I give myself a break or beat myself up? In the end, I draw comfort from the fact that I can do it – write, that is. Those two novels prove it. I know I’ve got what it takes, that I can summon up the motivation when I have to, and to produce something that I can be proud of and some others enjoy. More books will come out of me – just, perhaps, not quite yet.

Falling Girl: A Ghost Story – part 7 of 7

Here it is … the final chapter of my novel Falling Girl: A Ghost Story: Falling Girl – part 7 . (Also includes some background information on castles.)

The previous six instalments can be found on the Falling Girl page.

I’d love to hear what you thought of this book, whether you’ve managed to read all of it or only part. As all writers know, constructive feedback (along with practice, practice, practice) is the best way to improve. So thank you in advance for any feedback you can give.

FG front5

“This castle is haunted. It really is. There are ghosts in the walls and towers, the passages and the dark rooms, the secret places away from the warmth and sunshine, where it’s cold and clammy and … lonely.”

When eleven-year-old Ellie Black runs into Pentrillis Castle, she’s desperate to escape her depressing family life. Her parents have split up, Dad is Mr Angry, and her new step-brother is obnoxious beyond belief.

At first, it’s much better inside the castle. The sun shines (even when it’s still raining outside), there’s fabulous chocolate cake, and she meets a friendly story-teller and two cool new friends. (There’s also a scary bit in the chapel, but she was probably just imagining things, right?)

But the story-teller has a dark and unsettling tale to tell, of tragedy … and something menacing in the shadows.

And there’s some very odd things about those new friends.

And where did that awful scream come from?

But the worst part is when Ellie realises that there’s nowhere to hide from the ghost of Pentrillis Castle …

Falling Girl: A Ghost Story – part 6 of 7

I’m serialising my novel Falling Girl: A Ghost Story on this website. Each part is free to download. These two chapters form the penultimate instalment: Falling Girl – part 6

Next week, part 7, will be the very last chapter.

Previous instalments can be found on the Falling Girl page.

FG front5

“This castle is haunted. It really is. There are ghosts in the walls and towers, the passages and the dark rooms, the secret places away from the warmth and sunshine, where it’s cold and clammy and … lonely.”

When eleven-year-old Ellie Black runs into Pentrillis Castle, she’s desperate to escape her depressing family life. Her parents have split up, Dad is Mr Angry, and her new step-brother is obnoxious beyond belief.

At first, it’s much better inside the castle. The sun shines (even when it’s still raining outside), there’s fabulous chocolate cake, and she meets a friendly story-teller and two cool new friends. (There’s also a scary bit in the chapel, but she was probably just imagining things, right?)

But the story-teller has a dark and unsettling tale to tell, of tragedy … and something menacing in the shadows.

And there’s some very odd things about those new friends.

And where did that awful scream come from?

But the worst part is when Ellie realises that there’s nowhere to hide from the ghost of Pentrillis Castle …

Falling Girl: A Ghost Story – part 5 of 7

Over the next few weeks I’m serialising my novel Falling Girl: A Ghost Story on this website. Each part is free to download. Here’s the next two chapters: Falling Girl – part 5

Previous instalments can be found on the Falling Girl page.

FG front5

“This castle is haunted. It really is. There are ghosts in the walls and towers, the passages and the dark rooms, the secret places away from the warmth and sunshine, where it’s cold and clammy and … lonely.”

When eleven-year-old Ellie Black runs into Pentrillis Castle, she’s desperate to escape her depressing family life. Her parents have split up, Dad is Mr Angry, and her new step-brother is obnoxious beyond belief.

At first, it’s much better inside the castle. The sun shines (even when it’s still raining outside), there’s fabulous chocolate cake, and she meets a friendly story-teller and two cool new friends. (There’s also a scary bit in the chapel, but she was probably just imagining things, right?)

But the story-teller has a dark and unsettling tale to tell, of tragedy … and something menacing in the shadows.

And there’s some very odd things about those new friends.

And where did that awful scream come from?

But the worst part is when Ellie realises that there’s nowhere to hide from the ghost of Pentrillis Castle …

Falling Girl: A Ghost Story – part 4 of 7

Over the next few weeks I’m serialising my novel Falling Girl: A Ghost Story on this website. Each part is free to download. Here’s the next two chapters: Falling Girl – part 4

Previous instalments can be found on the Falling Girl page.

FG front5

“This castle is haunted. It really is. There are ghosts in the walls and towers, the passages and the dark rooms, the secret places away from the warmth and sunshine, where it’s cold and clammy and … lonely.”

When eleven-year-old Ellie Black runs into Pentrillis Castle, she’s desperate to escape her depressing family life. Her parents have split up, Dad is Mr Angry, and her new step-brother is obnoxious beyond belief.

At first, it’s much better inside the castle. The sun shines (even when it’s still raining outside), there’s fabulous chocolate cake, and she meets a friendly story-teller and two cool new friends. (There’s also a scary bit in the chapel, but she was probably just imagining things, right?)

But the story-teller has a dark and unsettling tale to tell, of tragedy … and something menacing in the shadows.

And there’s some very odd things about those new friends.

And where did that awful scream come from?

But the worst part is when Ellie realises that there’s nowhere to hide from the ghost of Pentrillis Castle …

Falling Girl: A Ghost Story – Part 3 of 7

Over the next few weeks I’m serialising my novel Falling Girl: A Ghost Story on this website. It will be downloadable for free. Here’s the next two chapters: Falling Girl – part 3

Previous instalments can be found on the Falling Girl page.

FG front5

“This castle is haunted. It really is. There are ghosts in the walls and towers, the passages and the dark rooms, the secret places away from the warmth and sunshine, where it’s cold and clammy and … lonely.”

When eleven-year-old Ellie Black runs into Pentrillis Castle, she’s desperate to escape her depressing family life. Her parents have split up, Dad is Mr Angry, and her new step-brother is obnoxious beyond belief.

At first, it’s much better inside the castle. The sun shines (even when it’s still raining outside), there’s fabulous chocolate cake, and she meets a friendly story-teller and two cool new friends. (There’s also a scary bit in the chapel, but she was probably just imagining things, right?)

But the story-teller has a dark and unsettling tale to tell, of tragedy … and something menacing in the shadows.

And there’s some very odd things about those new friends.

And where did that awful scream come from?

But the worst part is when Ellie realises that there’s nowhere to hide from the ghost of Pentrillis Castle …

Falling Girl: A Ghost Story – Part 2 of 7

Over the next few weeks I’m serialising my novel Falling Girl: A Ghost Story on this website. It will be downloadable for free. Here’s the next two chapters: Falling Girl – part 2

Previous instalments (one so far) can be found on the Falling Girl page.

FG front5

“This castle is haunted. It really is. There are ghosts in the walls and towers, the passages and the dark rooms, the secret places away from the warmth and sunshine, where it’s cold and clammy and … lonely.”

When eleven-year-old Ellie Black runs into Pentrillis Castle, she’s desperate to escape her depressing family life. Her parents have split up, Dad is Mr Angry, and her new step-brother is obnoxious beyond belief.

At first, it’s much better inside the castle. The sun shines (even when it’s still raining outside), there’s fabulous chocolate cake, and she meets a friendly story-teller and two cool new friends. (There’s also a scary bit in the chapel, but she was probably just imagining things, right?)

But the story-teller has a dark and unsettling tale to tell, of tragedy … and something menacing in the shadows.

And there’s some very odd things about those new friends.

And where did that awful scream come from?

But the worst part is when Ellie realises that there’s nowhere to hide from the ghost of Pentrillis Castle …

Falling Girl: A Ghost Story – Part 1, free to read or download

Over the next few weeks I’ll be serialising my novel Falling Girl: A Ghost Story on this website. It will be downloadable for free. Here’s the first two chapters: Falling Girl – part 1

FG front5

“This castle is haunted. It really is. There are ghosts in the walls and towers, the passages and the dark rooms, the secret places away from the warmth and sunshine, where it’s cold and clammy and … lonely.”

When eleven-year-old Ellie Black runs into Pentrillis Castle, she’s desperate to escape her depressing family life. Her parents have split up, Dad is Mr Angry, and her new step-brother is obnoxious beyond belief.

At first, it’s much better inside the castle. The sun shines (even when it’s still raining outside), there’s fabulous chocolate cake, and she meets a friendly story-teller and two cool new friends. (There’s also a scary bit in the chapel, but she was probably just imagining things, right?)

But the story-teller has a dark and unsettling tale to tell, of tragedy … and something menacing in the shadows.

And there’s some very odd things about those new friends.

And where did that awful scream come from?

But the worst part is when Ellie realises that there’s nowhere to hide from the ghost of Pentrillis Castle …

Aagh!! Morrissey’s writing a novel! Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now …

Morrissey

New year, same old nonsense. Today came the depressing news that yet another celeb, famous for something not remotely connected to literature, has decided that they’ve got a novel in them and, by God, we’re going to have it whether we like it or not.

(Fair warning: I’m not usually given to good old fashioned rants, but this is going to be one. I can’t help it; this has been building up for a while and I’ve got to get it out of my system.)

He’s well known in the UK, but for those unfamiliar with the legend that is Morrissey, he’s best known for being the front man of 80s band The Smiths. Since then he’s remained famous partly for his solo output but mostly due to an uncanny knack for self-promotion. He’s vitriolic, entertaining and never found short of a controversial quote. Many people are very interested in his opinions, especially him.

Seriously, I’ve got nothing against Morrissey. I don’t agree with everything he says – some of his views are crazy or worse. But he seems to be a thoughtful and intelligent person whose ability to string more than two words together was demonstrated by his best-selling autobiography last year. I haven’t read it myself, but by all accounts it was pretty good and well written. It was certainly well reviewed. All of which should in theory give him a useful advantage over the majority of celebs who decide that a novel is a pretty neat idea when they get bored of doing whatever it is that they’re actually good at.

Morrissey’s novel might even be quite good – if he works very hard at it. Which almost certainly means much harder than he yet realises. Apparently he’s ‘midway through’ writing it. But halfway through what? The first draft? If so then you’ve got an awfully long way still to go, Mozza my lad. Of course he’ll be offered plenty of editorial help by his publisher, which he’ll take if he’s wise. (I’m not totally convinced of this however – he’s kind of strong-willed to say the least.)

But that’s not the point. Because, let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter if his novel’s good does it? There’s no mention of a publishing contract at this stage, but does anyone doubt that he’ll get one? No doubt the kudos of his successful autobiography helps, but mainly to lend a fig-leaf of respectability to this latest literary prostitution. Hell, even Katie bloody Price has published ‘novels’ to her name (the poor girl doesn’t write them unaided of course; it’s just possible she hasn’t even read them). 

At this point, you’re probably thinking this is little more than the bitter and twisted outpourings of an unknown writer, venting his spleen in an unedifying display of naked jealousy at the ease in which the already-famous get the publishing breaks. And to that I say: damn right.

Not for Morrissey and his ilk the perils of the slush pile. It’s not necessary for him to produce something so extraordinary that it will outshine 99.9% of the competition to catch an agent’s or editor’s eye. And then hope they get a publishing deal (not guaranteed even then), and then that their professionally-published book actually sells in any great number (because very many don’t). Nor do they have to join the torrential rush to self-publishing, to fight to get their work noticed, let alone sell, against odds no less daunting than those faced in the more traditional process. The bottom line is, Morrissey’s novel probably won’t be especially good for the simple, brutal fact that it doesn’t have to be.

I realise of course that plenty of stuff written by the non-famous doesn’t get published because it doesn’t deserve to be, because it’s not really good enough. I also concede that much of what is self-published isn’t up to much. But a lot is. There’s a great deal of talent out there; and every time a starry-eyed publisher lobs a contract at another celebrity, that already tiny crack of an opportunity for real writers narrows still further; the odds inch ever higher into the stratosphere. Even though plenty of those writers are producing wonderful work which totally embarrasses the sausage-machine output of the celeb fiction factory.

I mean, what is it with fiction? Why do so many famous people think they can write a novel worthy of publication? It doesn’t often happen the other way around. With very rare exceptions, you don’t get novelists (I mean proper ones, who got published by being actually good at writing) decide to record albums, take up professional ballet or go for an Oscar. And there’s an extremely good reason for that: they’re good at writing, not singing, dancing or acting.

I happen to think I can write. It’s one of my very few talents, and quite possibly the only one. I’m not saying I’m magnificent at it, not claiming to be the next big thing, but I can do it. Whereas my acting is bad, my singing is worse and you really don’t want to see me in a tutu.

Back to Morrissey. What makes it even worse are the reasons he’s given for trying his hand at the old writing game. It’s doesn’t seem to be because he’s got a great story to tell. Basically, it’s less to do with literary ambition and more about a great steaming Mozza-style hissy fit. Apparently the music business is hopelessly in thrall to hype, marketing and an obsession with shallow celebrity. Well fancy that. Like it hasn’t always been? And as if the publishing industry is much better when it falls over itself to publish the almost-certainly-mediocre-at-best offerings of people like him?

I know publishers have to make money and it will always come down to how many books they think they can sell. And Morrissey’s novel will probably sell. (Although celeb offerings don’t always; discount bookshops are the final destination of many an over-optimistic print run.)  There is also the argument, I suppose, that such high-profile publishing deals can help subsidise the riskier investments in genuine undiscovered talent. It’s just that I see rather more of the former than the latter, especially as mainstream publishers seem to become ever more risk-averse.

So – yes, I am bitter, I am fed up, and on behalf of all the unpublished and unsuccessfully self-published of the world I say: celebs, please stop ticking that box that says ‘I know, I’ll write a novel next! My agent thinks it’s a good idea and, I mean, how hard could it be ..?’

Of course I know they won’t stop. But I had to get that out of my system. And having done that I’ll keep writing because that’s what I do, I enjoy it; it’s part of me. If I ever achieve any kind of success it will be a bonus, and I know my own efforts and talent (along with a fair dollop of luck) will have got me there. Not singing ‘Shoot the DJ’.