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 …