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?


The ten things I’ve learnt about blogging


This is my 50th post on WordPress. I started about a year ago, so that’s roughly one post per week on average.

First, a confession. My main motivation for starting my blog was that (1) everyone was telling me I should and (2) to help sell my books. I don’t think either were the best reasons by themselves, and I still haven’t sold many books. But here I am, and I like to think I’ve emerged from my first year a little bit wiser and not just older.

So here, in no particular order, are ten lessons I’ve learnt about blogging over the last twelve months or so. Some of these thoughts are quite personal to me and I don’t expect everyone to have drawn exactly the same conclusions, but this is how it seems to me anyway.

The first lesson: It’s all about the people

I’ve seen the light. I admit I didn’t arrive on WordPress necessarily eager to engage with lots of other people. But I have, and I’m much the better for it. You, my fellow bloggers, have taught, encouraged and inspired me, made me laugh, and sometimes all of the above at the same time. Some of you have also made humbled me with your blistering honesty about some of the problems and challenges in your lives. I wish I was that brave.

The second lesson: Be yourself

Everyone is different, and so is every blog. Although it’s good to learn from others, the things I have to say, to contribute, will never be quite like anyone else’s. That doesn’t make them any less valuable, or any more come to that. If I wasn’t here, there’d be a Christopher Peter shaped hole that no-one else could entirely fill. Exactly the same thing applies to each one of you (apart from the Christopher Peter bit obviously).

The third lesson: Give something back

Just as with all writing, quality should be non-negotiable. I’ve received so much from other bloggers, and in return I’d like to at least show them the courtesy of writing posts that have some value, or are thoughtful, or hopefully interesting, or sometimes funny – and always spell-checked. (You realise it’s now inevitable this very paragraph will have a toe-curlingly bad typo in it that I’ve seen right through. You just know it.) Yes, a few of my posts will be about promoting my books, directly or indirectly. But then, I hope those books will bring some enjoyment to those who read them too.

The fourth lesson: Find your focus

Of course, to be yourself you first have to work out who the heck you are. Which isn’t always easy. More to the point, what’s my blog for? I decided pretty early on that it wouldn’t try to be about everything I am. Some people put their whole lives into their blogs, writing about anything and everything, and there’s nothing wrong with that of course, but it wasn’t my aim. I wanted this site to be about me as a writer – my books, ideas, the way I write, what I’ve learnt, my struggles and mistakes, and sometimes opinions and thoughts connected to the world of books and fiction. Occasionally I go off-piste, but I’ve concluded that the tighter I keep to my ‘brief’, the better the site works. Plus, if people decide to follow this blog, at least they’ll know what they’re getting.

The fifth lesson: Thou shalt not take the Like button in vain

… but I’ve decided not to be afraid of using it either. I never press it unless I really have read the post in question – but assuming I have, and can’t think of anything in particular to write by way of a comment, and/or just haven’t got time to – then this is just a good, quick way of expressing appreciation for the time and care the blogger has taken. Usually I really do like it as well. Occasionally I might read something I massively disagree with, and/or can’t really understand, in which case the button remains unpressed; but that’s relatively unusual. Even if I don’t completely agree with what’s been written in every detail, I normally like that it’s been written at all and so a contribution’s been made to a debate. But …

The sixth lesson: Blessed are the commenters

I’m trying to do this more, even if it’s just a quick sentence or too. Who doesn’t like comments on their posts? I certainly appreciate them – unless they’re about hairpieces – as it shows that someone’s taken a bit of extra time and trouble, and I know how busy they probably are because I am too. For that same reason however, I know that, more often than not, a visitor will only have time to press Like. And that’s OK too; but nothing beats a comment.

The seventh lesson: Don’t try to follow the whole world

I appreciate every time someone follows my blog, but I’m also not naïve. I know that motives are often mixed. Sometimes I can see why a particular person has chosen to follow – because I can see, looking at their blog and profile, that we have something in common – often because they’re a writer too. Other times, it’s less clear. And sometimes, it looks very much like they’re amassing followers because they’ve got something to sell. Now don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with trying to sell something. It would be pretty hypocritical of me to complain when the main reason I started my own blog in the first place was that I hoped more people would read my books. And when I first started getting ‘XYZ is following your blog’ messages, I thought it was only polite to reciprocate and follow their blogs, too.

Now I feel differently. There are only so many hours in the week after all. So when I get a follow, I will always visit the follower’s site. I will read something. But I won’t always follow. And if I don’t, that isn’t an implied criticism of that blog. It isn’t that I don’t think it’s any good. It’s just that I would rather make fewer, more meaningful connections, blogs that I will continue to visit and read and sometimes contribute to, rather than dozens that I will probably never visit again because I just haven’t got the time. Not all the blogs I choose to follow are by other writers (though many are). Some are just interesting, or quirky, or funny, or represent another common interest, or something else. They just aren’t every single blog I visit.

The eighth lesson: Know when to take a break

As I’ve said, there’s never enough time. And that’s the curse of blogging – it can be so darn time-consuming. I still think it’s worth it anyway, but sometimes I have to take a break. Blogging regularly is good, and I try to do that, but sometimes other things have to take priority. Like actually writing books, my family, holidays. Eating, the day job, you know. Stuff.

The ninth lesson: Blessed are the brief

If you’re going to blog regularly, it helps to keep posts brief. Just like I’m not doing now.

The tenth lesson: Keep learning

As with writing books and everything else, I still have much, much more to learn.

So thank you for reading this, and thank you to everyone who’s visited my blog, liked, commented and/or followed.

And here endeth the lessons.

Writing rules – helpful or not?

Jo Frost

Writing rules – don’t you love ‘em? Do this, don’t do that. I wonder if anyone’s ever added them all up? I’d try it myself if I ever had a few months to waste.

You might get the impression I don’t like them, but actually that’s not the case. Even if I’ve seen many of them before it’s always helpful to read them again, and if nothing else they can provoke some interesting debate.

For what it’s worth, here are my own rules. I can’t claim any originality here, but these are derived and distilled from the advice I’ve found most helpful:

  1. Write! Start, and keep going. A writer writes. And the more they write, the better they’ll get.
  2. Enjoy it – but also expect it to be work, and really hard work at times.
  3. Focus on quality. Never stop trying to improve – and a big part of that is keeping going (as in #1).
  4. Revise and revise again. Your first draft will be a deeply flawed rough diamond if you’re lucky, and total garbage if you’re not. But something much better will emerge as you keep hacking away at it.
  5. If you’re serious about publishing – whether self- or conventionally – you must get your work edited, reviewed and/or beta-read by someone whose judgement you trust. You will never achieve your best working totally on your own.
  6. Take careful notice of all the rules and advice you read, even when you don’t think you completely agree with it. This applies especially to advice from experienced writers, agents and publishers. These people know what they’re talking about. Having said that, writing is more art than science and no-one is always right about everything, and much advice is contradictory, so you will need to be selective in how you apply it all. And remember …
  7. … there is technically no such thing as ‘never’ in writing. Adverbs, adjectives, exclamation marks, parentheses and the myriad other things frequently decried – they are all tools at your disposal. But remember there are reasons why you’ve been warned about them. The best advice is to use them sparingly, because your writing will generally be improved by their absence.
  8. Some ‘nevers’ – like don’t start a book with a dream sequence, a prologue or the weather – are really more about fashion or personal opinion than anything else. That said, if you’re trying to get conventionally published then it’s undoubtedly wise to abide by what agents and publishers are saying about such things. (I’m not at the moment – probably a good thing since BASIC Boy starts with a dream sequence, with weather mentioned in the second paragraph – hmmm…)
  9. Try to avoid clichés. Find fresh, more interesting (but appropriate and meaningful) ways to say everything.
  10. Use the best words to tell your story, and not more than necessary. Cut out what isn’t really needed. It will usually take several drafts to do this effectively (see #4 above), and later drafts will almost always be shorter, sharper and more readable as a result.
  11. Finally … always be positive, work hard at your craft and keep chasing your dreams – whatever they may be. I believe that success, in whatever form that might take, will come if you do that. For most of us that won’t be becoming a full-time, best-selling author – but even that is possible and if that’s your dream, then great. But success might mean simply becoming a good writer, producing work you can be proud of, that gives you and some others pleasure. And if you write pretty much for your own enjoyment, rather than to be published, feel free to ignore any or all rules, including those above.

That’s it. I could add more, but for me that pretty much covers it.

And I didn’t even mention ‘show don’t tell’, POV or speech tags! Not because I don’t care about such things, but more that if I start listing all the fiddly stuff I look at while editing my work then this post will go on forever. No-one wants that. Maybe some other time, you luck things.