My best writing tip by William Boyd, Jeanette Winterson, Amit Chaudhuri and more
Got a brilliant beginning, or the seed of an idea? Authors offer their most important piece of advice – from finding a voice to the all-important ending
Jeanette Winterson, Rose Tremain, William Boyd, Philip Hensher, Tessa Hadley, Toby Litt, Amit Chaudhuri, Kathryn Hughes, Naomi Alderman, Jonny Geller, Nikita Lalwani and Blake Morrison
Saturday 10 September 2016 08.00 BST
Audition your ideas – Rose Tremain
Most writers experience what I call the “September paradox”: just when the weather is warning of the dying season to come, the creative mind (probably refreshed by a hot foreign holiday, or a breezy one on the north Norfolk shore) discovers that an internal springtime has arrived and new ideas are popping up all over the place.
It’s important to snatch this moment. Give these green stems of thought your passionate attention, otherwise they may be dead by Christmas. Water well and weed diligently. But here’s my advice on how to proceed: treat these seedlings like job applicants. You don’t know who they are yet. They may seem feisty, clever or captivatingly beautiful, but are they going to offer anything original? Most important, are they likely to be inspirational companions, who will lead you to create the best work that you’re capable of? WB Yeats’s advice to writers, “Do not hurry, do not rest”, is relevant here.
As the autumn advances, keep a vigil on the applicants. Then, you’ll gradually begin to know what they’re leading you towards. Are you embarking on the long road to something truthful, or just moving towards a heaving skip of recycled bullshit? The landmass of the western world is slowly being submerged by bad books. You don’t want to add to this tonnage, so go slowly into your analysis of what it is you’ve got to say. Does it have real emotional and intellectual grip? If so, then start gathering all the knowledge you’ll need to set forth on your great writing adventure.
Only remember that the September applicants may not fulfil their promising CVs. The “big novel” that shrinks into a Christmas card list is, in the writer’s world, a familiar disaster of the festive season.
• Rose Tremain taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia and is its former chancellor
Pay attention – Philip Hensher
Think about how people reveal themselves through behaviour, and focus on the externals of gesture, expression, dialogue and settings. It’s tempting, given the limitless power of the omniscient novelist, to plunge into a character’s head and write, baldly, “Laura felt painfully envious”. But what has more energy is the analysis of how a character in the grip of painful envy carries herself, speaks, looks, and even dresses. We always know, if we are observant, how a person who is desperately, secretly in love with another behaves. The trick of fiction is to extract the ways in which other emotions affect the outer crust, too, and by observing the characteristic walk of a human being overcome with happiness, say, making the reader feel observant, and not just laboriously informed.
How this carriage affects the characters around her, too: because fiction does not amount to much if it is just one character standing in a stairwell, pondering gravely about past events. If the first lesson of fiction is about the leakage of the abstract into the world of the physical, the second ought to be that fiction is about the way one character’s desires will crash into another’s, and a third, and a fourth, when all that seems to be happening is four friends meeting in a pub, or working together in an office, or finding themselves thrown together by chance. The episode that consists of one person alone leads to nothing much: the episode of four different characters with their own ways of life moves in multiple directions.
To do this, the beginning writer is going to have to undertake some systematic observation, notebook in hand. No novelist worth reading ever sat at home, entranced with the words spooling out. They paid attention to the life of the streets, to the mannerisms of their friends, to the way a small child speaks when he is hoping not to get found out. Fiction looks outwards.
• Philip Hensher is professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University
Plan your ending – William Boyd
About once a month or so, when someone says to me, “I’ve got this great idea for a novel/film/play/TV series” and then outlines the (usually pretty good) opening, I say: “So – how does it end?”. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the answer is: “I haven’t quite figured that out yet.”
Therefore my default response to all “great” ideas in the writing business is to do with the ending. A good ending can redeem a mediocre idea. A bad ending can sink a really good idea. As soon as you know how your narrative ends – in whatever medium – then a huge percentage of the problematic issues that arise in the writing will be solved.
If you have a clear sense of how your story will end then you can, as it were, rewind to the beginning and plot any number of various routes that will allow you to arrive at that desired ending – with its attendant catharsis, of course. If you start writing (however striking your original idea) with no sense of how your story will end, then life becomes progressively harder. Flailing around. Writer’s block. Draft after draft. This is how novels get abandoned; film scripts bottom-drawered. The thing to do is to stop and envisage your final pages, your final scene. Take your time. What note do you want to strike? What surprise do you want to spring? What denouement will justify this journey?
It may sound mechanical, but story-telling is a very complicated business, full of moving parts and many cogs engaging. You can’t rely on the Muse to descend and sort it all out for you. A bit of serious forethought about the conclusion will mean you don’t need the Muse’s help at all.
William Boyd is a novelist and screenwriter
Know your characters – Claire Messud
In fiction, character is (almost) everything. We discuss “the elements of craft” – characterisation, plot, point of view, dialogue, detail, setting, style, and so forth – as if they were separable, as if you could disentangle them one from another. You can’t, of course; but when you filter almost all things through the specificities of character, many questions resolve themselves, almost miraculously.
Each of us is, in any given moment, the sum total of our temperament and experiences up to that point. Our baggage and idiosyncrasies may be suggested in our appearance; but much is invisible to the world. We all know that if there are three people in a room, each will tell a different story about what happened there – so character determines the story itself. But it also determines what will unfold – the plot.
Ten rules for writing fiction
As a writer, when you create a character, you don’t simply create his exterior (the wispy goatee, the receding hairline, the Liberty print shirt and expensive loafers); you must also come to know who he is (bullied in school, uneasy in friendships, veering between eager to please and cruel; vain but pretending not to be), and what has formed him (a Catholic school in the Sydney suburbs? A comprehensive in Exeter? Born with a silver spoon; or things started off comfortably, but his father’s business failed when he was 11? Raised in the shadow of three older siblings? Or alone with a single mum?). You must know his passions (loves pugs? Bicycle racing? First world war history? Talmudic study?) and his fears.
Once you know this person as well as you know yourself (or better), and once you put him, or her, in a particular place in a particular time, your character can only really act (or react) in a limited number of ways. He will notice only certain things, and those things only from a particular perspective; he will interact with others as only he can. If you’re using the first person, or the third person privileging this character, your diction and syntax – your very writing style – will be shaped by this person.
So much about a character is invisible, in fiction as in real life; but what lies beneath the surface will affect every aspect of your story. If you really take the time to figure out who you’re dealing with, much will become clear.
• Claire Messud is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Harvard
Distance yourself – Tessa Hadley
This is something I talk about with my students until they’re sick of it: teaching yourself to read your own writing as a reader. It’s very difficult; it makes your mind ache – not only when you first start trying, but always. Three minutes ago you were tussling down inside the sentences, trying to drag out of the air the perfectly right words to express a mood, or catch a person’s physical presence or a place’s, or trying to find the perfectly right thing for your character to say. Then you blink your eyes, pull back from the screen or the notebook, try to imagine you’ve never seen this writing before.
This is the exact equivalent of a painter pulling back from her canvas, squinting at her work, before she dives forward and changes it again. It’s a revelation, really – how surprisingly visual reading is. Go back a few pages, start reading as if you’ve never seen these words before. How does it seem? Suddenly you’ll see what you couldn’t see when you were down among the undergrowth. It’s going on too long, it’s sentimental, the tone’s too heavy, there are too many sentences with same rhythm, there’s an inadvertent repetition. Or, something’s missing. You could print out your work, to try to see it freshly – or type it up, if you’re writing longhand. Or you could look at it full screen on the computer, with a different background, more like the pages of a book. The trouble is you have to make this effort not once, but over and over. Your mind will be sore from the effort of reading the same old thing so many times as if it were new. But unless you do it you won’t know what you’ve written, or whether you’ve got it alive and whole, faithfully, on to the page.
• Tessa Hadley is professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University
Don’t be afraid to start again – Jeanette Winterson
Creativity is inexhaustible. Experiment, play, throw away. Above all be confident enough about creativity to throw stuff out. If it isn’t working, don’t cut and paste – scrap it and begin again.
• Jeanette Winterson is professor of new writing at the Centre for New Writing, University of Manchester
Be surprising – Blake Morrison
When the sweetly idealistic Nina asks Trigorin, in Chekhov’s The Seagull, to describe what it’s like to be a famous writer, he tells her it’s torment. Day and night, the compulsion to write never leaves him, he says. He can’t rest; can’t forget the unfinished novel he’s meant to be working on; can’t see a cloud in the sky without thinking of a comparison (with a grand piano, say) he might use somewhere; can’t trust the praise of encouragement of friends; feels nervous, miserable, overwrought, half-mad, and when any new work of his appears in print realises that it’s all wrong. Nina doesn’t listen, to her cost. But aspiring writers would do well to heed the warning. To be forever “consuming your own life”, as Trigorin puts it, is no picnic.
But as he also admits, the act itself, when you’re fully immersed, is enjoyable. And to write “in a sort of haze”, unsure what you’re up to but simply compelled, may be no bad thing. Say you sit down to write a poem, or an episode, set on an autumn morning. You have the idea but feel stuck, hamstrung, overwhelmed by your literary forebears: mist and mellow fruitfulness have been done to death. So has woodsmoke but suddenly you’ve the smell in your nostrils and are reminded of (or imagine) a particular fire, logs crackling in a grate, two wine-glasses, a bitter argument, a crimson stain on a sheepskin rug – perhaps the scene is a winter night rather an autumn morning and the logs are imitation logs in a modern gas fire, but that’s fine, where you’re being taken is more interesting than what you’d planned. Just go with it – you can always change it later.
In other words, if you only write what you’re expecting to write, you’ll be bored. Take a risk. Work against the grain. Don’t be afraid to make a deathbed scene comic, or to show a murderer being kind to animals. Truth is surprising, and surprise is the key – surprising the reader but also, in the first place, surprising yourself.
• Blake Morrison is professor of creative and life writing at Goldsmiths
Use a pseudonym – Toby Litt
Trying to write your very best can stop you writing your very best. There’s a couple of ways to get around this. Most obviously, you can let yourself off writing as well as you’re possibly able. You can say: “This is draft zero, not even a first draft, so there’s no need for it to be anything but an exciting mess.” Lots of writing advice is about taking the pressure off by lowering the expectations you have of each draft. That’s the very best part of your very best.
A different approach, one I often suggest to writers who are struggling, is to dodge the issue entirely.
Instead of writing your novel or story as you, and anticipating all that pressure of owning your work (having friends read it as yours, reading it out in public after being introduced as you), give yourself a pseudonym to work with. Make up the name of a writer you just might have been, if you hadn’t been yourself. Type it in at the top of the manuscript. Print it out. Sign it. (I’m serious.) This draft is no longer by you (at your very best). This draft is by them, whoever they turn out to be.
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Now, whenever you need to figure something out about your story, from the overall form to the punctuation of a sentence, you can shift responsibility. The question isn’t “How do I, at my very best, write this?” but “How does so-and-so write this?”
By writing under a secret pseudonym, you will gain a collaborator who has no hang-ups, no responsibilities, no history. They will, I promise, help you write better – perhaps even better than your very best.
• Toby Litt is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London
Do your research – Kathryn Hughes
There’s this odd idea that, when it comes to writing non-fiction and biography, all you have to do is get the facts straight in your head and then spool them out in a listless monotone. The experience is rather like sitting next to a pub bore, who starts every sentence with “The interesting thing is …” without noticing that you’ve already turned away and started to talk to someone else.
So it’s all about finding a way to tell your story about the past as if it is actually very present. And, no, that doesn’t mean employing the historic present tense, which is used far too often, and mostly badly. Instead, you need to marinate yourself in your material, consuming everything that you can get your hands on about your subject (we’ll assume you’re writing a biography) and the period in which they lived. Read the books that they read, not just the ones that they actually wrote. Track down their great-great-granddaughter and ask if there any relics (snuffboxes, spectacles diaries, not actual bones) that you could sniff or finger. Saturate yourself in your subject’s correspondence until you know the name of their neighbour’s dog or the date on which their child’s first tooth fell out.
Only once you’ve metabolised this material, taken it into your own body, let it settle and mulch inside you for weeks, months or years, will you have a hope of making it live again. The first time you sit down to write, after a period of research immersion, try it freestyle. Don’t hug your notes, or pore over timelines. Write the narrative from memory, letting details float to the front of your imagination, while others recede into the background. With any luck, your narrative will feel fresh and juicy because that is how it lives in your imagination. Only at this point should you go back to your data and make sure that you haven’t invented anything. Because that really isn’t OK.
• Kathryn Hughes is professor of life writing at the University of East Anglia
Commit to finishing – Nikita Lalwani
Making the decision to finish a piece of work is crucial. It is this seriousness of intent that gives you half a chance of writing something that will have a life beyond your desk. It might be easier to deny this aspect and pretend that you will never get there – how dare you presume that this folly of a story you are bashing out can be something real, a book for an actual audience, and more to the point, isn’t it very likely you will write a bad ending? You made the whole thing up, after all, and this contraption that we call plot could easily come apart. So goes the insecure writerly mind in the dark hours. But once you believe that you will reach the end of your book, whatever shape that takes, then it can make it easier to write with the kind of conviction and purpose that makes a reader want to turn the page.
In Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, the playful and profound series of essays on writing by Umberto Eco, he likens the act of reading to playing a game: “a game by which we give sense to the immensity of things that have happened, are happening or will happen in the world”. By saying to yourself that you will complete the story, you are acknowledging the nature of this transaction between yourself and a potential reader – you are in the game.
Of course, your story may never have a reader, but I believe there are very few benefits to thinking in that way. Time and time again I have seen talented students ditch their manuscripts at the half-way point, and less talented students reach the end, rewrite the whole book enthusiastically, and get published. Something about ending your novel can elevate it beyond what you might feel is a shameful and insubstantial piece of drivel that you have written in your pyjamas and make it a contender in your own mind. Respect your process and make a pact to close the deal.
Nikita Lalwani is a lecturer in creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London
Forget brilliance – DBC Pierre
One intimidating thing about starting to write is the array of polished advice about it. Pearls seemingly formed between tennis and cocktails, brilliantly deployed by the greats between six and nine every morning but Sunday. Suddenly our biggest hurdle isn’t character, pace or plot, but that we can’t even play tennis.
I’m talking about the otherness of our peers. If our toolkit belongs to Fitzgerald and Faulkner, our first issue will be getting over writing relative crap at the outset. But whoever said “writing is rewriting” knew the science of crap, the practical lesson being: it’s easier to improve it than to originate brilliance. To improve it we need to have it, which means writing it, and that requires a different ethos than the one we probably sat down with, glowing with hope and expectation.
My suggestion is this: we stop ourselves from writing what we have to write by pausing to fret over details and risks, and by filtering ourselves through subconscious juries. Sparkles of gold can appear if we just get enough words written, which means write like the wind, don’t look down. Make a pact never to show anyone, build a mound of dirt, skim it later for anything that excites you. Skimming is a different job, sober and honest, of an archaeologist crumbling dirt in her hands. Separate any glimmers into a new document and build on them, connect them, repeat the process. Those glimmers are also evidence that things can work out, making them power pills for the will; use them to press on. We might start by sifting crap but a couple of passes can lure out real pipe-puffing linen-wearing tennis-playing vigour.
The key then is to not try playing tennis.
• DBC Pierre is author of writing guide Release the Bats
Ignore tips – Amit Chaudhuri
The one tip I give to students of writing is to disregard tips. These might have to do with arresting opening sentences, or they may simply concern the tools of the trade – character, setting, description, plot. The four words, chosen randomly, are vague descriptive categories once used in literary departments, where, with “tone”, they’ve been abandoned, only to be repeatedly invoked in creative writing classes along with “craft”, “sentence”, and that nervous-making shibboleth, “point of view”. I’m not sure what “character” means. Is it an aggregate of physical features – nose, eyes, hair – which add up to a bodily presence into which, as if it were a vessel, you pour psychological life: thoughts, memories, political views? Can you “fictionalise” a real person by adding a moustache to his face, or a stammer to his speech?
Why is it that, when we invent characters, the process of invention involves an excavation from the subconscious, as if we were trying to remember someone we knew decades ago; while when we write of people we know, we see them in our imagination as independent entities who are essentially strangers to us? To create a character is to unlearn what we know: tips will be unhelpful. Unhelpful, too, is the hierarchy in which these categories arrive, with character at the centre, and setting important inasmuch as it is where plot or story – or what happens to the protagonist – unfolds.
For me, the protagonist is only one element in a story: evening, room, wall, smoke, car, are other possible ones. It’s a prejudice inherited from the European Renaissance that the human must occupy centre stage, everything else being secondary. A work of the imagination gives us not a protagonist, but the intimation of a world. No one thing in a world – object or person – has centrality.
If I have one more tip, it’s this: give nothing centrality, because writing is about continually shifting weight from one thing and moment to the other.
• Amit Chaudhuri is professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia
Just do it – Naomi Alderman
You learn the most from sitting down and doing the work, regularly, patiently, sometimes in hope, sometimes despairingly. When you have something that seems complete, show your work to people you trust to be honest but not malicious. Put it aside for six months and reread it. Expect to be disgusted by your own early work. If writing is your vocation, if you hope that it might be your salvation, push on through the disgust until you find one true sentence, a few words that say more than you expected, something you didn’t know until you set it down.
There are no “tips” for this process really; it’s painstaking and intense and doesn’t often feel pleasant.
However, I think there are tips for how to sit your bum on the chair and do the work.
Stop reading so many articles on the internet about how to write. You’re allowed one a week. Instead, spend that time actually writing.
Use a writing prompt to get you started. I recommend Judy Reeves’ book A Writer’s Book of Days.
Write for 15 minutes every day. Set a time in advance, set a timer. Try to write at the same time every day. Your subconscious will get used to the idea and will start to work like a reliable water spout.
Remind yourself, every day, that you’re doing this to try to find something out about yourself, about the world, about words and how they fit together. Writing is investigation. Just keep seeking.
• Naomi Alderman is professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University
Once you’ve written your masterpiece, it’s time to get it published …
Once you’ve written your masterpiece, it’s time to get it published …
How to get an agent
Jonny Geller, joint chief executive of Curtis Brown
Research: Who does an agent represent? What is their area of expertise? How many new writers do they nurture? If you sent your romantic saga to an agent who specialises in military history, you will have wasted your stamp.
Be brief: If you can’t write a short letter, you probably can’t write a long novel.
Don’t do the agent’s work for them: A mis-pitch is an unnecessary hurdle to jump, so no “Sherlock Holmes meets Jack Reacher” combinations, please.
Don’t send your first three chapters until they are so good you couldn’t bear changing a word: If you don’t love it, we won’t. You only get one chance to read something for the first time so don’t think you can fix that problem later. There won’t be a later.
Wait: Leave at least four to six weeks before hassling the agent for a response.
Be positive: We are looking for terrific books by great new authors so be confident and expect success. If you write to us anticipating rejection, we will smell it and probably agree with you. It is a wonderful thing to create, produce and believe in yourself.
• Jonny Geller’s recent Tedx talk was “What Makes a Bestseller?”
How to get published
Susanna Wadeson, publishing director at Transworld
There are six elements I think about when considering a project.
Story: This comes first, in both fiction and non-fiction. What’s the story? Do I care? And am I the right editor to help tell it? Does it grab me? This starts with the all-important pitch – a two-line summary – but I have to be sure the whole book will deliver on that promise and has a fluent and compelling narrative thread.
Platform: Who is the author and do they have a public profile to help us promote the book? Do they have an existing following/readership on TV/radio/social media? Essentially, is there a chatter-factor?
Voice: Is the writing distinctive and a pleasure to spend time with? Is it elegantly constructed? Witty? Surprising? Am I moved to laugh? Cry?
Authenticity: Am I comfortable with the match of author and subject? Does it feel opportunistic or manufactured, or does the author have a genuine passion to convey?
Originality: Is it really new? Will the book shift our views about who we are, the world we live in?
Audience: Yes it is interesting/fun/moving/different and I love the author, but is there a market for it? Will anyone feel they need it to the extent that they will pay £15 for it?