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How do you become a writer and what are the good subjects to write about?

Yesterday, a 15 year-old girl asked me:

“How do you become a writer and what are the good subjects to write about?”

I told her: “The only way to become a writer is to write. It sounds silly, but it’s like juggling. The more you do it, the better you get.”

On the other hand, I can’t juggle, so what do I know about it?

Always beware of people who use similes about things they don’t know even the first thing about.

And who end sentences with prepositions.

I also told the 15 year old girl she had asked the wrong question.

“You don’t want to know what subjects to write about,” I told her. “You want to know who will buy and/or read the stuff you write. You don’t want to look at anything from the perspective of you writing something; you want to look from the perspective of someone reading what you write.”

That’s the only decent piece of advice I have about writing.

Never think of yourself as a writer.

The worst thing anyone can ever do is think of themself as ‘a writer’. If you do that, your mindset will be wrong. You will think, “How would a ‘real’ writer say this?” and you will copy the way you think a ‘real’ writer should write and it will be crap because you will descend into cliché.

Plenty of people write in the same way, but who wants to write like the lowest common denominator Fleet Street hack?

A famous actress with a great life story once talked to me about writing her autobiography. The most important thing, she said, was that she wanted to write it herself and for the book to be her own thoughts in her own voice. Eventually, the publisher persuaded her to have an experienced Fleet Street journalist ‘help’ her with the autobiography.

I picked up the published book in Tesco one day and looked at the first page. It read like any book serialisation in any tabloid Sunday newspaper. It was written in cliché Fleet Street sentences. It probably sold well because she was a famous actress, but not because it was well-written and not because she herself had written it.

In 2003, Random House commissioned unknown Scots comedienne Janey Godley to write her autobiography. She had gone into a meeting with an editor at their imprint Ebury Press with little hope of getting a book commissioned – nobody had ever heard of her – but, when the editor heard just a little of her life story, Random House virtually ripped her arms off to sign her up.

I was asked to actually edit the book which was published as Handstands in the Dark (a terrible title – it should have been called Good Godley! – but Ebury insisted). I had a meeting with Ebury after the contract was signed at which it was discussed what editing this book might involve, because Janey had never written anything for publication before.

It might involve doing nothing. It might involve tweaking. It might involve a lot of literary shepherding. It might involve writing the whole thing from scratch if it turned out Janey could not do it herself. They wanted to publish her story; she was staggeringly charismatic to talk to; but no-one knew if she could write for print.

As it turned out, she was a brilliant writer, though I had to give her advice in the first few weeks of the process. Of course, it might have been wrong advice – what do I know? – but I don’t think it was.

She used to send me stuff she had written almost every night. Because she was writing an autobiography, at first she delivered lots of facts.

This happened, that happened, then this happened, then…

This can wear the reader down and also it does not actually let the reader share the experience of what happened, which is the whole point of writing the thing. You can get bogged down in facts with no humanity. Writing is not about facts; it’s about emotions and thoughts. The facts, however interesting, are only the skeleton for the meat. People are interested in people, not facts.

I told Janey to find key incidents which epitomised the period or the emotions of what was happening to her at the time and then to describe those key incidents and emotions as vividly as she could.

“Write more about less,” I told her.

One way to make the incidents more vivid was to try to find any of her five senses that were key to the moment. A ‘key’ moment is literally that. It opens up a doorway to something. If she remembered an incident, what was the first thing she remembered inside herself? Which of her five senses was most vivid? Use that key sense of the moment and it opens up a whole emotional experience which readers can share.

When Marcel Proust wrote his autobiographical Remembrance of Things Past (which, of course, I have never read) he ended up writing seven volumes after drinking one spoonful of tea in which he had soaked a piece of madeleine cake. The taste triggered involuntary memories of his entire childhood – all the tiny details came flooding back to him.

He wrote: “The taste was of a little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings…my Aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea….Immediately the old grey house on the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set…and the entire town, with its people and houses, gardens, church, and surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being from my cup of tea.” Just seeing the madeleine had not brought back these memories. He needed to taste and smell it.

Describing what is seen or heard is obvious. Perhaps smell and taste come next. But touch is important too. If you describe the rough or smooth texture of something, the object becomes more alive.

You can write that you sat on a sofa. Or you can write that, as you sat on the cream sofa with its three dark brown coffee stains, your fingers ran over the rough-textured woollen blanket which Fred had half-thrown over its back that drunken night.

Of course, you don’t want too much of this – it could end up as bad as having endless adjectives in front of the noun. Who wants to read too many sentences about a noisy, black, frightened, one-eyed Shetland pony?

I told Janey that, if she remembered one key sensory detail of any incident, include it. So, in one sentence, she wrote:

“Three plain clothes detectives were standing around, their cold breath drifting up and turning white and blue in the flashing lights of the ambulance.”

I think that description is all-the-more vivid because Janey chooses to write “white and blue” instead of “blue and white”, but that would take a whole extra thousand words to discuss!

In another sentence, she writes:

“I ran up the stairway with one policeman behind me, my bloodied shoes sticking to the wooden stairs as I went.”

It is, of course, the fact that the bloodied soles of her shoes stick slightly on the wooden stairs which makes it so vivid.

Handstands in the Dark is not a book you forget easily. The rather stunned publisher at Ebury Press said details stayed with him vividly for days after reading it. And Janey wrote every word in it. I very carefully did not suggest words or phrases. Which can be a problem with publishers.

My experience is that people who can write do so. People who want to write but can’t write become publishers and then try to write through other people, often messing up writers’ text and downgrading it to cliché mulch. This, it should be said, did not happen with Janey’s book which Ebury were not allowed to see until the manuscript was completed and which went on to be both a Top Ten hardback and Top Ten paperback bestseller.

An extension of the truism that “those who can write do and those who can’t write become publishers” is that those who can’t write start courses teaching people how to write. That is not always true, but it often is,

The only way to learn how to write, as I told the 15 year old girl yesterday, is to write and write and write.

But don’t sit down with a black sheet of paper or computer screen and think you are creating the words that come out of you. Instead, turn it round 180 degrees and, as you write, think you are seeing the words appear for the first time and you are the reader not the writer. Put yourself in the position of someone who does not know what is coming next.

The first sentence should intrigue the reader into wanting to know what the next sentence is going to be. You want to hook the reader. So, imagining yourself as the reader, you know what has to be written to explain more about what is being said – what is needed to understand more about the argument or about the plot. But you don’t want to give the readers 100% of the information. You want to ‘hook’ or intrigue them into constantly wanting to know more.

Keep ‘em wanting more.

My template was George Orwell, who I think was a great communicator though a shit novelist. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a wonderful book. But the human beings in it – particularly the heroine – are badly drawn. He was a journalist and writer of ideas – his non-fiction like Homage to Catalonia is masterful. Animal Farm, which is really a non-fiction book masquerading as a fictional story, is amazing. But he was not a good novelist.

Me?

I think layout is almost as important as what you write. Make sure it looks easy-to-read on the page. Vary the lengths and look of the paragraphs. Mix prose and quotes. Don’t have big impenetrable-looking chunks of text. Make it look easy to read and it will be easier to read.

My own big problem is I need deadlines to write anything. So I will just go off out to Tesco now.

Do what I say, not what I do.

Always easier to say to a 15 year-old.

And remember William Goldman’s oft-quoted but oft-misunderstood recurring warning in his brilliantly incisive Adventures in the Screen Trade the best book I know about the creative process and full of great Hollywood anecdotes:

Nobody knows anything.

Maybe it is a pity it has taken me 1,766 words to mention that.

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