At the weekend, crime writers P.D.James and Ruth Rendell were chatting to each other at the Soho Theatre in London. Someone (clearly not me) asked if they had any advice for a young person who wanted to write.
P.D.James wisely replied that it depends whether you want to be published more than you want to write.
It is possible to be published without being a good writer.
But, if you want to write, then you have to write and there is no real advice except possibly to read lots of well-written books – because reading badly-written books will only lead you on to writing badly-written books.
Personally, I have a feeling that taking writing courses may also lead people on to bad writing because they might start to think there are rules.
It is a bit like the view of the late comedian Malcolm Hardee, who had little time for jugglers because he saw juggling as a skill not a talent. If the average person practised eight hours per day, five days per week for two years, they could probably become a good juggler because it is a skill you can learn. But being a stand-up comic is a talent. If you are not funny, no amount of practice will ever make you truly, truly talented.
You can learn some stand-up comedy techniques from experience, but you cannot learn to be talented.
Same thing with creative writing.
There is no shame in that.
I am crap at science and foreign languages. But I can write a bit.
On the other hand, never say never.
RKO Pictures’ screen test report on Fred Astaire read: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.”
There are limits, though.
P.D.James and Ruth Rendell both said they were particularly drawn to crime fiction and have written little else.
A friend recently suggested I could make a lot of money by writing romantic fiction but I said I did not really think I could write it because my heart was not in the genre. I partly said this because someone I used to work with at Granada TV actually tried to write Mills & Boon type novels and gave up.
She told me she eventually realised that you can only write that type of fiction if you believe in it heart-and-soul and enjoy it yourself. A friend of hers did enjoy the genre and he did successfully write for Mills & Boon. She did not enjoy the genre wholeheartedly so was, in effect, writing pastiche not the real thing, which she did not want to do.
She wanted to write well in a particular genre, but that was not her genre, so she felt she could not write as well in that genre as she felt she could in others.
I once had a conversation with an editor at Random House over a book which was never written. He said something to the effect of:
I told him: “Well, I hope I don’t have a style. I just write in whatever style seems most appropriate.”
In the case of I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, it was Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography and it was written from tape recordings of chats with Malcolm, so I just had to make the words on the page seem as if they came from Malcolm’s mouth. You can’t just write down exactly what people say: people don’t talk in coherent sentences. So I had to reconstruct what he said in a way that made it seem like what he had said. Of course, they were the words he had said on the tapes, but re-arranged for print so that, over-all, it read like what he would have said. They were his rhythms and words re-arranged for print.
“In the case of Handstands in the Dark, that was Janey Godley’s autobiography and she wrote it herself. At the beginning, I cajoled and encouraged her and suggested how she should perhaps go about it but, by the end I was just doing simple sub-editing – occasional commas and paragraph manipulation. I never wrote the words or sentences myself.”
When I was at college, at the end of the course (or it might have been at the end of Year One, I can’t remember), we had to deliver a significant creative project of some kind. I chose to write a novel and it was shit. But it got it out of my system. I felt that, if I wrote another two shit novels, the fourth one would be quite good.
When I was a teenager, I had wanted to be a writer and had admired (I still do) George Orwell as a communicator of thoughts. He is not a novelist, but he is a great writer – Nineteen Eighty-Four has some very dodgy characterisation and writing (the heroine is badly-drawn and the love scenes are crap). But the ideas are wonderful. It is a below-par novel but a great book. And Orwell’s non-fiction Homage to Catalonia, about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War is a masterpiece.
George Orwell is a magnificent factual writer, though not a good novelist. But he is such a good writer, he transcends that – Nineteen Eighty-Four is a wonderful novel, even if he is not a good novelist.
It seemed to me that George Orwell had achieved his ability to write so well simply by writing a lot at the BBC and elsewhere. (For a period, he literally worked in Room 101 at BBC Broadcasting House.)
So, after college, I consciously looked for somewhere I would have to write a lot, quickly, under pressure, reasoning that I might be able to write anything about anything reasonably fluently.
And that was why I initially became a Promotion Scriptwriter, writing scripts for TV announcers and trailers every day and often under extreme time deadlines.
That did result – I think – who am I to truly know? – in my being able to write pretty much anything in any style under pressure. And, because I also interviewed people for magazines, I knew the difference between writing for the human voice in vision and out of vision; and writing for different types of print.
If you are writing for TV trailers and you have to make Benny Hill, a documentary on Auschwitz and an episode of Coronation Street seem like a sensible single evening’s entertainment entity, you have to know how to tape over the cracks to join things together.
So I think I can write in pretty much any style and make the result seem fairly fluent.
But romantic fiction is just beyond my limit. I would not do it well.
And I want to write well… not just be published.
Write it as art and sell it as baked beans.
But write it as art and it might last.
Unlike blogs, maybe.