Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Five Provocations

Creative writing students often hope that there's secret truth about how to write that will be revealed once they start their course, and that published writers possess the keys to the kingdom. But the sorry truth is that there is no secret, there is no magic formula, there is no mysterious How To Write Fiction book that will suddenly make it easy (apart from this one, of course!).

The fact is, there are no rules for good writing. Matters of taste and fashion apart, good writing these days can be as structurally conventional and yet deeply satisfying as Colm Toibin's rewarding look at Henry James in The Master or as original and ground-breaking as Ali Smith's anti-novel Hotel World. So, in the absence of a secret formula, here are five rules to provoke you into thinking again about what and how you are writing.

Writing for stand up

In the early 90s I met Jimmy Tarbuck backstage at a show. I told him I was a struggling comic. "Good luck!" he said as he puffed on his cigar, "comedy is the hardest job in the world!"
I don't agree with Tarbuck. It's not as hard as being a fireman or a brain surgeon or in the SAS or (given that you work for 20 minutes a night and then get drunk), as hard as working in an office. Still, most people would rather eat their own liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti than perform stand-up comedy.
At its best, stand-up comedy is the purest and most immediate medium for comedy and possibly even self-expression. What other outlet allows you to have an idea in the afternoon and then try it out that evening to an actual audience?

Writing Sketches

You may be tempted to crack straight on with a sitcom, but start small. Containing an idea in a two-minute sketch will teach you about structure, establishing characters and how to write pithy, economical dialogue.
It is easy to put on a sketch show at your college, pub or on the internet. A producer will be happier to read a page or two rather than a whole script and there are radio and TV shows which are looking for shorter sketch material, which means you have a much better chance of selling your work.
I started my professional career writing topical sketches for the now defunct Radio 4 show Weekending. I actually pretty much loathed the programme, as it was rather formulaic and rarely biting. Yet I stayed for a year, serving an apprenticeship that taught me many skills: from the mundane business of how to format a script (for this and further advice see to technical tricks such as how to avoid clunky exposition like:


Competent, effective, functional, engaging journalistic writing can be learnt, and some advice has been provided in this online series. Brilliant writing for newspapers has a plus factor which is hard to define and is not achieved by many. It comes down to style. Keith Waterhouse puts it this way: "What is this style? Why do some stories have it and others not? It would be fruitless to try to define it - as Fats Waller said when asked for a definition of jazz, 'Lady, if you have to ask, I can't tell you.' Obviously it demands flair, plus professionalism - two commodities that have never been in short supply in popular journalism. It demands experience, a quality that can be taken for granted in Fleet Street. For the rest, it consists simply of choosing a handful of words from the half million or so samples available, and arranging them in the best order."
Penultimate word to David Randall, whose Universal Journalist provides so much easily absorbed advice for the aspiring writer of journalism: "The pleasures of capturing something and pinning it down in words, your words, are immense. So too is the thrill of starting a piece with an assortment of disparate information and finding a pattern in it and new ideas about it as you write."

Tuesday, 8 October 2013


The contents page of a biography or memoir will give you an idea of the structure the author has used. Chapters in biographies are usually around 6-8,000 words in length but there are no hard and fast rules. The occasional short chapter can bring variety to the pace of the book. Some authors punctuate their chapters with short asides in which they pause from the main narrative to expand a particular theme without interrupting the narrative flow. Kathryn Hughes's The Short Life & Long Times of Mrs Beeton is laced with "interludes" in which she explores topics such as Mrs Beeton's awareness of the link between health and diet, and whether Mrs Beeton ruined British cooking. Each adds to the reader's knowledge of the period without causing the narrative drive to stall. Alternatively, you might prefer to weave themes into the central story.
Cradle to Grave
A biography typically starts with the subject's birth (it's surprising how many begin with a description of the weather) and continues in a roughly chronological order until their death. The advantage of this approach, which could equally apply to the history of a family, is that it is easy to follow. The downside is that it can appear plodding - especially if you're writing about someone who had an action-packed early life but whose later days were tame. One solution is to condense your treatment of the less exciting years but this can be difficult to achieve without making the book seem unbalanced. Alexander Masters turned the traditional form on its head in Stuart, A Life Backwards by telling the story in reverse chronological order.

Choosing your subject

You can't choose your relatives but you can choose which ones you write about. Deciding on whose lives you will research - whether as part of a family history or as a single biography - will depend on several factors. Ideally, your interests and skills should match theirs. If you want to write about a Nobel Prize winning economist but you failed maths GCSE you may struggle to appreciate their work. On the other hand, ignorance can be the ideal starting point from which to demystify a complicated subject.
Weigh up the type and availability of sources before choosing your subject. There should be enough material to allow you to get to know the person you're researching but not so much that it would take you your lifetime to read it. When Michael Holroyd was researching the life of George Bernard Shaw he began to think that Shaw, who wrote 10 letters every day of his adult life and had the benefit of shorthand and secretaries, could write more in a day than Holroyd could read. By contrast, if you're interested in an early professional footballer you may discover that he didn't write a single letter and you will have to find other ways of giving him a "voice" - perhaps by quoting from newspaper interviews or speaking to someone who knew him.
Much research can be carried out on the internet but you will still have to interview people, consult collections and probably make at least one trip to somewhere such as the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) in Kew or the Imperial War Museum in south London. How far you live from your main sources will affect the time and expense involved. If they are abroad both will rise and you may also face language difficulties.

Finding your voice

As you start to write your style will emerge. Before you begin you should have some idea of how much of you will appear in the book. If you're writing a memoir nearly all of it may be written in the first person and yours may be the only viewpoint that the reader glimpses. Margaret Forster makes this change in emphasis explicit half way through her family memoir, Hidden Lives. Just before this she has been telling the story from her mother's point of view and describing her concern about her precocious child. Then the tone changes:
"It was at this time, in 1943, when I was five, that my own real memory begins, real in the sense that I can not only recall actual events but can propel myself back into them, be there again in my Aunt Jean's room-and-kitchen, standing by the window at the back of the Buildings, staring out at the outside staircase and the tops of the wash-houses, while behind me Jean asks me what is the matter ... So I can stop now, writing in the third person, stop retelling stories I was told about the years before I was born, about when I was under five, stop splicing oral history with local history and start instead letting my own version of family lore come into play. I am there, at the centre. What a difference it makes, how dangerous it is." (page 132-133, pbk)
"I" is less common in a biography - unless you want to incorporate a sense of a personal quest - but there is just as much scope to write about a person's life from different viewpoints. If you're writing about a singer you might describe how members of the band reacted to their decision to leave it or how a fan greeted the news.