With Respect, PD James, Your Writing Rules Are Wrong
Phyllis Dorothy James is, without doubt, the grande-dame of crime writing. At 93 and still going strong, she has just issued her top ten tips for writing novels. It’s heresy (especially coming from a writer with a fraction of her fame and longevity) but I do think some of them are wrong. What clearly works for her is not what would work for many professional authors.
Let’s take the points one by one.
1. You must be born to write
Ms James says ‘You can’t teach someone to know how to use words effectively and beautifully.’ Not everyone has the benefit of supportive parents or a good education. Much as a brilliant chef may grow up in a home where no good cooking is ever attempted (Nigel Slater wrote about this in his memoir ‘Toast’) a would-be writer may be taught to understand the beauty of words. You must be born with a curiosity about the world and its people. How that curiosity is shaped depends on a good teacher, nurture, opportunity and passion, not birthright.
2. Write about what you know
No, write about what you don’t know! Write what you hope, you dream, you love and fear. You can learn what you need to know easily enough. HRF Keating wrote the Inspector Ghote novels without ever setting foot in India, and when he finally did, it ruined his books. Understand human emotions, but make a lot of stuff up – it’s called fiction.
3. Find your own routine
Life is changing fast. Routines are a luxury few of us now have. Write when you can, where you can – that’s all. But write regularly. And don’t break the three-day rule (when working on a novel, never leave it longer than three days without writing).
4. Be aware that the business is changing
Yes, but you’re writing something that will always be needed – a story. And that doesn’t change though all the formats and selling systems around it do. Concentrate on the part your good at, the words, and let others decide how, when and where it will be sold, otherwise you end up becoming the harassed business manager of your own livelihood.
5. Read, write and don’t daydream
This is possibly the worst advice imaginable. Without space and air and light and calm, those lacunae of everyday life, there is no imagination, and the ideas don’t form. I can sit and write for days and produce dull rubbish, or spend a day wandering around a city and come back with my head filled with plots, characters, consequences, dialogues.
6. Enjoy your own company
Safe advice, but the most productive time I ever spent was in a cramped office with four other very noisy writers. . Do what’s best for you. Only the thinking-out part has to happen inside your lonely head.
7. Choose a good setting
This is the point I most agree with. Without a clear plot location, stories often feel empty and unformed. Although I’d mitigate it by pointing out that two of the greatest short stories, Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ and Alberto Manguel’s ‘Seven Floors’ have no time or place attached to them at all.
8. Never go anywhere without a notebook
It’s a good idea, but now that just means carrying a phone, iPad or electronic device, which you probably already do.
9. Never talk about a book before it is finished
No, no, no! If you stay silent and only seal it inside you, you’ll never iron out the improbabilities. Talk to a friend, discussing the book in natural conversation, and I swear you’ll quickly come to spot all of its faults before the other person has said a single thing. You need a real-world sounding board for something that has only lived in your head.
10. Know when to stop
Talent of Ms James’ stature probably allows her to circumvent this, but unfortunately most publishers specify length of works in their contracts and ask us to pump up the word count accordingly.
The days of writing as a higher calling are over; we write on the fly, as you can, talking to everyone and anyone, as part of world society, not in a room with a desk and a view. Those days are over forever.