With Respect, PD James, Your Writing Rules Are Wrong

Reading & Writing


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.

7 comments on “With Respect, PD James, Your Writing Rules Are Wrong”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    You may very well be correct about most of this, especially when considering this generation’s writers, but you are hearing the past generation speaking in this list. She’s 94, with a stack of work and a “damery” behind her so no one is likely to suggest she change at this point. She changed in the past, though. She has said that the mysteries of the thirties influenced her tremendously and I really noticed it in reading “Cover Her Face” last week. Dalgleish sort of slithers in and out of the book with everyone flapping madly around him. She has him meet with all the personae in the last chapter, something that no police officer would ever do. It just smacks of Poirot, and doesn’t work. She changed after that and focused more on the ongoing investigation rather than the feelings and thoughts of all the characters. She did and occasionally still does something that irks me. Why does a middle aged woman in plain clothes have to carry a “shapeless” handbag? She critiques her characters’ clothes, accent, homes, vehicles. I agree that the descriptions are necessary but evaluating them as “bad taste”, “poor choice”, and especially the “not us” sort of running down of people is rather off-putting for those of us who feel more in the shapeless handbag class than otherwise. It is odd, too, considering her background, although I notice that her speaking accent now is definitely an “educated” one. Has she been trying to place herself above some line or other all these years?

  2. Diogenes says:

    “Know when to stop”

    Personally I think PD James should have stopped about ten years ago.

  3. Ken Murray says:

    I remember attending a university alumni dinner a few years ago, where P. D (Baroness) James was the guest of honour. Her demeanour reminded me at the time (and still does) of the Young Mr. Grace from Are You Being Served? As her entrance was similar to that character’s “You’ve all done very well” speach, before being shuffled along…

  4. Rich says:

    I think P.D James is grossly overrated. I’ve never got the impression from reading many of her novels over the years that she even likes Crime fiction. To me she is the kind of Crime writer who writes books for those who would turn their nose up at reading Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I’d no idea there was such intense dislike out there. I’ve enjoyed her later ones, like The Private Patient, much more than the early ones.

  6. Destiny Jones says:

    10. Know when to stop
    “most publishers specify length of works in their contracts and ask us to pump up the word count accordingly”. I believe Zadie Smith’s latest oeuvre of 70-ish pages has been published as a novel.

    ZS is good on characters, what they do and what happens to them — but I’m just amazed that she’s teaching — or should I blame the publishers, who generally appear to have eschewed proof reading and editing?

    Anyway, I was a voracious reader of dark green Penguins — and still prefer John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson, Conan Doyle or D L Sayers to PD James, who I’ve found too “dense”; not stupid, of course. Or perhaps I just didn’t warm to her protagonists.

  7. Dan Terrell says:

    I, too, loved (love?) Are they still being published in Britain with that Green cover?
    And I agree proofing reading is getting a bit slapdash in G.B. (Can’t speak to in the U.S. because I read so few books by U.S. writers.) I just finished a very recent hardback by a G.B. publisher that had at least 11 typos, including three on one page of which two were in one sentence.
    Of course it’s easier to spot errors in someone else’s work than in your own, but that’s because a reader is coming to it fresh, not after laboring over it for many versions.

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