Where The Ideas Start Out

Reading & Writing



I mentioned that I was always filling books with stories as a child. I still have some of them (see left). They’re densely plotted, drawn with an autistic eye for detail. There’s not really much point in keeping them as they’re juvenilia (I cut up one volume recently and stuck its pages inside books from DoodledBooks.com, the company that offers books with drawings from authors inside).

This leads to the old, old question; is it possible to teach writing?

Having recently started one-to-one tuition with promising writers – only one to date, but it’s a start and I’m enjoying the break from what my PA calls Tappy-Tappy-Typing (I’m a two-finger typist) I wonder whether the answer is more complex than it first appeared. Certainly, there need to be several clear factors.

1. A deeply-felt desire to put words on paper – not to be confused with a desire to make money.

2. A commitment to a massive amount of time. This is not a hobby.

3. A willingness to talk to people, discuss and listen. Watching old TV shows is not research.

4. A strong sense of identity – ie. who you are and what you want to say.

Without those things, I can’t see anyone becoming a writer, frankly. What I do think can be learned is;

1. How to research – not as easy as it looks.

2. How to develop your style – there’s no sin in copying your heroes at first.

3. Shaping your narrative.

4. Creating something saleable.

What I note from my old filled-in exercise books is how obsessed with stories and plots they were. I did not see people as individuals, merely as pawns to be shuffled around the plot-board. It took me years to understand that characters drive plots and create themes. I’m still learning, but I think the next stages of my development will become clear this year, with the ¬†newest Bryant & May novel and my haunted house thriller ‘Nyctophobia’, which is entirely character-driven.

On second thoughts, maybe I’ll hang onto those old books. I might want to look back one day, to remind myself how rubbish I was, and how it mattered less than the desire to tell a story.

3 comments on “Where The Ideas Start Out”

  1. Normandy Helmer says:

    Speaking as someone who works at an archive, let me put in a plea for saving those notebooks. Our archive has the work of a lot of writers, now including local hero Ken Kesey. You may not think much of your old scribbles, but I have seen, on many occasions, first-year college students sit in a classroom and in front of them are the old scribbles of people who became great writers. Some kids resort to texting. But some lean forward and dive into those journals and when they come up their faces are shining. Sometimes with tears. They see themselves, they see their secret hopes and fears and lousy early efforts and they see that they are not alone in their weirdness, their struggle, their ideas, and they see that you can accomplish good work from your heart.

    They also see that even great writers and even very successful writers retain doubt about the calibre of their work and beat themselves up. But often enough, keep going.

    So please, Admin, hold on to the notebooks and the rough drafts and the correspondence and the blog [migrate into stable formats as possible–ed.] because there is a library out there somewhere that really, really wants your process preserved as well as your work. And future writers will light a candle to you because they could feel you holding their hand through the really dark bits.

  2. Vivienne says:

    Cannot match that eloquence, but agree.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Absolutely, Admin. Don’t destroy the books. There’s a thesis there just waiting to be written after doing the necessary research. That backhand writing is interesting, too. You’re left handed, aren’t you?

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