A Ten-Minute Argument With PD James
Phyllis Dorothy James was, everyone will tell you, the grande-dame of crime writing, and once issued her top ten tips for writing novels. It’s heresy to contravene the rules, but what worked for PD James was clearly not what works for every aspiring or professional author. Let’s have a look at them and see if they need updating…
- You must be born to write
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 elegant memoir ‘Toast’) a writer can 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 but not, I think, birthright.
- Write about what you know
Many of us believe in writing about what we don’t know. We write what we hope, we dream, we love and fear. You can learn what you need to know easily enough. HRF Keating started the Inspector Ghote novels without ever setting foot in India. Many crime writers have set their stories in Africa or Egypt without being born there, and what about historical crime or SFF? We understand human emotions, but we make a lot up – it’s called fiction.
- Find your own routine
Life is changing fast. Routines are a luxury few of us now have. Write when you can, where you can – 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, otherwise you’ll have to go back. If you manage to sustain a lengthy writing session – not an easy thing to do – you start to link consequences to your characters. Many books and especially films we see now are nothing more than chains of scenes. A good writer ensures that one scene impacts on the next – for every action there is a consequence.
- 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. We should concentrate for the main part on we’re good at, the words, and let others help decide how, when and where they will be sold, or we end up becoming the harassed, endlessly networking business managers of our own livelihoods.
The first question I was ever asked at a public event was this; Should you write to the current market or write what you want? I answered ‘Write what most interests you’. Others answered that you should intently follow the market.
- Read, write and don’t daydream
This is possibly the worst piece of advice PD James ever gave. Without space and air and light and calm, those lacunae of everyday life, there is no imagination and the ideas can’t form. I could sit and quickly produce dull prose, or spend a day wandering around a city and come back with my head filled with plots, characters, consequences, dialogues.
- 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. Yes, writers get very lonely – but they never get bored.
- 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.
- 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. Although I’m a sucker for a unique notebook. I get through one a month and buy one wherever I go. Always have, since the age of seven.
- 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.
- Know when to stop
Talent of Ms James’ stature probably allowed 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 postwar paper shortage helped to create some of the most brilliantly succinct novels ever written. Beware of any book over 700 pages long. Yes, Dan Simmons, I mean you.
The days of writing as a higher calling are over; we write on the fly, as we can, talking to everyone and anyone, as part of world society, not in a room with a desk and a view. For better or worse, the information age has changed the way we write for good.