A Ten-Minute Argument With PD James

Reading & Writing


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…

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

23 comments on “A Ten-Minute Argument With PD James”

  1. Brooke says:

    11. Would-be poets should not insert clumsy verses into their detective novels.

    There’s a double meaning in “You must be born to write.” PD suggests innate talent, thereby placing herself in an exclusive category. But born can also mean become a physical human being and experience what it means to be human, as in Biblical injunction, “You must be born again…” In the latter interpretation, James’ detective novels lack something, imo.

  2. Peter Tromans says:

    Rules are made by those who don’t need them to protect everyone from those who do.

  3. Peter Tromans says:

    Brooke, Those of us who tend to take words at face value might read it as: if you have not been born, you cannot write. Given the levels of AI when she created her rules, it was an accurate statement. Nowadays, my phone seems to know what I intend to write before I do, but not always.

  4. Ken Mann says:

    Ursula Le Guin knew Earthsea very well, so technically she was writing what she knew.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    We talk of someone as a “born (whatever)” meaning that the person was obviously intended to become whatever s/he did. “She’s a born sculptor”, “He was born to play the violin”. Most people saying this aren’t analyzing the process by which that supposedly innate gift was brought into being.
    Interesting that this is the one rule that we’re zeroing in on.

  6. Brooke says:

    in the interview I read, James stated the “rule” first, indicating that it was foremost in her mind. I focused on it because it’s so obviously false.

    Peter, you’re teaching your phone to write. Even the most advance AI needs a database of human words to start. There are robots with their own language but so far they have shown little interest in communicating with humans. We are too slow, among our other faults. And their experience doesn’t translate.

  7. SteveB says:

    A sense of place is one of the great strengths of PDJames’s novels, especially her best ones.

  8. Martin Tolley says:

    Maybe it’s something lacking in me. I’ve never really got on with PDJ. I just don’t ever find myself caring enough about the people, and I’ve never found Dalgleish very interesting.

  9. admin says:

    Brooke, there’s one exception to your eleventh rule that I’d allow;
    In Peter Van Greenaway’s ‘The Destiny Man’ a missing Shakespeare folio is discovered and the author has great fun quoting from it. It helps that Greenaway is erudite and up to the job! I’ll post a bio on him.

  10. John Howard says:

    Ah, Peter Van Greenaway. I’ve only got 5 of his books on my shelf including ‘The Destiny Man’. I tried to re-read ‘The Crucified City’ recently and had to give up halfway through. Maybe my reading habits have changed although I managed to happily re-read the rest.

  11. Brian Evans says:

    I have long realised that no-one can teach you to act/write/sing/dance etc. For eg, to be able to dance you have to have a natural rhythm to start with, and to sing you have to have a good voice to begin with. Then lessons can vastly improve what you already have in the first place. If you don’t have a natural instinct for any of the above then you are wasting your time.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    Brian, add to that list ‘Drawing’. I’m in awe of people who, with a few deft strokes of a pen or pencil, can produce a thing of beauty. I, on the other hand, simply cannot draw. There is an obvious disconnect between eye and hand. I can just about manage a cube, and other than that, not a chance of anything beautiful. Neither of my parents could draw, and neither can my brother. It used to be annoying, but I’ve just let it lie.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    The inability to draw did have one good thing going for it – at school, we had to do ‘Technical Drawing’. It was soon obvious to the teacher, that for me, it wasn’t happening – so he let me do my homework instead.

  14. Brian Evans says:

    Same here Ian. My Dad was a brilliant drawer, and if he had the opportunities I had he could have used his ability to make a living out of it. As it was he became an electrician. I can’t even change a plug-nor can I draw. When I try to write fiction I have what you nicely call, to paraphrase, an obvious disconnect between the brain and the hand.

    Mind you, I used to be quite a neat little ballroom dancer with a bit of tap thrown in.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    Brian – Changing a plug was part of the science curriculum at my school. Each of us had a tray with a completely knocked down 13 amp plug, and a length of three core cable. The teacher, a tall, thin fellow with a head reminiscent of an Easter Island Moai, ran us through assembling it, and the crucial cutting of the three wires (Live=Brown: Neutral=Blue: Earth=Green & Yellow), to the correct lengths. It was one of the very few things taught me at school that actually had a real-world application, and an extremely useful one, at that.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Ian, out of curiosity, was your school heterosexual or just boys? I’m wondering if the girls did the practical science stuff or not.

  17. Joel says:

    ‘Rule 9’ – an early thing from creative writing classes was while it’s ok to talk about your work (which will help develop it), but ‘the first time you express the idea, it must be in permanent form’ – as you mutate and develop your tale, the original kernel risks being lost. Always have something to go back to, even if you then ignore it – or use it for a different tale!

    I just wish I’d kept to the three day rule…

  18. Ian Luck says:

    My school was mixed, Helen. We all did everything. I can cook and sew, as well as make dovetail joints, and turn metal on a lathe. There were girls in the classes, and that was also true for the sciences. The practical lessons were of use, I have found, but a lot of the other stuff, whilst some was interesting, – not so much. I have never been asked where my town’s Central Business District was, nor has anyone asked me what the two fluids in the eyeball are.
    (Vitreous and Aqueous humours, if you were wondering).

  19. Helen Martin says:

    I decided a long time ago that nothing learned is ever a waste, Ian. We had to learn the firing pattern of a typical car engine and at least I can understand when people talk about rotary engines and such. I developed a way to use the Rule of 3 (ratio) to solve all sorts of problems and I never forget the salt in cooking after getting zero on porridge instructions for omitting it. I even remember quite a bit about Mendelian patterns. I memorized South American countries with their capitals and could recite them in order, although Paraguay, Uruguay and the Guianas have blurred with time.

  20. Helen Martin says:

    Should that not be Guyana?

  21. Ian Luck says:

    Helen, as I possibly mentioned before, if my parents thought that I had an interest in anything, or I mentioned that we were doing a certain topic at school, then books that covered those topics would appear at home. At Christmas, I usually got the comic annuals, but also books on various subjects – a favourite from when I was about ten, was a book about the Periodic Table Of Elements, which fascinated me way more than anything in that year’s ‘Beano’ annual. I had large amounts of ‘Ladybird’ books, on all subjects – I just drank knowledge up – because I wanted to. I was able to read, and write my name at three and a half, and can remember sitting watching the programmes for schools on TV, at home, before I went to school. I was given, by an uncle, a folder full of issues of a magazine called ‘Understanding Science’, the contents of which blew my four year old mind, and led to my mother having to explain to the lady in charge of the playschool I attended, exactly what I read at home. Apparently, when shown a picture of red and blue balloons, and being asked what they were, I said something on the lines of:
    “Atomic fission.” – there was a diagram of atomic fission in a copy of ‘Understanding Science’, which used blue and red spheres to represent atoms, and the neutrons split off them during fission. I started school in September, 1968, being able to read and write, and the teachers really didn’t know how to deal with me. My first reading books at school, after someone from the local education department came down and gave me reading and writing tests, were the ones used by the 9-10 year olds, and I was pretty much left alone. When I got to Secondary School, it was okay, but I very often went home knowing no more than when I had started that day. My brother had a similar experience. I have always kept up the book learning, and am ‘cursed’ to never forget curious, weird, and downright odd things I encounter. The only downside of this, is that I have very little patience with those people who seem to think that it is somehow ‘cool’ to know nothing. It isn’t.

  22. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – I think you did mean Guyana. Famous for the wrong reasons, as the site of the terrible ‘Jonestown Massacre’ in 1978.

  23. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, Dutch, French and British Guyana. Which all have different names now.
    My son had a similar experience at the beginning of school, although not at the fission level. He watched the school broadcast here and one day came into the kitchen to explain to me what bilateral symmetry was and at seven wrote a report on Comet Kohutek (one of the greatest disappointments in astronomy, second only to the latest appearance of Halley’ comet, which had my Mother irate at the whole profession of astronomy).

Comments are closed.