Monday, March 21, 2005

Key concepts for writers

Yesterday's papers had a couple of pieces which provide our thoughts for the day.

First, in the Sunday Times, there was an article about a blues singer (white, female) called Mary Gauthier. Mary, it turns out, has led a thoroughly rackety sort of life. Now aged 43 or so, she has been in jail, overdosed on a heroin and alcohol mixture a couple of times, and has never been able to hang on to 'a relationship'. She didn't start writing songs until she was 35.

The key paragraph in the article is this: 'I couldn't sing,' admits Mary. 'My songs weren't that good, and I couldn't really play, but I knew that if I kept going, I'd get better. When the day came that I made grown men cry, I knew my songs had something that spoke to the heart.'

Now, here we have a number of key concepts usefully encapsulated, concepts which apply every bit as much to fiction writers as they do to singer-songwriters.

First, you need to practise to develop your technique, which is unlikely to be much good to begin with. And second, the business is all about creating emotion. Making grown men cry is what you're trying to do -- or should be trying to do. Either that or making young girls laugh. Whatever the audience, creating emotion in that audience is the ultimate objective. To those who can deliver such emotions, as and when wanted, great prizes will be delivered.

And how do you learn how to do that? Well, you do some research, do some thinking, and practise. It's not a difficult procedure, in principle.

The research you do by reading up on literary technique. And here's a tip: ignore anything written by an academic; it is a waste of space. Instead, read anything and everything written by a reasonably successful writer or an agent.

Second, do some thinking about what the research tells you, because there is no such thing as a book, or a shelf full of books, which will provide the answer to all your problems; some of it you have to work out for yourself.

And third, practise. Practise, practise, practise. Produce stuff. If it isn't any good, chuck it away and so some more.

Yesterday's Observer, linked by, had an article by Robert McCrum, with the heading Who are you writing for?

McCrum's comments on this issue are not, frankly, very illuminating. He reads as if he is still recovering from a last-night-of-the-London-Book-Fair party. But the question he asks is a crucial one. Because until you decide who you are writing for, you can't really design your piece in a way which will match the needs of the reader.

For example, a book written for middle-aged or elderly working-class women living in the north of England (aka a clogs and shawl saga) will of necessity have different characteristics from a young-adult book about magic.

If you want to write for an audience of one, i.e. yourself, that's fine. But don't be surprised if no one wants to publish the result.

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archer said...
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