Monday, 30 January 2012


I generally like to think I am well-prepared for questions that an audience might ask, due to many years spent thinking about making the right impression at august literary festivals such as Hay, Edinburgh etc. But I was completely wrong footed by a Bath Spa student who recently asked me who was the sexiest author I had ever met. I rather limply came up with Julian Barnes, who I have never actually met as such, but only been at the same lunch as. (This was at a Cosmopolitan magazine story prize in the early nineties, which I failed to win, though I was on the shortlist.  I rather admired his louche and austere smoking style.)

So ARE authors sexy? Frankly, I am quite happy to leave this off the job description, and it's definitely not a core requirement. If you put 'sexy author' into Google image, you get Paul Auster, Neil Gaiman, Zadie Smith and Penelope Cruz. Now, call me picky, but the only person who really qualifies in that list is the madly beautiful Zadie Smith. Auster and Gaiman are defined as 'sexy' because they look perfectly fine and are writers. Penelope Cruz is only in the list because she comes up under 'sexy' anything.

Of course, an author's perceived 'sexiness' also can also depend on what they write. Danger and macho-ness seem to do the trick (if you are Ernest Hemingway) or being edgy and naughty (if you are the young Martin Amis, though at the time he was assisted by looking a bit like Mick Jagger). Actually writing about sex isn't necessary. I have put a bit of shagging in my latest book, but not because I wanted to be sexy. I only take my characters' clothes off when it is absolutely necessary for the plot.

Sunday, 22 January 2012


What do we do in order to find the inner calm and fund of ideas that all writers need? How can we keep ourselves going, in a world that seems all too indifferent to our efforts?

The answer is to replenish ourselves. Julia Cameron talks about 'The Well' which can only be fed by going out into the world and seeking inspiration. You might find this by going for a country walk, or looking at the sea, or listening to music, or running in the park.

Sometimes, a familiar artist or musician or landscape hits the spot. Sometimes, you need to do something new.
So this is where I went yesterday...

And this is what I saw...

And this...

Friday, 20 January 2012


I have to say I am quite irritated by the number of articles I read which go over the same ground, asking this same question over and over again. There is an implicit assumption that Real Writers are born, not made, and that teaching creative writing as a degree is an attempt to legitimise mediocrity. If creative writing can be learnt, which clearly it can, then it can be taught. Therefore the issue isn’t whether it should be taught, which clearly it should, but how.

Even if William Shakespeare himself stood at the front of a lecture theatre with a power point, his words of wisdom would only help the students who went away and tried to put his suggestions into practice. The same is true of people attending Robert McKee’s 'Story’ screenwriting seminars. Any student of creative writing will only learn how to write better, and what good writing means, if they read a lot and write a lot. In other words, via experiential learning.
Lecturers and ‘experts’ can share their own experience and talk about  tactics, and they can talk about the components of poetry and prose – theme, plot, characterisation, style, language, genre and so on. But - in the immortal phrase of Captain Hector Barbossa - creative writing programmes provide ‘more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules’.

 As in The Pirates of the Caribbean however, the guidelines are rather important. If you want to 'break the rules', or subvert the guidelines, you need to know what they are. Picasso's early work shows a complete mastery of draughtsmanship and conventional portraiture - his experimentation came later. Just as art schools help students develop their own style by working in different media and thinking laterally, so should creative writing programmes.
Writing tutors don’t set out to produce homogeneous wannabes, but to help each student learn about their field, establish a continuing working practice and find their own voice. Or at least, that’s what good ones should do. In my opinion.  And that is what the debate should be about.  

Monday, 16 January 2012


    If your energy levels start to flag, don’t forget that reading is part of a writer’s job. Which doesn't mean it's a chore - it's a great pleasure. Setting aside an hour or so at the end of each day to read a novel or non-fiction book is time well spent. If you can also read on your commute, or while the kids are playing in the sandpit, or in any random corner of time that you can find, this will fill your mental ‘in box’ with thoughts and ideas. And the rhythms and patterns of other writer’s prose will also enrich and inspire your own style.  
      My own approach is to read anything I fancy. This is not about Self Improvement. I don't worry about reading the Booker prize winner - though I would recommend the brilliant Wolf Hall to anyone. If I want to re-read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, I do. (Unrelated news item - it's 30 years since Adrian Mole was published.)

      Obscure or forgotten books can be wonderful discoveries - Anthony Burgess is probably best remembered for A Clockwork Orange, but his Shakespeare novel Nothing Like the Sun is a truly amazing piece of work, dauntingly clever and hauntingly strange.

      This is another aspect of writing which Julia Cameron talks about. In The Right to Write she says that reading and absorbing visual art and the external world is all part of feeding our creativity and topping up 'the well' of our creativity. She believes that if we just write and write and don't feed our imagination, the well runs dry.

    Sunday, 15 January 2012


    No matter how brilliant your time management skills, if you want to make time for writing, it makes sense to offload some of the daily chores that fill the day and sap your energy.

    If most of the domestic work falls to you, ask yourself why. Do you sincerely believe that stacking the dishwasher is a woman’s work? Or that parents are genetically conditioned to tidy their teenagers’ bedrooms? Getting other family members to learn some self-maintenance skills is to do them a huge favour.

    If you live alone, see if you can cut more corners, and ‘zone’ your chores, doing the bulk of them in one go, and keeping daily jobs like cooking and washing up as simple as possible. (My top tips are: pasta and pesto; using the launderette for a service wash now and then; and not doing the ironing. My partner irons his own shirts, even though he is writing a book himself.)


      Make a promise to yourself that you will give your writing precedence whenever possible. It’s very, very easy to do everything else on your list, and let the writing – which gives you a sense of purpose and meaning – fall off the edge.

      This is one reason why writing first thing in the morning can be a solution, even if you are not a morning person. I'm a partial convert to 'morning pages' because I do like a lie-in, and living with teenagers is not conducive to a particularly rigid routine. (Staying up till three waiting for Teenage Daughter to come home can be an issue.)  But Julia Cameron has lots of advice about this, and it's certainly a brilliant way of getting your creative juices flowing. Read The Right to Write if you want to find out more.

    Saturday, 14 January 2012


      As well as saying ‘no’ to social events, do not attempt to become a pillar of the community. Don't tell yourself you are genius at multi-tasking. Research shows that we don't have the mental capacity to focus on more than one thing at a time; we have the capacity to switch from one subject to another very quickly. Good writing needs more focus than a bouncing nano-second.

      Let others take on the mantle of parent governor, chairman of the local film society, volunteer tennis coach or whatever. If you have a day job, a family, friends and some kind of domestic situation to sort out, then the time left over must be dedicated to writing. Someone else can run the tombola stall.  You can use your Art to make the world a better place. Where would we be without literature?

    Friday, 13 January 2012


      I'm lucky - I have a study to write in.(A room of one's own, in Virginia Woolf 's famous phrase.) But this wasn't always the case. My first two novels were written at the back of the sitting room in our old house. I developed the skill of tuning out the noise of the children playing, but I usually wrote when they were at school or asleep. I also wrote - and still do - in corners of time. I have never been a full time fiction writer. There has always been something going on
        But it's surprising how successfully this can work. The trick is to be flexible as well as consistent, and take your energy levels into account as well as your circumstances.

        Make your writing time a non-negotiable period of the day. Ideally, write when you feel fresh and mentally agile. Books have been written on commuter trains, but if you are writing in these conditions, do schedule in some proper desk time too, when you have peace and quiet.

        Which is my sixth suggestion for The Words from How to be a Writer. (I'm posting my ten ideas over ten days. Expect a brief pause after that, and I'll then be writing about learning your craft and the pros and cons of writing courses.)

      Thursday, 12 January 2012

      JUST SAY NO.

        Unfortunately, telling people that you can’t do something because you are writing a book is seen either as a sign that you are utterly delusional, or as a wind-up. Even though I am now Published, this is still the case. There is a general expectancy that writing is something you should indulge in only when there is nothing else to do.

          Your friends would be perfectly happy to go along to the pub quiz without you if you said you had to swot for an accountancy exam or mind the baby, but not if you say you are working on a novel. If you find it hard to refuse invitations for this reason, then tell a white lie.

        Wednesday, 11 January 2012


        'Climb several mountains. Ford quite a few streams...' Doesn't really work, does it? About as catchy as 'Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter' or 'Love's Labour's Found'.

        Even old school Hollywood films like 'The Sound of Music' encourage a 'go for it' mentality that has infected modern day living, and the life of 21st century artists. Successful writers don't pump iron, they pump genius, writing fatter and fatter books, getting bigger and bigger advances. You're 'hot' or very much 'not'. Everything is absolute, everything is extreme.

        None of this is very helpful when you are trying to do the actual writing. I sometimes think it's a shame that writers can't focus more positively on the 'making' phase - there is no writerly equivalent of Barbara Hepworth's wonderful garden workshop in St Ives, or the beautiful, light-filled studio where Vanessa Bell worked at Charleston.

        There is obvious pleasure in the working life of the visual artist, perhaps because their output is visible and tactile. The writer's artistic process is focused more specifically on endings, on publication.

        Which is relevant to my fourth suggestion for writing The Words. Don't climb every mountain. Don’t set yourself targets that can’t be sustained. Remember to enjoy yourself, even if the tools of your trade are a laptop and a mug of cooling tea.

        NB 'Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter' is taken from the screenplay of 'Shakespeare in Love' by  Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. 'Love's Labour's Found' is a play by William Shakespeare himself. This, along with 'Cardenio' is one of his lost plays.

        Tuesday, 10 January 2012


        Rule number three for good time management - following on from keeping a time log and getting an overview - is drawing up a schedule.  It’s not very Emily Bronte, but once you know what you want to do, write out a schedule and stick to it.

        I write my word goals in my diary and also maintain a work schedule diary on my computer with my other novel business. Try not to let it slide, but if you do, don't go into a deep decline of self-loathing. Just revise your schedule accordingly, either by setting a new deadline or (if you can take it) goading yourself on to produce a higher word count each day.

        It's that 'little and often' philosophy again. And bear in mind that if you want to make writing an actual habit, it will take you 66 days to hard-wire regular writing into your life. This is according to the European Journal of Social Psychology, so it must be true.

        Monday, 9 January 2012

        WORD GOALS

          It's very easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of a writing project, particularly if you are embarking on The Novel that you have been intending to write for most of your life.  The secret of success is to approach this as you would any other large project - such as moving house or changing job.
          Firstly, think about what you want to write, and what kind of timescale you are happy with. Do you want to write a novel before you are thirty? Or a screenplay by Christmas? Or six short stories in the next twelve months?

          Whatever your longer term goal, break this down into smaller component parts. How much do you want to write in a month? A week?  A day?

          My rule of thumb for a novel is two years – though Stephen King recommends writing the first draft of a novel in no more than three months. I found that writing around five hundred words a day was enough. This clocks up to 3,500 a week, 14,000 a month and 168,000 words in a year. You won’t use all of those words, but you could chuck out 80,000, and you will still have well over 80,000 words left in your first draft.

          Five hundred words a day sounds like nothing. So little it’s hardly worth bothering with. Easy to fit around just about any day job.

        Sunday, 8 January 2012

        THE TIME IS NOW.

        Right. So here we are – 2012 has established itself and the Mayan’s did not predict the end of the world at midnight on December 21st so you can come out of your bunker now.  There is writing to be done. The first rule of good writing is to write a lot, and to write regularly, so over the next ten days I will be posting  ten rules for good time management from my chapter on The Words in How to be a Writer.  These apply even if you have started writing - January is a good month to address issues of productivity and slippage.
        Rule one. Keep a time log. If you can’t work out how to fit writing into your busy schedule, then work out exactly how much time you are spending doing other things. For a week, make a note of everything you do, including sleeping, working, commuting, surfing the web, watching TV, socialising, eating, shopping, household chores, taking exercise etc. 

        Don’t miss anything out – make detailed entries for one week. When you have done this, you should be able to get a picture of how you are using your time. And unless you are exceptionally busy, there will be a gap somewhere, and you will be indulging in some sort of time-wasting activity, even if it’s only looking at celebrities on the Daily Mail website.

        If all else fails either get up an hour earlier each morning, or go to bed an hour later at night.
        Tomorrow's tip: Setting your goals.

        Wednesday, 4 January 2012


        I had thought – among a million other random thoughts – that I might recommend a Blog of the Month, but having done a bit of research there are just so many brilliant writing blogs out there that that would be too limiting. So I am just going to recommend away, in a freestyle sort of way, and suggest other bloggers who might be worth following, if you aren’t already.

        First up is not an actual writing blog at all, but one dedicated to procrastination. (Respect, I say, as the poor blogger must feel doubly guilty if too much time elapses between each post.) I came across it when I was looking for my favourite poem about procrastination. It sums up perfectly the fact that procrastination is not only a state of inertia - though hell knows, that is part of the mix – it is also a state of distraction.  About which we in the modern world must know more than any other generation of humans, surely? Or then again, on the evidence of this poem, possibly not. Perhaps the art of procrastination has always been with us.
        And here it is:

        The Old Sailor (AA Milne)

        There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew
        Who had so many things which he wanted to do
        That, whenever he thought it was time to begin,
        He couldn’t because of the state he was in.

        He was shipwrecked, and lived on a island for weeks,
        And he wanted a hat, and he wanted some breeks;
        And he wanted some nets, or a line and some hooks
        For the turtles and things which you read of in books.

        And, thinking of this, he remembered a thing
        Which he wanted (for water) and that was a spring;
        And he thought that to talk to he’d look for, and keep
        (If he found it) a goat, or some chickens and sheep.

        Then, because of the weather, he wanted a hut
        With a door (to come in by) which opened and shut
        (With a jerk, which was useful if snakes were about),
        And a very strong lock to keep savages out.

        He began on the fish-hooks, and when he’d begun
        He decided he couldn’t because of the sun.
        So he knew what he ought to begin with, and that
        Was to find, or to make, a large sun-stopping hat.

        He was making the hat with some leaves from a tree,
        When he thought, “I’m as hot as a body can be,
        And I’ve nothing to take for my terrible thirst;
        So I’ll look for a spring, and I’ll look for it first.”

        Then he thought as he started, “Oh, dear and oh, dear!
        I’ll be lonely tomorrow with nobody here!”
        So he made in his note-book a couple of notes:
        I must first find some chickens” and “No, I mean goats.”

        He had just seen a goat (which he knew by the shape)
        When he thought, “But I must have boat for escape.
        But a boat means a sail, which means needles and thread;
        So I’d better sit down and make needles instead.”

        He began on a needle, but thought as he worked,
        That, if this was an island where savages lurked,
        Sitting safe in his hut he’d have nothing to fear,
        Whereas now they might suddenly breathe in his ear!

        So he thought of his hut … and he thought of his boat,
        And his hat and his breeks, and his chickens and goat,
        And the hooks (for his food) and the spring (for his thirst) …
        But he never could think which he ought to do first.

        And so in the end he did nothing at all,
        But basked on the shingle wrapped up in a shawl.
        And I think it was dreadful the way he behaved -
        He did nothing but bask until he was saved!

        I grew up with the poems of A.A. Milne, read to me by my Dad in battered old 1930s editions, and this takes me right back to my childhood. I was quite unsurprised by the antics of the Old Sailor, as I was by all adult behaviour, as I just considered that these were unfolding aspects of the Grownup World. And I liked him a lot. I wasn’t too young to see in him a kindred spirit.
        The blog is and it’s written by Piers Steel, one of the world’s leading researchers and speakers on the science of motivation and procrastination, and a professor at the University of Calgary. This is surely a man who can teach us writers a thing or to about why we are cleaning behind the radiator when we should be writing Chapter Three.

        Monday, 2 January 2012

        NEW YEAR, NEW YOU?

        One of my favourite quotes from still-fab-though-nearly-ubiquitous Miranda Hart is: "I'm beginning to think the new me is significantly worse than the old me!"  Excellent post-New Year point - it's very tempting to awfulize the old you in a bid to stake out new territory for the new one. But actually, writers (and humans, their close relations) are an on-going mess of perpetual imperfection.

        So instead of thinking about all the bad things I did in 2011, with the oceans of Peroni/Tempranillo and mountains of Kettle Crisps (Lightly Salted) at the top of the list, I am thinking instead about all the words I actually wrote, and the more than a dozen times I really did jog round Queen's Park, in real life.

        In this spirit, today I wrote in my new journal - five pages, let me tell you - but on January 2nd, not the 1st. Nothing anal about that.  And while I have stopped drinking for a month - which is going to hurt - I ate a Ripple bar about an hour ago, all casual and guilt free.

        And so, this is my first official post on How to be a Writer for this year. Rule one - and thought for January. Don't expect too much of yourself. This means getting away from your desk and looking at the world, and feeding your imagination and your emotions. (There is a good reason why writers and booze go together like 'pina' and 'colada', and that's the fact that over-sensitivity is part of the writing psyche. Factor this in. No point torturing yourself if everyone else has already stuck the boot in.)

        Yesterday I walked along the Brighton seafront in the mist and rain and drank tea in Hove. Today I went to Brighton art gallery and looked at Victorian children's corsets - yes, they really did exist - and the tools of a 21st century plastic surgeon's trade. Not for any reason, just randomly.