Exploring ‘How To Write’ advice

If you’re setting out to make a Victoria sponge for the first time it’s wise to follow a recipe; one egg too few or a laudable aim of cutting down on the sugar spells disaster. A writer, on the other hand, might shy away from following advice. Writing is, after all, an intuitive, creative, complex and highly personal activity and the notion of looking at a website that calls itself Ten Ridiculously Simple Tips For Writing A Book might seem an affront to that idea. Certainly the advice to Get a notebook and Put your thinking cap on (the latter accompanied by a really clunky graphic of a guy tapping his teeth with a pencil) is probably a bit too obvious. Some sources of wisdom seem over keen to use the words don’t and never. Call me stubborn but when someone says Don’t anthropomorphise animals I might just give it a go. (And of course everyone can think of wonderful examples of talking animals!) Even Wikihow can help the aspiring writer for children age 5-7: Use bigger words but be careful to explain them so as not to frustrate new readers. But Beatrix Potter’s famous example of a sophisticated word for younger readers surely needed no explanation when she wrote of the Flopsy Bunnies: They did not awake because the lettuces had been so soporific.

Persevere, though, and you can mine a rich seam of wisdom in a really worthwhile site called Brainpickings, which explores the more philosophical aspects of writing and is packed with fascinating insights of a less prescriptive kind. There are various schools of thought about the rightness of always bearing your target audience in mind. As a writer who has always struggled with the question Who is your story for? Maurice Sendak offers reassurance here. He says he doesn’t write for children; he writes, and then someone says That’s for children! CS Lewis (on the same website) is vitriolic about the tendency of some adults to downgrade children’s literature and to treat adulthood as a sort of existential upgrade, using childishness as a put-down. This is music to the ears of someone who occasionally finds being an adult tiresome!

Slightly more contemporary advice comes from a book simply called Write, published by Guardian Books. I can forgive the lists of Dos and Don’ts because the contributors are so entertaining. This from Roddy Doyle: Do keep a Thesaurus, but in the shed…or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg: horse, ran, said. Stephen King was in a similar groove when he told us that the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and Mark Twain was famously sorry for having written a long letter because he hadn’t had time to make it shorter. Margaret Attwood assumes we’re several steps further along the path to becoming a serious writer when she gives us advice about travelling: Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

If you read enough of this kind of stuff you could be left with the impression that the whole world is waiting to tell you how to write, how not to write, what to write about, how long to spend at it, what to eat, what music to listen to (Schubert, according to Colm Toibin), what to do for inspiration (make a pie!). I reckon that if you think about something too much you become frozen with terror and therefore the only advice that I’m prepared to take seriously is this: just get on with it. After I’ve sorted my sock drawer and e-mailed the Council about the house where the rubbish is never ever left out at the right time. Now, I wonder who lives there?

Julia Draper -Author of The Paupers of Langden

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Filed under children's books, Children's Publishing, Creative Writing

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