Tag Archives: Philip Pullman

Some Recommended Books for Writers

So what books about writing do you recommend to other writers? Our writing group recently pooled titles they found useful. A book that was mentioned by more than one writer was The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Many beginner writers follow her recommendations to get started.

Establishing a Writerly Routine

I must admit that the advice to establish a routine, to find your best time and always write in it, to always write 500 words a day and so forth does not fit the life of an ordinary mortal. Nor is it necessarily good advice. Sometimes routine is just what you don’t want. However, I have adapted Morning Pages, but it’s the only bit of routine I have. I wrote about it here.

Virginia Woolf noted that she used her writing diary to loosen the ligaments.

‘… the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and stumbles … I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my causal half hours after tea.’ (A Writer’s Diary, April 20th 1919)

More After Tea Pages than Morning Pages. Many writers benefit from writing to get into the zone and to work out their glitches and never show it to anyone.

Reading for Writers

The most succinct advice to writers of all levels of experience, and perhaps most frequently quoted advice too, comes from Stephen King:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way round these two things that I am aware of, no short cut. (On Writing)

Specific advice on how to read productively for writers comes in Reading for Writers by Francine Prose. Putting the advice into practice was the subject of an earlier post on this blog called Reading for Writers.

Some specific recommendations

For help with story structure I was advised (by a published author) to read Into the Woods by John Yorke. It was excellent advice, and Yorke’s book has helped me with the revision of the first draft of my novel.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is an excellent and realistic book for many aspects of writing, especially about going on going on. The title refers to her father’s advice about completing some homework. You just tackle it bird by bird.

A few months ago I recommended Ursula Le Guin’s collection of essays Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016. We have much to learn from our most experienced writers. I especially warmed to her thoughts on imagination and how you must learn to develop it.

Currently I am dipping into Philip Pullman’s Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling, full of interesting observations from a craftsman.

Resources for publishing

The Writers & Artists Year Book.

And Mslexia’s Indie Press Guide, now out in a second edition.

The poets amongst in our writing group recommended these:

Writing Poetry by Peter Samson

An Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry

Of course you could just follow this:

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The death of real books/the end of e-books?

The announcement of the death of real books was premature it seems. Like the paperless office it is unlikely to come about any time soon. Sales figures reveal that we like our physical books. Really like them. Like to hold them and to read them, like to own and borrow them and like to enjoy them as aesthetic objects. And the same statistics reveal that we buy lots of e-books, although not quite so many Kindles as we did. So who is winning the war?

Real book vs e-books

Let’s start by rejecting the idea of a war. The book forms, electronic and printed, are not in opposition, not in conflict. Guess what, it’s not either/or, not a duality in opposition, but and/both. If you read books on a screen it doesn’t mean you don’t read printed books. And vice versa.

When Kindles and other similar e-readers were introduced their sales took off, and the sales of e-books rocketed with them. But pretty quickly people took up positions on the formats. Bloodless nerds! That was what a well-known writer called Kindle-users at a literary festival in 2011. The audience responded with sustained applause. In those days it seemed that the superior position was to reject the new technology. Oh, except for people on holiday or in hospital.

Today you see people using e-readers in trains and on London Transport. A student of mine from the Middle East once remarked that reading on public transport was the most striking feature of London. I have a theory that Londoners are among the most dedicated readers in Britain. They bring e-readers out at reading groups, and find books for you at the drop of a mention if they can lay their hands on their device.

Kindle purchases have decreased. Instead, people are reading more on mobile phones and tablets. Even I have a downloaded book on my ipad. It was offered free with a subscription and I accepted on condition I was instructed how to download and access it. It was simple. I will read it.

E-Book sales are falling

Earlier this year The Bookseller reported that e-book sales were falling for a second year and sales of printed books were rising. Hoorah for printed books. Let’s look a little closer at the figures.

The decline in e-books was said to be about 4%. And the rise in printed books about 7%. But hang on a moment, because there is a more nuanced story.

  1. The e-book figures are for books published by publishers, and do not include self-published books. It may be that sales of e-books have not fallen at all, they are just not counting one segment of the market.
  2. Two types of real books have been increasing in recent years: colouring books for adults and children’s books.
  3. In the UK, austerity has closed many libraries. Buying books may represent an alternative to borrowing books. I don’t know of any research to support this possibility, but library borrowing has reduced. SHAME on the library closers.
  4. Books as aesthetic objects are increasingly being appreciated, especially children’s books, but also in the adult market. Think about those beautiful Persephone Books, or the covers that enhance some recent publications. I wrote about some excellent covers recently: read more here.

People are spending more on books. This is a key piece of information. Books are not dying. And it is premature to announce that readers’ enchantment with e-books is over.

Room for both e-books and printed books?

via visual hunt

Isn’t there room on your shelves for both e-books and printed books (as it were)? Isn’t there room for both in the market place? And in libraries? And in bookshops?

Many of us will hold on to our hard copies of books, even books we are unlikely to reread. For many readers it is the book itself, as object, that we want to own; want to endlessly repeat the experience of handling the book, turning the pages, smelling the pages, hearing the particular noise of turning the page. Here is the author, David Nicholls speaking at the London Book Fair in April 2015.

My love of the book as object, and by extension the public library and bookshop, has to do with the way stories are experienced, remembered, shared and passed on. No one has yet found a way to unwrap digital data, to turn it into something you cherish, or to give online browsing the same pleasure, satisfaction and sense of discovery as walking around a bookshop. [David Nicholls in 2015 speech to London Book Fair, Guardian April 2015. Speech available on You Tube.]

He has resolved the non-existent opposition by buying both real and e-versions of books.

What we should care about

Harold Knight, The Green Book

We should care that

And we should be pleased that there are excellent independent publishers about. And that there are still so many excellent books being written, despite all of the above.

Over to you

Do you have any views on e-books, real books, and the future of books? Do you use a Kindle? What are the advantages, disadvantages, pleasures, frustrations …?

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Writers: why don’t you tear up those rules?

There are three rules for writers, according to Somerset Maugham, but unfortunately nobody knows what they are.

Only three? You can find hundred, no millions, out there.

  • Kill your darlings!
  • Show, don’t tell!
  • Start late, leave early!
  • Never use an adverb!
  • Never open the book with the weather!
  • Cut! Cut! And cut again!

Ten rules for writers

The Guardian, in 2010, asked 27 well-known writers to give us their 10 rules for writing fiction. I warmed to Helen Simpson who did not follow the given format but said

The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying ‘Faire et se taire’ (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it’.

Flaubert’s travel diary

Among these rules there is a great deal of wisdom and good advice. Neil Gaiman’s first rule is simple:

Write

Or not so simple.

Here are a few others, some of which are more advice than rule.

Read Keats’s letters. (Helen Dunmore)

The first 12 years are the worst. (Anne Enright)

Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life. (Esther Freud)

My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work. (Philip Pullman)

Rules for other creative, artistic workers?

I am intrigued. Why are there so many rules for writers? For no other art form are amateurs given so many instructions, or thought to want or need them. A Google search came up with more than 6 million possibilities of rules for writers., 500,000 for sculptors, 1 million for composers and slightly fewer for artists.

That’s six times as many rules for writers as for any other category. If I could create a chart I would insert one here to make the point visually.

Perhaps the reason that everybody, well 6 million people, feel entitled to provide rules for writers is because everyone, it is said, has a novel in them. And it is also said that those who can do (that is, they write), and those that can’t (write) teach, or in this case tell everyone else how to write.

Why rules at all?

There is a strong belief that writing can’t be taught. It is quite common, although you would never find people who suggest that musicians or artists shouldn’t have lessons.

Most rules for writers are behavioural. They imply that only people with certain behavioural characteristics can write. The rules include words and phrases such as honesty, self-discipline, hard work, attention to detail and so on. The ability to endure rejection is often referred to. The word never appears with frightening frequency. So does avoid. The consequences of sometimes or embrace are not revealed. Don’t do this, always do that! On and on. The tone is moralising. Avoidable.

Here are more. Some of these are tongue in cheek, and make good points.

Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire. (Geoff Dyer)

Don’t drink and write at the same time. (Richard Ford)

Write only when you have something to say. (David Hare)

Work hard. (Andrew Motion)

Finish everything you start. (Colm Toibin)

Advice not rules

Of course many writers interpreted the idea of rules as advice and offered some useful thought. Neil Gaiman (again):

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true of writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it the best you can. I’m not sure there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

So with Philip Pullman’s only rule (above) in mind I’d better get back to my proper work.

My rule for writers?

Only follow a rule for a good reason, otherwise transgress.

And your rules?

Do you have any rules to offer? Or comments on the topic of rules for writers?

 

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Mind the gap!

Does this happen to you? I finish a novel feeling satisfied. If the novel is good I can enjoy the feeling of a resolution or conclusion. But if I haven’t really enjoyed it then I am pleased to have got to the end. And then I frequently find myself reluctant to start a new book, even one I want to read or must read or that has been in my tbr pile for months. I don’t want to loose the sensation of being in the mode of reader of the previous book. Does that happen to you?

86 Mind the Gap

I have four strategies for dealing with this.

Strategy #1 Short stories

Short stories often work because they pull me in quickly so that my reluctance is swiftly overcome. At the moment I have two volumes that are working in this way for me:

86 sh st

Dear Life by Alice Munro – the queen of short stories.

Grimm Tales for Old and Young by Philip Pullman. These are short, often familiar and quickly pull you into the tale. ‘There was once a fisherman who …’ ‘A beautiful young girl was imprisoned in a tower …’ that kind of thing.

 

Strategy #2 Novellas

I pick up one of Peirene Press’s novellas and know that I will soon move into some very sharp experiences. The quality of the writing is guaranteed, for the Press specialises in translated novellas by European writers of note. Excellent translations too.

86 Portrait

My most recent that I read was Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch).

A pregnant young German woman, (we never know her name) walks through Rome in January 1943. Her journey takes two hours, 114 pages and only one sentence. Everywhere there are signs of war going badly: shortages, threat of bombs, and the presence of the German army. Her husband has been sent to the North African front. She becomes aware of the monstrousness of the world in which she lives: people are forced into separation from those they love, people are in mortal danger, and living with extreme privation, and her Lutheran beliefs are tested by Catholicism and anti-Semitic ideologies.

And currently in my bag for company on journeys is another novella from Peirene Press, this one French and starting with a bus journey and an atmosphere of dread: Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (translated by Adriana Hunter). Those of us who live in Devon, beyond Dawlish, must be prepared for many long bus and train journeys while they repair the seawall and track, and so journeys, like the reading gaps, need good books.

Strategy #3 Literary Reviews

I subscribe to two journals, both of which alert me to books I do and don’t want to read: London Review of Books and Literary Review. I also always have several back copies of the Guardian Saturday Review waiting to be combed through. After reading a few recommendations I am usually ready to start on my next book.

86 periodicals

Strategy #4 Start a new book anyway!

Sometimes the necessity of getting through a book – for the reading group, for a review, for a library due date – means I must just dive in. Usually that works too.

 

Do you have the gap sensation? What do you do? Any more suggestions?

 

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