A few things every prose writer needs Reply

A recent poll revealed that among respondents over fifty, ‘publish a novel’ has displaced ‘have an extra-marital affair’ as the most cited ambition. Perhaps so many people aspire to write because all you need to get started is a pen and paper or something to type on. But there are a few other things that might help you along the way.


Video transcript follows below:

Writing is hard work. Listen, a recent poll revealed that among respondents over fifty, ‘publish a novel’ has displaced ‘have an extra-marital affair’ as the most cited ambition.  Just pause while that sinks in.  More people over fifty want to write a book than want to get laid.  That’s competition.

Why do so many people want to write? One reason, perhaps, is that you don’t need much to get started. Although these days it’s fairly easy to make a simple video such as this one, to make a feature film, even a low-budget independent feature film, is likely to cost over a million dollars.

To write, on the other hand, requires nothing but a pen and paper or something to type on.

But there are a few other things that might help.

First off, reference books! For instance, a good dictionary. I like the Chambers dictionary, and, as you can see, I’ve consulted it so often it’s falling apart. A thesaurus might also be useful – so long as you use it only occasionally. And don’t forget a style guide – Elements of Style by Strunk and White is still one of the best. You may also want a punctuation guide. I like Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The New Well-Tempered Sentence, but there are many good guides on the market. Fowler’s Modern English Usage – essential reading for when you want to be told in a schoolmasterly voice what a subliterate moron you are. And this last one is maybe a wee bit surprising. I don’t know whether you’ve noticed that these days the only people who seem to understand grammar are those who’ve studied foreign languages? I never did grammar at school and I’ve always struggled with it, but one thing that really helped me was when, a few years ago, I spent a summer working through a textbook designed for people who are going to teach English as a foreign language. I found that very useful.

What else do you need? You need a place to work.  Writers are notoriously cranky regarding where they can and can’t work. Marcel Proust wrote A la Recherche du Temps Perdu in a windowless room lined with cork; Frederich Schiller liked to have a smell of rotten apples concealed beneath the lid of his desk; John Cheever favoured writing in his underwear.  Whatever works for you, so long as you’re comfortable and left alone. And that bit about being left alone is important. It can take a long time to get into the right mindset to write, and if you’re disturbed – even by the best-meaning visitor – it can take a long time to recover your focus. So put up a ‘Do not disturb’ sign, and explain to your partner, your kids, your flatmates, or your pet iguana that you promise you’ll make dinner at seven, but until then leave me alone unless the house is on fire. If they respect you, they’ll understand.

Conversely, writers can have too much solitude. The Nobel Prize winning South African novelist Nadine Gordimer has described ‘The solitude of writing’ as ‘quite frightening.  It’s close sometimes to madness, one just disappears for a day and loses touch.’ At some point you’ll probably find it useful to be part of some sort of community of writers – it could be a local writers’ group, or a Creative Writing evening class, or your peers at school or university. Of course, writers groups and classes range from the inspiringly brilliant to the pencils-up-noses raving bonkers, but do try to find some people you can test your work out on – don’t rely on your partner or your best friend. They’re the people you turn to for validation and reassurance, so they have to say your writing’s great. At some point you’ll need honest, critical feedback too.

That’s it!

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

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