On Writing

I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss the enquiries from readers asking about the writing process. Really, I guess the question is what works for me? What are my experiences? What do I try to achieve when writing, what do I try to avoid? Well, okay, I’ll try but I’m not sure if it’ll be of any help. You may or may not wish to read on.

If you do read further, however, again I want to stress, as I did at the close of the About the Author section, that merely because I’m discussing my writing, I’m certainly not attempting to inflate its worth. I’m not suggesting my texts are earth-shattering philosophical studies of the ultimately fallible nature of the human condition. Nope, they’re just stories of cars and of the mechanics that nurse them.

While writing the following pointers, for reasons of clarity and ease of reading I’m not prepared to go down the he/she his/her gender specific route: it looks awful and is, I believe, rather condescending.

Also, please remember that my writing skills (such as they are) are entirely self-taught. I write because it gives me pleasure, simple as that. I learned to write by reading articles and books, then by writing articles and books. No university degree of literature or language hangs in my study. Personally lamentable, I know, but, scanning my old wine cases that serve as bookshelves, I think I’m in reasonably good company. Anyway, here’s the disclaimer: do please try this at home, just don’t blame me if it doesn’t work.

Although I’m happy to discuss my writing, I have to say that doing so makes me feel somewhat fidgety. Writing is a solitary business and, by their very nature, most writers are introverted souls. They are extremely protective of what they do. Authors are people who voluntarily lock themselves away for hours/days/weeks/months at a time. And they love to do so. During this period of self-imposed incarceration an author’s all consuming passion is his manuscript. The ever needy manuscript: demanding continual attention, it must be constantly loved and nurtured and cared for. The events of real life, time away from the manuscript is something that must be tolerated but it is not enjoyed.

Continuing this thought, whilst many authors might be happy to discuss their books (their completed and published books) for promotional reasons, I suspect very few authors feel at ease discussing the actual writing process that produced them. No, I believe this is not something that comes easily. Typically, the giants of literature have tended to shy away from discussing their work, saying that their books should speak for themselves: writers should write books, not talk about writing books, that sort of thing. Perhaps that’s true, but I do know that given the opportunity I would love to ask a thousand questions of Dickens,  HemingwayOrwellSteinbeckJerome and Adams and a hundred other literary geniuses.

I’m a realist as far as my own abilities are concerned. I am not a great writer, a true master of the art, nor will I ever be. Don’t misunderstand me, I love my work as a writer but I’m also acutely aware of my limitations; I know the universe has not got me pegged for greatness. I understand and accept that. I am, I suppose, an able, competent writer: An adequate author. I’m okay with that role. That said, I do work hard at trying to improve my skills, always striving to sharpen my sensitivity and observation. And, although it may sound cloyingly cliché, I genuinely do try to learn something with every page I write. To an extent this has paid off, I know my writing has improved over the years, and, naturally, this pleases me.

A great writer I am not but a published writer I am: I’ve done the work, gone through the mill. Studying readers’ letters, I easily understand their desire to discover more of how the writing process works. I appreciate their curiosity, as I mentioned earlier, there are countless questions I would love to ask authors of books I’ve read. So, if my experiences of putting pen to paper can in some way help others along the path then, sure, I’m happy to help. If any of the following is of value, well, only you can say.

Anyway, here goes…

The first thing to remember is that you cannot hope to be any sort of worthwhile writer if you don’t read. You must read. Lots. You must read to study differing styles, to learn from the greats. Look at how the best writers in the world have structured their work. Look at the length of their sentences; look at the words they use. Moreover, look at the ideas and thoughts they convey to the reader without the use of words. A good writer can merely hint at certain ideas, they don’t actually need to voice them. As Orwell said: never underestimate the intelligence of the reader. This is essential. The reader is the writer’s friend, treat him with respect. Show the reader the route you’re taking, he’ll understand where you’re leading him; will happily travel the road with you.

Second: Observation. A little earlier I mentioned that I’m always trying to be more observant. Having an eye for detail proves useful during my TV work. It helps me to notice the race-to-race changes made to the build specification of the race cars, for example. In terms of writing, however, I believe good observation is paramount: The writer at the dinner party is easy to spot: he is the grumpy-looking guest not saying anything but is, secretly, having a thoroughly good time. A writer will sit and watch, taking everything in: the smells from the kitchen, the oak burning in the grate; the creaks and sounds of the house itself; pondering the relationships between the others in the party, their body language, the sparkle of the eyes.

Observation is key because it is the job of the writer to explain the detail of the thing, no matter what that thing might be. In terms of relatively recent fiction, one of the most outstanding exponents of descriptive writing has to be J.K. Rowling. The attention to detail included in her descriptions of Hogwarts, for example, is wonderfully impressive: Every staircase, every corridor, every hidden door, every painting, every tapestry and suit of armour we are shown is aged and coloured with its own unique patina, given its own precise place in her imaginary world. Some contemporary members of the intelligentsia, leading lights of modern literature, openly scoff at her work, dismissing it out of hand. Kids’ stories. Though they would never admit to it, I strongly suspect that this is due to their throbbing egos having turned a vivid emerald green owing to her colossal success as an author and her whopping financial worth as a result. As the philosopher Hulka said: “Lighten-up, Francis.”

Third: Rehearse your words… If I’m announcing a race on TV, my words are spoken aloud, once, and they are gone, out there. I have but one chance at correctly conveying whatever it is I’m trying to say. Whether talking on the telly or holding a conversation with the milkman, speaking aloud can be a frustrating business. Inevitably, when people talk face-to-face, they will use the wrong words or get confused or forget to say something or wish they had said some things in a different order. On the other hand, when I’m talking via written text, there is absolutely no need to rush. I can afford to relax, to think carefully before saying anything to the reader. The joy of writing is that I can rehearse my lines over and over until I’m completely happy with what I want to say.

What I’m alluding to here is editing, of course. For me, editing is a near permanent state of affairs. I will write a paragraph, walk away from the keyboard, have a coffee, return and change what I’ve written. What I had originally penned might not have been thoroughly dreadful but it was merely the first coat of paint. That same paragraph might be rewritten many more times, too. As an example, I can tell you that this paragraph, the one you’re reading right now, has taken me forty-three minutes to write and, in that time, I have deleted and rewritten about seventy-five percent of it. But that’s perfectly okay. It’s all part of the process. A writer editing his work is no different to an artist working on a canvas, brushstroke upon brushstroke until slowly the picture begins to take shape and form.

By the way, writers never really finish their manuscripts, they merely stop working on them. Usually, this is because their agent or publisher is banging on the door, uttering unnerving demonic curses with references to contracts and deadlines and printing schedules. I like Douglas Adams’ evaluation of deadlines: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Very good. And if you’re Douglas Adams you can get away with such a blasé approach. For the rest of us poor working saps it’s a case of ‘time’s up, pens down, hand it in.’ Gulp…

Next, the writer must always share his thoughts with the reader. Share. Never preach. If memory serves, I believe this is something else I learned from reading Orwell. The reader is your friend. We wouldn’t force our views and experiences on our friends, would we? We want to share them. So it is with writing. The writer should talk with his reader in exactly the same way that two friends talk over coffee or over a beer in a pub. We’re just chatting, that’s all it is: ‘Hey, this happened to me the other day and I want to share it with you…’ Just chatting. Friend to friend. No big deal. Relax.

Finally, an author needs to find his written voice. Write like you would talk: naturally. Again, all we’re doing is chatting; there’s no need to flood the page with “the ten dollar words,” as Hemingway once said. If an author wouldn’t use certain words or phrases in live conversation, then those same words or phrases have no place in his written conversation, the voice on the page.

Writing is not an opportunity for the author to make himself appear overly smart, cultured or supremely clever. Writing is an opportunity for the author to share with his readers his hopes and his fears, to explain events he’s already experienced and to ponder what might be in the future. A writer should never pretend to be something he’s not. Pretension is the easiest feint in the world to spot. Recall that advice from Orwell: Never underestimate the intelligence of the reader. Quite right.

For some strange reason, however, when penning their pearls of wisdom, some writers deem it necessary to put on a baffling pseudo-highbrow voice. It sounds dreadful, like that awful affected phone-voice pompous characters use in sit-coms. It’s a voice both stilted and totally unnatural. It should never be used. Be yourself.

In conclusion, then, other than (hopefully) being somewhat knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the subject at hand, I would suggest that, primarily, a writer need only be calm, relaxed, at ease. All else will follow. After all is said and done, all a writer is doing is talking with a friend in a comfortable environment, chatting via the pages of a book. What could be more pleasant than that?

The absolute bottom line is that writing is an extremely personal experience. We can be taught the basics, given the tools, but then we must be left alone to get on with it, to make mistakes and learn from them. There are many, many mistakes to make, too, but, just occasionally, we produce something that we’re reasonably pleased with. And, when that happens, there is no other feeling in the world quite like it. If you’re starting out on a writing project of your own, then I wish you all the very best. I sincerely hope it brings you both enjoyment and much satisfaction. Good luck!

Gosh, I feel like we’ve really bonded over these last few paragraphs, don’t you? Whose round is it?