Friday, September 07, 2007

On reading and writing

The proportion of aspiring writers securing even a single professional sale is vanishingly small. As someone now in the professional category, I am occasionally asked—OK, very occasionally—what qualities are needed to secure publication. I usually give an insufferable laugh and mumble something faux-modeste about luck. But while luck is clearly useful—your text needs to hit the right reader at the right time—there are certain other characteristics the published writer will display. These can broadly be described as:

1.Natural facility
There is a school of thought that anyone can be taught to write. If by "write", in this context we refer to the ability to compose prose fiction to a professional standard, I disagree. Anyone can be taught to write better, but without a degree of innate talent, you ain't going anywhere. And how do you know if you've got it? That's the fun bit: you don't. You just have to take a punt on it.

2. Vanity
See 1. Do you believe you have talent? Even when your novel has been turned down several times? Even when your second and third novels have suffered the same fate? Maybe you do. And maybe you're right. But to keep plugging away, in the absence of any external validation, for years, decades if necessary, presupposes a colossal vanity. I'm going to sit down and write 130,000 words. And at at the end of it, I'm going to think my work is so compelling that other people will pay money to read it. I am right: the industry professionals are wrong. Such pig-headed certainty may not be an admirable characteristic—but without it, your novel will languish on your hard disk.

3. Persistence
You've got talent; you even believe in it. Now you have to sit down and write. Today. Tomorrow. The day after. You can have the day after that off—if it's Christmas Day. Eventually you will have a story. And—this is the bad news—it will be crap. But—this is the good news—the next time you try, it will better. The more you write, the better you'll get.

4. Omnivorousness
This is a metaphorical omnivorousness: I'm not suggesting vegetarians will never make it into print (who better to write A Universal History of Tofu?). I've suggested that the best way to learn to write is to write, but I think the next best way is to read—omnivorously. If you are a genre writer, read outside your field. So you want to write horror? Read crime novels—if nothing else, they'll teach you the importance of rigorous plotting. Read romances—you'll learn about character dynamics. I've argued that writers are born and not made, but the kind of writer you are depends on what you read. Why not read a bit of everything?

With that in mind, I set out my own ten favourite books. To avoid overpopulating the list with Jack Vance and Jane Austen, I have limited myself to one book per author. The list is ordered a
alphabetically by author, with no sub-divisions of merit. These books are too good to bicker:

1. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

2. My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier

3. Augustus, Allan Massie

4. The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, Joe McGuinness

5. The Time-Traveller's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

6. Byzantium, John Julius Norwich

7. Master and Commander, Patrick O'Brian

8. The Quincunx, Charles Palliser

9. The Persian Boy, Mary Renault

10. Lyonesse, Jack Vance

Over the next few weeks I'll explain why I think these books are so good. Feel free to disagree!

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