Posted on November 26, 2007 - by MG
I’m impressed by how many writers’ blogs are filled with valuable advice to other writers. It amazes me how self-aware some writers are; they apply their talent with the precision of a surgeon’s blade.
I’m not like that. I have no idea if what I’m writing is going to work until my agent and editor tell me. And when something works I have no idea why. I do structure a plot very carefully, according to certain principles. But when it comes to writing…meh, I just do it.
Hemingway said that a writer has to have a terrific bullshit detector. I agree. When I read back what I’ve written, it’s the single biggest skill I need. And that, I believe, comes from a huge amount of reading.
Stephen King says this too: writers must read a lot. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, however, qualifies this with what I would regard as the single bit of advice I would ever offer to another writer (and it isn’t even mine!).
Read only what bears re-reading.
Life is short and the writer’s training should begin early. I do believe, as does Philip Pullman, that to a large extent writing can’t be taught, and I believe it’s because the sense of story is somewhat innate. I see this with my own daughter, aged five. Her teacher tells me that she has more than once drawn a ‘book’ and then stood in front of the class to narrate the entire story, beginning, middle and end, to the astonishment of the other pupils and staff. No-one showed her how to do this. I used to do it to, apparently; dropped off aged four at the University where my grandfather worked I would entertain students with stories of Peter Pan.
Story sense needs to be honed and refined; this, you can study but your starting level probably needs to be pretty high.
But writing…you learn what is good writing from reading it, processing it, hearing the sound of a well-crafted phrase, metaphor or dialogue in your head. That’s why re-reading great works of literature is so useful.
I actually don’t read very widely. With many demands on my time I hardly read for entertainment. Everything should be educational, instructive. So, to be honest, I set a high bar. I don’t finish a book if it isn’t really great by page 50. What is good, I re-read.
And I’m constantly hungry for new talent to replace authors whose works I have read all the way through.
Will the next Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami, Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino please step forward?
Problem is, these days probably only the first two of those would get published…