Survival Instinct

All writers must get this, right? When you sink lower and lower into the foxhole and live in the perpetual world of your book. It has to happen, or else the book doesn’t get written.

I’m in deep right now, foetal position. Barely conscious of what’s going on around me. Taciturn to the point of muteness. The only people I am willing to talk to are my loved ones. I’ve got to keep the foxhole free of pests. Not that other people are pests. I just need to see them like that in order to focus.

This can’t be my own personal affliction? It’s got my particular bent, but it has to be universal. I’m not some lone voice in the wild? Can’t be. Plus, I’ll crawl out of he foxhole when it’s time to foxtrot. When the book’s finished. Until then….I’m in two worlds. But I’m more of a shadow in the diurnal reality right now and a very strong presence in the fictitious one.

Jesus, if you disturbed me now, I might swear at you in German! (That’s because my novel in set in the Third Reich.)

It’s like some pleasurable narcotic. And makes life so much more exciting.

Here’s some sound and sexy writing advice from Philip Pullman:

One: Work every day. Get into the habit of it. Work when you don’t feel like it, when you’ve just broken up with your girlfriend or boyfriend, when you’re feeling ill, when you’ve got homework to do. Put your work first. Habit is your greatest ally. Get into the habit of writing when you’re young and it’ll stay with you. Sixteen is a very good age to start.

Two: Find out what way of working (place, time, writing instrument, desk light, and so on) suits you, and insist that you get it.

Three: Don’t listen to anyone who tells you you should study what the public wants, and give it to them. They don’t know what they want, or they’d be writing it themselves. It’s not their job to tell you what to write. It’s your job to write something they could never have thought of, and then offer it to them.

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His Bright Material

I love this quote from Philip Pullman. He’s one gem of a writer — by which I mean he mines the minerals of the self and the world and makes us all the richer for it.

He’s currently got a new book out called The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which is part of the Canongate Myths series. It’s made the religions hordes want to throw him to the lions. In the book he contrasts the prophet Jesus with the manipulative Christ. He’s well-known to get a hairball when it comes to religion, but he’s such a thoughtful and imaginative writer that you can’t help but see him not so much kicking religion in its neutered parts but more like he’s got the real insight, some more truthful human understanding about our lives that is far more fascinating than what’s preached to us from the Gospels and the commandments.

I try to live and think like this each day, but it’s fucking hard because it is so easy to slide into despair and become miserable even though I know it doesn’t help.

“I came to realise that this world was actually rather a good place, which is full of things that make you laugh and things that make you happy and things that make you feel good physically, and so I gradually abandoned the idea of the evil demiurges who had created this ghastly world, and realised actually that this is our home, it’s where we belong, and there ain’t no elsewhere.”

This One’s From the Hip

I am easily impressed, but I’m also hard to impress. This may sound like it’s contradictory. It’s not. Live with it a bit and you’ll see why.

What is it about some writers who have more to say about the state of the literary nation in regards to technology than they do about the art of writing or even a story itself? They’ll spout all kinds of wonderful predictions about the future of books and the springing tiger called ebooks. But they’ll say nothing about a story well told.

When I read Dickens or Philip Pullman or David Mitchell or Jeanette Winterson or Roald Dahl, I don’t think, damn, wish they had more gadgets. I’m bowled over and feel like I’m staring my atoms in the face when I read their work. Because it’s the story, not how it is presented that makes me feel my heart thump in my chest.

For all we know, technology may reach a point where if you want to read a book, you’ll swallow a pill and as it dissolves on your tongue the words will pop into your brain and that’s how you’ll experience a book. But the point is, it’s not the way it gets presented, it’s the way it is told. The lasting taste will not be the pill, sugar-coated as it most likely will be, but the lasting taste will be the writer’s use of language; the story that sinks in like a new life; the way the story makes you re-imagine the world around you and you in it; the richer emotions, ideas, and dialogue that makes you try harder to feel, think, and speak.

This is what it’s all about when it comes to books: the story and how it makes a life with you. It’s not about the gadget that brings it to you.

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

A best-of collection of Frank Sinatra. Can’t beat Frank and spring, windows open, forsythia spread thick like golden butter, and the leaves on the trees feathered for flight.

The Session of Sweet, Silent Thought

The Books section of the Guardian has posted advice from a broad spectrum of writers about 10 Rules for Writing Fiction inspired by Elmore Leonard’s ten commandments. It’s a cool list of writers that includes Jeanette Winterson, Michael Moorcock, Philip Pullman, Sarah Waters, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright, Geoff Dyer, Will Self, Neil Gaiman, and more.

It’s fascinating what each writer considers important to the writing experience. There’s some gems there as well as duds. The best advice I took away from it would be this holy trinity: Write, edit, and edit some more. The most pointless don’t was this one from Richard Ford: “Don’t have children.” Total crap. That’s like saying don’t have sex unless you mean to have offspring. Actually his rules are the weakest of the bunch. Which leads perfectly into this advice from Moorcock: “Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.”

And to get semantic, I’m not sure “rules” is the best noun to use. I’d use “advice.” Rules imply an explicit adhering to, and if I come away with anything from these rules, I think it is use at your own discretion.

Here are the 15 I would be able to live and work with, tacked up beside my writing desk along with the most useful advice I’ve come across in a long while: “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

1. Write

2. Love what you do. (Winterson))

4. Trust your creativity. (Winterson)

5. Do it every day. The most important rule of all and, naturally, one I don’t follow. (Dyer)

6. When people tell you something is wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. (Gaiman)

7. Never take advice from anyone with no investment in the outcome. (David Hare)

8. Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn’t matter how “real” your story is, or how “made up”: what matters is its necessity. (Enright)

9. Write for tomorrow, not today (Motion)

10. Always carry a notebook. The short-term memory only retains information fro three minutes. (Self)

11. Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom. (Winterson)

12. Stop reading fiction, it’s all lies anyway, and it doesn’t have anything to tell you that you don’t already know (assuming that is, you’ve read a great deal of fiction in the past). (Self)

13. Have more than one idea on the go at any moment. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the later. (Dyer)

14. Protect the time and space in which you write. (Zadie Smith)

15. Hold the reader’s attention. (Atwood)