The British novelist Barry Hines told a story of sitting in a staff room after giving a reading at a school in Lincolnshire when a member of staff asked him the weirdest question he had ever been asked about his writing.
“You know that novel you wrote, A Kestrel for a Knave” asked the teacher sitting next to him. “Did you write it on purpose or by accident?”
Hines was momentarily at a loss. He could just about grasp the idea of someone writing a few lines of verse by accident, but a whole novel? Thousands of words, years of work? That would be some accident.
When people ask me about writing, which sometimes they do, one of the questions they are most likely to ask is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’
It’s a tough one to answer, partly because I don’t think about the process very much and also because there isn’t just one place where ideas are floating around and we writers gather with our butterfly nets and haul them in. At least, I’m saying there is no such place, if there is let me know, it will make things a whole lot easier.
One of the hardest things to spot in your writing I think is when something hasn’t come out on the page the way you intended when you wrote it.
So you imply one thing, the reader infers another. It can happen in small subtle ways, or great big clunking ones – the character you intend as a noble hero can seem more of a villain for example. Why is it hard for the writer to spot? Because it’s still you doing the rewrites, and you still have your initial perception colouring your view.
Here’s an example, not from art but from life, of this effect in motion.
I was reading at the Evesham Festival of Words last night – lots of fun. What’s an Evesham I hear you ask? It’s a small town in Worcestershire, semi near to where I live in the UK.
I enjoyed it. The whole thing it was delightful. It was held at a wonderful museum in a 14th century building called the Almonry in the town, which is one of those places which we tend to overlook in the UK but are genuinely ancient and overflowing with stories. These are buildings with low beams because people used to be shorter. Listen, I’m going to say, without bothering to check on Google, that this building is older than America. (White people America). It was doing its thing before McDonalds, imagine that.
I was chatting to a fellow writer on Facebook recently who asked my advice on her work. She’s writing a few different things on the way to her first published novel but one project is a type of romance novel and essentially, she wanted my view on how spicy she should make it.
She said: “I’m not sure how far to go with it because I could get a little graphic in that one if I wanted to. I just don’t know if I should keep it PG or not?”
Well my view is basically this – nobody can tell you as a writer what you are comfortable with when it comes to sexual content – it really is up to you.
An old mate of mine, we shall call him George, for that is his name, once told me a story about his childhood. His family was a long way from wealthy and foreign holidays were not on the agenda, but his aunt once made a trip abroad to Austria and returned to Glasgow with a gift for George.
He opened his parcel it to find, to his horror, that it contained a pair of lederhosen. To his even greater horror, his mother made him wear them to school the next morning. He had been hoping to get through the day by keeping a low profile but it wasn’t to be as his form teacher dragged him up in front of the class and made him model his outlandish attire.
“Look everyone,” she said. “George is wearing genuine Tyrolean Lederhosen.”
I’ve been reading The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, the case notes of the recently departed neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks. It’s a fascinating book and deeply humane, dealing with the amazing curve balls our complex brains can throw at us when they go wrong.
It’s also very well written by someone who was clearly a great story-teller as well as a great scientist.
I wrote recently how book festivals seem to be gradually losing their connection with books, authors and readers. Instead they are becoming celebrity festivals who recruit their speakers from TV or turn into writer’s festivals aimed at those who wish to get published.
The fallout from it was significant. One thing I’d like to nip in the bud is the idea I’m calling for the festivals just to support literary fiction. This misunderstanding might be based on the fact they tend to be called literature festivals in the UK. But I’m not saying only Dostoevsky ought to get a gig. I’m suggesting that the march of the celebrity festival is trampling on all authors whose only claim to fame is that they have produced a book – be it sci-fi, romance, children’s literature or anything else, fiction or non-fiction.