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.
All authors inspire me – all of them, good ones, bad ones, self-published, small press, big publisher. I think writing books and stories is a tremendous thing for people to be doing, we hold a mirror up to society, we are its conscience and its soul. That’s no small thing to be involved in.
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.
First thing I want to say is I’m a big fan of Bob Dylan, have been for years, nobody enjoys a bit of Blonde and Blonde or Blood on the Tracks more than me. But I don’t believe he should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature – it’s not the right award for him.
Fans supporting his win are talking about what a wonderful poet he is and what fantastic lyrics he writes, and I couldn’t agree more. He writes and performs wonderful work.
And he has received countless relevant awards for that, endless Grammys, an Oscar, you name it, probably had to build a new wing on his mansion to keep them in. Plus he’s had his mouth stuffed with gold, and he’s been feted for all kinds of stuff he’s not much good at, he’s been lauded as an actor when he can’t act, as a painter when he can’t paint worth a damn.
I was in a branch of Waterstones the other day, which is the big bookshop chain in the UK, and I noticed that, where the face-out copy of J.K Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy should have been something else had appeared.
Another book was sitting there, taking the glory, and, to make things worse, it was a pretty shoddy looking book. It was skinny, barely more than a pamphlet, and it had a dull maroon cover with a white line drawing on the front. It reminded me of school text books from the 1970s. How could this cuckoo in the nest have got there? Well, I’m not Raymond Chandler, I wasn’t even in the detective fiction aisle, but I’m guessing we need look no further than the author of the ‘misplaced’ book.
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.”