Saturday, 9 June 2012

Too Much Writing Wisdom? - Lucy Coats


Sir Terry Pratchett has just won the 13th Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. This is excellent.  He is, undoubtedly, a very funny writer, and deserves it.  The prize includes having a Gloucester Old Spot pig named in his honour - and doesn't every author secretly aspire to that?

Many people (including some whose judgement I respect greatly) dismiss Terry's writing as mass-market schlock, saying that his humour is infantile and his plots verge on the ridiculous.  They find the covers (of the paperbacks) hideously overfull of bosomy blondes, chunky swords, ugly assorted mythical creatures and posturing musclebound heroes. Others admit to reading him, but undercover (oh, the bliss of the e-reader for allowing one to peruse a whole host of 'unsuitable' books in public!).  Personally, I am an out-and-proud Pratchett fan and happy to tell anyone what they are missing out on (serious subjects and ideas such as the the power of journalism, astronomy, the Gulf War, feminism, high finance and racism are just a few he covers).

However, it's neither the fact that he's won a prize, nor the merits of his work that I want to write about today.  At this year's Hay Festival, Terry described writing as "running down a hill with wings on your back and taking flight, although sometimes you have to run up and down a few hills."  Absolutely true - at least that's how it feels to me too.  There are many such gems of writing wisdom out there (from a myriad authors), for those who wish to look for them, as well as reams of advice on everything from punctuation to publication.  But I do wonder if there's too much.  I wonder if those starting out on this writing journey are now faced with so much material telling them how to write, that they lose sight of the main objective - which is to apply bum to seat and just do it.  In other words, the physical practice of setting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) is worth a million 'self-help' books.

Asked about the best way to write fantasy, Terry advised looking at how the best do it and told his listeners: do not sit around listening to me, you should be at home typing.”  Absolutely.  When I am asked for advice by children, I tell them I have only two essential pieces of writing wisdom to impart.
1: Read voraciously.
2: Write something every day.  
For all the blogs, books, rules and tips out there, in the end, I believe that is the only writing wisdom anyone who truly has the passion to start on this mad creative rush down the hill really needs, (perhaps in conjunction with Terry's other exhortation to find your own writing voice).   So I'll add in his immortal words:
3. "For Heaven's sake, don't try and write like me. That is suicide."
What do all of you think?


19 comments:

Schez said...

I think that Mr Terry Pratchett is an incredible author... And I am soooo glad that a friend of mine insisted I tried reading The Colour of Magic, or else I would have ended up missing out! Sorry... You meant what do we think of the volume of writing advice out there... Oh. My. Goodness. It's like trying to wade through quicksand! Amidst all the "have you?", "You should be", and "don't forget to"I quickly lose sight of the main point that all I truly want to do is write! I end up tying myself in knots about getting it "right" and my work grinds to a hault... That's not to say I don't appreciate some kind of framework/advice when it comes to writing... It's just so difficult to know which advice to listen to!

Joe said...

Good to see a major author saying that, as well-meaning and helpful as advice can be, it's up to you at the end of the day. There is so much advice out there that if you try to follow it all you won't get any writing done. Trust your gut and only follow the advice that resonates with you. What works for one author will very often not work for another...

Sue Purkiss said...

I agree absolutely. I read some excellent books about writing a few months ago, and then I froze like a rabbit in headlights. Couldn't begin to write, because what if I did it wrong? One thing's certain - if you don't write anything, you most certainly won't get it right.

I'm a great Terry Pratchett fan too. Recently read Good Omens, after being given it on World Book Day, and think this is my new favourite - terrific.

Linda Strachan said...

So right, Lucy. There is no substitute for getting the words written. You can spend all your time reading advice on how to write until that becomes the comfort zone and actually writing starts to look far too scary, exactly as you said, Sue.

If people started by writing they would then have something to improve and work on. As we all know a FIRST draft is ...just that!

I do think there is a place for writing advice, and books (but then I would say that since I have written one!) but there is no point if you don't spend enough time actually writing.

I'm also a great Terry Pratchett fan and I hate the snobbery of what is classed as 'great literature'. Surely 'Mass market' means that lots of people enjoy it but that does not have to mean it is less worthy or less skilled. After all, one of the reasons we write is so that people will read and enjoy our books.

Lucy Coats said...

Oh! Thank goodness. I was half afraid I was going to be shot down in flames for daring to question the value of what has become a whole industry. Schez - 'like wading through quicksand'...exactly. And Joe, you are quite right. I've said elsewhere how much those lists and lists of writing rules annoy me. Everyone has to find their own way through in the end, and while I agree with Linda that there is a place for writing advice, I do fear that, like Sue, too many writers become frozen with the fear of somehow getting it wrong.

So glad you are all Pratchett fans, btw!

adele said...

Your advice is excellent, Lucy. I'd add a wonderful quote from the late great Jan Mark (is anyone out there still reading her fine books?) who famously said, when asked advice:
"Cut the adverbs and leave wide margins!"

Susan Price said...

I absolutely love Pratchett's books - think I have all of them. He writes lively, very funny, intelligent, compassionate, wise books. 'Comedy is hard' - why don't people get that? Why don't people get that his fantasy world is a mirror of our own? They are as much satires of modern life as fantasy.
As I'd expect, his advice on writing is spot on.
Of course many books on writing are good, but I find they work best if you already know a little about it, and can look for specific advice. I had a student who was so completely frozen between all the advice that I told her to take all her books on writing, burn them - and then just tell her story in whatever way seemed good to her. And worry about structure and pace and what have you afterwards.

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

He's got some really good advice - has Mr Pratchett! And if anyone is qualified to advise us writers - then it is definitely him!!

Tim Collins said...

The best piece of advice about advice I ever heard was that you should stick three Post-it notes on your desk listing the three things you want to learn. Then ignore all other writing advice until you've learned them and it's time to replace the notes.

Anne Cassidy said...

I agree with Lucy. Now and again I read advice pieces in blogs and realise that I don't do any of this with my own writing. I think too much advice makes you think too hard about what you are doing. Like walking on a tightrope, if you start to think about where and why you are there you will lose balance. Just tell the story the best way you can.

Mary Hoffman said...

I adore Terry Pratchett! And I don't like advice or rules.

zornhau said...

There is a physics of plot (not a method, an end result). It's handy to have that spelled out. I think there are only 3 worthwhile books on writing....

jongleuse said...

Discovered Sir Terry late in life and am now a huge fan. To me, Discworld is equal parts fantasy, history, humour and metaphysics.

Stroppy Author said...

I quite like reading writing advice books. I don't take any notice of them, unless something suddenly strikes me as brilliant (which is rare), but they are rather reassuring, somehow. I read quite a lot so that I knew which ones were worth recommending to students. That didn't work, though, as they all munged into a general blur - they are pretty similar, on the whole.

madwippitt said...

Hurrah for Terry Pratchett. Collected works of would definitely be my essential on the proverbial desert island!

Emma Barnes said...

All this leads on very nicely to the blog I will be posting Monday...which will even feature a passing reference to one of Terry Pratchett's books. So come back then!

Katherine Langrish said...

All I know is that I only read the advice books when I'm NOT writing. As soon as I am, they are a BAD IDEA. Terry Pratchett is amazing, however!

Lynne Garner said...

I love his disc world novels. If I could write as half as well as Sir Terry I'd be a very happy bunny!

catdownunder said...

Writing is a life sentence - and like trying to pedal downhill into a headwind! Reading books about doing it just turns the headwind into a force nine gale!
If I could do what Pratchett has done I would be rather pleased with myself - but it is not going to happen!