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Top Nine Writer’s Rules #6: Confidence

It is an undeniable (and frankly rather unattractive) aspect of a writer's character that it needs to be finely balanced between  arrogance and insecurity. Confidence is needed to write in the first place; a degree of self-doubt is necessary for what is written not to be preeningly complacent and indulgent. From Anthony Trollope to Caitlin Moran, the distinguished panel for this part The Writer's Rules seem pretty unanimous as to the best approach, which is most pithily summarised in Rule Number 9. Feel free (if you have the confidence) to add the tenth rule yourself.   1. ELIZABETH SMART 'Writers have to construct an importance, a sacred vocation, not to feel fiddling….  If you feel foolish doing it, think of those who have done it and earned your everlasting gratitude.'   2. JONATHAN FRANZEN ‘However sick with foreboding you feel inside, it’s best to radiate confidence and to hope that...

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Top Nine Writer’s Rules: #5 Block

Look at the first of these two rules, and you'll see that nothing divides authorly opinion like writer's block. Most of these insights are either self-pitying or briskly unsympathetic  -  successful writers seem to believe in tough love when dispensing advice - but there is one piece of caring practical advice. Surprisingly, that comes from Kingsley Amis.   1. JOHN CHEEVER 'There is nothing more painful for a writer than an inability to work,'     2. TONI MORRISON ‘If you’re blocked, you probably ought to be.’   3. JOSEPH CONRAD ‘I sit down religiously every morning. I sit down for eight hours every day  -  and the sitting down is all. In the course of that working day of eight hours I write three sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair… it takes all my resolution and power of self-control to refrain from butting my head against...

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Writing v. Living: a conversation with myself

The great American novelist Jonathan Franzen is a man who takes his role as a writer seriously. He was snooty about the Oprah Winfrey Book Club. He abhors the internet. He disapproves of the use of 'then' as a conjunction after a comma. I like him. On most matters, he takes the uncompromising, purist line that I would take if I had written such monumentally successful novels that I never had to suck up to anyone again. He stands for the kind of principles that the rest of us can only dream of holding. While delivering a lecture about his writing methods, he once said: ‘When I’m working, I don’t want anybody else in the room, including myself.' Brilliant. In a one brief sentence, Franzen has summarised the central problem of being a professional author  - the division of self between Writer and Everyday Person. We all try to keep...

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Top Nine Writer’s Rules #4: Research

Here's a funny thing. Writers like to play down research. 'Just live your life and use that as your material,' seems to be the message. Even, 'And don't have too exciting a life while you're at it.' Here is a snapshot of the collective wisdom of writers considering this topic, with the number 10 rule reserved, as always, for your contribution.   1. W SOMERSET MAUGHAM 'I forget who it was who said that every author should keep a notebook, but should take care never to refer to it... The danger of using notes is that you find yourself inclined to rely on them, and so lose the even and natural flow of your writing.'    2. IRIS MURDOCH ' I would abominate the idea of putting real people into a novel, not only because I think it’s morally questionable, but also because I think it would be terribly dull. '...

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Some passing thoughts on…groping and the older man

The people's philosopher, Alain de Botton, has been considering Rolf Harris and his wandering hands. In de Botton's funny-yet-serious spoof of newspapers  The Philosophers' Mail, he takes his customary rosy view of things. The Harris case and others like it, he argues, show that we are becoming kinder as a society. These are times of moral progress. We have become more and more sensitive to, and  concerned about, the suffering of others. In 1976 many a man – a branch manager of the Municipal Bank in Birmingham or a Professor of Literature at the University of East Anglia - Seems oddly specific, that, but moving swiftly along. -  would have thought nothing of groping their secretaries’ bottoms. They’d have seen it as a bit of harmless fun or even considered it a perk of the job... We are now so much more receptive to the feelings of others, so much...

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Top Nine Writer’s Rules #3: Marriage

So far in this series of Top Nine Writer's Rules, great and good authors have offered advice on matters which are fairly straightforward: starting a book, or how to get the inspiration to pick up the pen in the first place. That all changes this week. There seems little agreement as to the precise effect of the matrimony upon authors. Most, however, seem to agree that writing and marriage do not go together like a horse and carriage. It's been difficult to narrow down contributors to this vexed and much-discussed topic  - Cyril Connolly narrowly failed to make the cut, as did Martin Amis  - but here are the top nine rules. The leading contender for the unwritten tenth rule would appear to be 'Don't'. But that decision, as ever, is yours... * 1. PHILIP LARKIN 'I seem entirely lacking in that desire to impose oneself that is such a feature...

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Top Nine Writer’s Rules: #2: Inspiration

This the second of my Top Nine Writer's Rules,  a series of blogs with which writers, would-be writers and readers will eventually be able to build their own rulebook for writing, based on the words of authors past and the present. Today's theme answers a question familiar to any writer who has answered questions from an interviewer or reader: where do you get your inspiration? The 10th tip is for you to provide...   1. JACK LONDON ‘You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.’   2. MARTIN AMIS ‘I’ve learnt not to force inspiration when it’s not coming... I walk away and read something else. This allows the subconscious to catch up. When I return to my desk, the problem tends to be fixed. Writing is more physical than people think.’   3. ANNE TYLER 'It doesn’t take very long for most writers...

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The Top Nine Writer’s Rules (the tenth is yours) #1. STARTING

 For many years, I have collected the thoughts and observations of writers about the process and the profession of writing. The authors can be dead or alive, famous or obscure, literary titans or contemporary crowd-pleasers. If they have something interesting, funny or perceptive to say about the strange business of creating in words, then I have added it to my collection of rules for writers. The result has been that I now have a mighty archive of writerly tips and opinions. Some are wise, others eccentric; all, I think, are thought-provoking in their own way. Whether the topic is research or ideas, inspiration or the best time of day to write, there is rarely a consensus.  These are writers, after all. When I started using Twitter, I took to tweeting a couple of the shorter rules on most days under the hashtag #writersrules. Readers, authors and would-be authors seem to...

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Clean, lean, terrifically digital – welcome to the new me

The general consensus around here was that an image re-think was in order. The brand needed to be refreshed. And because a website can sometimes seem like a visible, external version of your professional  life, the best place to start was here, online. I have  a new website and with it (the master-plan) a new me. Not that there was anything wrong with the old online version. Cleverly designed, it had a scurrying rat leading to the children's room, and a maze of pathways connecting to my various activities. The problem was not with the website, but was closer to home. Frankly, my career as a freelance was beginning to look something of a mess. To me, it made perfect sense that I wrote books and columns, and also composed songs, and also appeared on stage to perform them, but others were becoming confused. Rather as WH Smith used to...

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Young girl with a ukulele

Her song lasted less than three minutes - by the epic standards of most folk songs, hardly worth tuning up for. We regulars understood the reason for its brevity. She only really knew two chords, and struggled with the third. It was a song called Life is Beautiful. But this girl, this Sally Thompson, had something. I sensed it, and so did everyone else who was there that night. We held our breath as she sang her absurd nothing of a song. When she finished, the audience roared its approval. Kevin returned to the stage, all beer-belly and smiles, and told us that Sally was 'what it was all about'. You have to be pretty bad for Kevin to say you're what it's all about - it means he can't think of anything else to say - but on this occasion, without quite knowing why, I had to agree. She...

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