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My 10 Writer’s Resolutions for 2015

On a home-alone New Year's Eve, I find myself sternly noting resolutions to myself for the creative year ahead (the personal resolutions can wait). Of course, they may not work for everyone...   Enjoy yourself at work. Even when it is deadly serious, writing should have a bit of skittishness and fun to it.  Forget the market. It's mad, and getting madder. Worrying about it will send you the same way.  Do something different. Startle yourself out of your comfort zone.  Write every day. If it's prose, anything under 200 words doesn't count. If it's poetry or a song, two lines should count as a good day.  Don't write too much. After you pass the 1000 word mark in one day, a law of diminishing returns sets in.  For any form of genuine creativity, the internet is the snake in the garden. In 2015, there will be writing time and...

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There’s no snob quite like a book snob

The book fair crowd was streaming past me on their way to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. That evening, in another part of the city, I would be performing a musical show about writing and the life of an author as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. I had thought, in my innocence, that readers and writers of books might be interested. I was wrong. Anyone trying to persuade people to come to a show in Edinburgh becomes used to getting the brush-off, but the snottiness of the book crowd was in a different league.? Not for the first time, I wondered why the world of books is such a snooty place. Snobbery is in the lifeblood of publishing. It swirls about at the grander literary parties. It even, as I discovered in Edinburgh, infects readers. The subtle, constantly evolving gradations of bookish superiority would probably require a lifetime of study,...

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Top Nine Writer’s Rules #7: Fear

It will catch any serious writer in the end: that familiar dread of the blank or page or screen as it stares back at you, daring you to give it  some words which, the blank page just knows, will be disappointing, or surprisingly weak, or in some way inferior to everything you have written before. The question is whether the author's fear is friend or foe, creative or crippling.  Opinion among those who really should know is, as ever, divided.  1. A.L KENNEDY ‘Let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear  and all you’ll get is silence.’   2. STEPHEN KING ‘I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.’       3.  DAVID FOSTER WALLACE 'I have a lot of dread and terror and inadequacy-shit, now, when...

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Remembering Paul Sidey

Some time in the early 1990s, the writer Willie Donaldson devoted his weekly column in the Independent to an account of how the editor who had commissioned him to write his memoirs was so desperate to get the book delivered that he had committed him to an addiction clinic run by mad Christians: 'Paul Sidey of Random Century  - one of the many publishers who have been hounding me in Ibiza  - isn't as silly as he looks. Not that he looks particularly silly; indeed he doesn't look silly at all. A little too well-preserved, perhaps, for a literary man of a certain age, a little too crisp in the step and upper head; more like an old-time actor  - even, in a certain light, like a retired soloist with the Ballet Rambert  - but he'll know his business best.' I've been thinking about silliness and  courage since Paul, who...

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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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