How to write fiction

Writers on writing – some valuable lessons to be learnt...

By: Clare Howdle,   2 minutes

I know a lot of people who have taken creative writing courses. And I know a lot of people who run them. But I have never done one.

Not officially any way, not paid my money and made my choice – from a week’s retreat with the very best to experience good writing first hand, or an online study pack, to an official creative writing qualification from an institute of higher education or even a book of how to write a novel in a year.

It’s not that I haven’t looked, or haven’t wanted to, I just haven’t ever got around to sorting it. I tend to look, think, dream and then forget as real life takes over. Which is what I did in 2011 when the Guardian published its How to Write Fiction supplement. I picked it up, leafed through it, nodded to myself and then put it away in my study, to go through in detail sometime soon.

A few months later and a train journey to fill, I came across the now rather crispy supplement again and this time decided not to just ignore it.

As I’m in the middle of trying to tease out an idea for a novel into sometime resembling good writing, I thought it could be worth a read. It was .

Practical exercises from people at the top of their game, really getting you to consider fiction writing, what it means and what it requires. It filled up my train journey and got my pen speeding across the page. I’d recommend it, whether you feel you have a novel in you or not…

Highlights included:

Andrew Miller, acclaimed author of six novels explaining how to depict character:

“A painter who wants to paint a tree needs to do two things: look at trees and look at paintings of trees. The first task shows what trees are like, the second shows the possibilities of the medium. Likewise as a writer it is by reading that you learn how, in language, a character can be presented – through dialogue, through action, through physical attributes, internal monologues etc”

Rachel Cusk, fiction and non-fiction author and Whitbread novel award nominee thinking on point of view:

“Point of view, like all techniques of fiction, has to reflect our own experience of living and our experience is as human subjects in a world whose objective reality we are unable to breach. Jane might like the Tuscan countryside and John might hate it but the actual value of the Tuscan countryside is something that has to be established in the writer’s mind outside of John or Jane’s opinion of it.”

Author of the Man Booker prizewinning Vernon God Little, DBC Pierre sharing his hard-won techniques for writing fluid, believable conversation:

“Natural speech looks unnatural when written. Record someone’s speech and you’ll see how peppered with reversals, repetitions and omissions it is. In its quest for meaning the brain filters these out, delivering us a clean, packaged concept, which is great – until you try to write it The way around this is concision. Start with the dialogue you want to write then remove every third word, or cut the sentence by half, cut it until the meaning no longer survives then add back the few words which return the meaning you want. You’ll be surprised by how few words a sentence needs to do its job.”


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