Thursday, July 6, 2023

Learning to write

 Michael - alternate Thursdays

When I was at school in Nairobi in the sixties studying for my A levels, I chose too many subjects. My majors were in the mathematical sciences, but I loved English and I’d signed up for that also. However, it became clear that I’d bitten off too much and that I would need to let the English go. In fact, I wouldn’t be allowed to write the final exams in English because there was a limit on the number of subjects you could attempt. When I explained this to my class teacher, he immediately agreed and cancelled my English registration, writing a note explaining that “He cannot write anyway.” I presume he meant the exams, but there was considerable amusement around that note! I wish I’d sent him a copy of our first book when it came out fifteen years ago.

That anecdote came to mind when I was thinking about who writes fiction and how they attained the skills and expertise to do so. Stephen King, in his excellent short memoir On Writing, claims that most people can learn to write fiction pretty well and can improve significantly with work, study, and reading, although almost no one would ever be able to reach the Nobel prize-winner class. So how do writers learn to write and then improve their writing? There are probably as many ways as there are writers. Many writers have a background in journalism and have studied it at college, many have attended writing courses at a variety of levels, and many, I guess, are essentially self-taught.

That was certainly the case with Stanley and myself. When that pack of hyenas showed us how to commit the perfect murder, we had no idea how to go about writing a novel. We confused premise with plot. We rolled around in adjectives and adverbs and indulged ourselves with long descriptions of things no one cared about. We mixed points of view with gay abandon. We wrote complicated red herrings and escaped down rabbit holes. But we’d read a lot of fiction and some of it – maybe most of it – was decent fiction. So we knew what fiction should be like, we just didn’t know how to get there.

Our saving grace was that there were two of us. Each was reading the other's efforts and editing it to move the prose closer to what it should be like. There were also books, of course, and we read lots of those. (Yes, they help a lot.) There are rules that need to be followed most of the time, and one should know what the reason for the rule is, and what one is doing when one ignores it. For example, cut out all those adjectives and adverbs and make each one fight for its place in a sentence. Less is more. There are excellent books on all this stuff and I’m not going to say anything more about it here.

I suppose that like most subjects, the way you actually learn to write is to write. The fact that Stanley and I each had an immediate and very critical reader to give feedback helped tremendously. I gather that most serious writing classes work that way too. One also learns by studying good writing because that shows you how the rules work and how you can sometimes ignore them if you know what you're doing. 

I’ve always been a fan of John Le Carré’s work. Whenever a new book of his came out, I would grab a copy and then read it for the pure enjoyment of the story and the characters. After I’d finished it, I would set it aside for a few days and then reread it, this time trying to understand how he managed to make things work, especially when he broke the rules that we all know can’t be broken. I recall a scene in The Mission Song. Early in the book, Salvo, the protagonist, is trying to escape from several thugs who are chasing him. It goes without saying that all the writing must be focused on the chase, the near misses, and his eventual capture. But no, Le Carré cheerfully inserts a couple of pages of Salvo’s backstory in the middle of the chase, and it actually heightens the tension rather than breaks it. I’m sure every writer has a favorite story from a novel they like of successfully breaking the rules 

Stanley and I write collaboratively and that has been not only part of the fun, but also an enormous boost on the learning curve. Stanley also belongs to a writing group in Minneapolis, and that’s another way that writers can get honest and helpful feedback. Some agents do it too, and editors of course, but that’s when the book is already complete and feedback may lead to a huge amount of rewriting. I can't conceive of writing a 300 page novel before anyone looks at any of it and gives feedback, but some writers always work that way. Nadine Gordimer always finished writing the book before she was even willing to talk about it. But she was a Nobel prize winner. Probably no one was as critical of her writing as she was herself.

If you are a writer, what stories do you have about learning to write? I’m sure the process is still continuing for you. It certainly is for me.


  1. One saying that popped into my mind a few years ago (these thoughts happen as you 'ripen' :-) was, "When you stop building, you start dying." Writing is building with words. So, for a writer, I suppose it could be phrased as, "When you stop writing, you start dying." Of course, everything is a continuum, so silly aphorisms like these are just as silly as they sound. :-)

    1. PS. I meant to add, but my well-ripened brain burped, was that the same applies to learning: When you stop learning... etc.

  2. Well, sometimes aphorisms have an important kernel of truth in them.

  3. My favorite aphorism about writing is from w. Somerset Maugham. "There are only three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
    My guess about that prof who said you couldn't write: He never wrote a published novel. Not even one, much less a whole series, all of the DELIGHTFUL!!

    1. Thanks, Annamaria! He was a school teacher and he meant that I couldn't write the exams! But it was all worth a laugh!