On Writing

For years, I was going to be a novelist. I was going to be a writer of stories (and possibly a pop star or ice skater, while I was at it), make my fortune, have a swimming pool; all the things that writers do, in fact. The thing that I didn’t appreciate, when I was making my plans though, was quite how difficult it is. Writing.

The thing that’s so hard, you see, is coming up with a story. One of the nicest things to happen to me, in terms of writing novels, was the email a publisher took the time to write (to say thanks but no thanks) and softened the blow of rejection by telling me she thought my novel was well written with a clear authorial voice. It meant a lot. It meant that I knew what I was doing with a keyboard.

But it turns out that coming up with a good story is the difficult bit. It turns out that that’s the bit that stumps me every time. I start out with an idea, it seems great, I start to write and it, well, fizzles out. It turns out that it wasn’t so original or funny after all. Nothing special, in fact. Nothing to write home about (or win a novelist’s contract). It turns out I wasn’t (or aren’t yet!) a novelist. It turns out I have a different sort of story to tell.

Whereas I sat and stared and swung on my chair and squeezed out a thousand words if I was lucky when I was writing romances, when I write this blog, or write my column, or when I wrote my book last summer, the words flew off my fingers and onto the page (or screen). They pour out in one long stream.

Of course, this might be because the process of writing something completely new is extraordinarily difficult. Now, I happen to like reading light romance, particularly comic fiction or historical whodunnits. I will probably be pilloried for my taste, but, frankly, I don’t care. What does make me cross, however, is when these genres are poo-pooed as somehow less worthy than more serious work, as if the light touch is somehow easier to do. It’s not.

Of course, it does help that I have the nuts and bolts of writing pretty well under control (although my mum does still criticise my grammar). It’s true when they say that practice makes perfect. After a summer of book writing, it was far easier to come up with a blog post than it was in the spring (even though I didn’t have time for more than the odd hundred words, here or there), but what really makes the difference is that I have something to write about.

Now, if you don’t mind my saying so, this is where I get really cross with the likes of education ministers. I noticed, over my porridge the other day, that they were in the news again, pontificating about standards in schools. Mr Gibb decided, in his wisdom, to attack teachers on Monday, in a speech he gave at Durham University, reported in a national newspaper no less. Apparently, we are teaching ‘joyless skills’ and not the wonders of science or art or anything interesting like that.

It’s at moments like this that I want to sigh deeply. You see, in a strange kind of way I agree with Mr Gibb. Children, like adults, need something to write about in order to use the skills they have learned. There’s nothing like writing up a real science experiment, or an account of a school trip (yes, we still do those), to lend purpose and meaning to a written task. I only have to look at Sam’s shopping lists and menus, pinned up in the kitchen, to know the power of purpose in terms of motivation and voice.

But let’s look at the standard of writing expected of 11 year olds in England. The exemplifications came out this week. Comparisons were made with the English GCSE. I sigh, and I wonder how many people know just what it takes to get an eleven year old child to write in the style of someone three years older than they are? I wonder if they know how many school hours it takes to get them to perform this way; to know what a semi-colon is, and how to use it? To use and understand an extended noun phrase? To write in clear paragraphs, with links and cohesion? Believe you me, it takes a long time, and a lot of hard work on everyone’s part.

And while we are going over and over and over the mechanics of writing, guess what we don’t have any time to do, other than in the most cursory way? All that science and art and music and history and geography – all of which might actually give children something to write about, rather than expecting them to somehow pick content out of the air.

A knowledge rich curriculum? Maybe if the skills of the writer weren’t so high up on the list of checks and measures, making sure that we were doing our jobs, then that might have been what we actually had. In the meantime, what you measure is what you get, and you can look to yourself for that, Mr Gibb.

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12 thoughts on “On Writing

  1. Yes, totally, absolutely. I wanted to cry when I read those exemplifications. Instead, just like you, I wrote a blog about it instead. 😉 We are now coming at writing from completely the wrong direction and it is such a terrible shame.

  2. I agree 100% with everything you said (including about what kind of fiction I like to read and that I wish people wouldn’t put it down). Our daughter is especially frustrated now as she does her student teaching with 13-14-year olds in English (except for those who have been left back repeatedly and are nearing 18 – seriously) in a mostly-minority, inner city school. She’s found that their skills are more like those of an 8-year-old, so the teaching standards are ridiculous. And yet she wants them to come out of her class with a feeling of success, of having made progress, and having enjoyed some literature. She spends a great deal of time frustrated that no one along the way found a way to teach these kids so that they had skills, that their families haven’t supported their education, and greatly pained because a major part of the problem is institutional racism and classism. Walking alongside her through this experience (since she lives at home still) has been as much of an eye-opener for me as for her. Sorry, that went a bit off-topic, but it’s been on my mind a lot.

  3. “It turns out I have a different sort of story to tell.”

    Found this really interesting, Nancy. I was good at creative writing when I was in my primary school – this was the 1960s and we did a LOT of it! I remember my Year 6 class teacher, Mr Malyan, used to say, “I’d like a signed copy of your first book!”

    But in later years, and certainly now, although I find things like articles and blog posts flow quite easily, any fiction I’ve tried to write doesn’t get off the ground. Although I read a huge amount of fiction, I don’t think I have the stories in me.

    Now, at age 57, I’m writing an education book based on my doctoral research about moving from deputy headship to headship. This is not what Mr Malyan had in mind, I’m sure, and, sadly, he died some time ago. But when it’s eventually published I will dedicate it to his memory.

    Thanks for your post, which has helped me to reflect on all this.

    1. Yes! That’s exactly what it is! Either that, or writing a novel is an AWFUL lot harder than I like to think it is! Certainly writing a Mills and Boon is a challenge – but funnily enough, one that I would recommend. They are short books, so you have to be concise, no messing about with characters that have no purpose, and they operate within a very strict genre. They know what their market will buy. The challenge there is to write something that has emotional power, within its confines, AND, within the understanding that romantic fiction of this type is fantasy, and serves a function that way, rings true. A tall order indeed, and one that I haven’t sussed yet. Maybe one day…that swimming pool is GOING to be mine!!

      1. I do think you write well, Nancy, so I’m not giving up hope of a dip in your pool one day….

        My problem is that if I write fiction I want it to be Booker Prize winning. A sign of my dangerously high self-esteem, maybe!

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