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PD James gives her ten top tips for being a good writer – I agree with most, but not all

PD JamesPD James, now 93, has published more than 20 detective stories, a list that includes “Children of Men” and the Adam Dalgliesh stories.  In a BBC interview she gives her top ten tips for budding authors.  It’s an interesting list, with some obvious ones and others less so.  As a writer of science fiction for young adults, I find it intriguing to compare notes with her, and find I go along with most of her points, but disagree strongly on at least one of them.

1. You must be born to write

I agree to some extent.  You can teach someone to write competently, but for flair you need talent.  I don’t think you can be taught to write scenes that echo in the memory; that comes from within.

2. Write about what you know

Agreed.  Inform your readers and give them an insight into areas of experience and expertise.  Let your protagonists experience things you’ve done.

3. Find your own routine

Sure.  Get into the habit of writing.  Fall into writing at certain times of day, of knowing when to take a break to make coffee.

4. Be aware that the business is changing

You bet.  It’s easier with the internet for newcomers to break in and attract attention.  But it’s also harder to please publishers now looking only for blockbusters instead of developing authors as they once did.

5. Read, write and don’t daydream!

Again, yes.  Learn by reading other people and see how they achieve their effects.  And write.  Think where the story goes next and write down the words.

6. Enjoy your own company

Not sure.  Writing is solitary and you need quiet space to think through your characters.  I’m never happier than when writing, though at other times I greatly enjoy the company of friends.

7. Choose a good setting

Yes, this is where I start.  Whether it’s a colonized planet, a space station, an academy to train space navy personnel, or an Earth of the near future, the setting is crucial.  It must be interesting to the reader, and you can gradually fill in its details to make it real for them.

8. Never go anywhere without a notebook

I don’t actually use a notebook, but I know what she means.  I use scraps of paper – quite often the back of receipts I’ve stuffed in my wallet.  I write down ideas that come, character traits I’ve spotted, then I enter them in a note file when I’m back at my desk.

9. Never talk about a book before it is finished

I disagree 100 percent!  I talk about books I’m writing all the time.  Friends suggest ideas and new twists and their input improves the work.  By talking about it with others I think it through for myself.  My books absorb me so much, how could I not talk about them?

10. Know when to stop

This is not my problem.  I’ll stop when I no longer enjoy writing.  I can’t see that happening, though!


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