Alison MacLeod’s Unexploded, a compelling novel of love and prejudice in wartime Brighton, was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. She is the author of two other novels and a story collection, and is Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester. She considers her top tips for budding writers.
1. Write the story or novel you want to read, the story that comes to mind in the middle of the night for reasons you only half understand. Maybe it’s the image that catches you by the jugular. Or the idea humming at your core. Maybe it’s like falling in love. Maybe it’s like a virus you can’t shake. Whatever it is, stay with it. Above all, never write a story to please or impress your agent, editor, teacher, mother or lover. It might be fluent. It might be stylish. It won’t have a pulse. It won’t come to life on the page.
2. A story or novel which does take life – a story invested, in other words, with all your talent, stubbornness and labour – will give back gifts. Most writers discover that their story or novel, at a certain stage, has its own knowledge. It exceeds its author in some peculiar way. It acts as its own magnet, attracting more than you could have anticipated. But that’s also an element of the creative process that never translates into words, and I won’t manage it here. Find out for yourself.
3. Avoid dinner-party-style discussion about your story or novel, at least while it’s in progress. A summarised plot will almost always sound banal or absurd, and a well-meaning Q&A over the entrée might be the death of your story. A story or novel is mostly impossible to describe – without sounding pretentious – because it’s not the what of the story that matters but the how. How it’s written. How it unfolds. Chekhov once said he could write a story about an ashtray. I believe him. It’s all in the making. It’s all in the live experience of the story or novel. When the question comes up, I usually say I’m too superstitious to talk about it. I’m not but that does the trick.
4. Writers – necessarily sensitive by nature – need resilience as much as they need discipline and talent. Develop a thick skin, not just for rejections or reviews but for odd projections, unhelpful comments and bad advice sincerely given. Equally, hold fast to the appreciative comments that come your way. Don’t discount them. Sometimes they have to sustain you for long periods.
5. There isn’t one story for a writer’s life or success. There are as many stories of how to become a writer as there are writers. More of us are battling the odds, in our different ways, to a greater extent than will ever be known. If you want to write, write. That’s it. Work. Make every sentence count. Draft and redraft. Stay faithful to it. Get better. Or as Beckett famously said, fail better.
6. Find good, insightful readers – some of whom might also be generous writer friends. That’s incredibly helpful when you need to talk about a project ‘from the inside out’. Writers can go there with you. When it’s time to show your work, listen to a range of voices. Learn which among them you trust. It won’t be those who simply say, “This is wonderful” or “I don’t think you should change a thing.” Go after criticism – seek it out, take it to heart, learn from it, but don’t be slavish to it.
7. Be a compulsive reader. Read the classics. Read contemporary work – work from your own here-and-now. Listen for the sound or the music of a novel. Reread sentences you love – or loathe. Underline passages. Copy out favourite paragraphs. Tear out pages. Scrawl in the margins. Every writer, as he or she develops, needs to apprentice under another writer, whether it’s on or off the page. Every writer also needs to stay in touch with the beautiful force in fiction that made them want to write in the first place.
8. Sometimes a book feels like a mysterious new life you’re carrying. Sometimes it feels like a tumour. Either way, on you go.
9. Be bold, but not tricksy. Experiment and take risks – but not so others will applaud your originality. Stay humble so you stay open to the world. Be honest, whether you’re writing social realism or surrealism. Honesty alone will take all your art and energy. A good novel or story never starts with a message or a meaning, or if it does, the idea is usually abandoned in some ditch of the intellect along the way. The most powerful stories are bigger than any single meaning or interpretation. They won’t be pinned down. They give us the slip.
10. Never let anyone tell you there are rules to write by; there are principles of writing that tend to allow sentences, stories and novels to travel from one mind or imagination to another. That’s it. Every tip I’ve noted above is both half true and half invented. You can only write – over time – and work it out for yourself. But writing tips are friendly enough. They’re like rough stones left on a mountain cairn; you know that others have also passed this way, and the climb is somehow less lonely, less precarious.
Unexploded is published by Hamish Hamiltion.