Is there a book in you? started off as a seminar presented at the Edinburgh Book Festival by Alison Baverstock. During the sold-out session Alison circulated a questionnaire listing the ten key attributes she thought were key to being a successful writer, and everyone’s answers were then discussed. Two things she noticed were that everyone kept the questionnaire, revealing perhaps that this was important personal information people wanted to themselves, and she also noticed that people in the audience were not just want-to-be writers but also friends and relatives who wanted to be able to support a writer they knew.
Alison realised there were many books out there on how to write a novel, come up with a plot line or develop characters but not much help when it came to the decision of being a writer and how to make this. With her experience as a publisher and now a prominent advisor to writers around the world, Alison is perfectly primed to help you decide whether it is indeed time to give up that day job.
Here she writes about the third question in her questionnaire – ‘How creative are you?’
How do you distinguish between something that is original and something that is derivative – i.e. based on the success of an idea originally developed by someone else? Is there a hierarchy of creativity? Is the creativity displayed in a classic novel greater that the creativity of a wrestler’s moves in the ring? Does pleasure in an item that is derivative mean it is a lesser pleasure? Is preferring the novels of a modern romantic novelist to those of Jane Austen a judgemental choice or just personal preference?
The important thing is for you, the writer, to be completely clear as to whether or not you are being derivative. There is nothing wrong with using other influences in your work – indeed, the best writers often do – as long as you are honest about it. Take a long objective look at your work; perhaps show it to others for confirmation; be sure to give credit where credit is due.
Creative Writing courses are booming today in schools and colleges. At the same time, there are trainers working in industry to boost staff creativity – on the grounds that if we feel free to invent and think around a subject, bother our effectiveness at work and our personal happiness will be enhanced. For many, it’s a question of trying to feel creative again, trying to go back to the instinctive creativity that we are encouraged to develop in the school classroom:
"Creative imagination awakens early. As children, we are all 'makers'. Later, as a rule, we're broken of the habit; so the art of being a creative writer consists, among other things, in not allowing life or people or money to turn us aside from it."
Stig Dagerman (1923-1954), Swedish writer
As author Livi Michael pointed out to me, in junior school we write a story a week – but in secondary school this becomes a much more serious 'essay'.
Often courses in creativity are based on trying to simulate the brain into sparking. They encourage us to put familiar ideas into new combinations, or to think through concepts that would previously have been considered unsuitable – 'thinking the unthinkable'.
There are also fashions in creativity:
"Before the Renaissance, writers and artists were valued for their skills rather than their individuality. Today the originality of creative writers, whether they be novelists, playwrights or poets, is inescapably linked with self-exploration. The writing we most value is that which makes an authentic, individual statement; which conveys the writer's personal view of life."
Anthony Storr, writing on depression, in The Author magazine
Here are six quick exercises.
Books don't come into the world out of nowhere, even if it seems that way sometimes, to the author as much as the reader. Something must happen that makes an individual think: I want to become a writer.
A sudden yearning for easy riches?
I hope not. You'll probably be disappointed.
Think about it. How many bestselling authors would you recognise if you saw them in the street?
Books come from somewhere else. An odd, subterranean desire to invent stories, to play with your own imagination and share the results with the world at large. There's no point trying to analyse the creative urge. You either have it or you don't. But it is worth trying to work out where it comes from, and to set down a few basic strategies for how you intend to pursue the elusive goal of a publishable novel.
'Why do you want to write?' This is a fitting question with which to begin a book whose aim is to encourage and excite you to write, because your first task as a writer is to look inwards and to clarify your reasons for writing. Ask yourself the following questions as an introductory exercise, and see what you come up with in your own mind. Your answers will help you find a purpose, and to understand your own motivation, for writing.
Do you want to write
Are you writing
Or do you write, as Danish writer Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) did, because she didn't know what else to do?
Most writers pursue writing for some or all of the reasons given above, while others simply say, without explanation, 'I write because I have to write'. Such writers have a compulsion, a deep need that must be gratified irrespective of whether the outcome is published or not.
Whether or not your work is intended for publication, there are many good reasons to write.
Writing is an inexpensive pastime, requiring no more than pen and paper to begin with. You can do it anywhere. It stimulates your imagination and keeps your brain active. It allows you to articulate your thoughts and to express your ideas, wishes and fears. It helps you understand how humans communicate and to be more critical of the misuse of language in advertising and politics and other areas where words are deliberately manipulated to deceive, persuade or cajole their audience or readers.
Writing offers as its tools the entire lexicon of the English (or indeed any other) language, an extraordinary range of old and new words, expressions, phrases, slang, colloquialisms and neologisms out of which to construct an article, a short story, a poem, a novel, a script, a biography or a memoir.
Having opened this book, you most likely enjoy writing, the act of creating a sequence of words to describe a personal experience or a character you've met, to argue a point, or even to fashion an entire fictional world. You may, when you were young, have written short stories or poems for your classmates or siblings to delight in, and you probably did well in class compositions on those topics all children are asked to write about—the family holidays at Christmas, a trip to the beach, the person you most admire.
You may keep a journal or write short stories or poems. Perhaps you practise your skills by writing letters to the editors of newspapers. You could even have finished the first draft of the great Australian or New Zealand novel which is tucked away in the bottom drawer waiting to see the light of day.
You may be a young person looking for avenues to express your thoughts and feelings about the world. Perhaps you are already working in the communications field and dream of moving across to creative writing. You may be a community writing tutor who wishes to improve both your teaching and your writing skills, or you could be at home looking after children, or retired and looking for an interesting pursuit. Whatever your situation, writing offers a pleasurable, stimulating and inexpensive occupation that can be carried out solo in your own time, in your own home, and at your own pace.
Many women who have been relieved of their family responsibilities when their children reach adulthood take to writing like ducks to water. They join Writers' Centres, enter literary competitions and submit poems and short stories to magazines and journals and have considerable success, judging by the congratulations pages of Writers' Centre newsletters. Australian novelists Elizabeth Jolley and Patricia Shaw both commenced their very successful publishing careers in their 50s.
Now you want to take the next step and are ready to devote considerable time to honing your skills in preparation for publication of some sort. This is a courageous decision, because surrendering your writing to the gaze of others can be an act of exposure of your most intimate thoughts and feelings. It may open you to criticism, it may cause you embarrassment. It is a lonely occupation spending hours sitting in front of a computer or desk, but if you're determined to begin, this book will help you on your way.
Like all artforms, writing is a craft and takes practice. The sooner you start, the sooner you will become more proficient in choosing your words and arranging them on the page in a way that best expresses what you have to say. It's not easy, but the effort is immensely rewarding.
Do you really want to write?
I often hear people say, 'I don't read but I know there's a book in me', or 'I could write a book if only I had the time', or 'My life has been so interesting it would make an interesting book', or 'I don't understand all the fuss about Isabel Allende: I could write something just as good', or 'I'm going to write a psychological mystery because they’re big with publishers at the moment', or ‘I was always good at English at school so I know I could write a good novel on day’, or ‘Now that I’m retired I think I’ll write a book’.
The only possible response to these statements is, ‘Do it, don’t tell me about it’. It’s not enough to hold a vaguely formed notion of wanting to write. As Australian poet Kevin Hart has said about the desire to write poetry, something beckons from the far side of experience. Writing comes out of a deep-seated need for self-expression and to make sense of life, tell stories, entertain, and capture what we feel when we read fiction that moves and enthrals us.