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  • Sue Harper

How to Write

That title seems a little presumptuous: after all, one might say, “what does she know?” I guess I’ve got a bit of experience. I’ve published a lot of academic books (film history), a short story collection, a family history, 200 stories on my website, some poetry. Nonetheless, today’s blog is offered with some trepidation. I hate giving advice on the whole, as it usually means you are either old or conceited. I may be the first: I hope I am not the second.

I think we need to think first of all about pleasure: that of the writer and that of the reader. The pleasures of creative expression are amongst the keenest we can know, but that is not to say that there is an automatic correlation between the pleasure in the creative act, and the quality of what is produced. It is arrogant to think that your outpourings will be of any interest to anyone else but yourself. You have to work very hard to make sure that it is so.

We need to be very attentive to the pleasure of the reader. It’s a question of telling them something new, but not so new that it will flummox them. Very avant-garde texts tend on the whole to try to be all new, and are written for a small coterie, whose pleasure is often derived from a sense of status in the act of consumption of a difficult text. It seems to me that if you want to give pleasure to a substantial number of readers, there’s a secret ratio between novelty and familiarity, of about two-thirds and one-third respectively. That is to say, the new things need to have a ballast, so that the reader feels secure. It’s like showing them a path through a wood. So if your text deals with unfamiliar events or types of people, you need to have some elements that are familiar. More than one-third of familiar elements, and it will feel stale and old-fashioned.

Secondly, we need as writers to acknowledge our masters: the artists that we admire. We need to locate ourselves, in a covert and tactful way, within the great traditions. If you send off signals about the kind of writer you are, readers will judge you appropriately, or they will sense at once that your text is not for them. They’ll choose another one, and save both you and themselves a lot of aggravation. Fo

r example, my own masters - the writers whom I revere and in whose houses I dwell - are Ovid and Kafka. So I’ve often given hints in the texts about that. My little story Blowfly (in which the heroine is a bluebottle who loves her maggots) is a prolonged meditation on Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It’s like the Kafka tale its discomfiture, but unlike it in its gruesomeness. And a lot of my stories work like Ovid’s, by dissolving physical boundaries so that people change unexpectedly. In On the Move, the heroine’s ears migrate to the top of her head, and she has the resourcefulness to fashion a bonnet to hide them. I am showing the reader that I’m going to be preposterous in the classical style, so that they don’t expect to be reading an Aga-saga.

Thirdly, we need to be attentive to the texture of our writing. That doesn’t mean tarting it up unconscionably: it means being consderate about the boredom level of the reader. You need to think about the text as if it were a cake. If it’s a Victoria sponge all the way down, it will be bland and not very exciting. If it’s a fruit cake with too many currants, it will be stolid and indigestible. Or (to

use another metaphor), you can think about your text like a patchwork quilt. There may be a pattern, and one colour may dominate overall: but it has to be varied, and stretch the reader’s competence and power of recognition. The reader has to be offered different ways to feel throughout the text.

Fourthly, every piece of writing ought to have a clear structure. If it’s one vast unformed blob, no-one will be able to pick their way through it. There’s no harm in hinting to the reader where they are going. I often think that narrative progression ought to be like a London taxi. It can turn on a sixpence: “we’ve seen that this is so, now let’s try and see if it can go somewhere else”. And we need to think about where the climaxes in a story will come. If they are too regularly scattered throughout, it’ll be predictable: but if there’s one huge climax at the end, it’ll be exhausting.

And what about getting into the right frame of mind before starting? What about procrastination? I am an expert in this, having postponed important things all my life, until it’s often too late. The thing to remember about your creativity is that it is ruthless and takes no prisoners. It is unforgiving. You have to give it space and then utterance. So sit quietly, hear its voice, let it come. And never listen to the Person from Porlock.

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