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Archive for January 2009

2

Getting Started

So, you take the ‘Tahir Shah crash course to writing’, which is essentially getting published as a journalist with a target of hitting a mainstream newspaper or magazine… and here you are, wondering how to start. The first mistake that everyone makes is that they think ‘OK I’ll give those bloody editors something fabulous and they’re thickos if they don’t take it’. You get my drift. It’s a mistake because editors know what they want. They know it so well that they will only take material (unless it’s a scoop description of Michael Jackson naked covered in honey and feathers standing alone on the Bay Bridge), if it’s in their format. Over the next few days I’ll talk more about formats and how to get an article planned. But the important thing here — and really the key point — is to buy yourself a copy of the newspaper or magazine you want to write for, and analyse five articles. Really look at them, and make notes on where there’s description, raw information, characters, themes and all that. Because writing’s all about packaging. And if I want to sell an editor something, I need to package it in a way that they will find appealing… in a way in which they’ll be ready to receive it.



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Journalism

A fantastic way of staying primed and getting published is writing journalism. Over the next few days I’m going to write some postings on what I have come to see as the most powerful way to learn your craft. I often meet people who tell me that they are taking creative writing courses. I usually smile politely but inside I’m cringing. There’s only one positive thing about such courses, and that’s that they give employment to writers who would otherwise be starving… and in that way they’re a great little wheeze. By far the best way to learn the art of writing is to sell your work, and the finest way of starting, and learning, is to be forced to write to the spec of a particular newspaper or magazine. I’ll give some tips in the next few days. But a great thing to know is that by writing for editors (and even by getting work thrown back at you), you are giving yourself a mini crash course… and you’re getting published and paid at the same time.




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Mentors

One of the problems about writing is that you are shut away a lot of the time and you can get the feeling that you’re detached. A bit of being detached is a good thing. Actually, it’s a great thing. But once in a while it’s even better to get a sense of where you are… whether you’re on the right rails. And a way of doing this is, over time, to get to know (preferably personally) a writer who influences you. I have had several great influences, and they have affected me in different ways. Some have touched the way I think, my outlook, and other the way I work. For the kind of life I want to live, Wilfred Thesiger was an enormous influence. I adored his clear reasoning, and the way he never ever ever altered his views depending on the audience. He was consistently politically incorrect, which was so refreshing. He said what he believed and didn’t live a life couched in fear. It was Wilfred who encouraged me to go to Ethiopia, and to go for a walk in the Upper Amazon, where he hinted I would probably meet ‘some interesting fellows’.  Hugh Carless has been another great inspiration to me. He was with Newby on ‘The Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’ (the journey was actually his idea). Carless has the finest conversational delivery I have ever heard, and is quite the most impeccable man I have known. As for writing, my father was an enormous influence. He used to tell me ‘we are basket weavers, Tahir jan, that’s what we do… we weave baskets’. My one memory of childhood is the clicking of a manual typewriter from morning till night. And, as I mentioned the other day, Doris Lessing, who is a writer’s writer. But even more importantly, is her plain-speak. Like Thesiger, she’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind.



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Blogging

This really follows on from yesterday’s blog, about being primed at all times. It’s something which I myself have only come to appreciate recently… writing blogs. As I have ranted in previous postings, to me it really doesn’t matter is anyone reads the stuff I write, although it’s nice if they do. And writing blogs is a fantastic way of staying primed, and working on your writing skill. Some people I know write long long blogs and get their family and friends to read them by sending annoying little reminders, and mentioning them whenever you meet. I think there ought to be blog etiquette. That means you should allow people to find your blog without much goading, and let them read if they feel like it. The other thing that’s key is, I think, writing a few lines every day, rather than pages and pages once a week. That way you stay primed and the writing develops (or perhaps doesn’t) a kind of continuity. Another wonderful point in the favour of blogs is how damn impressive they look. I encourage any kid over the age of about ten to write a short blog whenever they have the time, about their life, the universe and everything. What a fabulous way to get into writing for the love of writing.



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Stay Primed

In this blog I may not be giving you pearls, but this is something worth listening to. It, or rather the lack of it, is the reason why most creative people suffer. It’s why artists don’t paint, musicians don’t compose and why writer’s don’t write. It’s all about being ready, being primed. My father wrote a lot of books, and he did that by writing them back to back. If you check the copyright dates you find at least two per year through the sixties and seventies. He was an engine then, knocking them out. And just like an engine that’s running full tilt, it’s hard to stop… because you gather a momentum of your own. But I remember a conversation with my father a long while ago when he told me that there had been periods of not writing in which he wondered if he would ever get back into it again. The engine had gone cold. But I’ll let you into a little secret. In my experience, although you get very worked up about getting the crankshaft moving again, it’s actually not that hard. The secret is to sit down for five minutes before you have to run out and collect the kids from school (or whatever), and write a single line. End it with … And you’re back. Or take note of Anthony Trollope, the prolific Victorian novelist, you always began a new novel on a day on which he finished one.



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Be Interested

To tag on from a previous entry: something I find immensely rewarding is doing work that’s interesting. When you write a travel book, as I have spent the last ten years or more doing, it takes about two years from the conception to publication. That’s a long time, and you have to spend hundreds of hours researching, writing, editing and proofing the text. The only way I can get through the thing is if it tantalizes me in the most enchanting and base way. For example, with my book House of the Tiger King, I still don’t know whether Pancho, our Machiguinga guide, really knew where the ruins of the lost city of Paititi were or not. I love that sense of unknown. It keeps me thinking as I toss and turn to sleep at night.This sense of mystery is so important, and when you don’t have it, things can go badly wrong. Take this example: I have a great friend, Robert Twigger, who was commissioned to write a book about a species of deer caught up in the Boxer Rebellion. It wasn’t his idea, but his agent’s, and he took it on because he needed the cash. Of course he needed the cash: he was a struggling author. But even with the solid advance, he found he had no interest in the idea and it had been dreamed up by an agent who was totally clueless about good ideas. So he agonized for months, many many months. The book that was finally created, The Extinction Club, is probably Twigger’s finest. I’d say it’s a work of genius… because he found interest in the subject by exposing his mercenary tactics.



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Finish It

The hardest thing to do if you have never written a book, is to finish it. And the easiest thing to do if you have never written a book, is to talk about it. The more you talk, the more you are venting energy which would be better served being spewed through your typing fingers. I have written about this before: people keep trying to show me bits of book they are creating. I don’t want to see them. I wish i had a soap crate because I’d get on it and stand in the middle of the street, and yell — ‘I don’t want to see anything that’s not finished!!!’ I get really worked up about that. You have no idea. I think it’s because I always read stuff through endlessly, and even get it professionally edited at my expense, before i show it to anyone at all. And the very last thing I’d ever do would be to show a fragment. It’s like an artist showing the bottom right hand corner of a painting he’s planning on painting. The reason (as I have ranted before) is that would-be writers want praise. And nothing else.



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Ritual

The best thing for achieving a distant goal is ritual. It’s the drip, drip, drip approach that works miracles. Do a little bit each day, but every day, and have little rituals. For example, when I am writing a book, which tends to take about thirty days, I have all sorts of rituals. I make sure the layout of my desk is a certain way, that my dictionary is square, that the three pens are lined up, and the pile of notes are exactly where I always have them. I know a writer, he’s a close friend, who walks around his desk three times clockwise and then three times counter-clockwise, before sitting down. It’s calming, he says, and seems to soothe a primitive part of his mind that needs soothing before he engages in the challenging hours of creativity. Beyond that, never overdo it. I write about 3000 words a day, every day, for a month. I could write more or on some days less, but I don’t. I keep it to the same output, with no excuses. There’s something wonderful about that discipline. It’s a feature of life that most of us have lost since our days at school, but one which would help us all in our adult life if only we could relearn it.



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Write, write, write

Something that drives me CRAZY is that publishers don’t want an author to write much. They try and curb your output to levels. It’s like telling a painter to stop doing what they do. I’ve often suggested two books at once and offered to submit them both within a few months. After all, most people who read books are capable of reading two books within a few months. Do that and (cue posh English accent) you get the standard response: ‘Steady on old boy, don’t want to give your readers too much of a good thing!’ I believe that if you are a writer, then you are writing because you like doing it… that by writing you are venting an energy that would otherwise be building up. And I have no qualms at moving publishers or agents, because the key point about being a writer is that you have to write first for yourself, and second for anyone else. I like it if people bother to read my stuff, but in a way I don’t give a damn if they don’t. We have an old family friend, who won the Nobel a year and a bit ago, Doris Lessing. She told me once that she has to write and she doesn’t know why, but that by writing she stays on an even keel. She’s been the greatest inspiration to me, and what I love about her is that she’s not writing for anyone except herself.



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The Craft

OK. I’m going to state the obvious but please give me a break. If you want to get good at something — just about anything — you have to work at it. And it goes for writing more than just about anything I know. Here’s a trick that I learned. You give yourself half an hour. Put a clock on the table if necessary. And write a short paragraph. Describe something. Anything — just a jug of flowers on the window ledge, or your favourite painting, or a person you know. When you have written it, turn the paper over, or away from the computer screen for three minutes. Then read what you’ve written. Can you add to it? Can you make it flow a little better. Does it need chopping about? If so, work on it. Then turn away for another three minutes and, again, read through and rework. When I have written something (except this blog, so forgive me for that), I constantly re-read and rework. I substitute words, tenses, and lots of little things with the aim of creating a product that’s easy to read. In my opinion, it’s far better to write a paragraph that’s blindingly clean than pages of stuff which are full of mistakes.



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