Anything but Reading

One piece of advice commonly given to new writers is to read widely: to read within and beyond their genre, read classics and airport paperbacks, read Western authors and works in translation.

A sheet of bingo cards.
A sheet of bingo cards. There will be no whistling at ‘Legs eleven’, thank you. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s great advice. The more books an author is exposed to, the richer their writing will probably become. Exciting things can happen when two styles meet; I’d read two Chris Brookmyre titles before I found out they’re supposed to be crime novels, not comedies. But lately, I feel as though I’m doing anything but reading.

I’ve been to see a couple of documentaries about Hedy Lamarr and Michael Caine respectively, I went to the StAnza poetry festival, I’ve seen I, Tonya and Lady Bird, I’ve played bingo, I’ve been to a lecture about the Higgs boson particle, I’ve seen a production of Spring Awakening. In short, I’ve been having a ball – and that ball was on Saturday two weeks ago.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a wasted experience. In fact, there are some authors whose real-life experiences are inseparable from their written work.

Andy McNab first came to prominence with Bravo Two Zero, an account of an SAS mission in the early 1990s. He’s since gone on to write fiction that draws upon his knowledge and skills. PD James worked in the criminal justice system and the NHS for a long time and infused her expertise into her books.

It probably doesn’t hurt if you don’t read as much as you’d like. There are experiences everywhere, just waiting to be written about.

A friend of mine has a phrase: ‘Better felt than telt’. The last word is the Scots way of saying ‘told’, and the phrase means you can gain more insight from being somewhere then reading about it.

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The element of

Last week, we lost one of the most flamboyant and enigmatic musicians of our generation. Yet you never hear David Bowie described as a 70s star or as retro; he managed to remain relevant throughout his 50-year career.

One way he achieved this was the use of surprise, from the Ziggy Stardust look, to Jareth In Labyrinth, to setting up an ISP in 1998. And that’s something other writers and poets can learn from.

Prior to 1992, PD James was known for writing detective novels. She was 72 when she published her only science fiction work, The Children of Men, earning positive reviews from many corners. Similarly, you would expect something funny from Clive James, but his poetry collection Sentenced to Life is thoughtful and poignant.

So how does a writer deliver something unexpected? It might be as simple as writing a short story when you usually pen poetry, or as radical as having a section of your novel made into an animated video.

Either way, the idea must still come naturally. If you’re writing poetry on a subject when you’d really rather be adapting it for the stage, it’ll be obvious your heart isn’t in it. It’s a good idea to revisit an idea that hasn’t worked its current form and see where it can be adapted to another, or experiment with different ways of creating ideas.

When I have the beginnings of an idea, for Screenshot from DCAexample, I like to go for a long walk and turn over the idea in my head before putting anything down on paper. Yet when I was asked to respond to an exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts in October, I had no ideas, not even the beginning of one. Instead, I sat on the yoga mats provided as part of the exhibition with a notepad and told myself I was staying until I put something down.

The result (pictured) was a visual response with a wire basket and 100 googly eyes. It was unusual and untested for me, as I’ve had no art training – and to my friends who know this, it was most definitely a Continue reading “The element of”