I found an article written by author Robert Harris on writing fiction. Harris has penned several bestselling historical novels. I haven’t read all his books, and the ones I did read I read in a weird order. My first contact with Harris’ work was Archangel, which in turn led me to Enigma, and then, Fatherland. Fatherland is an alternative history tale about a world in which Hitler actually won. I think I read these during my days at law school.
The linked article is useful, as is most articles on writing by successful authors, but what I liked about this one is the references to advice from other successful authors and how it applied to the writer, and in doing so, Harris actually revealed a lot, which I will discuss later in this post.
First, the advice from other authors in Harris’ own words:
In the 20 years that I’ve been writing fiction, three pieces of published wisdom, each offered by an eminent American novelist, have helped me along. The first was from John Irving, who maintains that any writer who embarks on a novel without knowing how it is going to end is a fool and a knave. A novel, he argues, recounts something that has already happened; therefore you cannot just make it up as you go along. This practical approach had a profound effect on me: indeed, it enabled me to complete my first novel, Fatherland which, in classic rookie fashion, had trailed to a baffled halt somewhere around page 50.
The second was from a 1995 interview with EL Doctorow: “You have to find the voice that allows you to write what you want to write … It’s a writer’s dirty little secret that language precedes the intentions.” On the face of it, this contradicts Irving (“I don’t begin with a plan,” insists Doctorow), but actually they are both saying the same thing, which is that the shape and style of a novel is determined by the thought you give it beforehand: that the way you approach your material is at least as important, maybe more important, than the material itself. This process of settling on an angle of attack may take months, even years of frustration and false starts, during which many writers – and certainly most writers’ families and friends – believe the author may be going slightly mad.
Have courage, and remember the words of my third authority, Philip Roth, in 2003. “Over the years,” he observed, looking back on his career on his 70th birthday, “what you develop is a tolerance for your own crudeness. And patience with your own crap, really. Belief in your crap, which is just ‘stay with your crap and it will get better, and come back every day and keep going’.
It’s good advice, but as with any writing nugget, we take what is useful to us and disregard the rest, and that decision lies solely with the writer themselves, because at the end of the day, not everything works for everyone. We are just too different from one another. We come from different backgrounds and heartaches and all that inform our framework, and who knows how we’re wired. Mostly we don’t, but when we write we settle into a rhythm and eventually we find a voice that is unique to us, and there lies the gold.
For instance, I’m disregarding John Irving’s advice. This is wholly subjective. I do find planning my stories works, but so does just writing them. It all depends on the nature of the story. Some stories do need careful planning. Some stories just want to be written without fuss.
The second and third pieces of advice are pure gold. Doctorow is correct and I can say he is correct because I have discovered it with my own attempts. You have to at least understand your intentions, and to me, this is like decorating a room in your house. You don’t just throw stuff together. You think about colour and size and style and you follow a theme. I think this is the same with a story. Our voices contribute to the overall readability of a story and so we must be consistent. But beyond that, the tone needs to fit the story for it to reach its full potential.
And this brings me to the third piece from Roth, which I think is just as valuable, and that is, it’s fine to accept your first draft is crap, but the thought that subsequent drafts will cure that should give you the necessary peace to continue writing, without those dark thoughts harassing you or destroying your writer’s trance (we’ve spoken about this in previous posts here and here). The same approach counts for how you view your ability. Accept that you have a lot to learn, but the very fact that you are willing to learn, that you’ve decided to keep on writing, and are in the process of developing your ability, should give you ample enough confidence to keep your attention focussed and do what you have to do. We all go through this. We all have to shut that voice down to get words out in the order we want them.
Anyway. I’m no expert. Just sharing my own experience. What do you think? Do you agree with the advice from the authors above?
One thought on “Robert Harris on Writing”
Yeah, mostly I agree.
About planning, I think like you, some story can be just written, soem other has to be planned (length is key here for me), but in any case I need to know how it ends. If I don’t know it, I usually don’t even start writing.
And accept your crap is another good one. I think the beauty of writing stories is that nothing is written in stone. You can change everything, as long as you know why 😉
That’s a lot of freedom, if you think about it.