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P. D. James' top 10 writing words of wisdom


Crime fiction novelist Phyllis Dorothy James sadly passed away yesterday aged 96 and leaves a legacy of over 30 books, both fiction and non-fiction, including the much-loved Adam Dalgliesh mysteries.

Despite that fact that she had written all her life, James had her first novel published at the age of 42. Last year, in an interview with the BBC, she shared her secrets for being a great writer and we thought it would be fitting to re-visit those words today (hat tip to The Independent). 

1. You must be born to write

For P. D. James, “you must be born to write” as you ”can't teach someone to know how to use words effectively and beautifully”. Although, she does concede that you can help people to be better and more efficient writers. 

2. Write about what you know

She's also an advocate of writers writing about what they know. ”There are all sorts of small things that you should store up and use, nothing is lost to a writer,” and that a writer has to ”stand outside of yourself. All experience, whether it is painful or whether it is happy is somehow stored up and sooner or later it's used” and that a writer has to . Rather poignantly, she believes that new writers will be recognised for their work, because ”we all get old and we die and that's that and there have to be successors”.

3. Find your own routine

“I write by hand and I can write more or less anywhere as long as I've got a comfortable chair, a table, an unlimited amount of biros to write with and lined paper to write on. And then the next day when my PA comes, which she does at 10 o'clock, then I've got quite a lot to dictate to her and she puts it on to the computer, prints it out and I do the first revision.”

She also says that it's important to get up early “before London really wakes and the telephone calls begin and the emails pile up”. 

4. Be aware that the business is changing

Instead of believing that only the old way is best for publishing a book,  P. D. James was fully aware that the industry was changing. ”Everything has changed and it's really quite astonishing, because people can self-publish now. I would once have thought that that was rather a self-defeating way of doing it but actually publishers do look at what is self-published and there are examples of people picking up very lucrative deals.”

5. Read, write and don't daydream!

She also offers the classic advice that you should read widely to be able to write well. ”We learn to write by writing, not by just facing an empty page and dreaming of the wonderful success we are going to have. I don't think it matters much what you use as practice, it might be a short story, it might be the beginning of a novel, or it might just be something for the local magazine, but you must write and try and improve your writing all the time. Don't think about it or talk about it, get the words down.”

6. Enjoy your own company

If you're a writer or an aspiring one, then you should know that it is a fairly lonely career. Think long stretches of hours by yourself. But there's a reason why she advises you to write by yourself. ”I think if you are a writer you realise how valuable the time is when you are absolutely alone with your characters in complete peace. I think it is a necessary loneliness for most writers - they wouldn't want to be always in the middle of everything having a wonderful life. I've never felt lonely as a writer, not really, but I know people do.”

7. Choose a good setting

Where, exactly does a writer get their inspiration from? For  P. D. James it's the setting. ”Something always sparks off a novel, of course. With me, it's always the setting. I think I have a strong response to what I think of as the 'spirit of a place'.” 

8. Never go anywhere without a notebook

Similarly to Nora Ephron's advice from her mother that “everything is copy” , so too does  P. D. James advise to get everything down on paper and to never go anywhere without a notebook ”because you can see a face that will be exactly the right face for one of your characters, you can see place and think of the perfect words to describe it”.  

9. Never talk about a book before it is finished

As with most writers, the nerves kick in after a book is finished and you're worried that no one's going to like it. Because of that very reason, she says she never talks about a book until it's finished. “I'm usually pretty confident by the time I've sent it in but I have those moments when I think, 'well I sent it to them on Friday, by Saturday night they should be ringing up to say how wonderful it is!”

10. Know when to stop

“I am lucky to have written as many books as I have, really, and it has been a joy. With old age, it becomes very difficult. It takes longer for the inspiration to come, but the thing about being a writer is that you need to write. I think while I am alive, I shall write. There will be a time to stop writing but that will probably be when I come to a stop, too.”



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