Read to discover

Lifelong creativity and PD James’ tips for writers

PD James
PD James

God bless PD James! At the age of 93, she wants to write one more detective novel. Amazing.

Let’s hope it will feature Adam Dalglish, the Scotland Yard detective who has been her hero since her very first novel, Cover Her Face, published in 1962. Last seen in The Private Patient, in 2008, it’s time he showed up again.

James has not been sitting idle. She caused a buzz with Death Comes to Pemberley in 2011. It was unusual. What gave her the idea to write a mystery as a sequel to the Jane Austen classic, Pride and Prejudice? It’s a good weekend read as a mystery novel though, of course, not in the class of Pride and Prejudice.

Now she is writing one more detective story, she told the BBC. You can read the interview.

Ruth Rendell
Ruth Rendell

“Writing is essential to my life. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t write,” said Ruth Rendell, 83, another English crime writer, recently.

Maybe that’s the secret of their creativity into old age: Writing sustains the writers, keeps them alive.

Tom Wolfe, 82, came out with a novel last year: Back to Blood. The Miami-based blockbuster was as exuberant as any of his earlier writings.

John Le Carre, also 82, continues to write spy novels and has a new book this year: A Delicate Truth.

Philip Roth, 80, has said he would not publish any more fiction, but he may be an exception.

Alice Munro, 82, who won the Nobel Prize for literature this year, had a new collection of short stories out last year — Dear Life.

Margaret Atwood, who will be celebrating her 74th birthday on November 18, not only continues to write but is active on Twitter.

Paul Theroux, 72, who last published the novel, A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, in 2009, has a new book, The Lower River, and will be coming out with a travelogue, The Last Train to Zona Verde.

That’s the way to go.

John Updike was as good as ever, writing lush, beautiful prose, in his last novel, The Widows of Eastwick, published just a year before he died at the age of 76, in 2006.

PG Wodehouse
PG Wodehouse

PG Wodehouse (1881-1975) was still writing when he died at 93. He left behind an unfinished novel: Sunset at Blandings. It was as beautifully written as his earlier works. His talent did not diminish with age.

There are writers who change with age.

Le Carre’s writing has probably grown darker since 9/11. He has been a fierce critic of the war on terror.

VS Naipaul, who quarrelled with both Le Carre and Theroux, has an austere style in his later novels (Half a Life, 2001; Magic Seeds, 2004) — a far cry from his funny early works (The Mystic Masseur, 1957; The Suffrage of Elvira, 1958).

But writers as a rule, genre writers especially, try to remain consistent. Wodehouse is as funny in his later books as in his earlier works. PD James delivers the same mystery and suspense in Death in Holy Orders and The Private Patient as in her earlier Adam Dalglish novels.

Writers are like pop stars in this respect. The Stones are still rocking in their seventies. “Elton John hits the road with the hits,” reports Rolling Stone.

Both writers and musicians have to entertain their fans, who expect them to come up with new works but not completely different from what they have done before. It can’t be easy what they have to do, remaining fresh, entertaining, not letting down their fans — but that’s what they are doing, well into old age. Amazing, isn’t it?

How do they do it?

Of course, it takes high maintenance to keep geriatrics like the Stones rocking. And successful writers like PD James can afford pretty good medical care too. But that alone cannot explain their creativity. No doubt they are extraordinary, but I would like to think a love for something you do, a certain passion, a zest for life can also help us live out our lives happily. And isn’t that all we want — happiness?

PD James’ tips for writers

PD James’ 10 tips for writing novels (From a BBC report)

Although she didn’t publish her first novel until she was 42, Phyllis Dorothy James had been writing since childhood. Now a celebrated crime writer, she has penned more than 20 books, says the BBC. Here are her top 10 tips for being an author.

  1. You must be born to write.
    You can’t teach someone to know how to use words effectively and beautifully. You can help people who can write to write more effectively and you can probably teach people a lot of little tips for writing a novel, but I don’t think somebody who cannot write and does not care for words can ever be made into a writer. It just is not possible. Nobody could make me into a musician. Somebody might be able to teach me how to play the piano reasonably well after a lot of effort, but they can’t make a musician out of me and you cannot make a writer, I do feel that very profoundly.
  2. Write about what you know.
    You absolutely should write about what you know. There are all sorts of small things that you should store up and use, nothing is lost to a writer. You have to learn 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. I love situations where people are thrown together in unwelcome proximity. where all kinds of reprehensible emotions can bubble up. I think you must write what you feel you want to write because then the book is genuine and that comes through. I believe that someone who can write, who has a feeling for words and knows how to use them will find a publisher. Because after all, publishers do still need to find new writers. We all get old and we die and that’s that and there have to be successors.
  3. Find your own routine.
    I think all we writers are different. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how different we are? Some people have to have the room, the pen and others do everything on a computer. 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. In a sense, therefore, I revise as I go. It’s important to get up early – before London really wakes and the telephone calls begin and the emails pile up. This is the best time for me, the time of quiet in the morning.
  4. Be aware that the business is changing.
    Goodness gracious, how the world of publishing has changed! It is much easier now to produce a manuscript with all the modern technology. It is probably a greater advantage now, more than ever before, to have an agent between you and the publisher. 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!
    To write well, I advise people to read widely. See how people who are successful and good get their results, but don’t copy them. And then you’ve got to write! 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.
    It is undoubtedly a lonely career, but I suspect that people who find it terribly lonely are not writers. 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.
    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’. I remember I was looking for an idea in East Anglia and standing on a very lonely stretch of beach. I shut my eyes and listened to the sound of the waves breaking over the pebble shore. Then I opened them and turned from looking at the dangerous and cold North Sea to look up and there, overshadowing this lonely stretch of beach was the great, empty, huge white outline of Sizewell nuclear power station. In that moment I knew I had a novel. It was called Devices and Desires.
  8. Never go anywhere without a notebook.
    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. I do that when I’m writing, I think it’s a sensible thing for writers to do. I’ve written little bits of my next novel, things that have occurred to me. I’ve got the setting already. I’ve got the title, I’ve got most of the plot and I shall start some serious writing of it next month, I think.
  9. Never talk about a book before it is finished.
    I never talk about a book before it is finished and I never show it to anybody until it is finished and I don’t show it to anybody even then, except for my publisher and my agent. Then there is this awful time until they phone. 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!’ I’m always aware that people might have preferences and think that one book is better than another.
  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. What I am working on now will be another detective story, it does seem important to write one more. I think it is very important to know when to stop. Some writers, particularly of detective fiction, have published books that they should not have published. I don’t think my publisher would let me do that and I don’t think my children would like me to. I hope I would know myself whether a book was worth publishing. 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: