Monday 30 January 2017

Three Steps To Writing

Last year, I was asked to give some writing tips by the fantastic Little Star Writing.  You can read my original blog on their website, but I thought my readers might enjoy it too, so here it is!

I like to break writing down into three steps. The first step is HAVING AN IDEA. People often ask me how to get ideas. The truth is that we all have ideas, all the time. Just think of yourself as a reader rather than a writer – and then write the story you would most love to read yourself!

That's how I had the idea of writing Phoenix. I’ve always loved space stories. The stars have always filled me with a sense of wonder. I love the thought of other life; other worlds, out there in the universe… Yet there aren’t many books set in space for younger readers. So I had to sit down and write my own!

The second step is WRITING A DRAFT, in which you tell yourself the story you want to read. Do a bit of it every day, until you reach the end. But remember that no-one can write a great book in just one draft. I've never met a single writer who could do that; a book is too big and complicated. You need to build it over a number of drafts.

The way you do this is the third step: EDITING. Once you've written a draft, try to read it as if someone else had written it. Stop being the writer, and become the reader again. And then, as the reader, ask yourself all the questions you ask of every other story you read. What works? What doesn't? What should there be more of? And less of? Then go back to being the writer, and do everything you can to make it more like the story you want to read. Keep doing this, again and again, until it's the best version of the story you can possibly write.

To illustrate how much things can change in this process, I'm going to show you an early draft of Phoenix. First of all, for comparison, have a good look at the extract above. It's the opening of the final, published draft. Once you know it well, have a look at the opening of my early draft:

Can you see how much has changed? It's gone from first person to third person. From present tense to past. It's become a dream. The setting has completely changed. The only thing that's the same is a character gazing up at the stars. That's the heart of it; but everything around it is different!

That process took me 13 drafts. It was long and hard – but it was worth it, because Phoenix is the book I wanted to read; a book that didn't exist before I wrote it. And you will feel the same about the stories that you write. So I'd like to wish you all happy writing, and happy reading – because in the end, the key to being a writer is really just being a reader!

Wednesday 18 January 2017

Richard Adams Interview

I was very sad to learn that the great Richard Adams passed away recently. Watership Down was a book that changed my life; as I've written before, there would be no Varjak Paw without Watership Down.

I had the pleasure of meeting Adams in 2002, to interview him for an article I was writing. When I heard he'd passed away, I re-read the transcript of our interview, and found some fascinating material I hadn't been able to use at the time. We talked about how inspiring he found the work of mythology scholar Joseph Campbell; discovered an unexpected connection between Watership Down and Star Wars (another big influence for me); and discussed his views on writers including Alan Garner, Ursula Le Guin and Philip Pullman. So as a tribute to Richard Adams, I've decided to publish this material now.


SFS: How did the idea of the rabbits having a mythology begin?

RA: Well, one of the happiest things that has happened to me is my friendship with Joseph Campbell. I think it was the proudest moment in my life when I was invited to New York to speak at Joseph's 80th birthday. That really chuffed me. I had a lot of talks with him; sometimes he would take me to the Museum of Mankind and show me war canoes and totem poles.

SFS: How did you meet him? One of the epigraphs in Watership Down quotes his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces; had you met him already when you wrote it?

RA: I'd bought The Hero With A Thousand Faces when it came out in 1949, and I read it straight through twice, and on and off ever since. Then, when I was in New York and had a day or two to spare, I discovered Joseph Campbell's address; he lived in Greenwich. I just went and rang the doorbell and told him who I was. He couldn't have been more friendly. We spent the whole day together, although he'd never met me before, and we had a splendid dinner at his club at the end of the day. I told him how much I'd enjoyed it, and I told him all about Watership Down.

SFS: What did he think of it?

RA: Of course it's very like some of Joseph Campbell's stories; it was very much up his street. He thought it was marvellous! What he specialised in was folk tales, he knew all about folk tales. There's a 3-volume work, The Masks Of God, it's wonderful. He was by far the most interesting person I think that I've met in the course of my life.

SFS: Campbell was also a mentor for George Lucas, who made Star Wars.

RA: I know. Well, there were three speakers at that dinner, and they put me first. So I thought, "I'll do something special." And I did, although I say it myself! I gave a marvellous speech; I was in tears when I sat down, and so were several other people. I finished up by saying, "That's why I've travelled 5,000 miles to be here tonight, and that's why I'm enormously glad to be speaking at this dinner. Really, there's only one thing that I've come to say, and I say it now with all the force at my command and all the sincerity of which I'm capable: thank you, Joseph, thank you." And with that I sat down.

SFS: Who were the other speakers?

RA: One was a lady teacher at a university. But the third speaker, and very bad he was, was the director of Star Wars.

SFS: George Lucas?!

RA: Yes. He obviously hadn't prepared a speech at all – it was full of ers and ums. My speech was much the best, if I say it myself.

SFS: Watership Down and Star Wars were two of the biggest phenomena of their time – and they were both made by people who were avid Joseph Campbell readers.

RA: Yes, I suppose so. Well, The Hero With A Thousand Faces hit me like a bomb when I read it. I was in a great muddle at the time about my religious ideas, and trying to make sense of the cosmos. The Hero just sorted that out for me. Religious ideas made sense now; you could see how they occurred in similar format in all nations and all races. And the conception of the cosmos for the first time in my life made sense. Oh, it was a wonderful thing to know Joseph Campbell, and I re-read that book every now and then.

SFS: Did it also influence the main narrative of Watership Down – the way in which Hazel becomes a rabbit hero; the way Fiver is really a shaman?

RA: Yes, of course, it's closely modelled on the ideas of The Hero. Hazel, and Bigwig of course becomes very important as the book goes on – well they all do, Blackberry, Dandelion… Yes, I certainly owe that to Joseph Campbell.

SFS: Around the same time that you were writing Watership Down, in the 1960s, writers like Alan Garner were also using mythology in their work.

RA: I've got a great respect for Alan Garner. I think he's a marvellous writer. I've got all his books.

SFS: There was a whole wave of children's literature that was very ambitious in that way – Ursula Le Guin, too.

RA: Ursula Le Guin is a great friend of mine. I've got all her books, and I've corresponded with her frequently all along. I've got a very high opinion of Ursula Le Guin. The Left Hand of Darkness: I think that's marvellous work. And the Earthsea trilogy. Another big influence is Mary Renault. The Mask of Apollo, The Last of The Wine. The best one I think is the one about Theseus: The King Must Die. Although she is not widely known and popular as she ought to be.

SFS: How about more recent authors? I heard you'd enjoyed Philip Pullman's Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife? They have that mythic feel, too.

RA: Yes, they certainly do. The highest ability that a novelist can show, in my opinion, is quite simply the power of invention. A novelist who can invent things like you'd never think of for yourself – and carry the story along because you become so fixed on the marvellous powers of invention – well, that's one reason why I'm so much in favour of Ursula Le Guin. Her power of invention is very strong.

SFS: How about JK Rowling – have you read any Harry Potter?

RA: I've never read a Harry Potter book. I ought to have, oughtn't I? I haven't really had the time for Harry Potter, but I wish the lady well. Anybody who can get a book published, I wish them well!

Richard Adams, 1920-2016