People often come up to me and say ‘Robert Irwin, shopaholic, fashionista and party animal, how on earth do you find the time to write those extraordinary novels and where do you get your material from?’ I scratch my head and mumble something unhelpful, for after all I do not wish to confess that I dash my novels off in a matter of weeks, nor am I going to let rival wordsmiths in on the sources of my inspiration. But just recently I have had a change of heart, since it certainly would be sad if all that I have learned died with me. So what follows are the ten golden rules of creative writing:
1. Write about what you know that is directly from your experience. In my case this meant that I found myself confined to writing about Satanism, perverted sex, FLN terrorism. Surrealism, bad dreams, drug taking and hoovering carpets. Now, if you manage an old folk’s home or work in a shoe shop, that is what you will have to write about. Good luck with that.
2. Tell, not show. For example, if you are writing a novel about the Second World War, you do not want to clog the story up with lots of unnecessary details about the sounds, smells, weapons, blood, corpses, cries of fear, general confusion etc., etc. You will only succeed in muddling your reader. It is much better if someone tells the narrator about what happened and that will be snappier. Or, no, come to think of it, it would be great if the narrator read about the battle in a newspaper. That way readers will get a much clearer idea of what actually happened in the engagement. Shakespeare usually handled battle scenes like that—no, not the newspaper bit, but someone telling someone what has been happening in a battle—and the Bard of Avon rarely nodded.
3. Make full use of the research resources that these days are available to the aspirant novelist. (With my swordstick and collection of astrolabes, I am more than ready to confront the twenty-first century.) Here I can warmly recommend Arthur Mee’s The Children’s Encyclopedia (8 volumes, 1908-10). I found it to be an invaluable research tool, when I was working on Satanism, perverted sex, terrorism, bad dreams and drug taking. Only on hoovering and Surrealism did this great reference work let me down. When I sat down to dash off The Arabian Nightmare, I naturally went looking for the article on dreams in The Children’s Encyclopedia. On the way I found all sorts of interesting articles on a wide range of challenging themes, including ‘Our Insect Friends’, ‘Pictures of Poland’, ‘What is Osmosis?’ and ‘Little Verses for Very little People’. When at length I did find the relevant article on dreams I learnt that nightmares are caused by eating too much cheese late in evenings, which was a start.
4. Do not monotonously use ‘said’. Introduce a bit of variegation in your prose. Examples: ‘he simpered’; ‘she snorted’; ‘they chortled’; ‘we sneered’; ‘everyone riposted’; ‘nobody quipped’.
5. Avoid abstractions. Use concrete imagery. Examples: ‘The picture of the slaughtered bunny would have moved a man with a heart of concrete (like Paul)’; ‘the country cottage could not have looked more solidly constructed if it had been made of concrete’.
6. Carry a notebook with you always. That way you will be able to keep a detailed record of your depression and its causes: failure to write anything worth reading, failure to write anything at all, failure to master the rules of punctuation, failure to get published, the poor prospects for world peace, Tesco, etc.
7. Arrange your story logically. First you need to describe all the places where the story is going to take place. Next you describe all the people who are going to play a part in the story. (By the way, your readers are going to want to know what your hero or heroine looks like, and a useful tip is to get he or she to describe what they see when he or she looks in a mirror.) Only once you have got all the descriptions over are you ready to start the story, which will flow all the more rapidly by not being clogged up by descriptions.
8. Have a go at a fusion novel. These days crossing genres is all the go. Ship Eleanor Dashwood off to Kansas where she can get engaged to a cowpoke. Try setting your chick lit novel on Mars. You will be surprised by the possibilities that open up. Or how about a country house murder mystery where the detective and the suspects lose all interest in who did the murder and instead agree to go on a time-share holiday in Tuscany?
9. Read a lot—especially my novels as, taken together, they constitute a series of master classes in the art of fiction.
10. On reflection, I don’t think that there are ten rules of creative writing. Nine will have to do.
Well that’s it. Just remember that publishers are desperate for your product. They just can’t find enough stuff to print. I can certainly testify that, since signing up with Dedalus, I have been making serious money in my spare time.