This blog is in a state of suspended animation

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a lot of people (mostly but not exclusively younger readers) write to me for advice about writing. where do you get ideas from? how do i start? how do i improve? This is distillation of my replies so that i can direct people here in future instead of scribbling a small part of it on a postcard


1) read, read, read. good cooks love food. good actors love going to the theatre. if you don't love reading you're better off becoming a vet or a plumber.


2) read slowly and examine how it's done. the structure of sentences. the vocabulary. the way adjectives, adverbs, nouns and verbs are used. the way direct and indirect speech is used. who is the narrator? are they a character in the story or an unnamed presence which hovers above those characters? what does the narrator know? can they get inside any character's minds? do they know about the past and the future? how is a story constructed? what are the twists and turns? how is tension built up and relieved...?


3) read your work out loud. preferably to other people. things that work or don't work are sometimes invisible on paper but obvious when heard.


4) edit, edit, edit. very few writers do good first drafts. i do ten, twenty, thirty.  it's hard and often unpleasant work. like climbing a mountain, the whole point is getting to the top. and the view is nearly always worth it.


5) all half-decent writers have a nagging voice in their head telling them which bits work and which don't. maybe you can't hear it yet. maybe you don't want to hear it. maybe you can hear it but you're trying to ignore it because it's suggesting that you bin the last 70 pages. cultivate this voice and learn to trust it.


6) cut, cut, cut. if you can quarry a good short story from a bad novel then it's a victory. 


7) most writers start out wanting to express themselves. it's about getting things out of their heads and hearts onto the paper. sooner or later they realise that good writing is about what that piece of paper does to the head and heart of the reader, a reader who knows nothing about you and probably doesn't care. like all good relationships writing means thinking a little less about yourself and more about the other person.


8) philip pullman said that there was only one decent piece of advice for people who wanted to become writers. don't. it's hard, lonely work that is usually badly paid and under-appreciated. people become writers because they need to become writers. and people who need to become writers will, of course, ignore this advice completely.

this has been consoling me since i finished watching the wire. for those who don't know, it's a bbc series from 1973 about the history of science written and narrated by jacob bronowski. it's also a masterpiece of tv documentary. bronowski is visibly excited at every turn, the content is surprisingly undated and it's teaching me things i simply never knew. i only remember the programme is 35 years old when bronowski uses a gargantuan steam-powered computer to illustrate a point using a moving 3d graphic.



i have a story (of sorts) in the exhibition 'after darwin: contemporary expressions' at the natural history museum in london. it's called '24 emotions'. the exhibition also contains work by gautier deblonde, jeremy deller, ruth padel, bill viola, matthew killip...

you can see the small and loosely connected sections of the story underneath the portraits which were used to illustrate darwin's book 'the expression of the emotions in man and animals', the starting point for all the works in the exhibition.

unsurprisingly, i'm often asked to talk about asperger’s and autism or to become involved with organisations who work on behalf of people with asperger’s and autism, many of whom do wonderful work. but i always decline, for two reasons:

1) i know very little about the subject. i did no research for curious incident (other than photographing the interiors of swindon and paddington stations). i’d read oliver sacks’s essay about temple grandin and a handful of newspaper and magazine articles about, or by, people with asperger’s and autism. i deliberately didn’t add to this list. imagination always trumps research. i thought that if i could make Christopher real to me then he’d be real to readers. i gave him some rules to live by and some character traits and opinions, all of which i borrowed from people i know, none of whom would be labelled as having a disability. judging by the reaction, it seems to have worked.

2) curious incident is not a book about asperger’s. it’s a novel whose central character describes himself as ‘a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties’. indeed he never uses the words ‘asperger’s’ or ‘autism’ (i slightly regret that fact that the word ‘asperger’s’ was used on the cover). if anything it’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. it’s as much a novel about us as it is about christopher.

labels say nothing about a person. they say only how the rest of us categorise that person. good literature is always about peeling labels off. and treating real people with dignity is always about peeling the labels off. a diagnosis may lead to practical help. but genuinely understanding another human being involves talking and listening to them and finding out what makes them an individual, not what makes them part of a group.

i passionately believe this and i’ve said it repeatedly in many different forms. to become a spokesperson for those with asperger’s or autism, or to present myself as some kind of expert in the field, would completely undermine this, and make me look like a fool into the bargain. i would much rather spend my time writing more novels, standing up for difference and trying to understand outsiders who see the world in surprising and revealing ways.

a small but wonderful exhibition at the british museum. breathtaking colours you don't see in western art until... well, i'm having trouble thinking of anything before the sixties. turner, singer sargent, gaugin... even in their most acid-trip moments they all seem a bit muted next to these pinks and greens. plus, these are all folio pictures, which were stored in large volumes away from sunlight so they look as if they were painted yesterday. 

the figures, animals and buildings are painted without perspective. you don't realise how this makes the surface come alive until a couple of the later painters borrow two-point perspective from european models and something dies a little (two-point perspective fixes you in one place in front of the scene; without perspective you have to think of yourself moving constantly, looking at this elephant from the side, looking at that building from above).

the way they painted moving water is fascinating too. rain and rivers are depicted using a swirly graphical shorthand that we all still use and understand. but splashes were done with dabs of watercolour which look to me at least, like flower petals which have fallen onto the paper. it made me think of hockney's 'a bigger splash' (which is about precisely this). there is no 'realistic' way of painting a splash. a splash is all about movement. freeze it and the splashiness is gone. so you need a graphical shorthand. but the viewer needs to know that shorthand too...

garden & cosmos