My literary roots
Reading is to writing as eating is to your body. Read soggy prose or clichéd characters, and you might find that’s what comes out of your pen. Read crafted prose and stories that shine a light on human interaction, and you will find golden nuggets glinting in your scribbles.
Whatever genre you want to write, you can learn by reading a variety of genres. Read thrillers and crime to study suspense. Map the ways in which the writer leaves a trail of clues and see how the best writers plant clues without drawing attention to them. It isn’t until the story comes together that we make the connections and things fall into place. Look at Joanne Harris’ Gentlemen and Players and Blueeyedboy.
Read rollicking plots to learn pace and momentum, when to pause for breath and when to run. Read Ben Elton’s books, This Other Eden, maybe, or Gridlock, which makes an adventure out of traffic jams. You can learn to satirise popular culture from Elton, too: social pressure to conform in the 1984-style Blind Faith, and revelations about reality television in Dead Famous and Chart Throb. And he handles imaginary worlds deftly, too. There’s no lengthy exposition about how the world of the story works; information is woven through the action. The key is to write as though the reader already knows how the world works. Start the story, have the characters interact with the setting, and the reader will go with you.
For delving into the innards of family relationships, you could try Shelagh Weeks’ Up Close, Tessa Hadley’s The London Train or Mark Haddon’s The Red House. Consider how they tangle the internal worlds of the individual characters with the knotted threads holding them together.
And do get hold of a copy of Liz Jensen’s Ark Baby, which can get forgotten amongst her more recent genre novels. Ark Baby is different; it is weird and disgusting, funny and gripping, and will free you up to write whatever you like without worrying about it fitting into a category.
Terry Pratchett is a master of imagined worlds of course, but he manages this more subtly in Nation, where the fictional island community feels tangible from the outset, as does the tightly-laced historical counterpart over the seas.
For gritty realism, read Hilary Mantel’s early works. Learning to Talk is up-close observation and A Change of Climate will burrow underneath your skin and stay there. Every Day is Mother’s Day and its sequel Vacant Possession are a study in the grubby eccentricities of people and relationships. Sue Townsend’s Rebuilding Coventry is similarly brief, deep and touching.
Kate Atkinson’s early novels, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Human Croquet, and Emotionally Weird, illustrate how emotional content can be handled lightly, comically even. A story is made comedy or tragedy by the presentation, by the language and observations made, by the pace and voice. What we see lurking behind flippancy and lightness of touch can be all the more sinister for being masked. Helen Fielding’s (pre-Bridget Jones) Cause Celeb is full of comically satirical farce, amusing characterisation, and a self-deprecatory first person narrator – you can sense Bridget Jones emerging in the voice at times. It is, however, a story about death on a massive scale.
Word on the Street is a funny tragedy, I think. Perhaps it is a tragic comedy.