Ten Things About Writing: Build Your Story, One Word at a Time by Joanne Harris

Seldom ever have I seen a more succinct, witty, insightful, and encouraging book to help writers! Before – and since – being published myself, I’ve procrastinated by reading many ‘advice’ books, some good, like Stephen King’s On Writing or Mittlemark and Newton’s How NOT to Write a Novel , many best forgotten. However this is a gem of a collection, composed of advice and encouragement ‘soundbites ‘ she has posted over the last 6 years on Twitter, now garnered together into a fragrant set of 10 sections painted brightly with humour. They cover every any adversity a writer might  possibly face, from writer’s block to stage fright at book festivals (if you’re lucky enough to be published and invited onstage- and  believe me, it is terrifying).

Joanne Harris O.B.E is a multiple award-winning author with scores of novels and several screen adaptations – though personally, I disliked the ‘ trivialisation’ of her novel Chocolat into a movie depicting it as a light-hearted romp in a French village filmed using irritating blurred screenshots. It was, rather,  a deftly nuanced work interweaving gently deconstructed vignettes on loneliness, old age, single mothers, and the discrimination of minorities (in this case gypsies), never mind the joys of chocolate! Joanne has a rare condition which probably makes her writing style pretty unique. She has synaesthesia, a may provoke colours. (see Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Picador, 2011,  ISBN-10: 0330523627 or Daniel Tammet’s Born on a Blue Day, Hodder, 2007, ISBN-13: 978-034089975). I am sure it is her sensitivity to taste, sight and sound in particular, which makes her books so atmospheric: she understands so many ways to lure you into scenes. She is also an active live storyteller and a great communicator – as seen on Twitter and in this book.

My only criticism is the Title which sounds too ‘tabloid’ for such a carefully thought out, psychologically tailored, set of steps to help anyone navigating the world of writing, submitting, publishing and beyond. However, with prevailing trending SEO keywords and hashtags, listicles like ‘10 Things to know’ or ‘ 10 Ways to Do…’ flourish- I suppose it is signals swift advice for a harassed world.

Joanne acknowledges the joys and benefits of writing – it being ‘cheaper than therapy!’ Th|I saw borne out as junior doc to a  psychiatrist whose patients often improved unusually quickly: before bed he had them write down their thoughts and worries. And he read every one. Here Joanne talks of discarding guilt, giving ourselves permission to create for our own pleasure and offers a new slant on starting to write

Wise use of simile and metaphor help us rapidly follow her threads. Writing is ‘Art’ – we are painting a picture, writing a soundtrack and acting as a movie camera moving in and out of every scene within our chosen point of view. She offers psychological tricks and rituals before starting, including having objects around to help your ‘Head Space.’ I need her de-cluttering advice…

There is of course, much which isn’t new here but bears repeating, such as reading a lot (including outside of your comfort zone), joining a group, looking and listening everywhere you go and doing your research diligently. Her metaphors capture the mindsets of writing well: characters in driving seats, mapping plots and subplots,  tensions and pacing, the meaning of drama, voice and POV. All are all stripped back to easily digested morsels of sense. But it’s on the ways we might capture potent description, sense of place, imagery, and atmosphere that she excels. Using driving, painting or music analogies, she swiftly and deftly gets her points across.

There is less negativity here than in many writing manuals, few ‘Dont’s’ but no punches are pulled in the difficulties of writing about children and women (if you’re a man!). Significantly, there is much that never came up at my Uni Creative Writing courses e.g suggested criteria for choosing character names, sensitivity on diversity and effectively detailing with senses, food, weather, sex and pain. Covering editing advice on Novel Checklists, Lost Plots and Soggy Middles, she eventually moves on to the vagaries of agents, publishers, and the treadmill of the marketing machine. Rights, contracts, interviews, prizes and public speaking tips are included. The book finishes with an excellent final part – The Dark Side – recognising the slumps in confidence and mood all writers face at some points and suggesting solutions.

Sometimes you read a book and say ‘Wow.’ This is the best £4.99 I have ever spent! The Ultimate Self-help Guide for Novelists.

Ten Things About Writing: Build Your Story, One Word at a Time by Joanne Harris, September Publishing, May 2020) ASIN: B088HH5W1

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