Reflections on the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones. Fresh read/new book: 354/354.
I wrote all over this book because I was reading it like a LEARNING BOOK and it is so much easier to LEARN when you are scribbling on things. (Not library books, don’t worry, I’m not completely heinous.) This set of essays and talks, published posthumously, is all about Diana Wynne Jones’s approaches to, influences in, and beliefs about writing. There’s a fair amount of repetition, which could be a bit wearing, except really I think what it does is bring forward the things that mattered most in her mind to talk about, in terms of her writing and in some cases her life (never entirely) outside writing.
I’d warn anyone reading it that her childhood, in World War II England under the dubious care of largely absent parents, was punctuated by upheaval and neglect, and that most of her childhood recollections are unnerving, to say the least.
Here are some key points, however, about writing books.
1. Hilarity and horribleness go hand in hand. If you’re writing about something terrible happening, find a way to make it funny. Frequently, terrible things are funny, in the moment, in a terrible kind of way. You can do this when you write.
2. You must know more than you write down and you must never try to fit it all in. The world you are writing about should always feel full but should never feel stuffed. This is very obviously something she carried out in any of her books; there are always these neat references to things that never get taken out of the drawer and unwrapped and explained to you; it’s obvious from how she refers to it that it’s substantial, and you as a visitor to the world had better just decide to keep up.
3. Books that are designed to teach are bad books. You can learn from a well-made story but stories that are made to the purpose of inculcating virtue are usually dreadful. Sentimentally virtuous books are the worst, and apparently they ended up on a childhood shelf that she and her sisters called the Goddy Books and never read twice. That said, she does seem to have liked Pilgrim’s Progress, which may escape the Goddy Book fate by being interestingly heroic as well as virtuously educational.
4. Do not overwrite your language. Tolkien did not write in the labored high prose of modern fantasy novels and heavy written dialect is a cumbersome detraction that can be just as well achieved by cadence as spelling. I’ll add here that dialect is usually classist, racist, or both, so there’s another good reason to avoid it. In general she argues there’s frequently nothing to be gained in tormenting your prose.
5. Publishing has fads. They will probably hate things you would like to write. It’s a struggle. You will not know why the fads are what they are, but they will probably try to thwart you at every turn. She calls them RULES, and they constantly change; and in children’s books particularly, she says, the rules are so arbitrary because they usually have nothing to do with what children are capable of reading or what they want to read.
6. Mythology is perfect material. Mythology is so bare-bones that only the recognizable, near-universal core is left by the time we see it as something called myth, and you can layer that into a story until it is hardly visible and it will still help to power you. It does not have to be obvious to be strengthening.
7. Boredom is deadly. If you are bored with what you are writing, your writing will die. Follow the story, and do not suffocate it in a plan you’ve made ahead of time. Don’t go on writing something the way you’re writing it, if it isn’t working for you.
8. Writing is messy. Sometimes story ideas have to sit for years. Sometimes they get half written and fade out. Sometimes you have to throw the whole thing away. Sometimes you keep drawers and drawers of unfinished projects. Sometimes all you know is the beginning, the end, and a bit in the middle, and you sit down and let the story tell you where it’s going, and it goes. She managed to publish over forty books in all the messiness, so I find that very comforting.
9. The real world is too strange for fiction. If you write down the strict truth and put it in a story, sometimes no one will believe it can happen, even in make-believe. You have to tone it down or wrap it up for people to believe you, even when you’re telling your own history.
10. Take a “What if?” and follow it all the way. You can get a lot of story out of a single question if you just start chasing down the answer and don’t let up until you’ve got the whole thing in your hands. You can take any little moment, in fact, and it grows into something wild and funny and surprising, because you tried answering in the fullest, most interesting way, instead of making a little solemn bullet point and connecting the line from one of those bullet points to the next without any chaotic, adventurous crescendos.
11. The fantastical, wondrous parts are important. Fantasy matters because it lets us say things in a particularly truthful way, even if the “facts” of the story sound less plausible than the “facts” of some other kinds of novels. It lets us escape ugliness in our presents and pasts by finding places that understand us, and giving us heroes who survive their uglinesses. And they show us beauty and imagination and a complete refusal to be stomped down into what we’re told is Reality. Numerous times, she talks about the dreamy, out of place chapter of The Wind in the Willows called “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” This chapter was skipped over by their mother when the book was read to them as children, because it was fanciful; but she read it eventually on her own, and it mattered so profoundly that it comes up seven times in the course of this book. Fantasy is important.
I have most of her books and I adore them, but I wouldn’t say I experienced many rushing moments of recognition in the course of reading this one. But it really didn’t matter; what she did worked, and I love the books she made with her way of thinking, and you can sometimes learn a lot more from someone whose brain puts things together in a completely different way.