Joanne Harris on writing
December's star interviewee shares her thoughts on reading, writing and social media in our online exclusive
As anyone who follows her on Twitter (@Joannechocolat) knows, Joanne Harris frequently offers imaginative creative writing advice and expresses forthright views on writing and what it means to be a writer. Here, she shares her thoughts with Writing Magazine.
‘It never occurred to me to consider whether or not I was a writer,’ she says. ‘I’ve always written. I didn’t really equate being a writer with writing. Everyone worries about this.’
She differentiates between ‘writing’ and ‘being a writer’. ‘The writing world is divided between people who want to be writers and people who want to write,’ she believes. ‘The myth of what it means to be a writer – I’m very suspicious of it. Being a writer doesn’t make you better or more interesting – it’s just what you do.
'Being a writer mostly involves a lot of writing. The rest of it is not a given. If you don’t love writing then probably there are easier ways to stay poor. There is this strange idea that it will make you rich, it will make you famous and you’ll hang around with cool people. And this mainly doesn’t happen. If the actual process of writing doesn’t interest you I wouldn’t want to do it.’
Her advice to anyone who wants to write is straightforward. ‘You need to do some writing. You need to do a lot of writing, and by definition some of that is going to be bad. Try to put out of your head this idea of being a writer – just write. There are far too many people who have this imaginary lightbulb of being a writer in their mind. You need to write badly for quite a long time before you start writing well. And love what you do. If you don’t love it, nobody else will!’
Surrounded by books in her library, she is passionate about the role reading plays in the writing life. ‘I don’t think books and reading can exist outside each other,’ she says. ‘Books are the centre of my life – since I was little. Books are how you travel, how you talk to people and how you listen. When your only life experience is living in Barnsley! I real for all kinds of reasons – for pleasure, for information.’
She believes in reading widely, and in the value of re-reading. ‘There are things I go back to. I’m a serial re-reader of books – books that are really well crafted will keep delivering. Nabokov, Ray Bradbury, Dorothy L Sayers, Angela Carter, PG Wodehouse – if you read different authors at different stages of your life you’ll get a different reading of that narrative. Now, I’m enjoying Haruki Marukami, Umberto Eco, Iain Banks. I read an awful lot of different people.’
The downside of reading as a writer is that it’s harder to read for pleasure. ‘The more I learn about writing, the more critical I am about reading,’ says Joanne. ‘It’s hard to get that internal editor to shut up. Your inner editor interferes with your inner reader.’
It’s not the only thing she struggles with. ‘I struggle with all sorts,' she admits. ‘Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not. There’s nothing I struggle with always. At the moment I’m tearing my hair out about editorial stuff. Having to be objective can be difficult – I need a little bit of time before I can be objective.’
Joanne is a writer who manages her author platform and social media presence with flair. It helps that she sees the positives in online communication. ‘On the internet people seek out the place they think they belong,’ she believes. ‘It’s where real tribalism has grown. You can get communities that come together, and we hold ourselves in the image of the communities that used be offline. We can connect with people however niche our interests are. It’s really just people doing what people do.’
Her Twitter presence is consistent, but she doesn’t shy away from – or back down from- the occasional controversy. ‘On Twitter a conversation can go outside people who follow me. I will get certain responses if I talk about feminism or politics. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it – it’s been very useful. I can bitch about all sorts of annoying aspects of writing but I really like it.’
She believes writers can use Twitter’s 140-character limit to hone their prose. ‘Stylistically it’s useful from a structuring of sentences point of view. It makes for concise analysis and argument – if you can do it on Twitter you can do it anywhere. People have got short attention spans , so you have to break down arguments into short, concise bites. Trump won – apart from the stupidity of some of his voters – because he said the same thing over and over again. Make America great again.’
She is practical about he way social media has altered the way we communicate. ‘Attention spans have been curtailed by the media we consume. Twitter has helped me to be concise and think to the bottom of an argument rather than just banging on about it. From a selfish point of view, I’ve ended up meeting all sorts of cool people. It’s hard, on Twitter, to hide. It’s generally quite revealing about people. I think people’s true nature comes out much more easily on Twitter – it’s face-to-face immediacy.’
Joanne uses her Twitter profile to offer writing advice, and, she notes, there are many traps she regularly sees novice writers fall into. ‘There are many writing mistakes. Without going into specific elements of style, one thing that turns me off straight away is someone who overwrites dialogue, to fill it with adverbs and tags, such a rookie mistake. And people who have thesaurusitis. People who can’t say the sky is blue – it has to be azure or cobalt or viridian. It’s a rookie thing. I’ve done them all. ‘
The biggest mistake of all, she believes, is to try to tap into a trend: ‘To think you’ve analysed the market and are tapping into a kind of writing. It will not work. Writing to an imaginary formula. There is no formula. Anything successful is a wave that has passed. But if people read well-written books they’ll understand what good writing is. ‘
It all, in the end, comes back to reading. ‘Read widely,’ she advises. ‘A lot of writers don’t read outside their comfort zone. You can fall into a comfortable rut of reading and that means when you’re writing you’re liable to fall into a rut too. Read things you wouldn’t normally read. If you read fiction, read non-fiction. If you don’t read graphic novels, shame on you. Read some graphic novels. I have never, in all my years, met a good writer who was not a good reader. I’ve met a lot of lousy writers who don’t read, but you don’t want to be one of those.’
Joanne's latest book, A Pocketful of Crows (Gollancz), is out now. You can read her cover interview in the December issue of Writing Magazine, available here.