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Author’s Studio

Philip Pullman on How to Write a Book

First, make a plan. Get a large piece of paper, the largest piece you can find, and some of those little yellow Post-It Notes. Write down an idea for a scene on each of the yellow stickers and stick it somewhere on the paper. When you have a whole bunch of them, say about forty or fifty, move them around till they are in the best order you can find. That's the plot.

Next, you make up some characters. You need a mixture of good ones and bad ones, old ones and young ones, rich ones and poor ones, pretty ones and ugly ones, and so on. That way every reader will have someone to identify with.

Then you need to do some research. You want to write about life in a medieval castle? Go to the library and look it up. You want to know what kind of clothes they wear in the north of Finland? Go and find a National Geographic. You need to do lots of research. Make photocopies of everything you need. The more research you do, the more interesting your book will be.

Then. . .

Well, then you take your big piece of paper with the plot on its yellow Post-It Notes, and your careful notes about the characters, and your photocopied information about castles and Finland, and you bundle it all up into a heap and you throw it all away.

Forget it.

It's useless.

And you start writing something completely different, something that you have no knowledge of, something that just came into your head, something that is utterly strange to you.

And you're seized by a fever of excitement. It's like falling in love; it's like setting out on a thrilling voyage; it's like no other joy in the world. You are possessed. You feel radiant. You give off light.

But. . .There comes a time, part-way through (in my case it usually happens around page 70), when you fall out of love with it. In fact, you begin to hate it. You read it over and you are convinced that never has anyone, in the history of the world, written anything so slack and feeble. You are ashamed. You can hardly look at yourself in the mirror.

But because it's too late now to do anything else, and because you're a stubborn so-and-so, you write on grimly until you get to the end. Then you put it away and decide to be a football player or a film star or a brain surgeon instead. Anything must be easier than writing.

But after a little while you think. . .No, it wasn't that bad.

And. . .When I started it, I was really excited.

And. . . Maybe if I looked at it again, I could tinker with it and cut that bit out and maybe bring that character in a little earlier, and it might work.

And you get it out and think. . . Hey, this is actually not bad at all.

And so you cut it, and you fiddle with it, and you change the order of this bit and that bit, until the story works. If it were a table, it would stand up without falling over, and you could put things on it and they wouldn't slide off, and from some angles it might actually look quite pretty.

That's the time to stop. You can polish a story so hard it vanishes under the gloss. I like stories (and pictures, and music) with a rough edge here and there. I like to see the brushstrokes, the kind of marks that show that a human being made this, not a machine. So stop before your work becomes slavish, and send it to a publisher, and hope your book meets the eye of an editor as wise and intelligent as you are, with just as much taste and almost as much talent.

Then you do it all again. Get a large piece of paper. . .

Well, that's all I know about writing books. I've been doing it for twenty-five years, and I shall do it till I die. But long before I wrote my first book, I used to tell stories to anyone who'd listen: my younger brother, other kids at school, parents, teachers. . . And I haven't stopped doing that, either. I was a teacher myself for several years, and the classes I enjoyed most were those where I told stories: Greek myths, folk tales, fairy stories. I still do that. There's a college near my home in Oxford where I teach a course on the traditional tale, and I pretend I'm teaching something, but actually it's only an excuse to tell stories to an audience of students. And they pay me for it!