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Friday, 12 December 2008
This started out as a theory about travel writing, but it's evolved into a theory about successful writing in general, which is that the ability to put words one after another into a beautiful sequence is secondary (except, probably, in poetry). The primary requirement is to have something to say: a story to tell.
A prime example of this in recent times is J K Rowling, whose books don't have perfect grammar even after going through the editorial process. And a perennial favourite of mine is Frank Herbert, who breaks every rule about point-of-view that you'd find in any modern book of 'how to write'. But they have a story to tell - the kind of story that grabs you and won't let go until you finish reading, keeping you turning the pages in spite of some clumsy dialogue, or plot holes, or editorial slips.
That's why I write novels - not because I love the feeling of putting one word after another (which is technically simple, but can be unbelievably hard work to find the motivation to sit down and do it) but because I have an epic amount of story in my head and would like to store it somewhere else instead!
This also goes some way towards explaining why I'm happy to read first drafts on sites like Authonomy - if the story grips me, I can overlook little niggles that I'd take a red pen to if I were editing. (I find that I don't have the same patience with first-draft poetry - one line that doesn't scan is enough to put me off!) Not everyone can write a first draft with no spelling or grammatical errors (and even editing can go wrong) but I really don't believe it matters on the grand scheme of things.
So, coming back to travel writing. It's not about the words - most literate people could put enough words down. No, I think that writing a good travelogue starts long before you put pen to paper, with the trip itself and the personality of the author: if you go to sufficiently interesting places, or if you're the sort of person who can get out there, talk to loads of strangers, and go out of your way to ensure that interesting things will happen to you, then you have the basics.
For fiction, you have to imagine a good story; to write travel well, you have to make a good story happen to you. Then you can write it down.
P.S. Schafner sligtly beat me to this concept while this post was sitting in my 'draft' folder... but I'm posting it anyway because I think we have slightly different points!