I spent several years studying Literature at university, including some time studying postcolonial literatures, medieval literature (have a thesis to prove that much), the genres and structures of literature, and how to analyse literature.
I found, much to my distress, that (in my beloved department, in any case) genre fiction was not really viewed as worthy of study. I struggled, in my honours year, to find a supervisor that would let me study children’s literature (or fantasy or detective novels, but honestly, I didn’t push those very far). They make up a large proportion of modern publishing, and yet, it seemed there was a bit of a hole in their representation. I understand that there was a good reason to focus on what constituted ‘canon’, in a department that taught ‘the literature of a Germanic language that originated on a small archipelago off Scandinavia’ (per the convener of a first year course). When I began my studies, there were two courses that explicitly focused on African and South African literature, and you could choose whether to take one or both. There were many authors that the traditional view of literature excluded, and you could get away with reading maybe six books by African authors by the time you graduated, if you chose that route. By the time I was teaching the first years, there was a lot more representation of South African, postcolonial and POC authors, in the main lectures and in the seminars. And there was starting to be more willingness to look at various forms of literature, not just a small selection of plays, poems and novels. My first year class and I dissected the music of Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar as literature, and I couldn’t have been more pleased at that.
But I feel like I missed out a little on some of that in my own studies, and particularly missed out on some practical instruction for how to actually write. I’m sure most people who study a literature degree start with some ambition of writing one day, or start with a secret memory from childhood of wanting to be an author when they’re big. So I was sad that I’d missed out on some formal training, which I think would have given me some reasonable foundations to build my writing on, and probably have gotten me used to sharing my writing earlier.
Enter my own curriculum, as found online, in my book collection and on my audible account. I’ve found (as I mentioned the other day) a course on plotting your novel, with a follow-up course that will help you get the damn thing written. I’m augmenting that with listening to various books on writing as I go about my chores.
First up: David Quantick’s promisingly titled How to Write Everything. I bought this recently, and added it to the ‘to listen to’ pile, and fitted it in between Warlock Holmes book 1 and 2, which I reviewed here.
About the author
David Quantick is a writer of everything. Well, most things. He has written journalism, written for radio, sitcoms and comedy. He has appeared on some radio shows, written some biographies, and performed some of his own stand-up comedy. Since publishing How to Write Everything, he has also published three novels. So he knows a bit about how to write, and how to turn writing into a paycheck.
So, how do you write everything?
The book, a sort of sharp dose of realism swirled into a cocktail of method and process, gives the reader a good idea of what it is really like to write for money, particularly for genres like comedy and television. Quantick stresses the importance and value of writing collaboratively, which is a nice change from the lone-genius-pounding-the-typewriter-keys meme that seems to dominate the cultural imagination of ‘being a writer’.
There is practical advice in this book, particularly about writing for genres in which there is a standard. Look up the damn style guide, and make sure you follow it. For scripts, for journalism, for whatever – there is a way that your target audience (producer or editor) wants to receive content in, and if you neglect to format and construct it correctly, you risk your writing landing up in the bin.
The book stresses how hard it is to get in, with long wait times for responses from various quarters. He indicates more than once that if you are unable to figure out who to get your writing to, in order to get it to the next step, you will likely not make it. It’s generally quite negative about getting into writing as your job. And, I get it – it’s definitely a profession that everybody thinks they could do if they have the time. Like, the only thing stopping everyone from writing their novel is the lack of time… right? Not the lack of perseverance, skill, or any of that at all (sarcasm flag). I think this negative tone is also a result of an English sense of humour, so may not need to be taken all that seriously throughout.
The book gives a good idea of some writing conventions, which is helpful. It is stuck somewhere between a catalogue of styles and genres, and a collection of suggestions for ways to get your work to the right types of audience. It isn’t a writers’ self-help book, like lots of books about writing end up being. It is dry, and at times a bit aggressive about the challenges of the job.
The Audible version of this book is read by Quantick himself, which in most cases, I would think is an advantage. Writing funny is hard. Reading funny is also a bit hard, as it turns out. I feel like the dry delivery of his often deadpan content is mostly great, but in parts, lacks the pizzazz of timing, which you may well put into the text yourself if you were reading it, rather than listening to it.
So, am I empowered to write everything? Not really, but the book did give me some good pointers of things to think about as an early-career writer. Particularly, its advice in terms of the commercial adventure of writing, and in remembering the importance of style guides, was good for me to hear.
I am writing more, and more regularly, which is progress. Reading this book was part of the ‘well, I wanna write, so I should maybe learn more about the process of writing’. It’s grown my self-built curriculum a bit (the Stephen King book, On Writing is now in my Audible library). And, the book made me want to write some genres that a) I’ve never really wanted to write before, and b) don’t think I’d necessarily be any good at, but gave me enough clues to suggest it would be worth trying.
Also, I got my first big idea that got me excited about my novel after this book, even though it’s for another book/sitcom/episodic comedy thing altogether: the story of a pair of sisters who run an AirBnB in a block of flats. Oh, wait, that’s millennial Fawlty Towers…
Well, we’ll see.
Have you read How to Write Everything? What did you think about it?