A speech at the awards
ceremony for the Libros International Children’s Writing Competition, 20
Like the students who entered this
competition, I started writing when I was quite young. I wrote a lot of
poetry in my early teens. I wrote a novel when I was 18 and another when I
was 20. Thankfully all of that was long ago put in the bin. Actually I lent
the second novel to a friend – it was hand written and, of course, the only
copy. I lost contact with the friend and I never saw the novel again.
Perhaps his aesthetic judgment was better than mine.
One thing I have done since August 1973 is
keep a journal. I am told that writers like to call them “commonplace
books”. They aren’t diaries.. They’re a cross between a scrapbook and a
notebook, like an artist’s sketchbook. You come across something you think
is worth recording and you write it down. Sometimes it might be a review of
a book or a concert. You might be doing research on some topic and need a
place to keep notes. And there might be just stupid things that crop up.
Here’s some examples:
A restaurant menu in Greece offers
“stuffed corsettes”. And how about this for the importance of proof
reading? What a difference one letter can make! A restaurant menu in
Chinatown, London, offered – Braised crap with ginger and spring
onions and Chicken in spit. More seriously, a proverb in Kikamba that
I noted when I lived in Kenya reads: “Nyamu inynugaa kitheka ki ikomie – An
animal smells of the forest in which it slept.” The man who taught me the
proverb said that it would always apply to me and my memories of Kenya.
And then there’s a section where I
describe an old madman who used to hang around in the market place in the
town where I lived. One day he cursed me so that I would change into a
snake. Ten years later he became chapter five of my book, Mission.
When I lived in Brunei, I was invited to
meet Queen Elizabeth when she made a visit there. I have saved all the
documents telling me how I should address her, how to bow and how we should
not worry because she was good at putting people at ease. Sir Ivan Callan
introduced the woman to my right as Jan, saying, “This is Jan. She’s about
to set off on the Chay Blythe Round The World Yacht Race”. Mrs Queen
immediately said, “You must be mad!”. Sir Ivan smiled and moved on to me.
“This is Phil, who organises all the concerts for Brunei Music Society”.
“Yuk”, said Mrs Queen and moved on. It’s all recorded in the commonplace
The real use of the journal is to support
you when you get an idea that needs fleshing out. OK, you have the idea, but
then with luck you have hundreds of snippets of information, observations
and background that can be woven together to make it more interesting – and
it’s all real! It takes time and it’s hard work, but the results are
I have read all of the winning and
commended entries and I do want to say a very big “Well done” to all of you.
I thought the stories were exciting and very well written. Those of you who
have a real interest in writing should try to develop it because you are all
talented. I do, however, want to offer some advice on how you might develop
that talent, and I think that this advice applies to just about all of the
Imagine yourself in a place you don’t know
too well, such as someone else’s house, a shop or a restaurant, for
instance. You walk past a door that says “PRIVATE” in big letters. Would you
go in? I don’t think so.
Now I can understand that most of you have
been reading Harry Potter and watching Lord of the Rings and other
fantasies. I read Lord of the Rings as a teenager when it was a cult book,
like Harry Potter is now. So I can understand when most of you start to
write you think in terms of fantasy worlds, elves, goblins, ghosts,
gryphons, gorgons, gargoyles and giants. But it’s also worth remembering
that you are inventing a private world. A reader comes to your work and
finds a door marked PRIVATE. Sometimes, obviously, it works, but a lot of
the time readers will not go through that door. It’s private, after all.
I think that the way a really good writer
works is to meet you in your own world, your own experience or your own
knowledge, and then by suggestion gently takes you somewhere new, introduce
you to different ideas and different ways of seeing the world. This doesn’t
mean that all writing has to be set in the here and now. No. for instance,
from our history lessons we all know something about the First World War,
though it is unlikely that any of us in the room experienced it. But as a
writer you can set your work in that period because it is common knowledge.
Your reader will be with you from the start. A very great English writer,
for instance, called Pat Baker has set several of her novels in that period.
So if I have any advice to offer budding
young writers it’s this. Try to find your own roots as a writer, as a person
and as a creator. Try to relate your ideas to a time and place you know or
know something about. And draw the reader into your world by starting on
common ground, not in a private world.
And how do you do that? You ROT. R – O –
T. Read, Observe, Think.
R is for read. Read, read, read – and when
you read something, review it. And say more than just what happens in the
book. A student of mine once offered me a review of a book called Ali Goes
to Market. His review was, “It’s a book about Ali. He goes to market”. I
rejected his review. So read and review and write your thoughts into your
O is for observe. There’s a world out
there. We inhabit it. Look at it, describe it. If you come across something
of interest, make a note of it and how you felt or how it affected you. In
our world, giants don’t change into mice and lizards with red eyes don’t
fire laser guns. But millions of other things even more surprising, more
interesting and less predictable do happen.
And T is for Think. Take time to think, to
reflect on what you experience and, if you think it’s interesting, write it
So to conclude, make public worlds and not
private ones and ROT in your commonplace book, read, observe and think, and
then make your notes. As writers it is our aim to communicate and to do that
in a public, not a private place.