Writing and Reading for Pleasure: Can You Teach Yourself to Write? | Douglas Burcham

Douglas Burcham continues his writing and reading for pleasure posts by posing the question — can you teach yourself to write?


Monday 1st June 2015 is the five-year anniversary of my frightening dream in the early hours in France when I started to write. 

I will open a bottle of Clairette de Die to mark the occasion. My reflections on what the last five years have given me are as follows.

  • Writing has given me a new source of interest and purpose in my life when previous physical activities were beginning to be less satisfying and easy to do because of natural processes of aging and energy loss. Despite fighting these forces hard, the gradual decline is unfortunately inevitable. Sudoku and crosswords are insufficient. I had been looking for a new interest for several years. Other ambitions of learning to play the piano well, walking round the coast of the UK and scrambling up those big mountains in Scotland will now remain unfulfilled.
  • At the start of most years, for as long as I can remember, I recall making a new year’s resolution to read more and improve my handwriting. Stephen King’s exultation to read more did therefore not take much effort to accede to with my reading, increasing from 1 to 3 to 5 million words a year since 2010. There have been some great reads and despite trips to charity shops for recycling, I am running run out of bookshelf space – accommodating books read and kept, plus those kept for research and awaiting a read.
  • My writing and reading has provided much food for my brain in stimulus and recall of events in my life. I started writing my dull biography several years ago but writing unusual fiction means I can use these memories and spice them up for all the impossible things I would love to be able to do.
  • I have met many new people both face to face and on the web and have gained knowledge of writing, publishing, setting up and running web pages and writing groups. After two and a half years, I found a writing friend. I have visited printing works and attended seminars and conferences and tried to sell my first book from a table at a book fair.
  • In my first three score and ten years of my life, I experienced a few downs in the immediate and wider family but I count myself very lucky I have not had a major accident or illness. I also had a very interesting and fulfilling life at work. My wife and children have given support to writing as dad’s new mad interest. However, the grim reaper has probably started to walk towards me and several of his outriders in the form of Feeling Unwell have haunted me especially during the last two years. So far, I have kept ahead but their tentacles are not far behind, providing a big spur to finish all my books and deposit them in the public domain.
  • One of the best things I did in 2010 was to set myself a target of writing a million words and then to achieve this target in draft format in January 2014. The spur to doing this was a friend’s comment about “You will never write a book!” YWNWAB! the title of my first and only published book. The downside is that writing uses up too much of my available time and other less important things like decorating, repairs and keeping up with life’s paperwork have suffered. Since January 2014, when I set out to self-edit and restructure, I feel I have been in the doldrums.
  • Another decision has also not helped this state. Following considerable effort in publishing YWNWAB! In September 2013, I decided I would just take all my books up to pre-publishing stage, but otherwise “Write and read just for pleasure”. This has allowed me the opportunity to write for TIPM every month since this time last year. The problem with this strategy is there is nothing to give me a kick up the backside to complete my books. Mick Rooney has provided gentle heat on me to make sure I produce a monthly post and I have appreciated his encouragement and wise counsel. The posts have helped me clarify what I am doing and in this post where I am going next. Despite a little denial at times, one does need a plan when writing and reading.
  • Managing a vast number of computer files and paper notes and cuttings has not been a complete success but I hope I have not lost too many gems of story and plots.


Can writing be self-taught?

Having completed the reflections I will now attempt to answer this question. I do not believe my writing has been very efficient, leading me to consider if I had my time over again whether I could isolate myself and write to completion. I had the shock of realising last year how little physical space a million words printed off takes up in Arial 12 font. All fitted in a size 12 shoebox! A paltry visual return for the thousands of hours devoted to writing during the last five years.

I have often wondered whether it would it be possible to lock myself away with say six books about writing and six fiction books representing good examples of the craft and then produce a good book? (Whatever this is!)

My answer is not clear-cut, with both yes and no elements. Being shut away, I would benefit from concentrated effort and not spend as much time as I have thinking about writing wondering where to go instead of doing the writing. I reflect writing is lonely enough without cutting off outside contact.

The first six books I have selected are about the craft of writing and publishing. Certainly, there is no shortage of books about how to write market and publish.

Book 1

When I started writing my daughter gave me a copy of Helen Corner and Lee Weatherly’s teach yourself book Writing a blockbuster.

Given the book was a present from my daughter and my first book about writing I have some emotional attachment to the book. However, it is also greater than this because I have dipped into the book on many occasions. As indicated in an earlier post the main thing I gained from the book was not to go mainstream publishing after reading Helen’s chapter on marketing a book for publication. From this book, an answer to my question is yes.

Book 2

I will credit learning about Stephen King’s book On Writing to Gary Smailes of BubbleCow who in 2011 did a professional edit of my first book; a 100,000 word draft of Gemini.

I have kept in touch with Gary, who also in 2011 confirmed my decision not to go the mainstream publishing route. Given the external professional edit and his advice, this would indicate a no to my question. However, reading On Writing is a big yes! Gary said he enjoyed my writing but found it unusual and hard to place in a genre. I took this to be a positive comment, dismissing any thought of this being editor’s code for rubbish!

Books 3

(and one of the second six) another landmark for the yes camp was finding John Braine’s book Writing a Novel and then reading Room at the Top written in the first person.

Book 4

Monica Wood’s Description in More about How to Write a Million.

As previously posted, I have a high regard for this book and it is a positive answer to my question.

Book 5

Robert McKee’s Story: Substance Structure Style  

I have a string interest in relating words to pictures and so this book is another yes. Watching films and considering book structures is a useful exercise.

Book 6

How Novels Work by John Mullan.

This book – by linking comments about how to write with examples from a list of 32 books – was successful enough to be issued in paperback and I can link it to my five-book selection about how the above books are relevant, and to the six books below which illustrate the writer’s craft.

The following are my selection of Stephen King’s “Read other writer’s books”. Any list you make will be very personal to your tastes related to what you wish to write about. I think the overriding issues are; writing about something you know about, having sufficient interest to do in depth research if required, plus writing what you enjoy. I have not specified links to Amazon for the books.

John Mullan says in his introductory first sentence:

Some books we read once and some we go back to. The literature we most value is what we revisit.

I warm to this view. He goes on to make points about books being memorable, weighing up whether it is about how the book is written or what it is about. He favours the former. I favour the latter as most books I remember fondly trigger thoughts about the story rather than how it was written.

Despite wanting to write to a good standard of English in my books, I do not think this is important as an element in the memories of books, where the key factor is the content and the story. Like house purchase – location, location, location … book reading is to me about story, story, story …

I continue to be amazed about the sudden magic and buzz I have when I “get a point” made repeatedly in the books above after learning by doing. Often these are about issues overlooked earlier by me, editors and others who have read my draft words. Over five years I have probably forgotten more writing advice than I have retained.

Books for reading 7 – 12

I repeat this is an area of personal choice. One only has to read book reviews to see one person’s five-star read is another’s one-star. Maybe the three to five-star reviewer is more likely to publish a review than the two and one-star reader so the likes and dislikes on book reading may be more balanced than the bestseller book reviews make out where near 70 to 80% are three-star and above.

I would select six books from authors in the following list for my shoebox.

Current authors; Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Pat Barker, Kate Atkinson, Lee Child and Robert Harris. Older authors; Alistair Maclean, Ranulph Fiennes, HG Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I have great intentions to read again books by these authors I have already read, but my book pile is too high. I do not like all their books.

Making up a photo of my shoebox, I found some of the following to hand.

DB pic 1

  • Science Fiction – HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. I have probably read this four or five times. I like the visitors from Mars, writing in the first person and the anonymity of the narrator. I recall a terrified first hearing as a wireless play when in my early teens with hairs standing up on my neck.
  • Thriller – A Maclean’s Fear is the Key. I have read this at least three times and like the structure of the plot and its twists and turns between villains and goodies.
  • War / Historical Semi Fiction – Pat Barker’s Regeneration. (I see one can cheat and buy the trilogy in one volume.) The technical background using real people as a skeleton is brilliant and an approach I would love to be able to imitate but I believe I lack the writing skill and patience for the research.
  • Historical Semi Fiction – Julian Barnes’ Arthur and George.
  • Thriller – Lee Child’s Killing Floor, his first book, or Trip Wire, both written in the first person.
  • Life – John Braine’s Room at the Top.
  • Crime – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Valley of Fear.

Whoops, seven books already! It is so easy to pile them up. All the above are books I would read again slowly as a main meal and not as a quick snack as I would many thrillers. I could easily add more … especially those I have seen adapted into films where the memory of the book is reinforced in most cases:

  • A rare short Stephen King book, Shawshank Redemption (tightly written)
  • The Reader: a great explosive revelation. The book and film are both excellent. The film left me with a wish to read book for more details.
  • The Pledge: I originally heard this on radio on BBC 4 Play. The film was not as good as the book and play. Sometimes films are not as good as books and this is certainly one.
  • John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes and others. The key factor is that the reader feels threatened.
  • On war – Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient: the technical background and bomb disposal.

Many of the books are quite short, about 250 pages. Of all the writing skills, readability I think is one of the most important. Testing the pages of bestsellers shows this and some of my writing, which is at its simplest, scores highly. This post is 64% with a few passive sentences. (MS Word indicates.) Bestselling authors reach 70 to 85% and Lee Child scores highly.

As previously indicated, I am a strong advocate of learning by doing and did this in 2010 for my own writing, a parallel to showing (not telling) or active (not passive). Five years on, I realise as much as I read about how to write, there is no substitute for writing experience. I have been put off creative writing courses by attending short seminars where the presenters peddle their own particular list of key factors and even when notes have been issued, I find a book or a web post a much more useful guide about how to write. I read a recent headline, which caused me to chuckle, “Stranger than fiction – adopted sisters meet on writing course.”

I like Stephen King’s approach in On Writing where I understand he is saying read what I am saying because I have written a few successful books, but I am not worried if you take my advice or not. This is very different from those teachers of writing and editors who say you must do this or must do that in a rigid formulaic way. I am amused when I hear them complaining about their own publishers asking them to follow similar rigid paths and when I find to my surprise their books receive mixed reader reviews.

Elizabeth George says, “The art of writing is what you do once you become familiar with the craft.” – i.e. the opposite of what I believe. Another reason for my view is the number of lovely people I have encountered who have been on expensive creative writing courses and lecture me about “show not tell” and “three act structure” and have yet to start writing.

Overall, I think I could have spent less time thinking about how to write and publish. There is a balance between doing and live interaction with people if only to provide an incentive to write about something different or in a way not tried before. I am thankful to my local writing group for pushing me down several new paths including this morning a new opening chapter of Gemini about waking up. Alas, clean sheet writing is so much more enjoyable than self editing and restructuring.

Web posts have also been good for the those I found useful but a heavy overhead in time for the many which have not lived up to expectations. I will enlarge in another later post.


Breaking news, shock horror

Admission by non-selling author Douglas Burcham – he is thinking about publishing his books as a spur to getting them finished.

One way I see out of the doldrums I have been in since January 2014 is to start publishing again and to convert the title of this post from Writing and Reading for Pleasure to Writing, Reading and Publishing for Pleasure. 

Striving to self publish might provide a kick up the behind I need to complete rather than procrastinate.

I feel a little shame-faced over contemplating this change of direction given some of my comments during the last year about publishing, but sometimes in life, one has to admit defeat, change course and move on.

Part of the reason is meeting up with Tony Riches of The Writing Desk who has shown me how to convert my MS word files into Kindle Book format ready for uploading onto Amazon as e-books. If I can do this without too much trouble and cost, I will achieve two ends; one, completing my draft books and, second, leaving them available to read for posterity whether they sell or not. I am looking at simple cover design as well. Whether I do this in chunks of 16,000 words or larger is still up in the air. Rather than publish complete book after book, I have in mind to publish parts of a number of books perhaps in order of start to finish. There are potentially sixty chunks of 16k each. Michael Frayn says in a recent newspaper article:

There should be a law establishing 20,000 words as the target length for a book – if you write more you get taxed so much per word. We’d all get through life a lot quicker. 

Maybe I also need to use fewer glue words: what, the, do, mean, by, around, like, …

Once I have over 100k words on Amazon, I will change the title of the TIPM post … 20k in Ywnwab! so far.

Good reading, writing and publishing to you all as always …


DouglasDouglas Burcham started writing on 1st June 2010 and has not stopped since. He was saved from the clutches of vanity publishing by Mick Rooney of TIPM in July 2010. In May 2013, his characters, including his fantasy twin brother Alexander, took all his fiction writing and set themselves up as the Allrighters with other writing friends. They self-published a book of short stories ‘Ywnwab!’ in September 2013. In their 2014 and 2015 Writing Plans, by working in 16 to 18K word bites, Douglas, along with the Allrighters, are trying to convert a million words of draft writing completed in January 2014 into several reader friendly books totalling 900,000 words of fiction and 100,000 words of non-fiction. The latter being about writing and memories of buildings, trains, boats and planes. Progress in 2014 and 2015 has been slow as Douglas and the Allrighters prefer new creative writing to editing and restructuring existing writing. A new writing plan in this June 2015 post indicates a move to early Amazon Kindle publishing as a means to complete.

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