Advice From The Master
By Caro Ness
The first real job I landed was helping to look after Roald Dahl, can you believe it? When I left university many years ago, I was lucky enough to start my career in a literary agency, Murray Pollinger, that represented Roald Dahl, amongst others. And by that, let me clarify, it was an astonishing list that included some of the greatest children’s book authors, some of whom have gone on to become Children’s Laureates – Anne Fine (Madame Doubtfire), Dame Jacqueline Wilson (of Tracy Beaker fame) and Michael Morpurgo (best known for War Horse) and Booker Prize winners, Penelope Lively and J.M. Coetzee not to mention other Carnegie Medal, Whitbread Award and Smartie Prize winners.
I always wanted to write myself and naturally, some of the best advice came from the great man himself, Roald Dahl. When I asked his advice he was characteristically generous with it. There were five really important points:
“Know your reader.”
The first thing that Roald drummed home to me is always being mindful of your audience and speak directly to them. Dahl was always happiest in a child’s company because, as he said, “There is no artifice in them. What you see, is what you get!” He was the same; he did not mince his words, he treated his readers (regardless of their age) as his peers, he said what he meant and he wrote what he knew would make both himself and children happy. Which is why he continues to be the most loved of children’s authors of all time.
“Be concise and clear.”
The next piece of advice was “less is always more”, and I have always attempted to follow this recommendation as a writer. When you are in full flow, it is easy to get carried away by your own rhetoric but don’t be tempted! Over elaborate text is likely to put off your reader completely. If you find the right words and use them as economically but as graphically as possible, your reader can and will paint the picture you are striving to describe in his/her own head. And, in all probability, far better and than you!
“Don’t be repetitive.”
It may seem ridiculous to say this but this is so easy to do when you are trying to make a particular point. So follow creeds number one and two, and bear in mind that it is far more engaging for a reader if you make your point by nailing it from the first with simple, direct text.
“Put your work away.”
Roald always said, and so did other great authors we represented, that if you could afford the luxury of time, it was always a good idea to put your book away and come back to it once you had had time away from it and could gain some perspective. If you know an avid reader who is prepared to read it and comment/give advice, then great but in the absence of that, just give your text a holiday! When you come back to it, you will always find passages that you could improve upon! You might even find that you say to yourself “what was I thinking?!”
“Humour always works.”
I think we all know that humour is the surest way to attract a reader but it is a hard thing to do well. A good joke is one with a great punchline or denouement, humour is also at its best when it is understated, so you, the reader, flesh out the details a little. Dahl was a master of humour because he knew what made people giggle, no matter their age. We all remember text that makes us laugh or smile… and with Dahl there were so many times! I remember well reading Dahl’s version of Little Red Riding Hood in Revolting Rhymes for the first time: “Once more the maiden’s eyelid flickers, She pulls a pistol from her knickers.” Or the BFG and his “whizzpopping”. Or, indeed, the irony of the fact that the police, eating a roast leg of lamb, are consuming the murder weapon because the victim was hit over the head with it when it was frozen in Lamb to the Slaughter from Tales of the Unexpected. So work at getting your humour right because it will always serve you well.
Caro Ness is a publishing industry expert. She has worked as an author’s agent, editor, rights director and is also an established award winning author. She currently writes a poetry blog that has more than 10,000 followers on social media, and she and her wife have a hugely successful cookery blog that her wife, Anita-Clare Field created two years ago. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.