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Jo-Anne Richards

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The secrets behind the practice of good writing: It’s a matter of trust

16-novemberReading and writing creates a two-way exchange. It’s a matter of trust. The reader must trust their imagination to the writer, who in turn must trust and believe in their readers.

This is a little mantra of mine, which I’m always telling our writing participants. Readers are clever. Don’t insult their intelligence.

And yet, often,we can’t help ourselves. I keep coming across instances in our mentoring work (and sometimes in my own – hopefully now only in my early drafts). A writer will show something perfectly … and then go on to hammer it home by explaining.

Jane couldn’t speak. Her throat felt blocked, as though she were choking on mud. She was completely overcome by emotion.

Readers are skilled in picking up the cues, just as we are in real life. When we read, we notice the slightest significance. I’ve been reading a book about a couple who met among the Armenian refugees in Aleppo, at the time of the genocide. The story of their grand-daughter, who researches their history, runs parallel.

The early part of their relationship, naturally, occurs in fraught and terrifying circumstances, but the grand-daughter portrays their later relationship in America as happy and strong. Except … among the references to laughter and love, she makes a passing remark about their grandmother’s periodic descent into “moodiness”, during which times she was told to leave her alone.

From the time it’s mentioned, we readers are primed to see this “moodiness” as significant. Something else happened, beyond the horrors we know she witnessed as a refugee camp nurse. Some secret, yet to be revealed, worried her to the end of her days. It’s something we’ll read on to discover.

The lesson is that you can be as subtle as you like. You don’t have to pound home the fact that something bothered her, something she didn’t speak about – and which their descendant will discover and reveal to us. You can make the barest mention of a mood that descends sometimes … it’s enough.


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My 2016 blogs will continue to try to uncover the secrets behind the practice of good writing.

Please join the discussion and if you have discovered something that has made a great difference to some aspect of your writing, please send it to me. I’ll share it on the blog and we can discuss it.

Each blog will deal with a secret that may have occurred to me through reading or mentoring other people’s work. Or they may  be lessons hard learnt through five of my own books. Many will be applicable to fiction and non-fiction, while some might refer to one or the other.  When you tackle a piece of writing, you always have a vision of the perfect work it will be. As you write, you become increasingly aware of how it falls short of the perfection you wish for it. Writing (and rewriting) is the process of trying to bring it as close as you possibly can to that vision. Here, I will try to share those little gems which should bring all our writing one step closer to the perfect piece of writing – one blog at a time. Some might tackle the process of writing or how to keep writing, while some will look at language, characterisation or story. Some might be more general, while others will be very specific. But each will be a piece of advice that I believe in and that I hope will help make us all into better writers.



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