Friday, 7 November 2008

Stella Duffy: Mills and Boon

There was an interesting documentary on TV last night, featuring serious literary novelist Stella Duffy as she had a go at writing a Mills and Boon romance. It raised some intriguing thoughts.

  1. People still look down far too much on things that aren't 'literary' enough for their tastes. At one point Duffy said 'I write reality, not fantasy.' Which is utter nonsense. She writes a fictional representation of reality, which is really just another way of saying that it's every bit as made up as other fiction.
  2. People's writing habits vary enormously. Stella Duffy's main approach seems to have been to dive in and see what came out, with only vague mental planning beforehand. I don't know about anyone else, but I couldn't do anything without notes and plans and scribbled drawings and...
  3. Which leads us to the question of writing to a formula, or trying to second guess the market. Duffy's main problem throughout seemed to be a tension between what she wanted to write and what she thought she ought to. Maybe if you're aiming for a specific genre or area there are markers you need to hit, but even so, I have to think that writing by numbers can't work that well. Think about it, would you put up a painting that was painted by numbers.
  4. Finally, it seems that a pretty important component of writing is the desire to do the writing, or the involvement with the piece. If you're doing it just because you think a particular thing will sell, or will be easy to write, you're probably at a disadvantage compared to others who genuinely care about the type of book concerned. It took Duffy the whole documentary, not to mention a lot of time, effort and commitment, just to come up with the typical 'first three chapters plus synopsis' bundle. Which has to be about the best advert for writing what you really want to write there is.


englishcoach said...

Stu, was this on the Beeb? I can get stuff on iPlayer: currently I'm enjoying Little Dorrit. This documentary sounds interesting, could you give me the title if it's on the BBC?

stu said...

I think it may have been something like BBC Three, though I could be wrong. The title was something along the lines of 'How to write a Mills and Boon: Stella Duffy...' and was on as part of a night dedicated to that company's anniversary. Of course, it's equally possible it was one of the ITV spin offs. I'm afraid that after a certain time of night, the fine detail of TV doesn't stay with me too well.

englishcoach said...

I had a look round: BBC 3 seems to be a weird place for people of a mental age of roughly 15 with a taste for trash (the majority of the TV viewing public then). I found a Stella Duffy homepage type thing, and on their recommendation tried Beeb 4, but the prog is no longer available. Must have been a repeat.
Anyway, I'm no writer myself, but I agree with your comments: planning is essential, writing to a formula can only be sterile, and a commitment to what you're producing must surely be the sine qua non. And not watching BBC 3.

stelladuffy said...

Hmm. At the risk of compounding the misrepresentation, and some time after the fact, let's have a go :
1. at that point in my writing career I had written 5 crime novels, 5 literary novels (also a genre, completely agreed), about 30 short stories and half a dozen plays. Some might fit into the magical-realism genre, none would be considered fantasy. That’s what I said – and what I meant.
2. Yes, people’s writing habits do vary enormously. I rarely start writing a novel without thinking about it for a couple of years beforehand - though equally rarely with lengthy planning, on the rare occasions that I have planned in any detail, I quickly become bored in the actual writing. For me the main work is in 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th drafts - it's simply anther way to work, not better or worse than planning. On the other hand, if I’m asked, as a novelist who doesn’t write M&B, to see what happens when I try to write M&B, a different approach will no doubt ensue. Not least because of the presence of a camera, a producer, and just under nine days to film the whole thing (including the 36 hour whirlwind to and from Italy) WHILE writing the 3 chapters and synopsis.
3. Yep. That was the point of the documentary – it wasn’t about a writer who wanted to, or was trying to write M&B, it was about a writer who had never wanted to write M&B, trying to do it, not least to disprove the assumption that they’re simple to write and anyone can do it.
4. Yep. Definitely the point. Which is why I summed the piece up saying exactly that. Write what you want not what you think will sell, write what you want, not what you’re second-guessing the market wants. Write what you want. (ps – see aforementioned 9 days of making, I actually think it’s pretty impressive to write 3 chapters & synopsis in such a short time, while doing so much else. Wish I could be so prolific in my usual working day!)

stu said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment, though more than a year later, it did take me a while remember what all this was about.