Stephen Fry’s Novel Writing Advice: Tips on Overcoming Fear of the Blank Page and Aspiring to Literary Greatness

Stephen Fry is a master of the English language. He grew up in a house with colossal bookcases filled with classic works of literature and would use them as medicine cabinets to treat his childhood insomnia. He said in a TV interview1)http://www.boreme.com/posting.php?id=30997#.WM1uERiZO2x, he read the dark Dostoyevsky classic Crime and Punishment when he was just eight.

Although Fry has had a successful career as an actor, comedian, audiobook narrator, and TV host, he has also written several acclaimed fiction books as well as a non-fiction guide to writing poetry, a hobby in which he privately partakes.

In 2010, while giving a talk at Hong Kong University, Fry was asked by a student for advice on writing better. This talk was not recorded for television, but luckily someone was able to document it on their phone2)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SX4LI9jANg.

I have transcribed the recording below and added my own commentary. If you feel as though you have a masterpiece inside you but lack the confidence or commitment to put words to paper, Fry’s novel writing advice will be a great aid on your journey toward literary confidence.

Q. How do I overcome fear of the blank page and actually write my novel?

Stephen Fry: I suppose the first thing I’d say is that everybody writes when they speak. It’s just very odd how people think writing is an incredibly separate and incredibly different behavioral pursuit to that of everyday conversation. It’s merely your conversation — it’s your thoughts — but instead of them stringing out in real time, in the mind’s eye you can go back and correct them. So you’ve got control over time. So I can now go back and edit what I’ve just said to make it more adequate. That’s essentially what writing is. We all know that. But as Elliot said, “Between the desire and the performance falls the shadow.3)“Between the idea, And the reality. Between the motion, And the ac. Falls the Shadow”― T.S. Eliot

And I’m sure many of you in this room, because I’m sure most human beings at some point in their life have probably tried to write, what is sometimes rather off-puttingly called “creatively.” And that is where the shadow has fallen. Because you can all speak. You all have ideas. You probably all have stories to tell or ideas in assemblage. But this shadow has fallen.

And I suppose there are two things that cause it to fall. One is that we have to appreciate what astonishingly hard work it is to produce a book. I don’t think I can name anybody who has produced any book who the shadow hasn’t fallen on, because they have at least discovered how hard it is just in terms of labour to produce eighteen thousand words plus, the average length of the novel say. And they have gone through the problems of throwing away the first chapter seventeen times. Starting again, and starting again. And they have labored through it even if the work is not great. They deserve applause for that. Anybody who can do that has started off.

And I sometimes think maybe there are too many writers in the world. We don’t like the competition. Or there aren’t enough. But I think the important thing to do for those who want to liberate their writing is to be able to let go of their self-consciousness, to allow the words to write for them. Because that’s the second shadow. And if there is any way that you can stop worrying about whether what you’re writing is literary, brilliant, elegant, and original, to stop worrying far too much.

I mean as with all things, there’s a kind of paradox. Because craftsmanship and burnishing and taking care of each sentence is a beautiful part of writing. On the other hand, a self-conscious desire to mint new phrases all the time can get in the way of the reader. You know when you are reading a book, sometimes you can actually forget that your eyes are scanning print and you are lost in a strange kind of experience—a relationship between language and story or whatever it is that is being fed to you. And at other times keep having to start again because you’re unconscious, and that’s often because of the writing.

So I suppose we all are embarked on a journey trying to be writers. And what we try and do is overcome the labor and overcome self-consciousness. Well, initially anyway.

Stephen says that the two biggest obstacles—or shadows—blocking us from writing our novel or short story is the acknowledgment of the immense work ahead and the criticism we fear we’ll receive if our work isn’t amazing.

As for doing the work and overcoming fear of the blank page, there is no better solution than a strict daily writing habit. Steven Pressfield, author of the excellent anti-procrastination guidebook The War of Art, makes the following distinction between the amateur artist and the professional artist: the amateur artist waits for inspiration, but the professional, someone who creates for a living, works every day regardless of the output quality.

A daily writing habit will not only keep your procrastination and perfectionism in check, it will also turn the completion of a novel from a dream without a deadline to a mathematical certainty.

Pro tip: If you write just two pages per day, you will have a three-hundred page novel written in five months.

If you like to write digitally, certain writing applications can help you stay accountable. I’m writing this article on the beautiful Ulysses App. This app contains a feature that allows you to set customizable writing goals:

ulysses writing app goal setting

Another good option is the writing software Draft. This app has a really cool setting called “Hemingway Mode,” which shuts down your ability to make alterations to your text while writing. The creator of this app says, “The best advice about creativity I’ve ever received is: ‘Write drunk; edit sober’—often attributed to Ernest Hemingway.”

Q. Should I copy other writers’ style?

Stephen Fry: Between parody, pastiche, imitation, and downright plagiarism there is a sort of penumbra, I suppose. Who was it who said that, “mediocre artists borrow, great artists steal”4)Who said, “good artists borrow; great artists steal”? : http://levine.sscnet.ucla.edu/papers/b_l_review.pdf? I think parody is a very important thing when you’re young to sort of flex your muscles as a writer, or at least as any kind of artist or if you’re a composer to write parodies of Chopin or a Beatles song in the style of Liszt or a Beethoven. There’s something very prodigal about that because it reinforces what we feel about the individual voice of the writer: “Yes I recognize that style.” It’s a marvelous thing to do, but I’m not sure that parody has ever been a great art. There are great novels which have parody in. Ulysses is still a parody about many things. You can’t really doubt the great quality of that masterpiece.

I can’t comment on whether your work should contain a parody of another’s work, but I can say that from a technical standpoint, copying another artist’s work can be a great practice for one’s own artistic development.

This is not a new idea. It was common practice in Leonardo da Vinci’s day for students to copy the drawings of their masters, line for line. And what great musician has not learned through playing the work of their favorite composer?

Furthermore, copywriters are always told to learn their craft by rewriting the sales copy of more experienced copywriters. The famous copywriter Gary Halbert instructs his students to get a hold of great advertisements and then “sit down and copy them out word-for-word in your own handwriting.”

This practice is also used by novelists.

The work of the English art critic John Ruskin was so important to Marcel Proust that he claimed to know “by heart” several of Ruskin’s books, including The Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Bible of Amiens, and Praeterita5)Tadié, J-Y. (Euan Cameron, trans.) Marcel Proust: A life. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2000..

Proust also set out to translate two of Ruskin’s works into French. This close study and imitation of Ruskin’s style no doubt served as important training wheels for when the time came for him to write his own masterpiece: In Search of Lost Time.

And Hunter S. Thompson in the documentary Gonzo says that he honed his writing chops by copying out the novels, word for word, of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway on his typewriter. (You can find more examples of writer’s who copy in this article.)

You don’t have to go to the lengths of Proust or Thompson or Gary Halbert to gain benefit from imitating the work of your favorite writers. During your own reading, make a habit of saving your favorite paragraphs and practice writing them out a few times each week.

Pro tip: There is a fun website called Type Racer, which is designed to help you practice speed typing by getting you to type-race against others online. The short extracts they ask you to type are often classic passages from novels and movie scripts and can help teach your brain the pattern of good prose. The app not only improves your typing speed, but also your ability to craft great sentences.

Q. Who are your favorite writers?

Stephen Fry: My World Wide Web, my WWW, are P.G. Wodehouse, Oscar Wilde, and Evelyn Waugh, three of my greatest literary heroes. Each one of them has qualities that I aspire to.

Waugh’s simple brilliance in prose and character drawing, satirical eye, his refusal to be sentimental about anything, his refusal to allow the reader the benefits and virtues of justice and fairness in his storytelling: the bad always ends well and the good always seems to end badly.

P.G. Wodehouse was such a great craftsman, such an extraordinary master of the prose. If I could write like that I would be very, very happy indeed. And he was so modest and such a kindly soul.

And Oscar Wilde: he’s finally at the stage now earning greater and more respect than he ever has been. The prince of bohemian, the patron saint of students and artists pretty much everywhere, as big around the world as almost any English-language writer; one of the most popular artists in history in many countries, including Japan. And there is something about his kindliness of spirit. Then there’s wit, and he was a gracious, generous, and most extraordinary man. He was also the greatest essayist of all time, often forgotten.

So I think I will take a little bit of Oscar, a little bit of Waugh and al little bit of P.G Wodehouse, and I’d call myself Evelyn G. Waughhouse.

Who are your literary heroes? If you have any, how deeply have you studied their work? One of the best writing teachers in the world Roy Peter Clark calls the careful examination of another writer’s work “x-ray reading.” In his book by the same name he dissects 25 great works of literature to show you how it’s done.

Copying the works of your favorite writers is great practice, but reading and savoring their work with x-ray glasses is probably the most important thing you can do to reach new heights as a writer. Sadly, this kind of reading is becoming a lost art.

Ben Yagoda writes in in his excellent book How to Not Write Bad, that the one-word version to learning how to become a good writer is simply “Read”:

That one word refers to two things. The first is a big-picture deal: about the least quick of all possible fixes. But hear me out for a minute. Almost without exception, good writers read widely and frequently. By osmosis, they learn from the reading an incalculable amount about vocabulary, spelling, punctuation, style, rhythm, tone, and other crucial writing matters. They also pick up general random information, which also turns out to be important if you want to be a good, or even not-bad, writer.

Stephen Fry’s Novel Writing Advice Practical Takeaways:

  1. Write every day, regardless how you feel.
  2. “Write drunk; edit sober.”
  3. Copy out passages word-by-word from your favorite writers.
  4. Learn the art of “x-ray reading.”

Books Mentioned:

Apps Mentioned:

References   [ + ]

1. http://www.boreme.com/posting.php?id=30997#.WM1uERiZO2x
2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SX4LI9jANg
3. “Between the idea, And the reality. Between the motion, And the ac. Falls the Shadow”― T.S. Eliot
4. Who said, “good artists borrow; great artists steal”? : http://levine.sscnet.ucla.edu/papers/b_l_review.pdf
5. Tadié, J-Y. (Euan Cameron, trans.) Marcel Proust: A life. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2000.

Meet the Creator

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is the author of ComfortPit and the co-creator of HighExistence. He researches the practical ways art, science, psychology, technology, history, and philosophy can help us live more skillfully.

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