10 November 2013

Professional Tips– P. D. James

P D James
P. D. James © The Times
One of the grand dames of mystery, a mistress of the post-Golden Age following Agatha Christie, P.D. James, has given us her tips for effective writing. A student of putting words on paper, I've shared tips from great authors.

As it turns out, the Baroness James has written at least two sets of tips, as noted by one of our readers, which we've gathered in one place. Important: Click the links in the headings for the full articles and explanations.

Writing Tips I, Mystery

  1. Center your mystery
  2. Study reality
  3. Create compelling characters
  4. Research, research, research
  5. Follow the 'fair-play rule'
  6. Read!
  7. … and write
  8. Follow a schedule

When working on a story, I daydream a lot, but it's creative daydreaming about the plot, as opposed to dawdling, which the grand dame refers to. There's a story about an actress wannabee who said she wanted to be a famous movie star. "Tell me," said the career counselor. "Do you want to be famous or want to be an actress?" James is saying the same thing: The goal in the front of your mind must be writing the best you can, not fantasizing about fame.

Here again is the Baroness, the inimitable Phyllis Dorothy James, with an update.

Writing Tips II, General
  1. You must be born to write
  2. Write about what you know
  3. Find your own routine
  4. Be aware that the business is changing
  5. Read, write, and don't daydream!
  6. Enjoy your own company
  7. Choose a good setting
  8. Never go anywhere without a notebook
  9. Never talk about a book before it is finished
  10. Know when to stop

And so I shall.

P D James
P. D. James © The Telegraph


  1. Dare I disagree with the lady who has been writing for a long, long time? I must. I don’t believe anyone is born to do anything, so a writer can be made or at least learn to write and do it well.

    Write what you know? How many mystery writers ever actually killed anybody? So, what they know about murder they learn through research. This means that that write what you know doesn’t refer entirely to your having experienced what you write about. Still, it’s good advice, especially for beginners.

  2. Good point Louis. I admit the 'born to write' put me off a bit. Perhaps there are natural story-tellers, but judging from a lot of the 'indy' opuses I've been trying to read, many people feel certain they're born to write.

  3. And the beat goes on. The age old question: are writers born, not made? There is no doubt that we are born with certain interests whether it be writing, music, art, sports, etc. Mozart, for example, reportedtly thought in musical terms. Does this mean he was a "born" composer? I don't think one can answer the question with any confidence. In the final analysis, does it really matter? I suppose it does to the Freuds and Jungs. But I don't really care.

    Of all PD James advice, I am in complete agreement with one: Play fair with your reader.

  4. To go along with comments from Louis and Leigh, if I was born to write, somebody forgot to tell a couple of my college professors, plus several early editors.As Benny Hill used to say in his comedy skits, "Learning, always learning."

  5. Ah, Benny Hill. My hero.

    I agree with most of the tips, but not all. I don't think you have to follow a schedule (I never have), I don't think you always have to write about what you know, and I don't think writers are necessarily born to write.

    Then again, nobody's asked ME for a list of tips . . .

  6. Herschel, I couldn't agree more as a reader, and now as a writer. Give the reader fail clues. I remember John Dickson Carr used to lay down multiple false trails that seemed so compelling!

    RT, I miss Benny Hill. He was so unlike anything I normally watch and yet he was a favorite.

  7. John, that's about to change. (evil grin)

    But like you, I didn't agree with all hers either.

  8. I need some professional tips for article writing.


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