Paul Magrs has published over fifty books including memoirs, Doctor Who novels, literary fiction, science fiction, magic realism, and gothic novels. He has a degree in English Literature, an MA in Creative Writing, and a PhD on the novels of Angela Carter. He was previously a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Anglia and Manchester Metropolitan University and has taught creative writing at many residential courses and other venues. He has co-edited The Creative Writing Coursebook and also written the book I am reviewing, The Novel Inside You.
I first started reading Paul’s work with his magnificent Brenda and Effie series. Brenda is the Bride of Frankenstein, Effie a reluctant witch and the books describe their paranormal, bizarre adventures in the coastal town of Whitby. The books are written with such warmth and humour that I had to read more of Paul’s back catalogue.
The Novel Inside You is part memoir, part writing guide with advice, stories and exercises interspersed throughout the book. Paul shares his good and bad experiences of the writing life and world, explains the theory of writing, and gives examples of his practise. It is a surprising book as most of the books I have read about writing theory have been very dry and academic. With this book I have learned a lot about writing but also about how to deal with self-doubt, writer’s block, planning, dialogue, and character. This book has a warm voice and feels like you are sat having a chat with someone while they share their life and knowledge. Just to add to the book, Paul’s beautiful paintings are scattered through the pages, bringing colour, and accentuating the topics.
The book is split into three sections: Part One: Thinking, Part Two: Doing and Part Three: Keeping On. Within each section are multiple chapters which are more like essays on a variety of topics; they are short and easy to read, so keep your attention. This makes the book a dangerous read for me, as I kept thinking that I would just read one more chapter as the time ticked on!
“Part One: Thinking” includes topics such as character building, daily memory exercises, the pleasure of eavesdropping, the language of fiction, advice for writing novels, writing what you can, knowing when a piece is not working and dealing with self-doubt. In “Dusty Verb Colour”, Paul describes the language of fiction, “I think the language of fiction is best when it seems like language in flight. Like it’s coming straight out of living people. When it gives us that wonderful illusion that, in reading these words, we’re living in real time with these people.”
Paul writes, “I think what you need to do, as a writer, is find out what makes readers want to read you. It’s about discovering the thing that is unique to you that a readership of some kind will be drawn to.”
“Part Two: Doing” has essays and exercises on finding the heart of the story, exploring character, storytelling, autobiographical writing, dialogue, writing in the third person, overwriting, planning a novel, using reading as escapism, and avoiding being a narcissistic writer.
“Getting Into It” describes the peculiar nature of fiction where there are some books you love and can get into easily and others that leave you cold. “It’s all about the presence of a strong, unique story-telling voice on the page. It is the most essential thing there is in writing. That goes in the centre and the rest is either mystery or technique.”
The exercises are simple and fun to work on, they draw out your creativity and help you to explore elements that you wouldn’t always consider. They are really useful tools to spark ideas and new thoughts. The dialogue exercise in “Info” is a great example, “A good practise to get into is keeping a note of the three best overheard lines of dialogue you hear each week. They can be funny, silly, oblique, nonsensical, sinister. Then you have to construct a short fictional scene, including dialogue that opens with that line first.”
“Part Three: Keeping On” covers subjects like advice on writing dialogue, starting again, thinking about who you are writing for, when to work, finding things that inspire you to have fun with your writing, the importance of reading and what you learn from it, planning and plotting. There are also multiple exercises about your reading choice as a child, writing a killer first line, pen pictures of people who you used to know, trialling different places, times, and mediums for your writing to see what suits you best, asking questions of your story.
“Sayso” is all about writing dialogue, Paul states, “It’s something to do with having an ability to actually listen. To take things in. To hear what someone is saying, and to start to enter into their world view. To start to experience their world as they do.”
Paul advises in “Escaping the Dust Clouds”, “Just write what you want to. Write what you can. Write the things that only you can. This should be your only mantra.”
The advice within this unusual book is freeing and encouraging. I found that I was so busy enjoying the memories and stories that Paul was sharing, that I didn’t even realise that I was learning at the same time. This is an absolute gem of a book that I will be returning to on a regular basis for inspiration and enjoyment.