Small screen: Novel programming

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Indy Lifestyle Online
We all have a novel in us. Anyway, that's the view of the author, Nigel Williams, who presents The Write Stuff, a new three-part BBC2 series on the art of novel writing. "Everyone has the ability to tell stories," he argues. "Look at News At Ten. You get fantastic storytelling from eye-witnesses with wonderful natural eloquence. You even see it on Beadle's About." Surely not.

"Storytelling is one of the most primal urges," he continues. "It's part of how we communicate with each other and make our lives more interesting. You hear young kids doing it all the time. 'I went to the garage and did this and that,' they'll say. They talk in stories which are neither true nor false, but somewhere in between."

Williams dubs his series a "DIY programme". Rather more highbrow than, say, Home Front, The Write Stuff is nevertheless full of pragmatic hints and tips. "In some ways, writing is like changing a bicycle tyre, and certain handy rules can help. In the past, we had always used literary television programmes as biographies rather than guides to creative writing. There is a fantastic hunger for information which might help people who want to write a book. For example, talking seriously about writing is a way you can learn how to do it. Look at the incredible strike- rate of those creative writing courses. McEwan and Ishiguro came out of the University of East Anglia, for instance.

"Joseph Heller says soaking yourself in the environment is how you start, while Kingsley Amis's advice is always to read your work aloud, even if it's only to the wall. That stuck in my mind."

In the first episode, Williams also emphasises the importance of discipline. "Once you've found a ritual, sticking to it does help. Alan Bennett says that writing is really about making an endless series of cups of tea."

The significance of the novel's opening line cannot be underestimated, either. "The most important thing is that the first sentence should have life. Your beginning should make you feel as if someone you would like to be with has just breezed into the room."

In The Write Stuff, JRR Tolkein recalls the way in which he started one of the most famous novels in the world. He found a blank script in a pile of school exam papers he was marking and "I remember scribbling on it: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit'."

Some critics will no doubt contend that writing is much more about inspiration than perspiration and that trying to teach it is a waste of time. As you might expect, Williams disagrees. "I didn't want to say, 'Hey, I'm such a big cheese'. I just thought that writing can be taught. Those who say it can't be are denying their own education."

A former editor of both the Omnibus and Bookmark strands, and a novelist in his own right, Williams is well aware of the inherent problems of dealing with books on television. "There is obviously a conflict between television, a medium about visual images and the quick-fix, and novels. When I ran Bookmark, the better the films were, the further they moved away from the actual books. But TV must continue to cover books. It needn't just be four people sitting round a table discussing novels."

Williams laughs that he tries not to come across as an "evangelist", but there is no doubting his passion for novels. "Books give you the most direct contact with another imagination. It's like someone talking to you. You have to bring more to a book. Everyone reads a Mozart symphony in the same way, but you'll find people who'll argue that, say, Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby is a sympathetic character.

"That is also why repressive regimes get much more exercised about novels than cinema - because they can control cinema. But with novels, one guy like Salman Rushdie can produce this wave of challenging stuff. The novel is so vibrant simply because its creation is an incredibly uncensored activity. It is just the writer and a piece of paper, and then the reader and a piece of paper."

For all his enthusiasm, however, Williams does have concerns about the future of the novel. "It's paradoxical because we read more books than anyone apart from the Finns, but I still worry about a culture in which books are less important than they were.

"While European critics tend to over-praise books, we err on the side of saying 'That was a load of old rubbish'. The preference for the soundbite is getting stronger and stronger and undermining literary culture. Intelligent 16-year-olds today are saying: 'Books? yeah, but I'd rather watch Trainspotting."

'The Write Stuff' begins at 7.30pm on Friday on BBC 2