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How to Write: Sex, Substance Abuse and What Sells

02/12/2014 17:26 GMT | Updated 31/01/2015 10:59 GMT

'We all face similar problems as creatives,' says Richard Beard, a novelist, non-fiction writer and Director of The National Academy of Writing. Beard has devised a unique system in which he publicly edits writers' work as part of NAW writing courses, public events and festivals.

'Most writing is rewriting. Again and again and again,' explains Beard at Cambridge University introducing one of his innovative public edits. Writers have a right of reply, he goes on to say, but emphasises this is not a discussion or a workshop. A video of the process can be see here.

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'Be selfish. Note what is useful to you, not what you think you ought to do,' is Beard's advice. He always begins with the definition of the genre he thinks the piece belongs to because the reader as well as the writer needs to know their expectations. 'By the way, I make these genres up,' he laughs. 'I think: what does this piece make me think of?'

What follows is a thorough, thoughtful and generous edit of two students' work, both of which have sex as the subject. The process has one principle: to focus on the text and what follows is insightful, constructive and above all practical. 'That is the most scrutiny I have ever had for my writing,' says one of the students, thanking him.

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Alan Hollinghurst author of the The Swimming-Pool Library, his sex-soaked first book takes the floor after the public edit. A student asks, 'How do you motivate yourself? How do you get to your desk?'

'I remain infinitely lazy and distractible,' is Hollinghurst's reply. He goes on to describe how he writes with the assistance of coffee in the morning and red wine in the evening. These happen to be my two writing crutches of choice, but the speakers are quick to tell students that they would not advocate substance abuse.

Another student wants to know if his sexuality helps with his writing. 'Being gay saved Maurice in E. M. Forster's book because it turned him into a critic of his own society,' says Hollinghurst and agrees that an element of that may be true for his writing.

I first met Richard Beard on a Arvon writing course and shortly afterwards enrolled with NAW. I have written a number of travel books but never my own creative project. As my material is essentially memoir, I was in danger of becoming swamped by the psychology of my own story. I had the building blocks of the idea but the form seemed out of reach.

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Beard instantly proposed a workable and inspiring structure. With the suggestion of a supporting arch of tension here and a soaring spire of description there, it was as if I had met an architect who could form the vision of a cathedral out of the rubble of ideas around my feet. Unlike many writing schools, NAW is focussed on getting writers published, to get them agents and into print, which inevitably means looking at what sells. To this end, it offers practical support by professional writers.

'I want to ask you an annoying but I think a relevant and important question that authors always get asked at literary festivals. Do you use a pen or a word processor?' Beard asks Hollinghurst, who insists he is not annoyed at all.

He goes on to describe how he initially wrote with pen and paper but increasingly uses a computer. 'Is it a pleasure?' Richard asks. 'Diminshingly,' laughs Hollinghurst.

There are estactic occasions. Rarely though and god knows how. I find writing novels harder and harder. With any other profession you expect it to get easier, with writing it seems to be the reverse. I would have thought I would have learnt how to do it by now.