Insights on Writing from Booker Prize Winner Howard Jacobson

Last night, I had the privilege to attend a talk from this year’s Man Booker Prize winner, Howard Jacobson. I luckily obtained a free ticket via the university (though tickets were only £10 anyway). It was my first venture into the British Library(!) which, as it turns out, is a very impressive and welcoming place.

I haven’t read anything by Jacobson… I must admit, I hadn’t actually heard of him until the event, and I hadn’t been following the Man Booker Prize… Prizes don’t particularly interest me, because of their subjectivity and exclusivity. I’m no where near the stage when I can start to dream of nominations and wins…!

But he was a fantastic public speaker. Very insightful, and very funny. I liked his views on literary prizes: they’re not the driving force of writing, but once you know they are out there, you think it would be nice to have one!

Howard Jacobson’s writing insights:

- Don’t give your characters boring names. ‘I don’t want to read about Paul and Jane!’ Some of Jacobson’s character’s names include: Sefton Goldberg, Julian Treslove, Sam Finkler…

- Plot is boring. ‘I don’t read a book to find out “who dunnit”‘ – for Jacobson, the best novels are character driven. A fan of Dickens, he said Great Expectations is a great novel, because even though it is driven by plot, the revelation at the end changes the character of Pip, and so it is more about character growth than anything else.

- Don’t plan. Otherwise it sounds too much like plot, and you end up forcing the novel to direct it towards your pre-planned scenes.

- Know your characters by writing them. Jacobson says he doesn’t know anything about his characters until he starts writing about them, and the novel then shapes around them.

- Edit as you go. This doesn’t work for everyone, but I have heard this technique from many authors. Don’t write a first draft and then go back and edit it, but edit each sentence as you write them. Jacobson says on a bad day, he will write one sentence.

- Write what you know. Now, Jacobson didn’t directly say this, but it was implied. He said the only novels he had to abandon (after only writing a few pages), were the ones in which he tried to be like James Joyce or the like. Instead, he found himself writing about things that were much closer to his current situation. Sometimes so much so that he had to move after a novel was published because too many of his colleagues would recognise themselves in the story!

Of course, what works for Howard Jacobson won’t work for everyone. But it was incredibly interesting being able to have a little insight into the way the Booker Prize winner writes.

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4 thoughts on “Insights on Writing from Booker Prize Winner Howard Jacobson

  1. Good summary. I was so busy laughing I forgot to take notes. I thought he was very eloquent on the territory where comedy and tragedy sometimes meet – the black laugh, the grinning wince. The Finkler Question is rich with seams of comedy and pathos that cross and blend.

  2. Thanks Sandra and Tim.

    Tim, this is just from what I remembered. Thanks for adding the note about the fine line between comedy and tragedy. I'd also forgotten to mention how HJ said that all writers had thin skin, otherwise they wouldn't be writers!

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