Michael Morpurgo, the author of War Horse, and Philip Pullman, writer of the His Dark Materials trilogy, reveal their inspiration and share the secrets of their writing.
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I write most of my stories in the first person,
and I put myself centre stage
in almost all of the stories that I write.
Sometimes I call the main character Michael
because I can't think of anything else, I'm that pathetic.
I do put myself at the heart of a story,
particularly if I have to feel that I'm there.
For instance, I wrote a book called Private Peaceful.
I wrote this book because of one thing I came across in a museum.
I went to a place called Ypres in Belgium,
which is the site of a terrible battle in the First World War.
There's a wonderful museum there called In Flanders Field.
I was walking out of the museum in tears,
because it's such a powerful evocation of the futility of war,
as Wilfred Owen called it.
So, you come out feeling wretched,
and the last thing I saw was a little letter in a frame on the wall,
and it said "Dear Mrs so-and-so,
"we regret to inform you that your son, Private so-and-so..."
with a number,
"was shot at dawn for cowardice, on such and such a date, 1916."
Just above the little letter was an envelope ripped open.
And as I saw the rip, my mind went straight to the mother,
I could see her standing there,
knowing that it was bad news, and then discovering,
not only was her son dead, but the manner of his dying.
How terrible that must have been.
And then I thought "Hang on, it's not just good enough to feel this, find out more about it."
I went to the man at the museum and said, "How many soldiers were shot for cowardice
"in the First World War?"
And he said "Over 300, and that's just on our side."
And you just,
you just can't imagine a world where that sort of thing could happen.
I found it shocking, and then what I discovered was
that all these years later this country had not pardoned them.
I thought "Write a story about it." How do you write a story about it?
Somehow you have to find the voice that shines the camera,
if you like, at the story in the most powerful way you possibly can.
In this particular case, what I decided to do
was to tell the story from the point of view of one soldier.
There were two soldiers in my story, brothers,
and you don't know in the story which of them is going to get shot.
What you do know is that in the morning, at six o'clock,
when it always happened, something terrible is going to happen.
And you are with one of the soldiers, and I tell it in the first person.
I'm going to read you just half a page.
This was my attempt really to become a 17-year-old young man,
writing, speaking in 1916.
Five past ten. They've gone now, and I'm alone at last.
I have the whole night ahead of me,
and I won't waste a single moment of it.
I shan't sleep it away, I won't dream it away. I mustn't,
because every moment of it will be far too precious.
I want to try and remember everything, just as it was,
just as it happened.
I've had nearly 18 years of yesterdays and tomorrows,
and tonight I must remember as many of them as I can.
I want tonight to be long, as long as my life,
not filled with fleeting dreams that rush me on towards dawn.
Tonight, more than any other night in my life,
I want to feel alive.
It's tumbling upon things, you know. I was lucky enough,
privileged enough, 35 years ago to meet, in my pub at home,
in Devon, a soldier who'd been to the First World War.
I knew he was an old bloke, he was in his 80s by then.
I knew he'd been there, but I didn't know any more about him, and I hardly knew him, really.
I sat down, and had half a pint with him, and I asked a question.
I said, "What regiment were you in?"
He said "I was in the Devon Yeomanry."
And then he said something wonderful, which I never forgot, he said "I was there with 'orses."
I said "What do you mean, with horses?" He said "Well, cavalry."
And then he started talking, and we started talking.
He told me what it was like to be 17, to leave these shores, to go across
with the Yeomanry, and find himself in this appalling, appalling war.
How he felt petrified,
and how he found comfort in talking to his horse each night
when he went to feed it.
And he would talk to that horse as if it was his best friend, because it WAS his best friend.
And he meant it.
I felt, "This is the most extraordinary thing I've ever heard."
Someone who talks to a horse.
Then I thought "I'm not sure anyone has told the story of a horse,"
and maybe if you told it through the horse's mouth,
you could tell the story, not just of the British side,
or the German side, or the French side,
but a story of the universal suffering of the First World War.
You have to forget, when you're sitting in front of an empty page, I think, that you are writing.
What I've discovered is the best way to do it
is to do what most kids like doing, which is to talk a story.
You talk it, from your head, where the dreamtime has been,
down your arms, through your fingers and onto the page.
You let it flow, mistakes and all.
You don't worry about the spelling, you don't worry about punctuation.
I'm sorry, but you don't. You just get the stupid thing down there.
I think it's rather like an artist sketching.
When an artist is sketching, it's letting the line flow,
capturing somehow the image of it. That's what I do when I first write.
I tell it down onto the page, and then craft it afterwards.
What I want to talk about this morning in this circus tent,
outside a big castle, is happiness.
In relationships, people go, "Oh, I just want to make you happy."
Or "Why are you dumping me?" "I don't know, I just want to be happy.
Right? Or, as I read in the paper yesterday,
"Excuse me, sir, why are you kayaking off this 30-foot waterfall?"
"I don't know, it just makes me happy."
I want you to do one thing - write, it might be a lie,
but write "I am happy."
That's all you need to do. "I am happy."
Now, I want you to cross out the word happy, because it's rubbish.
OK, I want you to replace the word "happy"
with something that means happy.
For instance, I am a golden pinball machine,
or I am a diamond toilet seat, or I am a huge roast dinner,
or I am a paper bag full of lights,
or... What's your favourite thing in the world?
I am Pokemon. Is that your favourite thing in the world?! In the world!
Oh, my God!
A lot of the time in school, poetry is presented as something
that is studious, or something that you have to decipher,
like a crossword, or something that belongs on dusty shelves, in the past.
So, that's perfect. I am a Dorito. I am a pizza, with what on top?
-I am a shoe.
A few more. A few more. Father Christmas. Moo cow.
Say eating hamburgers makes you happy, you wouldn't say
"I'm eating a hamburger."
You would just say "I am a massive hamburger." Do you understand?
Because a lot of the time, especially in poetry,
people think it's a bit like, it has to mature, like cheese,
and you can't really be taken seriously until you're 40, and you've got a beard.
I am money in a bag, it feels better than, I am money, doesn't it?
Like a sculptor, you need a block of stone in order to carve
something out of it, you know?
You don't want to be afraid of writing rubbish.
Just get rid of the empty page, just write whatever comes into your head.
-Chips to the power of two. It's all in the details.
And, is happy cows part of it? Or is that a second one?
Of course, of course, I'm sorry, I'm an idiot.
Nothing is right or wrong, you know?
We wrote as many images as we could, and made a big poem out of it.
I'm an annoying spot on someone else's nose.
It was electrifying.
I am a Dorito, I am bubble-wrap I am music, I am mass destruction
I am pizza with pepperoni I am money in a bag
I'm a shoe
I'm a kite I am the annoying spot on somebody else's nose.
I'm a red lava lamp
I'm snowy days, I'm George Clooney in a leather Italian suit
I am a chipmunk I'm high-pitched singing voices
I am a turtle, I'm a piranha I'm an empty house thick with peace
I'm a strawberry I'm a candy unicorn, I'm a carrot!
I'm Spongebob, I am Pingu I am Father Christmas
I am a plethora of tall mountains I'm a rubber duck
I'm a Mexican moustache I am a Lego man
I'm a moo cow
I AM THE TUNA THAT YOU FIND IN SANDWICHES!
Woo! That's you, that's you, I didn't write any of that.
I'm a novelist, and that means I have to write something long,
and continual, continuous, and I have to do it every day.
I think poets work in a slightly different way.
This may be why there is such a lot of First World War poetry,
but no First World War novels.
You can't write a novel in the trenches. You can't guarantee
you're going to be there the next day, never mind being able to finish chapter 3, or whatever it is.
Because writing a novel is not a sprint, it's not something you do in a hurry,
it's something you do over a long time. So, if you get discouraged,
when you're doing a long piece of work, don't worry, accept it.
That's part of the job. That's part of what writing is,
this feeling that you don't know what to write next, and you're bored, and you're fed up,
you hate it, you wish you'd never begun.
Good, you're doing the right thing, that's what it's like.
I write about fantastical worlds because I'm lazy.
I can't be bothered to go and do the research about the real world.
It's much easier, much less effort, to sit at my desk and make it up.
I never pick a plan for a novel when I'm writing.
But I do look forward to bits that I'm going to write.
I do think that when those two characters meet up,
I will enjoy that that bit.
Put yourself into the scene, what would you see if you were there?
What is important about what you would see if you were there?
The story is always the governor.
In the book I'm holding here, The Amber Spyglass,
which is the third part of His Dark Materials,
there was a passage I was looking forward to writing.
It's a passage when two important characters meet for the first time.
The two characters that I'm talking about in this case were the boy Will,
and the bear, Iorek Byrnison.
Now, Will is a boy from our world, a very ordinary boy,
there's nothing special about him.
He hasn't got a special destiny, or, or special powers, or anything like that.
He's discovered a weapon, a knife. It's called the Subtle Knife,
a knife that can cut through anything.
Now, Will and the bear have never met,
they've never come face-to-face, but this is when they do.
Will put his rucksack down and hoisted the helmet up on its end. He could barely lift it.
It consisted of a single sheet of iron, dark and dented,
with eyeholes on top, and a massive chain underneath.
It was as long as Will's forearm, and as thick as his thumb.
"So, this is your armour," he said.
"Well, it doesn't look very strong to me.
"I don't know if I can trust it. Let me see."
He took the knife from the rucksack,
and rested the edge against the front of the helmet,
and sliced off a corner as if he was cutting butter.
"That's what I thought," he said. He cut another, and another,
reducing the massive thing to a pile of fragments in less than a minute.
He stood up, and held out a handful. "That was your armour,"
he said, and dropped the pieces with a clatter on the rest by his feet.
"And this is my knife, and since your helmet was no good to me
"you'll have to fight without it.
"Are you ready, bear? I think we are well matched.
"I could take off your head with one blow of my knife, after all."
Utter stillness. The bear's black eyes glowed like pitch,
Will felt a drop of sweat drop down his spine, and the bear's head moved.
He shook it, took a step backwards. "Too strong a weapon," he said.
"I can't fight that. Boy, you win."
Will knew a second later that people would cheer and whoop,
so even before the bear had finished saying the word "win",
Will have begin to turn and call out to keep them quiet.
"Now, you must keep the bargain, look after the wounded people,
"start repairing the buildings. Let the boat tie up and refuel." The bear spoke quietly,
in a voice that seemed to throb as tightly as the ship's engines.
"What is your name?" He said. "What do you seek?" "I'm Will Parry.
"You're going up the river, and I want to come with you.
"I'm going to the mountains, and this is the quickest way. Will you take me?"
"Yes. I want to see that knife."
"I will only show it to a bear I can trust.
"There is one bear I've heard of who's trustworthy,
"he is the king of the bears, a friend of the girl I'm going to the mountains to find.
"Her name is Lyra Silvertongue, the bear is called Iorek Byrnison."
"I am Iorek Byrnison," said the bear. "I know you are," said Will.
Write whatever you like to read.
If you're interested in writing professionally,
don't think of the market for one second.
Publishers always want to say,
write something that was like the bestseller last year. We want another bestseller,
therefore you write one like the one that is gone before.
I'd say the opposite, write only what you think.
Nobody else will be interested in the world but you, but write that,
as that'll be the thing that will come deeply and truly out of you,
and what will make the most impression on other people.
I think one of the most useful things that anyone ever said to me
was a literary agent, and she said, "We wouldn't expect
"a violinist to pick up a violin
"and start playing a Bach sonata, and yet we do expect
"writers to write this peerless prose without anything."
You're allowed the nuts and bolts,
just in the same way that a musician will have to practise their scales.
With writing, as well, you can write about things,
you can write about familiar things before you make yourself
go off and do the really scary, difficult stuff.
Even just getting home from school, and getting straight on the phone to friends,
if that's something that gives you pleasure, and is an important part of your life,
then that's something you can use to write about.
That's a starting point.
Some writers like to plot it out, and know where they're going, have a lot of the stuff filled in.
I remember Hilary Mantel saying that when she first started writing
she used to have a yellow Post-it notes on the wall, saying what was going to happen at each stage.
And some writers just like to dive in, start swimming,
and hope they don't sink, and that's what they like.
I think it's horses for courses.
I wouldn't want to say you've got to do it this way,
it's all about giving people permission to find the way to write that works for them.
Go off, and in the next two days, just note down a bit of conversation
that you've overheard between two people,
and then use that as a starting point for a story or a play, or, you know, something.
There's material all around us, all the time.
Dive right in to the character you are writing about,
or the situation you're writing about.
That's the only way to forget you as the author, as the writer.
So, you think to yourself "OK, what is this character?
"How does this character eat? How does this character think?
"How does this character tie their shoe?"
Or whatever, that was just an example.
The only way to escape from yourself,
is to lose yourself in whatever you are writing.
Some people write because they want to be heard.
Some write because they have something they really want to say,
and some write because they just can't stop themselves.
Some people write because they want to change the world,
and they're all really valid reasons.
You only need to know why YOU want to write,
you don't need to know why anyone else wants to write.
We're going to concentrate on holidays, a holiday that you've been on.
It might be like the holiday when you were three years old,
or one when you were ten. Any kind of holiday.
It could be a terrible holiday, or a really great holiday,
it doesn't matter.
The idea was to get the children writing some stories,
it's as simple as that.
-Hey, Daniel, what are you doing?
-What did you see in Belgium?
You see trees and houses.
We tried to start by giving them quite structured tasks to do, which would then lead in
to an exercise where they literally had to sit down and write out a story.
We went into the village, and we were in the shop,
and it was really strange because they had all these puppets,
and randomly one of them started going "I love you,"
and then started laughing in an evil accent. It was so weird.
That's fantastic, that's great. Often there's real gems there.
You wouldn't necessarily get one with a beginning, middle and end,
but you might get a great phrase or image,
or something funny, or a great little character observation.
I could feel the comfort softness of the ground below
and taste the barbecued food through the hallway.
The idea of what they could see, feel, hear and taste.
I remember smelling the fresh mountain tops,
so pure it reminded me of peace.
And then we gave them a genre. It's a comedy, or whatever you get given.
And your celebrity, your celebrity is your main character in your story.
Simon Cowell was one, Beyonce was another, and they had to put
those three elements together -
their memories, the genre, and the famous person, and turn it into a story, simple.
-Right, what do we think? Kissing.
-You could have people being tragic.
-We're going to do a tragic love story.
A tragic love story, that's what we're thinking.
You can write about anything. There are no no-entry signs.
It's not like this really complicated thing,
that only famous people can do.
Simon Cowell sped down the gloomy, menacing streets
of San Juan, Ibiza, looking for that pathetic, greasy villain,
Louis was happy dancing the Macarena with a teacher called
Miss Hughes, who yet just met at Oceania.
I don't know why that's funny!
OK, calm down. "Oh, look!" exclaimed Miss Hughes, "There's Simon Cowell."
Louis took one look, turned, and ran to Simon's Roller outside.
Swiftly, he hotwired it, and raced off into the night,
and crashed the car.
"Got you now," smiled Simon, and quickly texted his mum
the news that Louis was being done for drunk-driving
knowing that the News Of The World would be reading the text
within minutes, and he would get his popularity back for a start.
Now, what I want you to do, I want you to think of the two sides of your personality.
One side of you might be pretty helpful, really want to just...
The other side you might just want to stay in bed for ever.
One side of you might really want to be kind to people,
and really care whenever you see anyone else in pain.
The other side might feel angry, and aggressive and
"Oh, these people are so annoying!"
OK, so, I want you to give a name to the two sides of your personality.
It might be something simple like Jack and John,
or something more complicated. Don't think too much about names,
and write me a poem, each, telling me what they get up to.
Go. There might be a moment when the two sides of you have to meet,
or they come into conflict, or something happens,
or there is a situation where one of them has to take charge.
If any of you are really trying to rhyme it, and your getting this thing
where you get "dog, log, fog..." just break out of the rhyme, because otherwise
the rhyme ends up controlling you. I generally say don't bother rhyming.
If you've finished, you can just sit there and stare into space, and think about how cool you are.
OK, cool. Let's hear some.
Charlie likes to sing in the rain And dance away yesterday's tattooed pain
but Ron likes to pick people up And dangle them 70,000 feet from a purple crane.
Bill looked in the mirror Ben stared back, giving each other glares
Bill liked talking to carrots
Ben liked wrestling bears
Bill loved riding his unicorn along the sea
Ben liked using a plant pot as a head.
It might not be perfect poetry,
but actually it's poetry you can't write when you're older.
This isn't the best poem I've written.
Sorry, you must never apologise before you read anything, ever, ever.
I'm not sorry for anything, OK?
Yeah, this poem says quite a lot about me, it doesn't rhyme,
but yeah, don't expect anything too much.
I take all that back!
My soul is burning fiercely, never connected
The embers are burning the metaphorical bridge
the gateway of separation
I'm bathed in a dark loneliness Yet I'm surrounded by friends and loving family.
It was just lovely to see them all laughing,
whilst writing really quite serious, and funny, and poignant stuff.
My voice projects to you this very moment
To say our blueprint is the same Let's put a full stop to the hate
And let's put a full stop to the fighting.
You know when you close your eyes, just before you fall asleep,
and you have that kind of cinema rolling on your eyelids? Yeah? We all have a different cinema,
a different film playing,
and all of those pictures and memories, and dreams, and kind of,
mad thoughts that you personally link stuff together,
that's your material, what you use to write.
What's the point of feelings otherwise?
We're full of this stuff, but where do we put it?
Poetry gives us a place to put it. Thank you very much.
You've been amazing.
One of the things that happens when you are a writer,
and you kind of say to yourself that you are a writer,
is that you get more faith in your own process.
You think that after I've tackled this rubbish idea a few times,
and after I've applied all of my best tricks to it, it will get better.
There isn't any point in rattling around with the idea
that you might be a writer one day, it might suddenly happen. You've got to start writing.
What I wanted to write about is,
we've all been today in this amazing castle.
It's quite a strong place, with a strong personality,
it's something that's worth writing about.
We're going to be writing a poem, and for me,
the basic unit of what a poem is, is an image.
When you use a picture out of your senses,
out of your concrete information about the world, to bring your idea alive.
The other basic unit of a poem is a comparison, an analogy,
when you say something IS something else, or is LIKE something else.
We're going to be thinking about the things that this castle is like.
If this castle was an animal, what kind of animal would it be?
Try and be really specific.
If this castle was a kind of food, what sort of food would it be?
If it was a pudding, what kind of pudding?
If it was a joint of meat, what sort of meat are we talking about?
I want it very specific. I want the adjectives in there.
I want the colour, I want the smell.
If this castle was a time of day, what time of day is it?
Is it a late-night place? Is it the middle of the night?
Is it noon, is it late afternoon? Is it stormy?
Is it a tranquil afternoon? Is this castle spring? Is it midsummer?
Late autumn? Is it in its winter?
It is the dusk, just before the sunset, about 6pm,
and the wedding cake looks like a rusty old bus.
Honey badgers roam the gravel driveways amongst the Ford Kas
with their leather smell, and Rolls-Royces,
parked up calm as sloths.
The turkey has been thoroughly stuffed, the curry is thick
with raisins, and if you listen hard,
the castle is breathing like a dragon,
and whispering, "off with his head,"
and, "Save me, I'm going to collapse."
Nothing is real, and the English breakfast tea tastes cold but sunny.
A silver plate crammed high with mussels,
chips and lamb chops is carried past by an old, deaf butler.
His hearing aid isn't arriving until Tuesday.
Everything is covered in dust, but the dust is clean,
clean as the silver back of a gorilla.
Clean as the slice through the meat of a wild boar,
when it's bleeding with red wine sauce.
Darlings, let's sit here together, and smell the cigars.
Cos nobody outside can reach us, and we can stay
until the sun goes down, wearing old cardigans, eating sherry trifle.
I think if you are a writer, you have to live a really interesting life.
You have to talk to people, listen to people, go places,
read books like crazy, fiction, non-fiction,
watch telly, watch movies.
Simply drink the world into your head,
so that you have this huge well full of the events of your life.
One of my favourite stories when I was a kid was about
two siblings who shared a bedroom. They hate each other,
and they put a skipping rope down the middle of the bedroom.
So, one of them gets the window, and one gets the door, which immediately raises problems.
I've never been able to find it again, but it's really stuck with me.
Memory is very important. And the memory of what we felt like at a particular age.
Memory of what was the first kiss you ever had,
the first time you ever heard a piece of music
that later came to mean a great deal to you, things like this.
If you keep those memories fresh you will be able to draw on them.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Michael Morpurgo, the author of the novel War Horse on which Steven Spielberg's film from 2011 is based, is among the contributors to How to Write. Michael reveals the sources of his inspiration and the techniques he uses to 'just get the stupid thing down on paper'.
Philip Pullman, writer of the His Dark Materials trilogy, discusses the need for discipline, the importance of memory and how it is crucial to stand inside a scene and imagine what is seen and not seen.
Also taking part are poets Caroline Bird and Kate Clanchy, and novelists Rebecca Abrams and Charles Cummins. They are among a group of top authors gathered at Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire to share the secrets of creative writing with almost 400 young people.