Do you have any advice for people who would like to become writers?

Just this: Read as much as you can and write as much as you can. Reading feeds your own story-telling, and writing, like anything worth doing well, needs practise. It needs practise practise practise PRACTISE. You don't have to be organised about it, either the reading or the writing, unless you're an organised sort of person (I'm not). If you want to keep 3x5 cards or a file on your PDA for plot and character annotations and draw up outlines and keep a notebook or your BlackBerry by the side of your bed for scintillating ideas that come to you at 3 am, then by all means do so -- just so long as your 3x5 cards and beautifully structured and subdivided outlines don't become an excuse never to get around to the writing. (Procrastination is a whole vast topic of its own. I'll get into it . . . some other time.) Because you do have to put the hours in.

Follow your nose through the library or the bookshop shelves or your friends' recommendations or intriguing reviews on and off line; read what you can feel feeds you, that you can feel yourself sitting up straighter to pay better attention to, that excites you and makes you want to learn more, or want to go to that place again, or think more about something you've only just realised, or only just seen a new angle on. This includes, by the way, a category I will call Good Trash. (My husband once wrote an essay called In Praise of Rubbish, on the subject of reading bad books as well as good ones, and he says it's the most popular and reprinted article he's ever done.) There are a few people out there who do thrive on a diet of pure shining erudition and unadulterated high-mindedness – I’ve taken courses from a few of these recherché individuals, whereupon the essentially alien nature of the teacher becomes a distracting part of the experience -- but most of us aren't like that. (And those who are won't be reading this web site, so I don't have to bother about them.) Go on reading the great stuff -- you want to know what it is, you want to know what you think it is, you may want to decide if that’s what you're ultimately aiming for; but whether it is or not you want that stre-e-e-etch of mental and empathetic muscles.

But if you thrill to the ongoing adventures of Gzarl, Warrior Queen/King of the Vizibugtherps in the Land/Planet of Kofakskilon, and want to pursue them through 8,134 volumes, then read them and have fun. I read most of Burroughs' Tarzan books, quite a few of his Mars books, and every one of H Rider Haggard's Alan Quatermain series -- as well as all of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte and Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens and George Eliot, although I'm still working on Anthony Trollope who wrote nearly 8,134 volumes, and they're all a lot longer than any of Gzarl's exploits, and I've sort of given up on Henry James, who, it seems to me, makes it harder for his readers than he needs to. And I still reread Euripides when I went to be heart-wrung. (Yes, I do read modern novels and stories too. But I didn't much when I was younger, when I was still first figuring out how I wrote myself. I liked knowing something about what I was getting into with books I read, rather than falling into the seething, landmark-less maelstrom of the new.) You get a feel for what works, for what works for you -- and also what doesn't work for you. And great books are rarely so clear about this as trashy books are. (Which is also not to say that great writers always get it right. Romola, for example. Don't bother.) Which brings me to another important principle: Write what you want to read. The person you know best in this world is you. Listen to yourself. If you are excited by what you are writing, you have a much better chance of putting that excitement over to a reader.

And don't forget the possible driving force of fury: I wrote The Blue Sword half in wild revolt against The Sheik (see above).

You can also learn a lot by sheer plagiarism, so long as you recognise that that is what it is and that it's only a writing exercise. I wrote an awful lot of very bad Tolkien pastiche when I was younger -- I didn't realise what I was doing at first, but even when I began to, later on, I could see that I was learning a lot about characterisation and plot development, how you get people from one place to another, how much background you need, how to slip in information your story is going to need later, how to lay a good ambush for the innocent reader -- and so I kept on with it, when I couldn't think of any stories of my own. Well, that's not quite right: I've always had stories of my own, but writing them down is so, you know, hard. Sometimes borrowing someone else’s plot or characters lets you get on with developing stamina, till you have the muscles to benchpress your own. One of the biggest, and possibly the biggest, obstacle to becoming a writer -- I've said this from a slightly different angle in another answer -- is learning to live with the fact that the wonderful story in your head is infinitely better, truer, more moving, more fascinating, more perceptive, than anything you're going to manage to get down on paper. (And if you ever think otherwise, then you've turned into an arrogant self-satisfied prat, and should look for another job or another avocation or another weekend activity.) So you have to learn to live with the fact that you're never going to write well enough. Of course that's what keeps you trying -- trying as hard as you can -- which is a good thing. As I started off saying, writing takes practise. More practise than you can imagine until you've been doing it for years and are beginning to suspect the truth, which is that you never are going to learn all the answers. Even then all you've really learned is that you haven't been doing it long enough yet, and that you'll die of old age before you do.

I don't myself keep a diary or journal (although I now keep a blog, gods help me) but journal-keeping can be a tremendous source and inspiration for writing because you don't have to know in advance what it's 'about'. For some people it becomes an end in itself -- and think of some of the wonderful (and for that matter the not-so-wonderful) diaries and diary-based memoirs that have been published and avidly read. Some of them are as insightful or elegant or poignant or funny or whatever you want in your reading material as any other book or screen shot. But even if your daily life isn't ever going to interest anyone but you, it can accustom you to the fact and discipline of writing -- and of what your words look like on the page. A journal can also give you the opportunity to try out different effects: the story of the death and burial of a pet goldfish can become just as piteous as the death of Little Nell (and a good deal less ludicrous); the story of a flat tyre can become an epic adventure (especially if it happened in the rain) -- and if you in the writing suddenly find yourself holding a lance and fighting off the attacking hordes of flame-eyed Archalderons... keep writing. Don't stop and think, Hey! That's supposed to be a jack! You may have just discovered a story.

When I was first writing stories, when I was a kid and through my teens, my great problem (the one that I knew of anyway) was that I could think of terrific beginnings and terrific endings (I believed) but never any middles to stick them together. I found that if I just kept writing the fragments I knew about eventually they got longer and began to bump together in the middle (sometimes with a nasty grinding noise). This is another of those things that is different for different writers. Some writers just sit down one day, write Chapter One or their first essay or short story, and go on from there. But they aren't reading this web site either. For anyone who is: just keep writing. Keep reading. If you are meant to be a writer, a storyteller, it'll work itself out. You just keep feeding it your best energy, and giving it that crucial chance to work itself out. By reading and writing.

And you don't have to think you've got it all right and perfect to be proud of what you've done. If you come to the end of a story or any piece of writing you've sweated and bled over, and you can look at it and say, I've done the best I know how to do, and really, it's not at all bad -- then you've done very well indeed. Give yourself a pat on the back -- and then get on with the next story, the next thing.