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Planning, plotting and persistence with Robert Harris

Robert Harris

Writing a novel isn’t easy – just ask Robert Harris.

But the author of Fatherland, Enigma and The Ghost has established himself as one of the world’s best-selling novelists through hard work and following a few golden rules.

The former journalist believes that valuable advice from three fellow writers has, for him at least, made the process of writing fiction all the more pleasurable and successful.

Harris, who has also written Pompeii, Archangel, and Munich, believes the wisdom of American novelist John Irving is his number one golden rule, and one that shouldn’t be ignored by any aspiring writer.

And he confesses it was the rule of planning that got him over the finishing line with his debut, Fatherland.

Harris explained: “John Irving maintains that any writer who embarks on a novel without knowing how it is going to end is a fool and a knave.

“A novel, he argues, recounts something that has already happened – therefore you cannot just make it up as you go along.

“This practical approach had a profound effect on me.

“Indeed, it enabled me to complete my first novel, Fatherland which, in classic rookie fashion, had trailed to a baffled halt somewhere around page 50.”

While planning the storyline is vital, according to Harris, finding your voice and style ahead of typing that first word can be just as important.

The advice offered by E L Doctrow still rings true with the Cambridge graduate.

Harris continued: “It was EL Doctorow who said you have to find the voice that allows you to write what you want to write.

“It’s a writer’s dirty little secret that language precedes the intentions.

“The shape and style of a novel is determined by the thought you give it beforehand – that the way you approach your material is at least as important, maybe more important, than the material itself.”

While Harris continues to observe the rules of plotting and planning, he admits a third rule, offered up by Philip Roth.

He concludes: “Have courage and remember the words of Philip Roth in 2003.

“Roth observed, when looking back on his career on his 70th birthday, that what you develop is a tolerance for your own crudeness.

“He said, stay with your crap and it will get better, and come back every day and keep going.”

Robert Harris’s new novel The Second Sleep is published by Hutchinson in September 2019.

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