Writing like your Literary Heroes

superheroWho are your favourite authors? Which authors does your work mirror? Are they the same people? This is common, not just for new authors, but for long-established ones too. We feed off of, and are inspired by, those we like. There’s nothing wrong with this.

I remember James Ellroy once dedicated a novel to the likes of Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard, who taught him that he didn’t need to write like them, he needed to write like himself. It’s an important lesson new authors often need to learn. I think Ellroy’s continued to be inspired by those people, but does not take any steps to simply copy them.

The fact is, no one writes in a vacuum. Your work will be influenced by those you like or are inspired by. The trick is to steal what has gone on before, and repurpose it for your own ends, rather than merely copy it. Copying is a bland attempt at replication. Why bother? Those who wrote the work originally already did a perfectly good job of it. But by stealing – shamelessly – and mercilessly adapting it to your own purposes, you can create something wholly original.

This is a psychological thing as much as anything. Your work will grow organically when the “theft” of other styles happens without you noticing it.

So read other authors, and be inspired by them. Don’t shoehorn their style into yours, and you’ll let the influence happen without you even noticing. And your work will be much better as a result.

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Don’t Make Notes: Just Write

typing-keyboard-writingIt’s the age-old cliché. A writer with a notepad. Maybe a pencil tucked behind the ear. After all, a writer always needs to jot down ideas as he or she gets them, right?

I’m pretty sure that the only reason I have five published books under my belt is because I’ve spent very little time procrastinating. I don’t have time to write books. I have a crazy busy job. But I’ve written them anyway. I’ve just got on with it. Some authors write thousands upon thousands of words in the form of ideas and preparation notes before actually doing the real book. Me, I do very little preparation. Some, but not a lot. Just enough to convince myself that “I’ve got a book here”, then I sit down at my desktop or laptop computer and type “Chapter 1” (or, more appropriately “#001”, as I write in markdown, which I strongly recommend to all). Then I’m away.

Don’t misunderstand me: many authors say they must do all this “epic planning” for a good reason. There are some truly talented bestselling authors out there who have to write the whole book (in terms of word count) before they start actually writing it. Slightly unrelated, but one of my literary heroes, the late Elmore Leonard, said he wrote about three pages for every finished page you saw. Yes, there are clear exceptions, but I can’t help feel that many use “planning” as a crutch.

Many writers working on their first book write lots of notes. Whenever “inspiration strikes”, they’ll jot down what comes into their heads. Are you doing that? Are you doing it to avoid actually writing the book?

If you do write down every idea as a note, why? Before you write “Chapter 1”, you’ll have to sift through all those notes, and work out how they pertain to the overall idea you had. That’s real work. When you’re at the delicate creative stage, suddenly you’re finding yourself doing paperwork. Ugh.

I’m not so sure about this approach. Every idea you have isn’t some sort of amazing insight that needs to be logged. And as I said in the previous paragraph, jotting down and cataloguing every little idea just means more work later on, pouring over crap. But – some will say – what if one of these ideas is an amazing insight? Why risk forgetting it? Even if it means noting down lots of bad stuff too?

It’s a good question. But I think it’s a debatable point. My memory is terrible, but I’ve learnt one thing that applies all the time: if you come up with a great idea, it’ll stick with you. It’ll keep coming back. It won’t leave you the hell alone. It’ll insist on your attention. It’ll stop you sleeping. It’s a pain in the backside, until you finally do something about it. Trust your instincts. Trust your subconscious. It’ll let you know when an idea is worth your attention. Your good ideas have an ability to keep fighting over the bad ones.

So my advice – which might be wholly useless to you – is don’t keep a notepad around. Or a notes-taking app on your phone or whatever. Notepads are a repository for bad ideas. The good ones stay rattling in your head until they drive you nuts. Let your subconscious sort out the good from the bad for you.

Besides, you don’t have the time to worry about that stuff consciously. You’ve got a book to write.

The Smarterphone

The other week, I had the honour of being the joint winner of the Bernard Bareham Fiction prize for a short film I wrote, directed and chopped called The Smarterphone.

It stars the supremely talented Yvonne Wan, (who you can find out more about here), and if you want to check it out, well, here it is:

‘Literary Fiction’ vs Popular Fiction

Martin vs LeeIt’s a battle that’s raged for decades. In fact, it’s just one of the variations of criticisms of popular art that I’ve written about before.

Literary fiction has always been seen as the ‘posher’ more sophisticated, more grown-up version of fiction. It looks down its nose at the contemporary popular writers, be it Lee Child, Dan Brown or whoever.

I get the feeling that Martin Amis (pictured) often expresses a distain for this branch of popular fiction. His ‘war on clichés” (surely a cliché in it’s own right? I guess that’s his point) seem to push this feeling.

I love so-called ‘literary fiction’. But I love contemporary popular fiction from the likes of Lee Child (also pictured) too. Why do we have to choose? Child has been an outspoken critic of the literary end of the business, holding no punches back when he says that the average popular fiction writer could “churn out” a literary fiction book with ease, but the other way around could never happen. I bet he’d do a very good literary novel to be honest. But he’s one of those annoyingly brilliant writers who makes his whole craft look effortless.

The thing is, as much as I like the Salman Rushdie’s and Julian Barnes’ of this writing world, I can’t help feeling that if you look down your nose at “popular commercial fiction”, then aren’t you saying it’s because you prefer “less popular, less commercially successful fiction”? Surely that’s the antonym of what so many of them are against. As Lee Child himself colourfully puts it: “People steal more copies of my books than they buy of the others.”

The fact is that money talks. More people do buy copies of James Patterson than Martin Amis, however a ‘literary-type’ might dislike that. And they buy so many, that publishers are able to take a risk at more artistically creative work. Even if it doesn’t sell anyway near as much. Simply stated, the popular stuff subsidises the unpopular stuff.

I like the diversity of literature that’s around at the moment. It’s a glorious time. I hope Martin Amis forgives the cliché, but I wish we could all just, you know, get along.

Write About What You Know?

It’s one of the oldest clichés out there, but it’s been around for so long, it’s got to carry some truth, hasn’t it?

“Write about what you know.” It’s easily one of the laziest phrases dished out either by writers, or to writers.

And I’ll be honest, I “sort of” agree with it, but not in the literal way that it’s frequently taken.

More often than not, “write what you know” means concentrate on the technical aspects of a story that you understand personally. If you’re a teacher, set your story in a school, because you know about that. If you’re a construction worker, set your story on a building-site. I’ve witnessed this actual advice being dispenced.

But seriously, is that really good advice? How many detective novel-writers have worked in a detective agency, or for a police force? Sure, some of them did. But wouldn’t writing the painstaking procedural details in a case be a little boring anyway?

Let’s take it further: Did Steven Spielberg write about “what he knew” when he contributed to the story of his movie E.T.? How much experience did he or the screenwriter Melissa Mathison have with extra-terrestrial life, or the sinister government agencies who would deal with the presence of a being from another world on our doorstep? I’m not going out on much of a limb to say that they both knew fairly close to diddly-squat.

But think about what else is going on in that story. A young boy, Elliot, is living with his mother and siblings. The father is absent. Spielberg’s dad also left the family home when Steven was a little boy.

So Spielberg didn’t know about extra-terrestrials, or how a government bureaucracy operates. But he knew what it was like to be a young boy without a father-figure. What it meant to feel alone and scared. And maybe how a special friend can make you feel better about things, and how close that new bond can become.

He was writing (okay, directing) about what he knows emotionally, rather than technically. I think that is the real truth behind “write what you know.” Think about it, how else could most of our fiction have ever come to exist?

I don’t know what it’s like to be a burnt out LAPD homicide detective. But I know what’s it’s like to be under pressure to perform, with deadlines looming, and people counting on you to deliver. It’s the emotional knowledge that you have to bring to a story, and not the technical details. You can learn about them, or just make them up. If they feel right, then there’s a good chance they’ll feel right to your audience. If you want research and get a technical detail right, then go ahead. But the idea that you can only write about things you’ve done and said are a fast-track way to crippling a writer’s creativity.

So maybe, instead of “write what you know,” we should insetad say “write about what you feel.”

Fighting “Writer’s Block”

WritingThere’s a lot of comments, blogs, articles, interviews with authors, and all sorts of stuff online about “writer’s block”, and what it really means. In fact, there’s so much, it can stop you from writing as you procrastinate and use up as much time as possible reading about writing problems rather than, you know, writing.

To be frank, it’s not something I’ve had much trouble with these days. So when I had a really charming letter from an aspiring writer the other day, who asked me what I do to overcome writer’s block – ironically – I couldn’t think of what to say to her.

But I’ve had a bit of a think, partly because the email was really sweet (I won’t repeat it here, she asked if I don’t as it contained specifics about her work that basically I’m too lazy to edit out), and partly because it got me thinking about my view on this alleged creativity-draining problem. So in the end, I came up with a reply, which she kindly let me share with you here. I’ve re-written it quite a bit to suit a more generic writer rather than specific issues of a specific problem.

With the disclaimer that my advice might sound crude, or undermining of a creative process you may have, I’m afraid that I only have blunt things to say about “writer’s block”, and how it may be overcome. They might not be warm and comforting comments, but I think they have the advantage of being spot-on in most circumstances, for most people.

My cousin, rather like my grandfather before him, is a trucker. Long-haul, big-rig stuff. The money’s pretty good, and it’s something he’s always wanted to do. He passed the Heavy Good Vehicle driver’s tests, and he earns enough to support his young family. He’s also a really great guy and a loving father to two adorable children.

Sometimes, somewhat unsurprisingly for a truck-driver, his job requires him to get up very early in the morning and drive from one end of the country to the other.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to suppose that sometimes the last thing he wants to do in the whole world is get out of bed very early in the morning, leave his lovely wife-to-be and great kids sleeping at home, and head to the depot to start the working day.

But he does it all the same. He gets up, goes out in the cold and dark, does the job, and – one assumes – almost certainly gets a sense of satisfaction out of knowing he’s done a good job for a good days pay.

In other words, he doesn’t get “trucker’s block”. It’s a job. It’s a job he likes. With the early starts and other aspects, he doesn’t always like every part of it (who does in any job?) but he does what he needs to in those times, and he is all the better for it.

If you are writing your first novel for example, (that’s the case of the writer who emailed me recently through this site), and you feel you’re getting what some on the internet have told you might be “writer’s block”, think of it as “trucker’s block”. And then it suddenly sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it?

Yes, I know it’s disappointing that I don’t have some special, magic trick to share. But I do have that one tip. Call it “trucker’s block”. That’s my advice.

Because you might be writing for pleasure at the early stage of your endeavours, rather than the paycheck, it can be hard to carry on during the bits that aren’t as much fun. And that makes sense. Who wants to do a job they’re not enjoying if they don’t have to? My cousin wouldn’t get up at 4am to drive a lorry over to Whitstable from Stoke-on-Trent if he didn’t have to, and still got paid regardless.

And this is really the point. For the jobbing writer (of anything really, journalists, content-creators, copywriters, novelists, etc.), I’ve noticed that “writer’s block” is less of a phenomenon. Because like a trucker at four in the morning, you just have to get up and get on with it. It’s your job. If you really really hate everything about it, then why are you doing it? Seriously, go do something else and be happy. But if you don’t feel like it right now, when you booked yourself time to do it, I say force yourself to start anyway. After a while, the reflexes kick in, and at the end of the day or session, you feel pretty good about what you’ve done. Even if it’s mostly/partly junk and you’ll need to do something about it later. You did it, and that counts for something.

And here’s the odd thing that I think I’ve mentioned before. Sometimes when I get that feeling which some call “writer’s block”, it’s often because I’m really disliking what I’ve just written. Once again, instead of going “Ah, I’m not writing well today, I should leave it”, I force myself to carry on, because usually the next day, when I’m in a better frame of mind, I look at what I’ve written in that frustrated “blocked” period of time, and end up realising that I’m reading some of the best stuff I’ve ever written. Seriously.

Of course, your mileage may vary. This advice will help some, and annoy others. I’m sorry if you fall into the latter category. This isn’t a hard and fast rule for writing. I don’t believe that those exist.

It’s just that for me, there’s times when I don’t feel like writing something. But I don’t call that “writer’s block”, I call that “not wanting to write at the moment.” When I feel like that, I get on and do it anyway. Not to meet the deadline, not because of the paycheck, but because my cousin is a truck driver. And he has to get up and do his job too, so I don’t see why I’m any different.

50 Shades of Snobbishness

50 Shades of Grey book cover

It’s funny isn’t it? A glance at the average persons Facebook or Twitter feed over the last month, and it seems clear that everyone hates the movie adaptation of E.L. James’ bondage fantasy flick “Fifty Shades of Grey“.

Everyone that is, apart from the millions of moviegoers who have parted with over $150 million and counting of their own money in the US alone since its release.

The box-office gross figures on the Internet Movie Database are right below the current top-ranking review of the film, a one-star review that is simply titled “Oh this film was just DREADFUL!”

How do we square the contradictions here? We don’t need to, it’s actually a common attitude to popular art.

The one thing that’s more entertaining than enjoying a popular piece of art (be it a song, painting, movie or novel), is often to trash it. That’s very fashionable.

There are well-documented critical reviews of the “hack” Shakespeare or Dickens, and this criticism usually coincides with artists being at their peak, at their most popular.

Maybe some of these criticisms are valid, but it doesn’t really tell you much about the quality of the work, which was/is popular, and usually is very good.

So the “I’m oh-so fashionable” criticism descends into something more base: snobbishness. This is a trend that does on throughout popular culture, whether it’s the written work of E.L. James, the film adaption, or the work of Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling or any other successful writer.

It’s not hard to find old archives full of people explaining how the emergence of Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley was the beginning of the end for “good” or “proper” music. I think it’s wise to remember that they said the same of Frank Sinatra, or Miles Davies, or even Beethoven.

I’ll readily admit that E.L. James’ novels haven’t really appealed to me. But that’s just me, and, given the weight of enthusiasm and support (those sales numbers are very impressive), it’s clear that there’s a strong constituency that feels very differenly about her work. I admire their enthusiasm and respect their choices.

Because to dismiss her work basically because it’s become so popular, places critics onto the ash-heap of irrelevance.