This is likely to be a controversial blog and I hope I don’t offend anyone. It just seems to me that there’s a proliferation of courses and instruction books on how to write, writing magazines, endless soul-searching about style, how to create characters, grammar, creating a hook, you name it, from all kinds of eminently qualified people.
Frankly, I don’t think you can learn how to write by analysing your work, taking great writers’ efforts apart, reinforcing self doubt, and both congratulating and criticising other people in an attempt to find your own ‘voice’ . What on earth is a ‘voice’ anyway, what does it mean?
I was shortlisted by the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger in 2004, and part of the prize was to receive critiques of the sample of the novel you send from a variety of agents and publishers. One person said my dialogue was good, another said it was bad, one person liked my characters, another didn’t. They all said conflicting things, the most insulting of which was ‘the plot wasn’t quite clever enough’. I concluded that their criticism was inconsistent, that if I took it to heart, I’d never write another word. Admittedly ‘Deadly Contact’ had plenty of faults, but I think I can now see what they are. The point is I saw it myself later, no one showed me.
And this is the nub of it. If you have your work dissected by half a dozen people in a group, some will like it, some won’t, and some will be bored because your chosen genre is not theirs. So you’re going to have aspects of your novel pulled to pieces, when, in fact, those may be the very parts you should leave alone, and the really bad parts stay there, wrecking your masterpiece.
I started writing fiction about 15 years ago. My first book ‘The Sugar Street Knifeman’, (ghastly title!) was absolutely terrible, I can see it now. My second ‘Moving Target’ and third (with another ghastly title) were suitable for landfill too. Part of the reason, I think, was that I was copying writers I liked, thinking I could use the same tricks they did, not realising I couldn’t. Another part of the reason was that I made all the usual early mistakes, repeating myself, overdoing things, making characters too black and white, too much graphic violence and sex.
Here’s an example: Everybody likes Ian Rankin’s books, but, I confess I don’t. So I realise I’m no judge. Don’t get me wrong, as a person, I think Ian Rankin is delightful, friendly, likeable, and endearingly humble for someone so successful. I simply don’t like his hero, but, luckily, lots of other people do. So anyone teaching a crime writing course who loves Ian Rankin’s hero would praise students who produced a similar character, and criticise other types of hero. It would be de rigeur for all the students to have a grumpy disagreeable hero.
The point is, all writing is subjective. I love Dick Francis and Robert Goddard books. I like first person narratives, despite the drawbacks of not being able to see things from other points of view (of course multi narrative viewpoints are another way round this too). Others, such as the wonderful Wilkie Collins, wrote multi viewpoint books, and, for other people, this works very well indeed. Most of my appalling early efforts were third person narratives, and they didn’t work. For me, first person is the best way, but for someone else third person, with the protagonist always in the frame, is best, while others use third person and multi narrative to great effect. You always find what works best for you.
Simon Brett treads that very subtle line between comedy and crime, combining both brilliantly. I’ve heard him speak many times, and he writes warm-hearted humorous novels with good satsfying crime plots. I think he’s so successful because he’s a warm-hearted man with an irrepressible sense of humour. His writing is part of him, and that’s why people like his books. Anyone trying to combine comedy and crime, who wasn’t naturally witty, would inevitably come unstuck.
What I think is, getting critiques from all and sundry is as likely to do as much harm as good. And, if you stick with your novels, you’re likely to see what works and what does not. For me, writing a book is like building an extension to a house (I’ve built a few). At the beginning of the job you can’t envisage it being finished, you just build, brick by brick. At the end, you can’t actually believe you did the whole thing. And it’s the same with a book. You stick with it, even though at times you’re fed up with it, and finally, almost to your surprise, you make it to the end, and hopefully the plot’s worked its way around, and you’ve given yourself (and your readers) some surprises.
I once read a ‘how to’ book on crime writing by an agent, who almost once accepted my work, then changed her mind. One of the authors stressed how you had to plan every chapter in advance before you even begin. I read half of one of his books, and it was so boring I gave up. Another writer gave a talk on how to write, with quite a few useful tips. But, again, I read one of his books and thought it was awful.
And what do all these fancy writers’ terms mean? Plotting? Pace? Narrative voice? Tone? I think it’s all bluff and flannel, a way of burbling on, trying to analyse something which can’t be analysed. Trying to say why you like someone’s writing style is like trying to describe the sensation of smelling new mown grass on a summer’s day, or passing on the mind-numbing terror of a scream in the dark.
To all those writing tutors out there, I apologise, I’m probably wrong, after all what do I know? My only books published conventionally are nonfiction, and I’ve self published my first fiction, so you can say I’m misguided and would benefit from writers’ courses and reading plenty of books on the theory or writing, and perhaps I would. You’re probably right and I am wrong.
I’ve been wrong in my life plenty of times before. . .
And thanks to my new twitter friends who are helping me so much: @JennieOrbell, @DarciaHelle, @johnson_mjj, @TerryTyler4, @mariasavva, Rachael Hale, Truda Thurai and others. Incidentally, I bought @davepperlmutter ’s book Wrong place wrong time, and it’s rivetting. And David doesn’t even claim to be an experienced writer, just a man relating a true story. What a story it is.