"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: May 2008

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Barking at Shadows (And Other Things Writers Do)

Is writing an insane way of spending our time?

My mother seems to think it is - even now that she's finally accepted that's what I do. And my dad too was bemused by my choice of career, seeing as, to him, actually reading an entire book is akin to having his fingernails forcibly removed.

Robert Louis Stevenson once said he felt reading was 'mighty bloodless' and no substitute for real life - but there again he was famously adventurous, a fact he used to advantage in his novels.

But I think most authors wouldn't agree.

On the opposite side of the spectrum you have Logan Pearsall Smith who said, "People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading."

I can relate to that. I like my own blood to stay on the inside of my body - whereas I don't mind reading, and writing, about someone else's blood spilling all over the page in the fight for justice, truth or freedom.

It's not really about coming down definitively on one side or the other I think. A writer's life should ideally contain both - a good smattering of life's experience but also a commitment to sitting down and recording the insights gained through that experience.

I don't know about you but I don't need much to inspire me.

I rarely spend my time socializing with large groups of people. I know some people do this all the time - as though it's some kind of duty. But, to me, a good, ideal day is when nobody comes around and disturbs my 'zone' and I can get on with my own stuff.

But whenever I do spend time with others, especially out with large groups or at parties and functions, I find I'm storing up hundreds of ideas for scenes, stories and plots I want to later develop in my writing.

It can be exhausting because, instead of just enjoying myself and interacting with others, I find I'm taking mental notes about personality, relationships and how, seemingly inevitably, people coming together creates as much tension, distrust and conflict as it engenders happiness, joy and hope.

We're a funny species in that regard - and I find that writing helps me deal with all the absurdities as well as the profundities of life in a way that would drive me crazy if I couldn't do it!

I know that if I was ever at a loss as to what to write about, pretty much all I need to do is go out into the world and brace myself for interaction - and inspiration!

But yes, sometimes when I'm completely immersed in a fictional world, juggling my characters' lives and developing meaning I sometimes take a step back and think, "What am I doing? Why am I spending so much time on this? What's it all for?"

After all, they say that life on Earth will be gone in a few million years - and all the books we've written, all the music and movies we created along with it. Who's going to be there to say, What an amazing species, look at this great book by...

Sometimes I look at our dogs and I can see that their entire lives are made up of eating, sleeping, getting pats and for the most part, barking at shadows. And I think, what's to say that we humans aren't really just doing the same?

And then, when the insanity passes, I know that this is one of the main reasons we write - to rise above mere existence and create order, meaning and purpose.

Because, you see, the real reason why my mother doesn't think that writing is a healthy pasttime is that it can 'give you ideas', as she calls it, and not always good ones.

By which she means writing can encourage a person to question the very fundamentals of existence and perhaps realize, as many hundreds of serious philosophers before us have already posited, that there really is no meaning to life that we don't, as humans, merely attach to it.

All else, they say, is vanity.

But on the upside, writing, though to some a strange way of spending our time, is at least better than sitting around wasting our lives, doing drugs or having nothing better to do than hurt each other.

Writing forces us to make sense of things, to come to terms with who we are, how we act, react, and why.

To me, we need no real justification to write - no special reason - its purpose is implicit.

We simply write because we can.

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy

Monday, May 5, 2008

How to Get Inspired to Write

A student contacted me the other day to say that she'd been reading some bestselling books to inspire her - but that unfortunately it was having the opposite effect!

She said she was feeling very intimidated by the way these bestselling authors spun words, described everything so beautifully and really got her involved in the story.

She came away from reading feeling depressed that she could never compete, that she would never be as good as these other writers.

She asked if I might read one of these authors, dissect their style and tell her how she might emulate these great writers.

I flinched inwardly. I couldn't help myself.

Because I make it a rule NOT to read great authors when I'm writing a novel - for exactly the same reasons as my student!

A long time ago I discovered that reading writers like Stephen King, Robert Harris, Michael Chrichton and James Patterson stopped my writing in its tracks. 

These guys write with such flair - they make it seem so easy that yes, I found it hard to write my own material without either unconsciously emulating their styles or making me feel as though I couldn't write my way out of paper bag.

It was then I made the rule: "Don't get distracted by other writers when you're writing your own stuff."

It's partly for practical reasons too. Writing a long work is time-consuming - and so is reading a novel. There has to be a trade off somewhere - and surely the focus should be on your own writing.

I have a pile of comics I read for distraction when I'm writing - because I know I won't get too involved and looking at the pictures is something I can enjoy without compromising my own sense of artistic integrity.

Besides which, it's completely artificial to read a bestselling book and believe the text on page is the author's 'first go' at his novel. Writing that looks easy is the end result of furious editing, and ruthless self-discipline AFTER the first draft is completed.

To compare your own writing to a bestselling novelist's work is a bit like getting up in the morning and wondering why you don't look like Nicole Kidman or George Clooney on the Oscar runway.

The fact is, movie stars don't look like their image before they put on the fairy gloss! And so it is with modern fiction - the end result is slick and impressive - but the first drafts are probably very similar to your own work.

So my advice is that if you want to inspire yourself to write, deliberately read something bad. This age old practice has worked since the dawn of time, from Plato to Patterson, from Flaubert to Frey.

Writers everywhere have all read a truly shoddy piece of writing, felt good about themselves and pronounced those immortal words, "Tuh! I can do better than that!"

Haven't you ever done that? And then felt emboldened to get on with your own writing, secure in the knowledge there's always someone worse than yourself?

It works for me. I won't mention the name of the author's book I read before I began my own current novel but it was bad - shocking, appalling. Misplaced qualifiers, serious POV issues, stylistic inconsistencies, the lot - even though I did actually quite enjoy the story.

But when I put the book down, I felt a rush - a certainty my next book could be really special, my best yet. And I'm going to hold on to that feeling for as long as I can, for as long as it takes to finish the first draft!

And then, and only then, will I read a good book - for pleasure!

It's not a good idea to read for inspiration. Reading is about studying other writers but emulating them, or even feeling the need to, is bad for your creativity.

When it comes to your own writing, trust your instincts, trust your own sense of what is the best writing YOU can create - and stop comparing yourself with others - at least until you've completed the first draft.

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy

The Writing Academy

Welcome to the official blog of Rob Parnell's Writing Academy, updated weekly - sometimes more often!