I do not often blog about writing because there are thousands of others out there merrily teaching the world how (or how not) to write. The other reason I do not blog about writing very often is because the late, great James Herbert once famously said “I’ve never read anything on how to write books; if you have got to do that then you can’t write“ and he was RIGHT. The other great writing success of our time, Stephen King, put the learning process in even simpler terms: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut”.
So why am I breaking my own rule and blogging this week about writing? Well, I happened across a great You Tube video, the link for which I set out below, and it really does highlight a very important aspect of writing which every writer has to be aware of: Feeding your characters.
Feeding your characters is not an easy process, because they need information. If there is no information then there is no plot, and if there is no plot then there is no point. They get that information by interacting with each other. Once you have given life to the little darlings and let them find their voice, and their quest, they then have to discover sufficient snippets of information in their theatrical world to solve the conundrum that has been dropped on them from the great author in the sky.
And this is where it often goes pear-shaped. Good writers and bad writers are differentiated by how they handle this skill. If I want my detective to discover that the killer likes hot-dogs, and the reason he is collecting the blood of his victims is to adorn his hot-dogs with his own blend of tomato sauce, (ridiculous example I know, but indulge me), how do I engineer the detective discovering this? I could do it in a gradual way – ie at the scene of every crime there seems to be breadcrumbs which are collected but never really given credence – until some bright spark thinks it is odd that amongst the crime scene debris there is always breadcrumbs, so they have them analysed and discover they are all the same type of bread, same brand, same everything. They are not a fluke appearance at the scene – so they run DNA tests and Hey Presto! Saliva, etc etc. Or I could do it in a non-subtle way –ie the killer leaves every victim with a hot-dog shoved in their lifeless mouth and the words “I Love Hot-Dogs” carved into their chest. Either way, as a writer, when looking at plot, I have to think about how characters glean information from themselves, the scene, each other, and even the overall pattern of information release.
So, back to my initial comments. Why am I breaking my own rule and blogging about this? Well, it is because, in my humble opinion, it is information release/handling/discovery which either makes the novel great, or makes it a let-down.
Why else would fans of Law & Order compile a list such as those in the link below? It is because over-use of one technique, (in this instance websites/Internet), is soon exposed, and when something becomes routine it becomes ineffective and unbelievable.
So writers must work very hard to keep it fresh, believable and surprising. And so it should be. That is our job, and those who are good at it stand out a mile, in the same way as those who skimp on it deserve short thrift from their readers. Being a writer is a privilege bestowed upon us by our readers. Abuse that at your peril.
A quick browse of my bookshelves reveals an oddity: The back history of creative
men and women who have passed away and left a literary legacy does seem to be strangely linked to questions of substance abuse and mind-altering drugs. It is
not only my books which suggest this, but my music collection too.
A very brief overview to support my point would include: Beethoven drank wine
whilst composing and was reputedly drunk in public frequently; Fyodor Dostoevsky was a heavy drinker and wrote to pay for his dual addictions of booze and gambling; Aldous Huxley believed so vehemently in drugs bringing a visionary
experience that he wrote The Doors Of Perception which became a reference for artists seeking the same, and inspired the rock band The Doors to name themselves after it; the famous names of the literary Romantic Era, Shelley, Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge and Keats to name but a few, all wrote under the influence of Opium and Laudanum. It is seen within acting too, (Oliver Reed, Johnny Depp, Martin Sheen), and, as I have mentioned, music, (Jimmy Page and Stairway to Heaven, Jimi Hendrix and his Purple Haze, Aerosmith, Megadeth, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, David Bowie, Nirvana, Guns n Roses…. ad infinitum). Even amongst sports stars, and by that I mean publicly adored figures who produce “brilliance” for their fans, the stimulants abound, such as George Best, and, latterly, Paul Gascoigne. It seems that wherever there is art and creativity, there is some sort of substance abuse, use or addiction, too.
So does it enhance one’s creativity? If it does then are we to doubt the artistic
ability of creative artists in the first place? Is their work the product of them – or of their altered state? Are they, therefore, defined by their altered state and not by their endemic talents? Can they even do their “thing” without the drugs?
As a creative artist myself the question is an important one. For my own part, I
believe the impetus and the drive for a story – the act of creation, regardless of the medium, comes from a very deep, (and deeply misunderstood), part of ourselves. Something I refer to as The Creative Anima. It lives and exists regardless of the addiction overlay that so many creative people, and others, labour under. Indeed, creativity is a basic human activity that resides within everyone. We are all blessed with the potential to create artistically just as we are all cursed with the ability to not see it or not use it. The real question I would like to see answered is not what the gifted are capable of with their addictions, but rather what they are capable of without them.
But who am I to say? I am just a nowhere man, living in my nowhere land, writing all my nowhere words for nobody. But consider these words from the massively
popular, highly successful and undoubtedly unparalleled (so far as commercial
impact is concerned) Stephen King, himself no stranger to drink and drug abuse
in his early days:
“The idea that creative endeavour and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. The four twentieth-century writers whose work is most responsible for it are probably Hemingway, Fitzgerald,
Sheerwood Anderson, and the poet Dylan Thomas. They are the writers who largely formed our vision of an existential English-speaking wasteland where people have been cut off from one another and live in an atmosphere of emotional
strangulation and despair. These concepts are very familiar to most alcoholics;
the common reaction to them is amusement. Substance-abusing writers are just
substance abusers – common or garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other
words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer
sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic
snow-plough drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons. It
doesn’t matter if you’re James Jones, John Cheever, or a stewbum snoozing in
Penn Station; for an addict, the right to the drink or drug of choice must be
preserved at all costs. Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn’t drink because they were
creative, alienated or morally weak. They drank because it’s what alkies are
wired up to do. Creative people probably DO run a greater risk of alcoholism and
addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what? We all look pretty much
the same when we’re puking in the gutter”.
…. And so to the chink of glasses, the crackle of spirit over ice, and with the box
of regrets shoved firmly under the bed until the morning, the sun goes down and
the creative tools of innumerable artists come out to play. God bless you, my
creative brethren. Just be sure that when you pick up the pen, or the guitar, or
the paintbrush, or the dance shoes or whatever it is you “use”, that the Muse is
coming from the bottom of your soul and not from the bottom of your bottle. Yes,
I know it is a darker place down there, but no-one ever mined a gem from their
window-box. Sometimes you gotta go deep to find your feet.