develop your technique. We have school to show us the basics – spelling, grammar and what have you – but after that we’re on our own.
So here, presented almost as a dose of anti-franzen, are what I’ve told people in response to requests for advice. Bear in mind that they won’t work for everyone. Some of them don’t even work for me, to be honest.
1 Write. Sounds obvious but it’s the only way you’re going to develop your own style and technique. Write whenever time allows, about anything and everything.
It’s like practising scales on a musical instrument: you won’t necessarily enjoy it but it’s giving you the subconscious knowledge to loosen the shackles, making rules and technique a jumping-off point rather than a straitjacket.
2 Read a lot. Read things you enjoy by writers you enjoy. Don’t think too much – or even at all – about what those writers are doing and how, just immerse yourself in it: you’ll absorb influences subconsciously and be a better writer for it. As the American novelist and screenwriter Gene Fowler said: “The best way to become a successful writer is to read good writing, remember it, and then forget where you remember it from.”
3 Don’t try and sound like a writer. There is a temptation to adopt what you might think is a writerly tone but it’ll just makes you sound like a phoney. The best way to spot when you’re falling into this trap is when you find yourself using the word ‘somewhat’. That’s always a dead giveaway: “he felt somewhat embarrassed.” No, he felt embarrassed. ‘Somewhat’ is a vacuous space-filler and the surest sign that you’re trying to sound like a writer rather than sound like you, and that comes down to confidence. Which brings us to the next point.
4 Trust yourself. Don’t be afraid of using your own voice. It’s what you’re best at, you’ve been doing it since you were in nappies, now it’s just a question of writing it down in an agreeable manner.
5 Have something interesting to say and say it in an interesting way. This definitely applies if you’re looking to be published. Stylistically speaking you could be the best writer in the world but if nobody’s interested in what you’re writing about then they’re not going to read it. The publishing industry isn’t a competition to find the best writer, it’s a commercial operation – it’s what sells that counts so write something sellable. And the Dan Browns and E.L. Jameses people are always slagging off ? It’s their massive sales that will fund a publisher’s decision to take a punt on your first novel, sunshine.
6 Limit your research. Ian Rankin says he writes the book first and then goes back and does the relevant research, thus ensuring he only does what he needs to do. It’s easy to be lured down rabbit holes and along tangents when you find something that piques your interest: my last book was several months late