Friday, November 26, 2010

Write what you like!

Peter here. I was reflecting the other day on what it is, exactly, that I like to write. And it came to me in a blindingly obvious flash of insight. I write what I like to read.

We’ve all been asked by aspiring writers what it is they should write. And the standard advice is: Write what you know. And yes, to an extent, that is true. But what do any of us know about crime, unless we are criminals ourselves, or ex-police officers?

Of course, crime is just the genre. The stories more often are about people, the human experience, the human condition. There was a discussion recently on TypeM about themes in our work, and most everyone seemed to feel that there was always a theme buried somewhere in the story.

I know that there is always some element of each book I write which is themed - whether it relates directly to the story (as in a medical or scientific theme), or to the vagaries of human frailty (as in guilt or arrogance). I once wrote an ambitious adventure story set in south-east Asia called “The Noble Path”, and it may not be obvious on the surface, but the motivation that drove the writing of it was the idea that in some circumstances innocence can be a more powerful force for destruction than evil (inspired to a degree by Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American”).

So, in examining my motivations for writing what I write, I came up with several thoughts. Write what you know. Explore a theme which interests you, or with which you are familiar. But, most importantly, write what you like to read.

I think that if, as a writer, you take yourself on a journey which you enjoy, then that will transmit itself to the reader.

The mistake I made as a young man was in trying to write the great novel. I had steeped myself in the great writers of the twentieth century, and wanted to write like they did. And so I wrote several books in an attempt to emulate their success. Of course, none of those early books got published, although the writing of them was not in any way a waste of time, as I can look back now and recognise that I was learning my craft.

But it wasn’t until I wrote a thriller - the kind of book I enjoyed reading as an escape from the daily dirge - that I got my first book published. And in retrospect I realise that I had effectively (and quite unconsciously) rolled all those bits of advice into one. The story was about an investigative journalist - I was working as a journalist at the time. It was set in Scotland and France - countries I knew well. The theme was corporate corruption - something which, as a journalist, had fascinated me. And, of course, it was a book I would have liked to read (or a movie I would have liked to see).

But I have a confession to make. I also used to love to read stories which explored the power in relationships between men and women. Not romances, in the conventional sense, but stories of tragedy, betrayal, redemption. One of my favourite writers, whose books often explored such themes, was H. E. Bates. To an extent I have always touched on these subjects in my own writing, but somewhere deep down I guess I always wanted to write the great love story.

I think, perhaps, in my forthcoming book, “The Blackhouse”, I finally achieved that ambition. The fact that it is as much a novel as a thriller, also fulfils two more of my own criteria. The book is the first of a trilogy. I have already written the second, and following the recent discovery that my first love - who had inspired one of the main characters - died eight years ago, I am not at all sure that it will end well.

It is a journey that awaits me. But one that I want to make, if for no other reason than to find out for myself how it all ends.


Hannah Dennison said...

Peter - your post is extremely timely for me. I am at a crossroads in my career and it's been suggested I write a new series in a genre I don't actually enjoy reading! Thanks! You've confirmed my decision.

Donis Casey said...

I learned the technique of mystery writing from analyzing the crime novels I most enjoyed reading. Writing is tough under the best circumstances. Trying to write something that doesn't engage you just because you think it might sell is torture. And the end product may be competent but it won't have any spark.

peter_may said...

Glad my ramblings were of some use, Hannah.

You're right, Donis, writing is hard enough without trying to write something you don't like!