Monday, 7 September 2009

Writing advice

A creative writing lecturer gave our class some advice one day on how to make sure we never plagiarise or copy other writer's ideas.

His advice was this:

Don't read new books.

Don't watch movies.

He was quite serious. His theory was that going to movies and reading all the new pulp fiction around is a highway to having no original ideas left, because movies and books will fill your head with their ideas and writing styles and ways of doing things.

I mean no disrespect to him, but I think that theory is absolute bull.

I plan to read as much and as widely as I can. Not only classics (I think he approved of classics. He brought Nietzsche to class and read us chapters out of it. With effort, I stayed awake: not everyone else did), but new books; old books; in-between books. I want to read other authors' debuts, and established authors' series. I want to immerse myself in YA fantasy — no doubt a dangerous choice, since that's what I want to write and the potential for plagiarism is endless — but because that's what I want to write, and I want to see how others do it and the language they speak, the tools they use, the imagery they portray.

I plan to watch every movie that appeals to me; that is based on a book I love or a true story that intrigues; every cute little rom-com that sounds like it might have that extra spice of wit or intelligence — and this despite the probability that opportunity for plagiarism abounds.

Other ideas inspire my own.

My ideas and this lecturer's very seldom meshed. I learned only one thing from him that I did think was good advice, and that was when another girl in the class complained that her characters' actions "never seemed believable". He gazed at her in astonishment.

"What are these characters? They are words. They don't exist except in words. If your characters aren't acting in a way that's believable, that's because you aren't making the words believable."

OK, I can't remember his exact phrasing, but it was something like that.

I've often heard writers complaining that their characters won't behave, and I think that's a good thing: that shows your characters have life. But you need to be able to control your characters' actions — to change the words to make that believable for who they are. You can make anything believable, with the right words.


Reuben said...

I think you're on the right track with this. Adding to your inputs adds to your possible outputs, I've always figured. I want to be as widely read as I can, so I can tell what works and what doesn't.

Everything I write is clearly the result of synthesis - I wouldn't feel too comfortable saying there's any such thing as a purely creative act, if that means generating something out of nothing. That's a little too omnipotent for me. :P

I'm on a big Neil Gaiman kick right now, and he's clearly enormously well read, and well viewed (if that makes sense), and also well storied generally, in that he's taken as an input all the stories he's found in the world, through whatever medium, and found ways they fit together. I'm sure he'd still be a good writer if he was working from scratch, but I'm not sure he'd be very interesting.

anna c said...

I understand what your lecturer was saying, because I've often found my head too full of other people's plots to look past them and come up with my own, but my feeling is you need to do exactly the opposite - read as much as you can and as diversely as you can. Then you will both have material to get your brain generating ideas, and also have an idea what type of things do and don't work, yet at the same time you don't get bogged down in any particular way of thinking or set of ideas.

Just my 2c.