“Weird Fiction” is such a strange tag when you think about it. There's no other genre of fiction where the name is a description of the contents, rather than the category of story. You don't get “Boring Fiction” or “Pretentious Fiction”. But there it is, and Neil Gaiman is an author often labelled as writing Weird Fiction.
I'm not sure if that's a badge he wears proudly or not, but likewise I can't say for sure if American Gods counts as “Weird”. Unusual, yes, and it does twist and subvert many of the tropes and structures you'd expect in a story. But here's the thing, the reason why such tropes, archetypes and clichés exist is because they work. If you're going to step off of the beaten track and be “weird”, you need to have a darn good substitute. You need to still tell a story. You cannot get by on just being different if that difference isn't very good.
"The God Complex"
So is American Gods good? To many, it is. Great, even. And far be it from me to take that away from them. But I can only offer my perspective. And for me, American Gods, while full of rich subtext and ideas, is flawed. Some experiments work. And some don't.
I'm going to talk about those flaws here. I won't really talk about the plus points of the book, of which there are many, so if it seems like I'm being unfair, that's not my intention. American Gods is a critically lauded and fan-loved novel, you already know he reasons you like it. It's on me to submit my reasons for not liking it.
American Gods is a dense book. A lot happens, seen and unseen. Themes weave a thick web throughout the book: belief, religion, American culture, life, death...all the while the names of songs, movies, actors, actresses and other books are dropped everywhere. And this is before we get to the plot, which covers the length and breadth of America, and revolves around the high concept of the Gods taking physical form, both old and new, representing the old and new beliefs.
It's a lot to juggle, and it's testament to Gaiman that he manages to keep it all in the air, let alone make a cohesive novel out of it. But through the sheer complexity of the book, something is lost: clarity. It's like a fine stain-glass window: a wonder to behold in its own right, but really doesn't lend itself to clearly viewing the subject matter beyond. Scene-by-scene, frame by frame, there are some truly wonderful moments in American Gods, but when put together as a cohesive whole the narrative gets muddy. I enjoyed the feel of Shadow’s side-trip to Cairo, but I'm not quite sure what purpose it served to the story overall. To the themes, yes, but story is key. More on that later.
"Knowledge is Power"
Now, I'm sure that there some people out there who can tell me exactly what the purpose of the scenes in Cairo were. Who Whiskey Jack is and why he’s important. Why Shadow is so keen on coin tricks. But this leads me onto the second issue I have: Gaiman’s writing style. While it is full of flavour and verve, is no doubt unique. Nobody writes quite like him. He's not the kind of writer who spells out exactly what is happening and the significance of it. And while that is to be admired - it is refreshing to have an author who assumes a high level of intelligence and perception from his audience - I feel it matches poorly with American Gods. It is complex enough as it is, and I could have really done with a straight-shooting writing style to give a more reassuring guide through this bewildering world. And again, while I thank Gaiman for respecting my intelligence, I felt like I needed to have an advanced level of understanding for Norse Mythology, American culture and world religions to gain a complete understanding of American Gods. Sorry Gaiman, I'm just not that smart after all.
Related to that point is the speaking style of the characters. Everyone speaks as if they're experts in said topics on Myths and Legends. Take the scene when Sam hitchhikes a lift from Shadow, for example. So we have this big guy on the run, picking up a girl of college age. And what do they talk about? Gods. And they talk about it as if they're both majors in the field, with technical terms thrown around. It really stretches that suspension of belief. And they still speak with a hint of that Gaiman-esque uniqueness that makes it difficult to follow their conversation at times. Speech patterns begin blurring into one. I think I reread the passage where Shadow enters the Underworld three times and there were still some things I couldn't quite be sure the characters were talking about.
"In the beginning (and the end)..."
American Gods starts well and ends very well. The extended epilogue wraps things up nicely, clears up some of those hanging questions, and strangely enough the writing style is more straightforward as well, making it easier to digest and absorb. But the middle of the book tried my patience. We jump between long meandering days in Lakeside, where Shadow reads books, has dreams and literally waits for Wednesday to pick him up. Then it's off to meet another God, to persuade another one to join the team, then back to Lakeside. Gaiman isn't afraid to take his time through the narrative, and again that is to be admired, but you do have to wonder what the importance and significance of these meanders are. How do they add to the novel as a whole? Take those interjections of scenes from other times and places: the salesman in New York, the children brought over during the slave trade, the short story of Essie. Sure, these all add to and enrich the themes of American Gods, but not the story.
Ultimately, I enjoyed my time with American Gods. While the middle of he book tried my patience, the payoff in he end pulled it back for me. And even now, over a week after I've put the book down, I still think about it, and I've done some research to fill in the gaps where I feel I missed something. But that's the critical point for me. See, I have no problem with books that are filled with symbolism, themes and metaphors. One the contrary, I love them. Lord of the Flies is one of my most adored books, and nearly every other sentence of that oozes with allegory. But they are both fiction novels, and the simple rule of “story first” applies: the concept that you can fill your stories with as many themes, meanings, agendas and politics as you want, but the story comes first. Somebody should be able to sit down with your story, take it at face value, and still enjoy it for what it is. You can certainly do that with Lord of the Flies. Can it be done with American Gods? Can you take the adventure of Shadow purely at face value and still enjoy it? For me, the answer was no.
Everybody in American Gods talks of the divine, and people in the real world talk of American Gods as if it is just as revered, but I wasn't converted.
The very concept of historical fiction is an oxymoron. Fiction is, by definition, a flight of fancy, the imagination given form. History is fact, set in stone, our true past. To deviate from history puts it straight into fiction. There's no balance between the two. When we say “Historical Fiction” there's an unwritten understanding between creator and audience that, while certain efforts have been made to attain accuracy to the time period and the characters, the main purpose of the work is to entertain. If there is to be some tweaking or culling of the facts to make for more impactful storytelling, then so be it.
And yet there are those who would like to see the author held to the same standards as the historian, with all anachronisms ironed out, twisted truths unknotted and every facet of the facts bolted into place. Anything else is a failure, a disrespect to the source material.
The imitation game was no exception to the criticism. While it was largely hailed as excellent upon release in 2014, there was still the usual voices decrying the falsehoods in the movie. That Alan Turing was actually quite sociable. The true name of the Enigma machine was not Christopher but Victory. That the project was not a small crack team of geniuses working on a single machine, but that the Enigma project involved thousands of people, multiple machines and Alan Turing stepped in midway through the project. That the chemical castration didn't directly result in Turing’s suicide, that he was off the stuff 14 months before he died, and even then it's not entirely clear if he committed suicide.
Now, I am not at all saying that the people who point out these inconsistencies are wrong, or that they should simply enjoy the story for what it is. Certainly, all due diligence should be made in the research phase of the story, and to respect the facts. And I'm definitely not saying that historical fiction, as a source of entertainment, has no duty to inform. It certainly does, and those people who point out the inaccuracies help to push us all to a higher standard.
But there has to be a reasonable limit on just how much a storyteller can be expected to follow the facts. The reason is twofold. Firstly, to be blunt, a storyteller’s job is to tell a story. A story’s job is to entertain, and anything learned from it is a happy bonus. Why don't we hold historians to the same standard? That they must present their facts in a pleasing and readable narrative? Sure, some historians are gifted storytellers with a knack for making a potentially dry history lesson of the past a joy, but the difference between the two is stark. We happily forgive history books if they are as dull and readable as a dictionary - indeed, we praise history books as this as being the real deal, the pedigree authority on our history - and yet if a historical fiction gives a character a fabric type that isn't invented for the next 73 years, or the villain a gun that what never been made available outside of South America, then you can bet that the author’s going to hear from some very unhappy people. We should be more sympathetic to the author who has clearly at least tried. Tried harder than the historian who can’t (and won't) make their work more digestible.
Secondly, as the storyteller, the author is well versed in - and has a duty to - make the story work. Let's face it, despite there being many strange and wonderful true stories of drama, terror, excitement and wonder in the world, very few of them would translate perfectly into a story. Stories and real life have similarities, yes, but the differences are key to understanding why storytellers make the changes they do. Stories have to hit certain emotional beats. Have clear beginnings and endings. Keep a certain level of tension and pacing. Have an antagonistic force for the main character to play off of. Simply put, real life does not have an audience to keep in rapt attention. A story does, and when retelling a true story certain adjustments and sacrifices have to be made to keep the audience engaged.
Let's look at the differences between the fact and fiction of the imitation game again. In the movie, Alan Turing basically has Asperger’s. He may not have been like that in real life (though he was indeed a private person), but can you imagine the story if the Enigma crew got on perfectly well from the outset? It would seem too easy, and Alan wouldn't have the scope to develop as a character. Now again, you can argue that character development of Alan isn't true to the real man, but this is what engages an audience. A protagonist who stays the same throughout does not a satisfying narrative make. Same with the naming of the machine: naming it after Alan’s childhood friend gives it that extra emotional oomph that has a great payoff towards the end of the movie.
His death is probably the most contentious discrepancy, and I can understand why. It is argued that Alan Turing’s time on chemical castration wasn’t that bad for him, and his death was a separate issue with an unclear cause. To be blunt, if this had played out in the movie it would have been an anticlimactic mess. Imagine it: after completion of the Enigma machine, Alan Turing is arrested for homosexual acts. He's put on a program of corrective medicine that doesn't impact him that badly, then he dies of an indirect cause later. Credits roll.
It wouldn't work. Stories require payoff, closure. You can see the thinking of the creators when they were deciding how to get the right impact without sacrificing the integrity of the story. Clearly a happy ending would be disastrous: Alan Turing's story could only ever end in tragedy. Having Turing’s story (not life, but story) end on a clear suicide as a direct result of the chemical castration gives the story clear closure, deals an emotional blow to the audience, and puts one of the core themes of the story (and of Alan Turing’s real life) into sharp relief: homosexuality.
Of course it can be done badly. There's countless examples out there of poorly researched historical fiction that plays fast and loose with the facts. The key thing here is respect for the source material. In my opinion the imitation game is not just a good story but also good historical fiction, because it manages to tell a story while staying true to the spirit of Alan Turing’s life and work. The facts can be respected without being mimicked. The alterations don’t compromise the integrity of the truth: in many respects, the alterations can enhance and bring focus to the points that matter. While it may have been true the Enigma project was the work of a much larger group of men and women, showing the group as being a much smaller, concentrated effort brings the attention squarely onto Turing.
And let’s be clear here: tweaking the facts to make digestible, audience-friendly historical fiction is by no means selling out. Good historical fiction leaves the audience in one of two mindsets: feeling intrigued enough to go off and learn more, or they never look up anything further on the topic but the movie leaves them with an impression more or less aligned with the historians (ie. that Turing was a genius, unfairly persecuted for his sexuality, and taken before his time). In the case of the former, this is wonderful because it piques the interest and drives the viewer or reader to investigate and read up on the real deal. This is easier than it has ever been thanks to everyone having immediate access to the knowledge of the world through a device in our pockets. In the case of the latter, it is also good news because you have a casual viewer who would have otherwise been uninformed yet thanks to a movie or book now possess a sketch of the facts without being grossly uninformed. Either way, historical fiction brings important benefits to opening the eyes of an audience to the work of a person, a time in history, a tragedy or great battle that they would have otherwise never known about.
Historical Fiction faces unique challenges in striking a balance between telling an impactful story while respecting the facts. While every effort should be made to present the truth, it must be understood that it’s main purpose is to tell a story. Done well, historical fiction can be an effective primer for the masses, and a gateway to encourage looking into the real deal. And I have learned a lot about Alan Turing since watching ‘The Imitation Game’!
Many, many moons ago, I gave a standard submission to a literary agent. The reply wasn’t so standard. No, it wasn’t a Holy Grail answer of “YES! We love you, sign a contract with us IMMEDIATELY!” unfortunately (I imagine that’s what a positive response from a literary agent looks like. I’ve no idea: I’ve never had one!).
The exact wording of the reply escapes me, but I’ll never forget the tone: it was one of exhausted desperation, like someone who has run a marathon and ended up at the wrong finish line. While she liked what I had submitted (it was ‘Tick’, by the way), she craved something that was high-octane, high-drama, high-stakes, characters that burst off the page, the works. And ‘Tick’ wasn’t showing that. Well, to be specific, the opening three chapters of ‘Tick’ weren’t showing that.
I did offer a second submission to the poor agent, one that I felt was more up their street, but I never heard back from them. I presume they must’ve spontaneously combusted out of boredom from lack of high-octane action. It was very disappointing for me, and not just because I felt like I’d started to make an in-road with an agent, but also because this agency was famous for certain series of books. Possibly the most famous book series of the modern age. And that book series sure didn’t burst out of the gates with high-octane, high-drama, high-stakes and characters that burst off the page, that is for sure.
But most worrying of all is how this agent gave a very real glimpse into what is a trend in the writing world: something I call First Chapter Frenzy.
First Chapter Frenzy is the desire, both from agents and writers, for a faster paced, more explosive, adrenaline-fuelled opening. This stems from the concern of an increasingly competitive fiction market, and a belief of a reader’s ever-shortening attention span.
But there’s also a behind-the-scenes element going on, possibly the most important one. Simply put, poor agents like the one I'd made contact with wade through a mountain of submissions from writing hopefuls such as myself every single day. This is known affectionately as the slush pile, and everyone desires to make themselves stand out from the crowd and grab the ear of the agent. Knowing full well that most agencies are looking only for the opening three chapters or so, authors will polish up these chapters and configure them to such a degree of attention-seizing mania that they're virtually unrecognisable from the rest of the book.
No kidding, I have read draft novels like this. One example springs to mind: the first chapter was this blistering opening of a man standing in a rain lashed street, waiting. A car comes veering around the corner and racing towards the man, but he holds his ground. The headlights catch his face, and the car swerved to avoid him, breaking to a stop. The man punches through the windshield and grabs the driver by the throat. “I've been waiting for you,” he says.
Woah. Pretty intense stuff, yes? How can that be possibly be followed up on? Well, short answer: it isn't. Long answer: the next chapter is nothing but the two same characters, presumably one week prior to Chapter One, doing nothing but sitting in a cafe and talking. Infodumping. It was painfully obvious that this writer was well aware that their original opening (which I guess wasn't too far off from the soporific pacing of Chapter Two) wasn't going to grab an agent’s attention. So they threw their first chapter into a dubstep remix machine, filled it with a six pack of red bull and now we have a moody man punching car windows in the rain.
Now, I am not saying that frenetic and explosive first chapters aren't good. On the contrary, they can be great - if it fits with the overall tone and theme of your story. It's no good shoehorning in a pulse-pounding thriller of an introduction it the rest of your book is a ponderous murder-mystery. The aim of the first chapter is to not just to seize attention for the sake of it, but to immerse the reader in the world and keep reading. A novel doesn't succeed by pure footfall alone.
And there's many types of novels out there for which a frenetic opening simply wouldn't work. It sure as hell wouldn't work for Tick. Yet many follow the George Lucas school of “once again, but this time faster and more intense,” as if simply cranking up the speed and energy and urgency are the shortcuts to success. They aren't. Many books open with not so much a fireworks display as they do a whisper on the wind. And yet they are just as successful in seizing a reader’s attention. They set the mood, the feel, the mystery, the questions that will compel the reader on beyond Chapter One in search of answers. Cast your minds back through the opening of some of your favourite books and I guarantee that most of them open with a steady, slow burn. Pyrotechnics on the page are no sure fire way to success.
Think back to school. Think of that teacher who was able to hold the entire class in rapt attention and yet barely raise their voice above a normal speaking volume? Why did it work? Was it the way that teacher simply exuded confidence? Or was it the content of what they were saying that held you? Whatever it was, it was something that didn’t need to be shouted from a megaphone through a smoke and laser show.
And I’m sorry, but I do not buy that an increasingly competitive market and shortening attention spans are to blame here. Yes, we have more access to a wider range of entertainment than ever - the audience have the luxury to be choosy - but that doesn’t mean we need to be increasingly desperate in our methods to hold our reader’s eyeballs. A good story speaks for itself. Let’s not insult our readers by thinking they cannot possibly go for more than three pages without some sort of action scene. This whole idea of ever shortening attention spans is pure myth. Do not fear the quiet, calm moments of your book. In fact, some of my favourite moments in books are when characters are given space to just simply...be. Develop. Interact with the world around them. These aren't just holes in the pacing or places of exposition, but vital moments where the story you’re weaving enriches itself. And moreover, they are just simply...relaxing. Take pride in having them in your writing, and the fact that you feel you can trust your readers to not be kept excited on every page.
First Chapter Frenzy demands that your opening is a veritable supernova. You may feel you need to compete against the greats, against an already overcrowded mass of other books. But do not feel pressure to shout louder and write a high-octane, high-drama, high-stakes, characters that burst off the page opener. Amidst the noise, the reader is attracted to the writer who offers calm shelter, and quietly goes about weaving a captivating story, free of the frenzy
I make a big song and dance about how good stories can be found anywhere. Well, it's time to put my money where my mouth is and put my first ever music album under the magnifying glass. And what better way to start than with one of my favourite bands, Muse, and their conceptual album, Drones.
Music faces a unique challenge when it comes to telling a story, in that it's not the main purpose of the medium. Movies and books tell stories. Music is...well, what is music for? It's entertainment, sure, but isn't there more to it than that? For me, music serves to create or enhance a mood. Music can relax, excite, enrage, make you smile, make you cry. And it can do that even when you were feeling in a completely different mood prior to listening. It's also the only form of entertainment that doesn't require your complete attention: you can leave the music to play while you cook, exercise, chat or even sleep.
So how do you match this format of entertainment with telling a story? It's a challenge, to be sure, hence why those “albums that tell a story” are rare compared to your straight-shooting one-track-at-time album. And even then, conceptual albums can be very hit or miss, often failing for not committing to its story enough or too much (when there's filler tracks to simply move the story along). Sure, you get songs that tell a whole story in one go (Eminem’s ‘Stan’ is a prime example), but sustaining the narrative across a dozen tracks is a very different beast. People rarely come to music for the story it tells: they come it for those reasons I mentioned earlier; for setting a mood or for background entertainment.
So it’s a real challenge for the more narrative-inclined songwriters out there. There’s multiple methods and techniques out there, but for me there there’s two main points that a good story-based album need to demonstrate: the stealth story, and the feel of the story arc. And I feel that Muse’s Drones displays both expertly.
Let’s cover the stealth story first. How many times have you been told that the song you’ve enjoyed listening to hundreds of times has an interesting story to it, and you never noticed it? Well, in a backwards kind of way, that's the ideal.
You see, you don’t feel short-changed from your entertainment: you have been enjoying the music on a different level. If anything, sometimes knowing what the lyrics really mean can spoil the music for some. Not because the narrative is distasteful, but because you can’t not hear the story when you’ve first noticed it. People prefer their music to complement their lifestyle, as a form of escapism that doesn’t intrude, while stories push a specific agenda that demands attention and a certain thought process from the listener. That can put off listeners who just like their music to be something that makes their commute a little more enjoyable or something to unwind with at the end of the day. It’s why people understandably raise their hackles whenever an album strips away all the music for a bit of tuneless narration.
A good story can enhance the music in the same way that a good soundtrack enhances a movie, but it should never overpower it. The story should be inserted stealthily, threaded seamlessly into the fabric of the sound. Lyrics are deliberately opaque, painting the underlying narrative in broad strokes without filling in the detail. If the lyrics explicitly spell out what is happening, it sticks out and can irritate those who simply wish to enjoy the music. Look to songs like Feel Good Inc. by Gorillaz, with lyrics and accompanying video signalling the dangers of excess and the loss of innocence, but you need not know that. You can take it on a surface level.
This isn’t to say that listeners don’t wish to be challenged. Rather, they prefer to make up their own mind up about what the music means to them. That’s why the best concept albums are often interpreted in different ways: the meaning was never clearly laid out. We get a general feel for the themes and the vague direction the story takes, but the finer points are left to the audience to fill in - if they want to.
Coming back to Muse’s Drones, I think all listeners can agree that the album has an anti-military, anti-authority stance, and there seems to be a character who falls into the system, becoming a drone, before breaking free of their oppressor. But beyond that, the detail of the story is unclear, at times contradictory. The band has said that the protagonist is female, yet there’s evidence in the album to the contrary, such as the male screams of ‘aye Sir!’ on Psycho. Psycho itself paints a picture of military-style mental abuse, but other songs like Mercy (and the accompanying video) allude to a more scientific theme of mind control.
Some have said that this is a downside, that the concept is unclear. On the contrary, this is the greatest sign of a story that’s been stealthily inserted into the music: it’s up for interpretation. After listening to Drones from beginning to end we all get a rough sense of the story told, while having individual elbow room to fill in the blanks. Personally, I latch onto the opening lines in Mercy, where we have lines like: “I tried to change the game/I tried to infiltrate but now I’m losing.” So for me the protagonist was some kind of double agent who is failing to stay true to themselves. The 10-minute epic of The Globalist seems to me to be the protagonist coming face to face with the big bad guy (whoever he is), who decides to detonate and flatten the entire world before he dies, leaving our protagonist and his/her love interest as the only humans left.
If you have listened to Drones, you likely have your own interpretation, and that’s fine, but there’s a good chance it’s not far off of what I got out of it. We might differ on the small points but the general spine of the story is agreed upon. Which, if you were to simply print off the lyrics for each song and read them out without any of the music, is actually pretty incredible: Drones leans heavily on those obtuse lyrics I mentioned earlier. And this is where we get the second key technique of storytelling in a concept album: making the mood.
The story of a conceptual album doesn’t just exist through the words, but also through the music. The feel, the tone, the way the words are presented, all serve to gently build the theatre in the mind of the listener, and inform the way they should feel while they listen. This is one of music’s greatest strengths, why some movies would simply feel wrong if they had no soundtrack. Seriously, can you imagine Return of the King’s famous beacon firelighting scene without the music? It wouldn’t work because the music swells with the feel of Gandalf’s words: “Hope is kindled.” Hope is carried through the air on the back of elated strings and a stirring brass section.
Music is excellent at pulling at the heartstrings, and is surprisingly effective at inspiring a certain mood in the audience. This is what Drones does so well. The feel of each song conjures certain images in the mind. So where the lyrics may only hint at what is happening in the story, the music itself helps to frame what is happening through the atmosphere of the sound.
This is what Drones does so well, and is the reason why so many get the feel for a story without it feeling as though it intrudes on the music. Rather, the story is told through the music. Dead Inside feels robotic, claustrophobic. Psycho is aggressive and abusive. Mercy, with its tinkling piano, gives the album’s first hint of human emotion, of softness. Reapers is wild and full of panic. The Handler is heavy and leaden, as though...yep, oppressed - until that wail of “LET ME GO!”. Defector is at turns euphoric and seething with sweet revenge. And so on. The music echoes the beats of the story itself, and it follows a classic story arc of trigger, quest, climax and resolution.
So the story lives through the music, not in spite of it. Each track can conjure a mood which, when played one after the other, stacks up into a kaleidoscope of moods and captured emotions that echo that of a story. If this is combined with the stealth story, then you are coming close to finding what all the best conceptual albums share: music that can be enjoyed on a surface level, but with hidden depths for the more perceptive listener to delve into if they wish.
But the music must always come first. I know I’ve repeated ad nauseum how the story comes second on music albums, but let’s be real here: when we have a movie we enjoy, how many times are we going to rewatch it in, say, a year? Twice, maybe three times? Now, how about an album you enjoy? You’re going to replay it at least twenty times or more. No matter how good a story is, it’s going to lose it’s shine after a couple of playthroughs, whereas music is much more durable when it comes to replayability. Being overly pushy on the story front on an album is going to dramatically affect its shelf life, no matter how good that story may be.
It can be a tricky balance for music to tell a story, primarily because of the listener’s preconceptions about what music should be. But when the balance is struck, and I believe Drones is a perfect example of this, we get albums that transcend into something else: piece of entertainment that works on multiple levels. Don’t underestimate how much of achievement that is!
It's an oft repeated mantra of the writing world: to write what you know. To take your experiences and make them fodder for your creative writing.
When I was but a youngster, striking out into the world of writing for the first time, this advice confused me no end. As a 16-year-old, my life experiences were limited to school, homework and biking up to my mate’s house on the weekends to play Mario Kart. How on earth could that translate into creative material?
Besides, I don't think all the life experiences of the world could help me with what I was trying to write: an epic adventure spanning galaxies. And it wasn't just me: whenever I'd wonder into my local Waterstones (which was a lot: I used to work there!) I'd wander around the sci-fi and fantasy sections. Books about world's conjured from the imagination, filled with the unreal, the surreal and he fantastic. Many of them excellent, many of them successful. The authors of these books sure hadn't lived in those worlds!
So I dismissed that advice out of hand and got on with writing my epic space adventure. And what an adventure it was, both in terms of the content and in the writing of it. I lived and breathed that project for a whole year, drew up elaborate plans stretching as far as book five, sketched pictures of the main characters, made maps. It became my life. When I wasn't writing that book I wanted nothing more than to be back writing it, even in my sleep.
When I completed the first draft of that book, I just knew that I’d created something incredible. A story for the ages. And all at the age of 16! I was a child protege! So much for that ‘write what you know’ advice! It was my moral duty to get this book out to agents as soon as possible. They needed to get this onto bookshelves and into reader’s hands right away.
So imagine my shock when those rejection letters came rolling in. One after the other, some without even a note of why they rejected it. Those hurt the most. How could this be? What had I missed? Could...could it be that the book wasn't as good as I thought it was?
So I hit the books, studying up on the art of writing fiction. Prior to that point I'd only passed a cursory glance across the basics, thinking that I could get by on pure raw passion and enthusiasm.
It was then that hit the trough of the Dunning-Kruger Effect: the phenomenon where newbies who are ignorant of the skills required in a craft consider themselves to be better than veterans. The more I learned about how to write - plotting an arc, building characters, theming, show don't tell - the more I realized how little I knew. Rereading my original manuscript after getting a grasp of some of these techniques and key dos and don’ts was a sobering experience. I couldn't fault the enthusiasm in my first draft, but technically it was a mess. Long, meandering sentences. Flat characters. Atrocious pacing. But worst of all, a general feeling of hollowness to the events unfolding in the story. It felt...empty somehow, like things were just happening and characters were simply resigned to go along with it, like apoorly rehearsed play. And all the while that advice kept popping up: write what you know.
That was a pretty frustrating period. What was I missing? I was keen to learn, to try and improve my work, but this piece of advice was about as helpful as the classic catch 22 of job hunting: that you can't find a job because you need more experience, yet you can't get said experience because nobody will offer you a job. In this instance, though, I was being asked to ‘know’ about space travel, about interplanetary war, about...well, a fictional world that I had made up! How could I know something I'd invented?
And that was when it hit me. That was when I really understood what the ‘write what you know’ mantra truly meant.
Because it's not just talking about life experiences. It's not saying that mechanics can only ever write about machines, or doctors can only ever write medical drama. Of course not. Jeff Lindsay invented Dexter but nobody would accuse him of being a serial killer!
No, what it means is you have live the world you're creating. You absolutely can build a world from scratch, but you have to understand it inside-out. You must get under the skin of you characters, know what makes them tick, how they'd react in almost any given situation. You must know the history of your world, how it informs the culture and traditions, the factions and tensions that play out to this day as a result of that history.
You have to know it. Completely and absolutely. So you can write it, and do it justice.
That was the mistake I'd made with my first draft. Sure, it wasn't a total disaster - as I said, I was in love with my own creation and had created this wealth of background material that sketched out bits of the world and history and the characters that occupy it. But that was the problem: they were sketches, nothing more. The characters had bios and I'd assigned arbitrary personality traits to them, but I hadn't actually gotten into their heads and tried to know them. The world I'd created was vast but sparse, seeming to exist purely to drive the plot, rather than being a living breathing place that exists well beyond the realms of the story I was trying to tell. I loved my story, but I didn't know it. Not yet.
This is what separates the good from the great. The good can tell a good story, but only the great know their creations so well that they pen the narrative like writing their own diary. The world J.K. Rowling presents in Harry Potter is a perfect example of this: the story follows Harry but you constantly get this sense that this wizarding world exists well beyond the story we’re presented with, has existed long beforehand and will continue to exist for a long time after. JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is famously just a tiny tip of the mythology of Middle Earth, and the sense that there’s a wider world beyond the events that unfold during The War of the Ring aren't an illusion: every detail of Arda has really has been meticulously crafted, most of it never appearing in the main novels, but all contributing to the sense of depth.
It's like the difference between shooting on a green screen set and shooting on location: shooting on a set that's been designed purely to present the story that's being told can work, but there's something about shooting on location, in a real city where the cracks in the walls are real and the cobbled streets are polished from the countless feet that have strode across them down the centuries. It offers something a little deeper, a little richer. The world is there for real. It is known.
J K Rowling had to walk through every corridor of Hogwarts and beyond before she could bring a Harry Potter to life. JRR Tolkien had hiked across every inch of Middle Earth and taken note of all the languages he'd found before writing the stories of the Baggins. They had to before they could write what they know. Again, 90% of the world they explored would never make it into their publicly released writing, but you can feel it in their words. That they're simply writing what is really happening, rather than ‘making up a story’. That, if they so wish, they could veer the narrative off in any random direction at any time and you'd not be met with a blank and unfinished canvas but yet more works to explore.
Finally, I understood. Just because it could never be a real life experience didn't mean I couldn't know it. But it did mean that I’d have to work extra hard to know the world of my space adventure. That I'd have travel to every corner of...well, not just a world, but an entire galaxy of my creation before I could ‘write what I know’.
It would be a mammoth task. But it wouldn't be one that I'd have to conjure entirely from my own mind. My real life experiences, such as they were, could offer rich pickings to mix into the fiction. The Shire in Middle Earth is clearly inspired by The Cotswolds. The journey of The Hogwarts Express is inspired by JK Rowling’s own train journeys up to Scotland. And that was another lesson I learned about ‘write what you know’: that if I were to use my own life experiences, they didn't need to be major experiences. Even the little things could help to fill out the corners of my world. What I can see from the train window of my commute. The colorful personalities of my colleagues. My biking trip from last year. It could all contribute to building my knowledge of my world, while also imbuing it with a sense of truth, of reality that rings true to me and hence imbues a sense of gravitas to my writing.
To this day, I continue to learn about that world I'm making. I'm still not ready. But when I am, I will be ready to ‘write what I know’ and my writing will be all the better for it.
Well. That came out of nowhere, didn't it? Who’d have thought that a Netflix Original 80s throwback would become the mega hit show it did? Certainly, it ran the risk of being lost in the glut of other Netflix-made shows (seriously, Netflix, slow down!), as they say, the cream rises to the top. And make no mistake, Stranger Things oozes quality from the top down.
But what is it that makes Stranger Things so great? It doesn't do anything especially new or groundbreaking - in fact, a huge chunk of the show’s appeal is trading on 80s nostalgia - and there's no strong hook that pulls the viewer in from the start (a boy goes missing in the woods has cliche scrawled all over it). I guarantee that if you're an avid fan trying to get a friend to watch and they ask you why they should, your response is usually “seriously, just watch it”, because to describe the synopsis of Stranger Things makes it sound quite boring. The odds were stacked against Stranger Things from the start.
But anyone who has completed the first season will tell you that it is indeed a huge success of a show. It beats all odds, and yet if you were to ask me or most fans why it's a success they probably can't tell you why. So let's take this Showcase to throw Stranger Things upside down and put it under lab surgery to dig out exactly what it is that makes it so good.
And what we find should encourage any would-be writer out there. Because Stranger Things works so well not from any clever concepts, big ticket set pieces or mind-bending plot twists, but from taking a straightforward story that's been told a thousand times and simply doing it well. Very, very well.
Because, despite what many will tell you, ideas are cheap. New writers horde their clever ideas and concepts for stories like they’re something precious, laboring under the assumption that they're rarefied artifacts, meal tickets to fame and fortune that others would steal in a heartbeat.
But the truth is that ideas are everywhere. For every novel in the bookstore there’s hundreds of thousands of ideas that get shelved, cannibalized, rejected or just plain forgotten. The famous mantra of “There's no more original ideas left in the world” is nonsense, serving to perpetuate this myth that finding an original idea is the equivalent of finding Atlantis. There's plenty of original ideas out there. If you were to sit down and concentrate for an hour you'd come up with at least one original idea for a story.
No, the saying should be “Original ideas are like pollen: they're everywhere, really, and you can reach out and grab them at anytime. But originality is not quality. Very few pollen will survive to grow into tall trees.” Doesn't roll off of the tongue as easily, granted, but it's true: while anyone can have an idea, the rarity comes in great ideas. If you're an experienced writer you already know what I'm talking about: those great ideas that basically write themselves.
No, most ideas are either out there ridiculous and will never come to fruition from lack of practicality, or the idea is pretty mundane.
But here's the thing: mundane ideas are fine! In many respects, a writer who can take average ideas and massage them into something of quality is streets ahead of the writer who sits on great ideas, doing nothing with them because they can't decide how to do them justice.
This is what Stranger Things does. It doesn't have an original bone in it’s body - it's a pastiche of Stephen King, John Carpenter, E.T. and The Navigator - but it takes these tried and tested storytelling formulae and quite simply uses them well. It doesn't try to introduce any clever twists or brain-melting ideas. It knows the cake it wants to bake from the beginning and sets about baking it to the best of its ability, with no crazy ingredients or wacky recipe in the mix. It's a tried-and-tested formula that it executes to perfection.
It is a show that is very comfortable in its own skin. Because it knows what it wants to achieve from the beginning and how it will get there. It doesn't wrestle or struggle with those clever, high-concept ideas or complicate itself to the point that it needs to backpedal or hit a big reset button like so many shows do these days (see my showcase for Sherlock for a prime example of this). So the pacing is on point: no episode feels like filler or rushed. At no point do we need to have the story stop and have characters explain what the hell’s happening to each other (i.e. The audience). The most mysterious aspects of Stranger Things - the monster and the world of Upside Down - are not over explained and are barely glimpsed until the latter stages of the season. This is a smart move from the creators. Not only does this maintain the sense of mystery and suspense and put you firmly in the shoes of the protagonists who are as unsure of the facts as you are, but it takes advantage of just how...well, unoriginal the monster and the upside down are. Sounds harsh but it isn't meant to be - we’ve already established that originality isn't quality. Instead, because it is thick with the DNA of the many shows that came before it and inspired it, the audience can paint a picture in their own minds of what they believe the monster or the upside down are.
Complementing the smooth pacing is the fact that there is no flab or excess in the 10-episode running time. There is no character who serves no purpose, nothing set up that receives no pay-off (notwithstanding questions deliberately left hanging for future seasons), nothing that doesn’t serve the story. The way the multiple sub-plots dovetail together in the final stages of the story is handled with deft skill, without feeling tacked on or ham-fisted. It all flows naturally
And this is why everybody should take note of Stranger Things’ success, especially would-be writers. Because here we have a TV show that aims to do nothing more than tell a darn good story. No outlandish ideas, no ‘ultimate stakes’ with the end of the world looming, no competing with other media for who can shout loudest for the most attention from viewers’ eyeballs and eardrums. No. It instead quietly sets about telling abou the story it wants to as well as it can, regardless of whether it's tropes are cliche or not.
Isn't it wonderful to know that simply great storytelling can still champion everything these days?
Mistakes. Errors. Sins. We love to point them out, don't we? And yes, it is a love. Because despite the faux annoyance folks display when they complain about grammatical hiccups they spot in a book or continuity errors in the make-up department that they spot in a movie, it is in fact a small delight, a thrill. Like when a magician messes up his trick and reveals the corner of the trap door under his feet.
The delight is twofold. First, it's like a peek behind the curtain. The illusion of the fiction slips ever so slightly - not enough to disrupt the experience - but just enough to be noticeable and comedic in effect. This gripping scene of a man dying in the arms of his brother as he utters words of forgiveness with his last breath is disrupted when the boom mic accidentally peeks into view at the bottom of the frame. The serious veers into the absurd so fast you can't help but laugh.
Second, it gives the viewer or reader a small victory, a sense of superiority. In spotting errors and pointing them out to others, that person is essentially trying to establish themselves as better than the creator.
Woah. Pretty strong claim, yes? Perhaps, but I wish to make two things clear here: first, that I'm not talking about solicited or constructive criticism - the act of highlighting mistakes with the purpose of making the book or film better. That is always welcome and wanted. And sometimes, yes, some things do deserve to be ripped apart, because it's clear there is no respect for the audience in this piece or from the creator.
No, I'm talking about the rabid nitpicking sort of error-spotting. The kind that's really accelerated over the years. You've seen it. You can't move through YouTube for people making videos where they highlight a strand of hair in a red circle, throwing in a dirty great arrow for effect, pointing out this minuscule mistake that you wouldn't even notice unless you were - and this is the key point - actively looking for them.
And that's my chief concern. It has become such an ingrained hobby - and don't say it isn't a hobby, if you dislike mistakes so much then why do you actively seek them out? - that people will fixate on the inconsequential errors and then walk away decrying the poor quality of the film, book or TV show. This is despite not focusing on the real meat in front of them - the story, the characters, the themes. It's like going to watch a great play but you mock it because you can see masking tape on the wall. Some people will dismiss the thrust of this article not because they have a constructive argument against it, but because they've already spotted the spelling and grammatical errors (deliberately) scattered throughout and dismiss it without further thought. And with our ever-increasing interconnectivity, people are racing to pile on top of that book, that movie, to spot the most mistakes and be the fastest at doing so, to feel the most superior.
This has to stop. When a young aspiring filmmaker or author sees an otherwise solid piece of entertainment picked apart and ridiculed, what is he or she supposed to think? Believe me, newcomers to creative fields are already paranoid enough of making mistakes, they don't need any more convincing that the field is teeming with carnivores ready to pounce. We run the risk of scaring off our future greats because the perceived learning curve is too steep, that perfection is expected from the very beginning. And if the established directors and authors of the day can't get it right, how can they possibly hope to? There are many reasons why there are so few original movies coming from Hollywood these days, and this is one of them.
Oh, you think they're precious little snowflakes who could do with a dose of the real world? Thanks for the clever rebuttal. Look, imagine someone is criticizing your 1-year-old child. Before you jump up and say that you can’t possibly equate a small child to a book, well to the creator it is. That book they’ve been working on takes months, possibly years to cultivate, to grow, to attend you. Your project is as precious as a child. And then some strangers begin throwing superficial criticisms around about your child: their hair, how they have an orange juice spill on their shirt, how they can’t enunciate the word ‘Mama’ properly...how would you feel? How would you react?
This is how a new writer can view the landscape before them. They have motivation and drive, and they know that criticism comes with the job, but when they see just how destructive and cynical their potential audience can be, combined with how difficult it can be to get recognition from even one person (ask an aspiring writer how many rejection letters they have) and some will surely give up before they start. Why go through all that hassle?
It’s even harder for authors. Filmmakers, at least, collaborate with a small army of people. The collaborative effort means that errors and problems are more likely to be spotted and corrected in the production process. This, I suppose, makes the pointing out of issues in film more justifiable - how did that get by so many people without being seen? - but spare a thought for the author who works solo for most of, if not the whole process. Professional editors are not cheap, meaning that for the wannabe writer the first step on the ladder means showing your work to an audience when it’s been edited by yourself. And you’ve done your best to eradicate as many errors as possible, but it’s really hard to spot problems in things you made, especially if it’s your third or fourth read-through. And when the criticism rolls in, there’s no team to share the blame with. It’s all loaded on one pair of shoulders.
Once again, I’m not talking about meaningful, constructive critique. Pointing out structural issues, inconsistencies in character, anachronisms - things that are making the story less good than it could be - then by all means, critique away. And sure, point out spelling mistakes and grammatical hiccups, but mix it up with positive feedback too. The author, if they are sensible, will be all ears. I’m talking about taking superficial potshots for personal satisfaction.
It’s fun, gratifying even, to poke holes in something, especially if it’s been so obviously, cynically produced. But let’s remember that there are human beings behind the thing you’re poking holes in. Be fair. Be empathetic. Help that creator to grow. It’s more work and less exciting, but that gratification you’re seeking will come in time when that author comes back to you with a finer, stronger end product that you had a part in helping to build. And to think, you nearly scared them away!
It’s become something of a running joke about how long we have to wait between seasons of BBC’s Sherlock. Two year gaps for seasons 2 and 3, a three year gap for season 4...and all for three (albeit movie-length) episodes. And yet it doesn’t seem all that long ago when Sherlock first donned the trenchcoat and scarf and wowed us in the first episode, A Study In Pink.
Back then, Sherlock could do no wrong. The cases were cleverly presented then deftly deconstructed by the Baker Street detective. It was a smart, quintessentially British show with tight storytelling (both small and large arcs). Together with Watson, Sherlock carved his way through problems and into the hearts of audiences and critics alike.
The show peaked with the ‘Reichenbach Fall’ episode, which concluded with Sherlock faking his own death. The world seemed to light up with Sherlock-mania. How did he do it? What will happen next? Theories were as wild as they were numerous. The build up to ‘The Empty Hearse’ was palpable.
That is when the cracks started to appear. ‘The Empty Hearse’ made two huge missteps. First, it failed to address the question that everyone wanted an answer to. It’s general attitude to the whole faked death mystery was a shrug, a grin and a jovial “It don’t matter LOL!” Plot holes are one thing, but you can’t simply wave away the central question that’s been driving the Sherlock franchise for the past two years. That, and this is a detective show for crying out loud! The whole point of Sherlock is to solve riddles and problems. Shows like, say, Doctor Who (which shares a lot of DNA with Sherlock, thanks to sharing a showrunner in Steven Moffat) get a bit more elbow room with plotting because it’s a sci-fi show that has always played fast and loose with the rulebook. But Sherlock had, up until this point, been a watertight show that had been very careful about tying up loose ends.
Second, Sherlock as a show seemed to become self-aware. Rather than playing out the story in-universe, it seemed to buy into it’s own hype and - critically - mock people for it. Oh, you wanted to know how Sherlock faked his death, did you? Had your own theory about how he survived? Well, not only will we not give you a straight answer, we’ll insult you for even being interested. The ‘Conspiracy Nerd’ at the end of the episode is an obvious stand in for the audience. Sherlock all but looks straight down the camera lens as he rolls his eyes at him, saying ‘Everyone’s a critic’. I’m surprised Moffat and Gatiss didn’t walk in and start shaking their heads at the viewer at that point.
This was a watershed point for the Sherlock series, that saw it go into a gradual but clear decline. In Seasons 1 and 2 the show always backed up it’s cleverness with reason. Sherlock would make huge leaps of logic but then explain itself. When he picked out John as a soldier, he proceeded to explain how we deduced that fact. It made sense. This was the first time we’d seen the show written into a corner. Inevitable for a show of such complexities that it would checkmate itself one day, perhaps, but it could’ve handled the sidestep with more grace, more brains than it did. Not sidestepping it while flipping the audience a middle finger.
It started off a chain reaction of events in the Sherlock series that seemed to exponentially increase right through to Season 4 Episode 3, ‘The Final Problem’: events with no weight. With alarming frequency, Sherlock makes those huge jumps to a conclusion with minimal to little explanation. In ‘The Lying Detective’ (the strongest episode in Season 4), the number of times we hear Sherlock’s fore-planning, how he’d laid out the logistics of most of the episode’s events weeks before they happened, is startling. And there’s none of those clever ‘Mind Palace’ explanations anymore, you’re just expected to go with it. How did Sherlock know that John would leave his cane by his hospital bed so he would have the recording device to catch Culverton Smith? Oh, he just knew. How could Sherlock be sure that John would watch the DVD of Mary at the perfect time so he’d rush to the hospital and catch Culverton red-handed? Oh he just knew. You can guarantee that if Watson had been introduced in this season Sherlock would call him out as a soldier and leave it at that, he’d just know.
Solving crimes is Sherlock’s MO. What we are seeing is like a magician using CGI. Sherlock isn’t supposed to be all knowing. His brainpower is remarkable but it is a human brain, not a superpower.
Again, if this were any other show, it might have gotten away with it. But this is a detective show. We’re seeing the impossible and inexplicable happen, then it’s pushed aside. Doctor Who can technobabble its way out of problems and wave his screwdriver, ruffle a few feathers for taking the easy way out, but the integrity of the show remains. When Sherlock tries to do the same thing, it cracks the core of the show itself. That core being solving crimes.
In ‘The Final Problem’ the believability is stretched to breaking point as we’re asked to believe that Eurus and Moriarity can hatch a masterplan in 5 minutes (and do all that recording as well). That Sherlock makes paintings cry blood just for flushing info out of Mycroft. That Redbeard, the family dog, wasn’t a dog at all but a family friend. None of these make sense. In the first two seasons, Sherlock would be presented with seemingly nonsensical crimes that he’d then dismantle until the ‘how’ was clear. Until it was ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’. Not any more. You’re just expected to go along with it. You’re expected to believe that Eurus can be defeated with a hug. That the whole ‘plane in the sky’ shtick was all in her head. That a friend can drown in a huge well on one’s private property yet mysteriously cannot be found. Where’s the paper trail leading up to these nonsensical revelations that make them believable? Where’s the explanation? It often feels as though the writers came up with stylish ideas, decided they’d work out how it would make sense later, then forgot to work it out anyway.
This makes the stories feel weightless. There are no consequences. The patience grenade is clearly an excuse to have Sherlock and John make a cringeworthy jump through a window as Baker Street explodes behind them, but where’s the injury? Not even a limp? Oh, and as for Sherlock’s flat, well that’s quickly repaired and back to normal. The strongest scene in this episode, where Sherlock has to force an ‘I love you’ from Molly Hooper before the timer hits zero and she dies, is ultimately meaningless as we see Molly arriving at the flat in the ending montage, all smiles, that devastating phone call apparently forgotten. It makes for a disjointed, unsatisfying viewing experience that feels artificial. There seems to be an entire DVD boxset of posthumous recordings of Mary, and she turns up so often in John’s mind that you begin to wonder if her death had any consequences, either.
Speaking of Mary, it can be easy to lay a lot of blame at her feet, but as I think we’ve established, the downfall of Sherlock has run in tandem with her story, not because of her. But she is part of another problem Sherlock created for itself, something which seems to be a common problem with projects that Moffat handles: overbearing family melodrama. The purity, the simplicity of Sherlock and Watson solving crimes is quickly pushed into the background of the plot as we are subjected to an increasing entangled web of Sherlock/John/Mary/Mycroft/Eurus affairs. When was the last time we saw Sherlock solve a crime that wasn’t directly related to family problems? Certainly not in Season 4. Moffat and Gatiss ran the whole Mary story like it mattered, like we should be interested, but all the audience is seeing is someone getting in the way of the two stars doing what we love them doing.
This happens in Doctor Who as well. As intriguing as the whole River Song arc was, it sucked the air out of a lot of Doctor Who. They ran around the universe playing out their own problems at the expense of the clearly more interesting settings. Check out the ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ episode: within the first 10 minutes they've gone back to wartime Germany and crashed into Hitler’s office, accidentally saving his life. What a great premise, eh? Do they follow through? Heck no! They put Hitler in a cupboard (literally) and get on with chasing River Song through Berlin. For all its worth they may as well have set the whole thing in a giant empty box. The show positively delights in acting like it's own melodrama is vastly more interesting than the settings it crashes when, really, the opposite is true.
Sherlock is spirally down the same hole. That mystery at the beginning of ‘The Six Thatchers’ with the dead body in the car is the best part of the episode because it lets Sherlock operate at its purest. But alas, it's not long before it becomes tied into Mary’s past.
So Mary is the River Song of Sherlock. Not just because of how aggravating her presence is, but because she just won't stay away. Moriarty too. Not even death has consequences, it seems: you just live on through DVDs, mental projections and flashbacks. I felt absolutely no sense of peril for Sherlock, John or Mycroft throughout the Eurus Maze of Doom, no matter how many times they waved guns at each other, because even if one of them died, the impact would inevitably softened by their semi-returns from the dead that would surely litter future episodes.
No consequences, no peril, family melodrama, a disregard for plot holes, style over substance...Sherlock is far from the only TV show to commit these crimes. Many are worse offenders. But the sting comes from seeing just how far Sherlock has fallen: from a deftly written and tightly constructed drama to a flashy, self-satisfied wannabe James-Bond (don't get me started on THAT explosion!).
The ending of Season 4, while far too sugary sweet and perfect considering what had come before, did at least reset the series and give a carte blanche to proceed with no baggage. It's just a shame it took a reset for that to happen.
You know, it's interesting: you would think that after 15 months of writing about writing, I'd be running dry of things to talk about by now. And it does sometimes feel that way. Sometimes my eye wanders endlessly across a blank page, waiting for the inspiration to strike. Other times it's not so much a case of not finding a subject to write about, but feeling as though you've said everything you already want to say and anything more you add to that is just surplus. It's those days where every single sentence you pen feels painful, and getting even a couple of a hundred words down feels like a mammoth task.
And then there are days where you can't write fast enough for all of the ideas sparking through your brain like a fireworks show. Those glorious days where you could write for hours and not feel drained by it - on the contrary, you feel stimulated by it, and the only thing that stops you is the fact that it's one in the morning and tomorrow is a school day.
We'd all like to have more days like the latter and less like the former, wouldn't we? But how? Inspiration seems to strike at random and with no particular pattern: it can happen late over a Friday night after-work drink, while you're at the gym, sleeping, commuting, or just gazing out of the window. Quiet and loud times, day or night, perfect or terrible timing, inspiration is a mistress that taps your shoulder when she is ready, regardless of whether you are or not.
Or is it? I believe that inspiration is more like watching wildlife: there's a certain amount of luck, yes, but there's a methodology to maximizing your chances of success. Here, then, are 10 ways to encourage inspiration to strike you at a time you need it, and how to hold onto it.
1. Find your space.
Think of all the places you regularly spend time: your desk at work or school, your living room, the garden, the shower, your bed...in which space do you feel most creative, where ideas seem to come thicker and faster than usual? The answer may surprise you, because it may be a place that on the surface doesn't seem like an inspirational place. We balk at the idea that our work desk or the chair at the back of geography class is our place of inspiration!
But while there's a multitude of reasons why certain places encourage creativity more than others, one common thread is that it's a place that overlaps with little else in your life. Your inspirational place is rarely the same place you relax, study, or play games. Your chair in the living room where you watch TV, play video games, browse the web and occasionally eat is so tied up with other aspects of life that creativity has no means to cultivate here. It's the reason people have “shower thoughts”, why so many novelists write in their sheds or on long train journeys.
It's not the same as a boring, distraction-free environment though. It's about finding a space that you can mentally partition as being the place you write, so whenever you sit yourself at that place your brain begins to associate it with writing.
2. Inspiration isn't a random chance, it is cultivated.“But I don't have a place like that!” you might say, “I don't have a shed, take trains or think of anything in the shower, I'm too busy singing!”
But that's the thing: inspiration may seem to be random but that doesn't mean you should just go about your day waiting for it to sneak up on you. You need to cultivate a place within your life where the magic happens. It can be any place, so long as it doesn't cross over too much with an area in your your daily life that your brain associates with other things (for example, you may want to avoid using your bed because it's a place your brain associates with sleep, so if you try and get creative on the mattress don't be surprised if you fall asleep after 10 minutes!).
I tend to use my dining table, because it's a place where I eat (not much brainpower associated with that). Was it a particularly inspirational place at first? Hell no - it's a plain table in a cold room - but in time it became the place I'd sit down for an hour each day to create. It doesn't make inspiration happen by default but it did become the place where I'd flesh out my art, and so cultivated the seeds that would attract inspiration to fly my way like bees towards pollen.
Now whenever I sit down at the dining table and there's no food there, my brain knows the deal: it's time to open up the valves for creativity - and increasing the likelihood of inspiration hitting me.
3. Look in the small things.
Inspiration. It's a big word, and I don't mean that by the number of letters. It's a word that seems to conjure images of the greatest experiences, the deepest emotions, the most spiritual side of our humanity. That’s inspiration, right?
Well, yes, but these big events aren't the only ways you can get inspired. You don't have to stand at the top of a mountain or be moved to tears by an orchestra. It can be found in the simplest of things, the small details - even in the mundanity of daily life. Who here loves being tucked indoors, warm and snug, watching rain patter down windowpanes? Or people-watching in the local park on a sunny day? Or - and this is my favourite - going for a midnight stroll?
Inspiration lives in all things big and small, and one should never undervalue the inspiration found in the small things and daily experiences. Indeed, big moments of inspiration can be tricky because words can fail to translate it into practical creativity. But inspiration nestled in daily life is more meaningful, more real, and can be more easily captured and used for ideas. Sunsets are nice, but raindrops racing down a window is just that little bit closer to home.
4. Write in white, live in multicolor.
While finding your physical and mental space for writing requires some forethought and will differ from person to person, in general when you write you want to be free of distractions. Some prefer absolute silence and solitude for their work, while others prefer a bit of background noise. Nobody wants overt distractions when they're trying to concentrate and be creative. You “write in white”, so to speak.
But when you put your pens and pencils down, you must let life in with both arms wide. Go for a walk, meet friends, watch a movie, read a book…”live in multicolor”. It's not just for the sake of having fresh experiences and fodder for ideas, mind: being creative and weaving something practical from the creativity (be it writing fiction, making music, graphic design etc.) is a big drain of brainpower. The trouble with being a creative mind is that even when you step away from your assigned workspace you never 100% switch off.
You can't stop ideas from coming to you - on the contrary, the more you live life, the more your creative juices will flow. But it does require a certain amount of discipline, a balance, so you're able to bottle the inspiration that strikes while you're out and about and use it for later while not actively running for a notepad every five seconds. You don't want to feel you live just for the sake of your writing: you'll quickly grow to resent it for invading aspect of your life, and you'll begin introducing aspects of your creative lifestyle into your everyday life - quiet, solitude, constantly needing time and space to think.
You will begin fading the many colours of life you desperately need, which will make your writing poorer - you didn't allow your batteries to recharge, and you've been living a reduced life that is starved of experience.
So make sure that when you step away from your work that you go out and properly live, not just for replenishing creative juices but to put life in perspective and there's more to it than writing. And when you return to your writing, you will be ready and willing.
Back in the summer of last year, an anime movie landed in Japanese cinema called ‘Kimi no na wa’, which translates roughly as - and indeed the English title is - ‘Your Name’. Now, the release of this movie was already hotly anticipated - it was the latest work from Makoto Shinkai, who at that point was already a hot name in the world of Japanese entertainment thanks to his previous works, for example ‘Five Centimeters Per Second’ and ‘The Garden of Words’.
But I don’t think anybody could’ve anticipated just how massively ‘Your Name’ blew up. It is now one of the most successful Japanese movies of all time, second only to ‘Spirited Away’. In the Japanese Box Office it has surpassed the first Harry Potter movie and has ‘Frozen’ in its sights. It became No.1 in the Chinese box office - and for a Japanese film to become so popular in China is a big deal. But most incredibly, it made my 62-year-old, kickboxing, stoic as a stone father-in-law cry. And at the time of writing this, ‘Your Name’ is still doing business at the box office, and the records keep falling. Make no mistake, ‘Your Name’ has been a seismic event on the pop-culture landscape of Japan.
And yet…while ‘Your Name’ was certainly met with equally rave reviews from the western press, it didn’t seem to transcend into the general public. Oh sure, in dedicated circles of anime fans it has been raved about, but ‘Your Name’ snuck quietly into theatres and then promptly snuck back out again. Compare this to a Ghibli film which sees almost as much fanfare as a Disney movie.
What’s going on? Well, a clue is in the last sentence: Ghibli has the heft of Disney behind it, meaning they have the market know-how (and, let’s be frank here, the money), to get the Ghibli movies out to foreign markets and into foreign minds. ‘Your Name’ doesn’t have that kind of backing.
But I think there’s something else at play here. Something a little deeper than numbers on a spreadsheet: that of cultural differences. For while I have no doubt that a western audience with little to no knowledge can sit down and enjoy ‘Your Name’ for what it is, it will be missing something. Something that is richly weaved into every frame of the movie: Japanese culture.
“Now wait just a second there!” You might say, “Ghibli movies are dripping with references to Japanese culture and folklore, and they do just fine!” And you are correct. Look at ‘Spirited Away’, for example, with the onsen hot springs and Japanese spirits...that movie couldn’t be more Japanese if it tried. But Spirited Away became such an international success because of how it can work on two levels: Someone born and raised in Japan, who has been through the school system, has learned the history, knows the myths and legends of Japan, and is aware of the challenges his or her society face, will view ‘Spirited Away’ in a certain way. When Chihiro’s father talks about the white elephants built during the bubble era of the 80s, then turns into a pig while engorging himself on food. Now, to anyone this is a message about greed, but in Japan it works on another level.
Inside the hot spring itself, the uninitiated non-Japanese audience are enthralled by the strangeness of it all, while in Japan there is a social commentary here on the uneasy mix of Japanese culture and the the power of capitalism.
That’s the crux of it: Ghibli movies are internationally successful because of the many levels they work on: there’s the universal themes that we can all relate to, then there’s the social commentary of Japan, and then there’s the mystery factor for the uninitiated.
Now I’m not saying that ‘Your Name’ doesn’t work on multiple levels: it absolutely does. But it doesn’t wear its commentary on its sleeve: it seems more concerned with telling a cracking good story. And it does so by weaving in nods to Japanese life and culture, but unlike Ghibli which puts fantasy in the front and centre of its story, the world of ‘Your Name’ is modern, and...well, normal. To the uninitiated, ‘Your Name’ seems like a darn good anime movie, but not much more beyond that.
And that’s because the culture of Japan isn’t explicitly waving at you from the screen like an exhibit. It’s hidden, weaved into the finer details like the Miyamizu family’s intricate braids. For example, ask any Japanese person who has seen the movie what scene stuck with them, and the vast majority of them will instantly point to the scene where Taki flashbacks through Mitsuha’s life after drinking the ‘Kuchikamikaze’ in the cave. To you and me, that scene is simply a beautiful moment where Taki sees Mitsha being born and growing up. But to the Japanese, this is a pastiche rich with imagery that echoes on their shared experiences and lives. Look out for the moment you see a teardrop hit a map of Japan and the ripples spread out - that moment and indeed that whole disaster very deliberately mirrors the 2011 earthquake.
The red thread is also a constant throughout this scene and the whole movie, and while some western viewers may not think twice about it, to the Japanese that red string of fate has long been a part of East Asian legend as tying together two people with a shared destiny. Or how about when Mitsuha cuts her hair, which is seen as a sign of someone who has recently broken up with a boyfriend? Because of these things, ‘Your Name’ draws upon a symbolism that will ring deeper with a viewer who understands these elements than one who doesn’t. For me, this is a reason why ‘Your Name’ struck a chord with Chinese viewers as well, who share a lot of culture with Japan - though they’d never admit to it.
While this may all come across a little bit elitist, claiming that certain movies cannot be enjoyed without a proper understanding of where they came from, that is not what I stand by. Quite the opposite: it is a sign of the strength of ‘Your Name’ that those universal themes of destiny, star-crossed lovers, teenage angst, and the juxtaposition of old and new form the beating heart of the story, and will have an impact on anybody regardless of their upbringing. But it is fascinating nonetheless that cultural differences can alter your view on what you see, just as much as personal experiences can.
‘Your Name’ is a fantastic movie no matter what. But the addition of understanding the symbolic elements hewn into the fabric of the movie makes it a much richer experience, and then you see just why this movie has had such an effect on the Japanese population.
Off the Shelf
Here I share my ideas, musings and advice on the writing process. I also analyse some of my own writing for examples to show how I work.
Here I will show off of some of my favorite good and great stories, gushing lovingly over why I adore them and why you should too. I will also show you the other side of the spectrum: bad examples of stories and what we can learn from them.