Monday Motivation: Read like a writer, write like a champ

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

Writing can be hard. When you set out to write a scene, you are conjuring into existence circumstances, characters, actions and dialogue that you have never, in life, precisely encountered before.

You’re inventing a bit of what appears to be reality.

Getting it all right is difficult, even if you know your characters, the world is familiar to you, dialogue comes naturally to you, and something like it has happened in your life.

But imagine if you venture into entirely new territory.

Now the characters you’re manipulating are not based on Uncle Vernon and Cousin Chantal. And the world they inhabit isn’t the suburbs you grew up in and know like the back of your hand. No, this time you’ve decided to take chances. You’re stretching for a reality that you’re not acquainted with.

What do you do?

Well, as always, there are several possible strategies you can adopt. The first is, obviously, research. You want your lovers to bump into each other in the Tuileries in Paris. That gives you a wonderful excuse to plan an excursion to the City of Romance to do a little fieldwork.

Your character in your spy thriller finds himself in Kirkenes in the Arctic Circle in northern Norway, where he plans to meet someone on the border with Russia. That gives you a wonderful excuse etc etc.

Or, your character quizzes a woman who’s a renowned thoracic surgeon. Know nothing about thoracic surgery? Well, you’ll find Wikipedia an invaluable partner in this (and almost every other regard).*

And if you can’t afford the price of an Air France ticket, or if the translation of Norwegian krone into South African rand leaves you gasping, then do the next best thing and consult Google Earth. Take a stroll down the Champs Elysees to the Place de la Concorde. You can check out all those pavement bistros, you can admire the plane trees, you can practically count the cobblestones underfoot.

Kirkenes and practically every other town, city and village in the world is, via the magic of GE, just as accessible.

But of course, having the details of the place to hand only solves one of your problems. There’s the arguably much more difficult challenge of getting the bloody tone right. If it’s a thriller, it needs to read like a thriller. If it’s a courtroom drama, it needs to read like a courtroom drama.

So the solution here is to turn to the experts: writers who have already mastered the craft of turning out excellent work in their various genres. Want to write a subtle story of backroom manoeuvring and bureaucratic backstabbing? Well, why not bury yourself in Le Carre for a week? And when you read him, watch for the very specific ways in which he circles the truth, how he exercises restraint, how he writes coolly during the moments of greatest tension, how he stretches time, how he leavens every victory with a sense of imminent defeat.

But whether it’s Le Carre you’re reading, or Maggie O’Farrell, or Kate Atkinson, or Jennifer Eagen or Michael Connelly, you need to read with a writer’s eye, looking for the ways in which writers tackle specific problems of story, of motivation, of time-lapse, of flashback.

Painters examine the works of other artists in meticulous detail. They learn from each other.

And so should we.

Happy writing,


* I urge all you who use it as frequently as I do to donate to the site: it’s an international treasure that deserves our support.

Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Think about every word on the page

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