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When we start writing, it can be daunting to read the amazing books by our author heroes and wonder how we can ever be that good.
Surely, for them, the words just flowed perfectly from brain to page with effortless grace?
But I have seen Thomas Hardy's manuscript of Tess in the British Library. Check out that editing! Even the greats went through the same creative process as we do. Today's guest article from Chris Allen explores this further.
Many writers dream of writing from a young age, but are we born with a literary gift, or is it a skill honed over many years?
It’s easy to regard the celebrated thriller authors of our time – Ian Fleming, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Frederick Forsyth, John Le Carré et al – as being superhuman at their craft and having innate talent. We see the countless reprints with the special edition covers, but we don't see the knock-backs, the evolution of their writing style, and the hard slog they too went through on the road to success.
My first attempts at writing were woeful.
Never what you’d call a disciplined student – school always seemed to get in the way of life – once I decided writing was my calling, I had a fanciful notion that ‘it’, whatever it was, would come naturally. It didn’t.
Discovering Ian Fleming's The Man With The Golden Gun in the school library as a young teen was the moment that the fanciful notion became a quest. Hoping to achieve what Bond’s creator had done – building a world of international espionage, heart-stopping action, complex characters and intrigue, I opted to take the experience angle, therein avoiding study, to write my own brand of thrillers. All of which prompts the question:
How do well-intentioned, aspiring writers tread the path to becoming great storytellers?
Chatting recently with a couple of popular Australian authors, namely Greg Barron (author of Savage Tide & Rotten Gods) and Luke Preston (author of Dark City Blue), who with myself and Tony Park are co-founding members of the Action Thriller Writers Association of Australia (ThrillerEdge.com), I wanted to find out how they had honed their abilities. Was it a walk in the park for them? Or was it, like most of us, decades of learning?
Words are Addictive
Luke Preston’s stories have been proclaimed “Noir on No-Doz.” He first put pen to paper around the age of sixteen and the pen hasn’t left his hand since. For Luke, “Writing is not about achievement. It’s about survival. The words are an addiction for which the only cure is getting the words on the page.”
Greg Barron, recently described as “a political thriller writer at the very top of his game,” embarked on his path to publication while in his mid-thirties, and the journey so far has taken more than a decade.
Greg says, “Not only am I not a natural, but I’m a slow learner. There was a moment when I realised that great writing requires both clarity and imaginative embellishment in equal measure. That was about seven years after I started writing. My first drafts are clunky and terrible. Reading them over for the first time is depressing.” Despite that, Greg’s teachers identified early on that he was skilled at putting words together and told him to do something with it.
Meanwhile, never a great student, actually learning to write wasn't something I did (or ever wanted to do) in a formal sense. Although, having done a fair bit of writing throughout my professional career – in military, law enforcement and government, where the descriptions were necessarily short and sharp, and the facts accessed quickly – this helped in honing my style.
What is Talent, Anyway?
The most important things in life are only achieved with practice, patience and commitment. To some, including me, writing is no different: the concept of natural talent has been profoundly absent in most aspects of my life, instead having to work for everything, which, in itself, is not a bad state of affairs.
There were, for example, at least six full versions of the manuscript that eventually became my first novel, Defender. That process, along with the proofreading, editing, and re-editing, is the only real creative writing development I’ve done.
Luke Preston grew up in the decade that invented Atari and home video, commenting, “Any kid with a pen in his hand instead of a joystick is probably going to be considered talented.” But Luke was a storyteller from early on, and determined each word would be better than the last.
Greg recognizes now that determination was the key ingredient necessary to complement those early assessments of his writing potential, saying, “I don’t think it was evident that I would have the dogged persistence necessary to write a good book, as I had a mind that jumped around all over the place.”
It Takes One Million Words
Teachers, playwrights, university lecturers and agents can act as inspiration during a writer’s apprenticeship, helping to spur burgeoning talent along. Another fool-proof trick is to read widely, but remember to keep your own literary heroes close as a daily reminder of the great heights we writers reach for.
Luke Preston observes that “the hardest part of writing is learning how to write like you.” He says, “I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a natural writer. To me it’s like saying that somebody was born a natural plumber. Storytelling is a craft and a trade. It takes ten years and one million words to build a good writer and when you’re not good, you’re bad.”
As an unabashed Fleming and Conan Doyle fan (some would hazard to say nut), it’s been a tortuous journey in terms of my desire to emulate their creative strengths. By way of an origin point for my inspiration, a copy of Casino Royale, Fleming’s first novel, has permanent residence on my writing desk.
That said, success on their scale has never been my yardstick. I’m drawn to the way Fleming and Conan Doyle created iconic characters based upon their own life experiences. By putting myself at the core of the principal character, while drawing on other interesting characters, both real and fictional, I make my protagonist a hybrid of all those things.
Luke Preston has benchmark writers whose books live on his desk. He says, “When I’m tired, hungover, fed up or just downright lazy, I dip into those books that remind me of the calibre or work I’m up against.”
While Luke currently has copies of Less than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis and L.A. Confidential by James Ellory next to him, Greg Barron would love to write as vividly as Wilbur Smith, with the beautiful prose of F Scott Fitzgerald, and the detail of Leon Uris. He says, modestly, “In reality, I’ll fall short on all three counts!”
Be Your Best Writer
As creative capitalists, we are each on our own path, some days trudging through treacle, others where we take rare moments of literary flight, so this notion of reaching the apex of a writing career is debatable. More likely is the realization of an idea of us as writers, as it was first dreamed and imagined those many years ago.
Writing words has been a profession for Greg, in terms of his habits and attitudes, long before being published. Today, he has a vision of himself, “at my desk, attempting to do my best every day, falling short most of the time, but persisting.”
Luke Preston strives to be the best writer he can be. He says, “If I had tried to write like anybody else it just wouldn’t have worked. A writer is an accumulation of their experiences, childhood, fears, desires and favourite colours.”
To me, being a successful writer meant reaching that time of life when one could look contemplatively out of a window, recalling people, places and life experiences, while wrestling with how those things might be presented on the page. To some extent, that’s happening, although I’m yet to wear a dinner jacket or drink martinis while doing it!
Between us, we may have published five books and written millions of words over many decades, but success remains an abstract concept.
As Preston says, “I’m not convinced that overnight success exists in the business of words. I’d wager that the writer who believes they were, secretly has a couple of unreadable manuscripts hidden away in their bottom drawer.”
Do you think writers are born or can we learn over time? Please do leave your comments below.
About the Author
Before penning his Alex Morgan espionage series, Chris Allen served as a Paratrooper with three Commonwealth armies; undertook humanitarian aid in East Timor; protected Sydney’s iconic Opera House sails post 9/11; and as Sheriff of New South Wales, held one of Australia’s oldest law enforcement appointments.
Chris’s first novel in the Intrepid series, Defender, was self-published before being re-released by Momentum Books with his second novel, Hunter, at the end of 2012. Both novels rocketed to the top of the charts on iTunes and Amazon with Hunter becoming a bestseller and there is a US film / TV franchise based on his novels in development. His third title, Avenger, will be published next year.
You can read the full transcripts of each author’s interview over at the intrepidallen.com/blog.