EP14: John Connolly | No Formulas & Finishing Books
John Connolly has won pretty much every crime award going, and his books are regular Sunday Times bestsellers. He doesn’t do workshops, doesn’t suffer fools, and tells us about the massive issue with leaving a book half-finished. John’s words are dripping in wisdom and we loved him.
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In this episode you will discover:
- The importance of empathy and character in your writing.
- Why every book is a failure, and that’s okay…
- Why you should be wary of the siren call of the new idea.
- And how you can write your way out of writer’s block.
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- Bestseller Experiment’s Vault of Gold. Sign up to get your free Writer’s ebook
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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT (HIGHLIGHTS)
John Connolly has won pretty much every crime award going, and his books are regular Sunday Times bestsellers. He is the author of the bestselling Charlie Parker series, which began with Every Dead Thing in 1999. Away from thrillers he has written novellas, YA, ghost stories, and fairy tales for adults, including The Book Of Lost Things, which was celebrating its tenth anniversary with a gorgeous new edition when we spoke to him.
Why do some books endure?
To read a book that you love changes you. We’ve been altered by books that we love, and you’re never quite the same person again. For a reader, you need to be unselfish and open to get the real joy out of fiction. There’s some thing very elemental and atavistic about fairy tales, even as adults they latch onto something because they deal with things that we’re all going to go through: grief, loss and the struggle to move childhood to adulthood, and that’s a struggle that keeps on going for adults. When you’re a kid you think you’re going to get a book of rules at eighteen which explains everything, but what happens is you keep struggling as an adult, you keep encountering new problems and difficulties.
Empathy vs Sympathy:
I’ve always felt the purpose of fiction is to find the universal in the specific. To take those things that are individually felt and yet make them understandable, and to have that moment of contact between a writer and a reader, because people don’t want sympathy. Sympathy’s a very easy response. We say, ‘I’m sorry,’ if you’ve experienced a bereavement.
People want empathy, they want to be understood.
There are lovely moments, that we as readers of fiction have, where you will pick up a book and you will encounter a phrase or a situation or a reflection by the writer, and you will think I’ve always felt that way. I might never have expressed it in those terms, but it never struck me to look at it from that angle, but I know that thing to be true. And when that happens it’s a really extraordinary moment of contact between two individuals who may be separated by time, by gender, by religion, but a moment of commonality where we think we’re not alone in this. And maybe there is a consolation in knowing that?
When is your book ready to go out into the world?
Books are never finished they’re just abandoned. It’s a bit like throwing your child into the street, saying, ‘There y’go, there’s ninepence, go and get a job.’ I come from a journalist background. I’m very practical. I’m not very keen on ‘Wandering lonely as a cloud…’ looking for the muse. I sit down and work every day. So, I set myself a deadline. And I’ve never not met my deadline and I’ve just delivered my twenty-seventh book. All writers need a focus. You can keep changing things. It can always be improved, but it can be improved into a kind of sterility at some point. It can be overworked. When you’re going through it, and you’re agonising over commas, and you’re making the kind of changes to it that maybe a gnat could spot when learning to read, at that stage it’s kind of pointless.
You learn by finishing things. And you learn by making mistakes.
And you start getting afraid of making mistakes. We learn very little from success, apart from the fact you can choose to repeat yourself again and again and drive it into the ground.
Your learning experiences are all from failing. And every book is a failure.
You will make a set of mistakes in a book, you will think to yourself, ‘I don’t want to make those mistakes again,’ so you will start a new book, and you won’t make those same mistakes, you’ll make a completely different set of mistakes. That is the nature of human endeavour. All human endeavour is flawed. For me, it’s very important to finish things. I don’t give writers’ workshops, because I don’t know anything about writing. I know how I write books, which isn’t much use to somebody else, but there y’go.
Every book I’ve written I’ve wanted to abandon after twenty-thousand words.
Every single one of them. I understand that it’s a natural part of the process, because we begin all new endeavours with a sense of confidence and enthusiasm. It’s a bit like a marriage, you enter a marriage with the best hopes in the world, it’s fantastic, look at this woman, she’s wonderful, I will never tire of her, we shall gambol through the tulips for the rest of our lives. Enthusiasm only gets you so far. Then you settle into the hard grind of actually living with somebody and the ups and downs that come with it, and a book is a bit like that. You embark on a new project thinking this is going to be wonderful and it’s a fresh idea… and, about twenty-thousand words in, that enthusiasm begins to leech away.
What happens then for a lot of people is you hear the siren call of the new idea.
This little voice in your head that says, ‘That idea wasn’t very good’, and if you haven’t had the experience of writing and finishing something then what you think is ‘That idea wasn’t good, this new idea sounds great, so I’ll put this one away as a Frankenstein’s monster experiment that didn’t quite work out, unfinished, and stick it in a drawer and I’ll do the other thing.’ And twenty thousand words into the new story exactly the same thing happens. You being to set a pattern, which is you leave things unfinished. And when you begin any form of creative life, you’re given a finite amount of confidence, and every time you abandon something you chip a little piece of that confidence away, until, finally, you have nothing left at all. And you will never write your book, or your short story, or your poem, or do your painting. So, finish everything! That’s why I think it’s important for writers to set themselves a deadline. I know that can be hard. Like everyone who’s ever started writing, I had another job. So, you’re writing in the evenings, or weekends. And there are people who take decades to write their books because of this. Writing needs to become part of your routine. It needs to become something that you do, if not every day, then most days. Whether you get up half an hour earlier and write a hundred words a day, it has to be something you do regularly. You can think that you’ll take three weeks off during the summer and write my great Russian novel. You’re going to do one day of writing your great Russian novel and then the next three weeks you’re drinking gin and watching children’s television in your vest.
Art vs Craft:
If you had Martin Amis or John Banville here, they would be very distrustful of the word ‘craft’, they dislike it intensely. Everything is ‘art’. You don’t get to say what’s ‘art’, John and Martin. Time will decide that, and other people. Art comes out of craft. It comes out of the discipline of sitting down day after day and doing it when you don’t feel like doing it, and doing it when you think it’s rubbish. Da Vinci’s workshop was probably littered with circles that didn’t quite work, helicopters that weren’t going to fly. You have to embrace the practicality of it. And if you do that, if you go to your desk every day, you will produce work, and you’ll have something that you can improve upon.
A thing abandoned has no place in the world.
It’s not hard to write a book. It’s hard to write well.
The ease of publishing is the enemy of good writing. It is now too easy to publish. A book benefits from being put away for a while. A book benefits from being reworked. You can write your first draft, have a quick flick through it, put it through spellcheck, and think ‘I’ll stick it on for ninety-nine cents, or I’ll stick it on for free and let people read it…’ It’s not ready to be read. In the past you would have had to struggle a bit with it. You would have had to save up some money to go to a printer to get it done. It would have taken time, and you would have had to look at proofs, and you would have gone through it with a pencil. There are people who want to stick it on the internet because immediately you’ll get twenty comments on it. None of that is good for you as a writer. It’s a disaster. Some good books have come out of self-publishing, but as a proportion not many more. It’s just harder to find them.
You can write badly, publish a book, and make a lot of money. There’s no formula.
Each year, one or two books will sell enormous numbers of quantities, completely unexpectedly for both the writer and the publisher. It’s the finger of God, as a bookseller friend of mine says.
The importance of reading:
Writing well comes out of reading well. Oscar Wilde said writers should read more than they will ever write. If people say to me I’m writing but not reading, just in case I’m influenced, you should more or less throw them out of the elevator. Throw them straight out. Don’t even wait for the elevator, just drop them off on the floor.
We learn write by osmosis.
You can read as many writing for dummies books as you want, it’s really not going to help you be a good writer. What you do is read. Reading bad stuff isn’t a bad way, either. With luck you’ll spot what’s awful about it. That comes from reading good stuff alongside it. And then you practice. Most people who write for a living have always written, because it’s their natural response to the world. There are very few people who come to it late in life and succeed.
Coping with writer’s block:
There’s no such thing as writer’s block. Writer’s block is like cancer. It’s many different things. The trick to writer’s block is you write your way out of writer’s block. Slow down. Say to yourself, ‘I’m going to get a hundred words a day done. And when I get those hundred words a day done, I’m not going to feel guilty. I’m going to put away my notebook or computer. I’m going to play with my kids or take the dog for a walk, I’m going to have a cup of coffee, and then next day I’m going to sit down and do another hundred words. And I’m not going to feel guilty.’ That’s one way out of it.
The second way out of it is to write something completely different from what you’re writing. If you’re struggling with a novel, sit down and write a blog post about something that you like. I spent part of last year writing essays on music, just to give myself a break from juggling two novels, and I was getting tired.
It’s similar to muscles and going to the gym. You go to the gym every day and all you do is exercise your arms, you’re going to have little, spindly legs that waste away. What you do is balance it out: one day do your arms, another day do your legs, and you alternate them, and that way you keep improving and you don’t get tired.
There’s no point in saying you’re not going to write anything for six months, then you’ll never write again. If I take a week off — I used to take time off when I did publicity — and I found that I needed a day to get back into writing for every day I had taken off. So if I did three weeks off to do publicity, I was looking at another three weeks when I got home, just to get back into the rhythm of writing. It’s a discipline and a craft. And if you don’t use them, they begin to atrophy very, very fast.
Character first, plot second:
We read for character. Take mystery fiction: by and large, the plots don’t change a lot. A guy or girl dies, the detective comes in, there’s an investigation, it’s solved at the end, we all move on. You can talk to rabid mystery readers and they’ll probably be hard-pressed to tell you the plot of a mystery novel that they read a week or a month ago. But they will tell you it was a Kay Scarpetta book, it was a Jack Reacher book. And if a writer departs from the character, they won’t buy as many copies of the book.
Readers want the character.
Their engagement with a series, the level of affection they have for it, is completely tied-up with the level of affection and engagement they have with the character. They’re reading for humanity. They’re not reading for the plot. It helps if the plot is good, but if your characters aren’t good then the plot isn’t going to save you. Right from the beginning, everything began with character. Why would you read a book with cardboard characters? Sometimes there’s pleasure in reading something that’s pretty undemanding, but you don’t want to read that all the time. If your kid wants to eat pizza — I like to eat pizza — but occasionally force a strawberry in his mouth.
Did he develop Charlie Parker’s character much before writing?
I don’t believe in that. It’s the sort of thing they tell you to do in writing class, to take out a piece of paper and describe your character’s hair, and his suit and his blue eyes… The real truth is, if you asked writers what their characters look like they’ll tell you, ‘He looks like me, except maybe two stone lighter and six inches taller.’
If people are struggling, or it’s kids trying to write book, I would say to them let’s do a sheet of paper that describes your character. But if that’s the level that you have to get down to you’ve really hit a problem as a writer… but, like I said to you earlier, I only know how I can write. I know one mystery writer who can’t start a book until he has the title. I know people who will write tens of thousands of words as an outline before they start a book, and will very much swear to the importance of sitting down and saying this character has this background, is this tall, has blue eyes…
All that matters in the end is if at the end of the process you produce a book, or a short story, a poem, or a play, that’s completed, then that is the way that you write.
You do so through a process of trial and error. If you start with character, then quite naturally a progression occurs. Certainly, that’s been the case for me. In part, with Charlie Parker, the central character of my mystery novels, I’ve let him grow old as I grow old. The concerns that he has, the nature of his own physicality has altered, his emotional life has changed, so he hasn’t remained fixed.
Ultimately we all draw on our own experiences to create characters.
Writing fiction is a bit like dreaming. They say you’re everybody in your dreams, you’re putting aspects of yourself into them, and you do the same thing with fiction. You put a little bit of yourself into every character that you write.
I’ve given every sin I’ve ever committed to someone in a book.
Every fault or failing I’ve had, I’ve put into someone else. And it gives them a kind of humanity. I’m not interested in creating monsters. I want them to be understandable. That’s how I give life to characters. I think, well I know this to be true, because I’ve experienced it. Either directly, or through somebody around me. I know that readers, even if they haven’t gone through these things, I hope they will sense a certain truth to it. There isn’t a formula. This is why I’m so distrustful of writing workshops that try to break things down in that way. You can help people with the process. That’s all you can do. You can help them over those moments where they’re going to lose confidence. You can say, yes this is part of the process, this is what happens, and you should understand it, and these are the ways you can tackle it, but every writer will find his or her own way through the thicket. And, ultimately, the only way to do that is to write, and to discover the kind of writer that you are. But we’re all in such a hurry to be published, and we’re all such a hurry to make our millions and buy our yacht and our house in the country and our sailing pants, that we’re not actually prepared to give ourselves the time. I’ve been practising writing for a very long time. Not to discourage people who want to write, but I’m telling you it will be commensurately more difficult if I were to sit down at my age, 48, and say ‘I’m going to be a writer now.’ That would be very, very hard. As you get older you do begin to concretise a little bit. You do begin to set. And it gets harder to shake up the things in our lives. So, it’s not to dissuade people, if you’re older and you want to write, you’re going to have to give yourself a crash course, you’re going to have to read a hell of a lot, and you’re going to have to practice writing. And you’re going to have to do all that without any hope of reward. And you don’t want to be putting your first short story on the internet for ninety-nine cents. Don’t do that.
Write. Make mistakes. Take the time to learn what you want to be.
The question you need to ask yourself is why? Why do you want to do this? If you want to do it to make money, then you should probably stop now. The law of averages says you won’t make any money at all. Even people who are published, by large publishing houses, published every couple of years… what was the median income for writers last year? About fourteen thousand pounds? You’re going to be driving a bus, or being an accountant, and that will fund your writing life. If you’re doing this because this is your way to explore your consciousness, and the consciousness of others, and to give yourself an artistic and creative outlet, which is ultimately to improve yourself as a human being, then that’s a good reason to write. And therefore, you will sit down, and you will make mistakes, and you will join a writing group, read your stuff out, and people will critique your work, and you’ll go back and think about it. And years may go by. And that’s the process that you have to set in train. The world is not going to be poorer for people writing books. You’re not starting wars. But it’s worth taking a breath and asking yourself why you want to do this. That will determine a) the kind of writer you want to become, and b) the happiness and joy that you take out of it.
John’s Final Word:
Never underestimate the power of a chip on your shoulder. I’ve been told by my father that people like us don’t become writers, we work for the council. When I worked for the Irish Times I was told I’d be an okay hack in the end. Never underestimate the power of proving people wrong. I’d like to say something more positive than that, but contented people never really do anything. In my creative life, contentment is the enemy of all things. Prove people wrong. Prove that you can be a writer.
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