I was interviewed at an ungodly hour today for the Preacher’s Podcast, (which is a Doctor Who podcast and nothing to do with religion). Along with a lot of questions about Who is the Doctor I was taken aback by being asked “What advice would you have to aspiring writers?”
I fumbled through a somewhat decent answer, but it did make me think: what was the best advice I was ever given as a writer?
Once again, I go back to Andy Lane. Poor Andy has no idea how influential he’s been to me. Not only did he write my first rejection letter, not only did he inspire my first published short story, but he gave me the best bit of advice on writing fiction I’ve ever been given.
It was 1998 and I was living in Britain at the time I was out with him and some other friends, drinking somewhere, probably at the Fitzroy Tavern. (As I recall, it might have been when Dave Owen was in London on a visit). I was loudly complaining about some reviewing I was doing for Dreamwatch magazine at the time. I was the go-to guy for reviewing “uncategorized” materials (stuff that weren’t Star Trek. Doctor Who, X-Files and the like). At the time, one of those things was a recent series of novels based on the film The Crow. I had read two or three of them by that point and I was sick to death of them.
“The trouble with them is it’s impossible to write a good one.” I opined, probably with the aid of dreadful Samuel Smith beer, “Every book rigidly sticks to a formula.” The formula being (and forgive me if I don’t have this quite right, it’s been almost 15 years): a person in love is murdered, and the violence of their murder and the intensity of their love cause them to be resurrected by the power of the Crow to wreak terrible revenge. Every novel closely hewed to it. No matter what trappings they added to it, it never escaped the format.
Andy looked at me and said. “It’s easy. Break the format.” A micro-second’s pause and he demonstrated it to me. “Two people in love with the same person die violently and are resurrected by the Crow, and they wreak revenge on their killers while trying to kill the other to get their love.”
It was staggeringly brilliant.
Ever since, anything I’ve done—short stories, screenplays, non-fiction, even my professional communications work—has stopped and asked the questions: What’s the format? and How can I break the format?.
It’s a beautiful piece of advice that says you don’t have to be beholden to anything in writing. The best things to write are the things that challenge a common assumption.
I’ve only seen Andy once in the past decade (in Los Angeles in 2008). I hope I bought him some drinks then. I still owe him some now for that.