In the run-up to the publication of ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL, I’ve been offered some very nice opportunities to promote the book, and very grateful I am too. Unfortunately, some of those opportunities have come framed as requests for writing advice, and in particular advice for aspiring writers.
The problem is actually twofold. One, I’m neither popular or successful enough to be in a position to give anyone advice. Secondly, I have no idea how I write.
About all I know is that I generally get an idea for a book, as often as not from a setting. ‘Ooooh, this is a nice place, I’d like to write a book set here.’ Then along comes a character, or two, and once they’ve arrived you need to give them something to talk about it. After that, or so it seems to me, there’s an interminable amount of fiddling, scratching and progress stymied by excessive use of the backspace button, virtually all of which is subordinate to my sense of ‘feel’ for that story. And then there’s a book.
Not much by way of advice, is it?
Being the (occasionally) responsible type, I did try to write something that looked like advice to aspiring writers, but - as always - I got sidetracked into a number of tangents. The result comes below, but if you’re an aspiring writer, then I suggest you skip it and take the only solid piece of advice I’m in a position to give any writer: if you ever find yourself on a panel with Declan Hughes, read first or go home.
And now, on with the show …
On Writing, Love And Quantum Physics
1. Writing is a lot like love and quantum physics. If you think you have the answer, you probably haven’t understood the question.
2. This is a good thing. It means there are no wrong or right answers to that question you probably haven’t understood.
3. This is because writing is largely a matter of ‘feel’.
4. The bad news is that this ‘feel’ is earned the hard way. Writing can no more be taught than love.
5. That said, love is its own teacher.
6. Which is to say, it’s a love of words in their best order that will drive you to master the basic components of grammar, syntax, punctuation, etc.
7. Learning how to bend and break those rules to suit your own particular need is what makes writing a matter of ‘feel’. And the better you get, the more it becomes about ‘feel’.
8. More bad news: there is no magic formula. Yes, there are tricks and cheats you can employ to fool the reader into believing you’re a competent writer. Ultimately, though, you’re cheating yourself.
9. Ernest Hemingway believed that a writer should have put in 10,000 hours writing before he or she is first published.
10. In one sense writing is a bit like physical exercise. You need to burn off the fat, boil off the toxins, before you get down to the solid muscle.
11. In a lot of ways, though, writing is a lot like love.
12. I’m talking about actual love, not romantic love. And neither am I talking about the unqualified love you give your children.
13. I mean a 10,000 hours kind of love. The way you love your wife, husband, intended or partner. The hard-earned love, the kind that remains and endures long after the tummy butterflies have gone to tummy butterfly heaven.
14. Just think about your most important non-child relationship for a moment. Every couple needs to master the basic grammar and syntax of relationships, and then go on to bend and break those rules for their own particular needs.
15. Every relationship, and on a daily basis, depends on both partners being capable of adapting to a whole range of very fluid elements, be they physical, emotional, psychological, etc.
16. Imagine, for a moment, that your partner comes home from work in a funk about who said what to who. Your attempt at empathy is rebuffed, and you say, ‘But honey, I said the exact same thing yesterday, and that made you happy.’
17. Start digging up bones, because you’re headed for the doghouse.
16. Ultimately, as with writing, love comes down to ‘feel’.
17. We can define ‘feel’ as instinct wrung from experience. It’s as simple and complicated as that, and about as easy to pin up over your desk.
18. More bad news. Call it instinct, intuition, hunch or ‘feel’: each time you apply it, you’ve about a 50% chance of being wrong.
19. Worse, you won’t always realise it straight away.
20. If you want to be a writer, get used to digging up bones.
21. Here’s where quantum physics comes into play, and particularly the Uncertainty Principle and Schrödinger’s Cat.
22. For the purpose of this tortured analogy, let’s pretend that words are the particles that churn through the chaotic maelstrom at the quantum level.
22. At the quantum level, and according to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, you can observe a particle’s position OR observe its direction and momentum. The more you focus on a particle’s position, the more fuzzy becomes its direction and / or momentum.
23. This principle, incidentally, can also be applied to your wife’s mood in the wake of a fractious water cooler incident.
24. In the thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat, meanwhile, Schrödinger came up with a wheeze in which an unfortunate moggy is placed inside a box, and due to engineered circumstance is both dead AND alive while the experiment is ongoing, its fate to be revealed only once the box is opened.
25. When you’re immersed in a story, you’re hewing sense out of chaos. Actually, you’re creating something out of nothing, which is a whole different quantum theory, but for the sake of this argument we’ll agree that every writer begins with the most basic particles we have, the alphabet.
26. Every writer has access to those particles. How you assemble those particles in order to make sense from chaos, applying your unique ‘feel’, is what makes you a writer.
27. As to whether you’re a good writer, well, the cat in the box is both dead and alive. And you won’t know until you lift the lid.
28. It’s also true that you might not recognise a dead cat when you see one. A vivid imagination is a blessing but it can also be a curse, particularly when it’s so vivid that it imagines live cats where only dead cats be.
29. But here’s the kicker: this dead cat is your dead cat. And Schrödinger and Heisenberg may not have believed in God, but that cat is dead in a world you created out of nothing. And what’s the point of being God if you can’t indulge in a little resurrection once in a while?
30. I like to call this process ‘redrafting’. Think of it as loving the very same words in a different way, of adapting your ‘feel’.
31. It’s worth repeating that there’s no magic formula. There is hard work, and then more hard work; and if you work harder at it than you’ve ever worked at anything before, harder than you believed you could ever work, then there is the tantalising promise of magic and meaning.
32. It’s elusive, ephemeral and nebulous. But trying breaking love down into an algebraic equation, or discover love’s equivalent of the Higgs’ boson. You might even manage to do so. It won’t be much of a substitute for a good hug when your wife needs a bit of a cry just to flush out the system.
33. Yet more bad news. You’ll never know if you’re a good writer. Even if God Almighty taps you on the shoulder one morning, as you redraft a paragraph for the fortieth or four hundreth time, and says, ‘Y’know, that’s not bad.’
34. ‘Listen,’ you say, ‘no disrespect, but I’m busy. I think the cat might have a pulse.’
35. ‘No,’ He’ll say, ‘seriously, I’ve read a lot of stuff, and that’s pretty good, considering.’
36. And you’ll say, ‘By your standards, maybe.’
37. Depending on whether He’s the Old or New Testament God, the conversation could go either way after that.
38. Providing you haven’t been struck by actual lightning, though, you won’t hear any of it.
39. Because you’ll be listening to yourself. Wondering, always wondering, how your unique ‘feel’ might be best employed for the benefit of others. The truth of writing is the truth of love.
40. As for what’s going on down there at the quantum level, well, who cares so long as it all works up here?
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.