What Should You Be Studying While Writing a Novel? – Day 181

There’s an interesting story about U2 I heard. While they were writing/making one of their albums, a collection of Beatles songs came out – lost songs, remastered titles, I can’t remember. The point is that Bono talked about the fact they went out of their way to not listen to it, because they didn’t want the Beatles to “creep into” their own work. Not that they didn’t like the Beatles – quite the opposite. But I guess they were trying to keep their work “pure”.

However Bono also mentioned that he figured they all snuck away at some point to listen to it, and he could hear that influence in their new album.

I think we can’t help but be influenced by the things around us. We are all products of our environment. The question is, do you try to avoid influences while writing your novel?

As you can guess from the title of this post, I believe you should (in the right circumstances) find the right influences.

For example, I mentioned near the beginning of this blog that a friend of mine, Duncan Weller, put me onto the New Journalism. I was baffled I’d never heard of it before – it was exactly my natural style, and it is a style I love.

Yes, I’d heard of (and read) Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson and many of them. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of my favourite books, simply because of the style. But I’d never heard the term “New Journalism” for some strange reason. The simple definition is that it takes fiction-writing techniques and applies them to non-fiction subjects. I found it was exactly what I needed for my own book – except in reverse: fiction techniques for non-fiction for my fiction novel.

See, I was kind of stuck. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to say, but I wasn’t sure how to say. I knew I needed a literary device of some sort. Without giving too much away, I wanted a narrator who was semi-involved in the action, but not necessarily a driving force. I also needed a narrator who wasn’t entirely reliable as a source.

New Journalism gave me a way to do that. The whole idea of New Journalism is that the writer somehow becomes involved with the news piece. It’s like that science maxim – the simple act of observing an experiment influences the outcome. In other words, journalism is by its very nature subjective, so why pretend objectivity?

Note: this is a lot different that fact vs. fiction. New Journalism is always “factual”. But it understands that the observer of those facts has personal biases that will naturally “colour” those facts – it can’t be helped. Besides, “facts” don’t always convey “truth” paradoxically. In Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail he made up some outlandish claims that were so left field, so obviously made up that they could never be believed. Yet people who read him said that he often painted a more accurate picture through his hyperbole than the “just the facts, ma’am” journalists could ever do.

So, that is what I set out to do. Take that colourful approach to reporting the facts and apply them to my book.

In order to do that though, I decided to study up on New Journalism. I re-read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, read some Tom Wolfe, read some books about New Journalism, and generally immersed myself in the “genre” if you can call it that.

Is it working? You’ll be the judge of that soon enough. But at the very least, I find it both freeing and reassuring – it gives me something to aim for style-wise, a blueprint that guides what I talk about and how I describe it in any given scene.

So, who’s right, me or Bono? (Wow, never thought that would ever be a question…) Well, I think we both are, actually. U2 has a gazillion platinum albums – they have their sound, their voice. There’s a lot to be said for keeping that pure.

But if you’re just starting out as a novelist like I am, perhaps soaking in some influences in a calculated, deliberate way is a good idea too as a way of developing your own voice. Something in your genre is an obvious choice. I’ve always heard that it’s important to read good writing too, the “read bad writing to know what not to write” is not the best advice. That’s like learning how to play squash with the worst players — you’re not going to learn much.

All I can tell you is that after immersing myself in New Journalism, I’m liking the results so far.

Speaking of which, got more work done yesterday morning on a little “lull” scene, as Larry Brooks might call it. It’s funny (I hope) and develops the relationship of the two characters a bit more. Very happy with it (though it’s not quite complete yet…)

Hopefully I get to work on it more later today.

~Graham

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