What Guitarists Taught Me About Writing

I have written four crime novels in four years now and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that it is impossible to please everyone – especially when it comes to the style in which any given book is written. While some readers prefer pages of description and metaphor, others prefer a leaner, more direct prose style.

I spent ten years agonising over which of these two direction to take (the “show or tell” conundrum which scuppers most fledgling writers’ ambitions). It wasn’t until I began to look at the writers I admired that I realised where the answer lay.

Albert Camus once wrote something about owing all that he knew on certain subjects to football. Well, I can say something similar: all that I know about creativity, I learned from the guitar.jimi-hendrix-8150

I learned to play lead guitar by ear. Back then (early ’90s) there weren’t thousands of Youtube videos showing and explaining how to do it. All you could do was play along with the records you liked, and I spent thousands of hours unpicking the solos of guitarists I admired – Hendrix, Mick Taylor, Peter Green – playing the same piece of music over and over until I could replicate all the notes and the phrasing perfectly (and driving parents and girlfriends CRAZY!! in the process). By doing so, I began to develop my own musical vocabulary which eventually enabled me to improvise my own solos.

At the beginning of 2011, I began to apply the same process to my writing. I took writers whose prose style I admired and pulled their work apart, word by word, in order to see what made their sentences and paragraphs tick. How many adverbs did they use? When did they use metaphor and simile? How did they present characters? Did they use direct or reported speech?

After years of doing this, I have discovered that, as a writer, I am an unapologetic minimalist. Writers who feel the need to constantly impress upon the reader just how well they write bore me in the same way that flashy guitarists who never shut up do.

I like writers who use simple, declarative sentences with lots of nouns and verbs. I like writers who bother to discover the correct, concrete word to describe something. I like writers who move the story forward with every single sentence and allow me to form a bond with their characters by showing them making decisions and mistakes, and overcoming obstacles.

I normally write 300,000 words per book – of which I use about 30%. Learning when and where to fearlessly bin my own work is perhaps the single most important skill I have developed as a writer.

Elmore Leonard is probably the biggest single influence on the way I write, as there is a real drive and power to his prose style that I have found in few other authors. His stories unfold over a short period of time, and the characters are described in short bursts of beautifully crafted prose.

Joan Didion is another major influence (her book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, is one of my all time favourites). Although not a crime writer per se, her magazine pieces did cover a number of real life crimes, and she is an absolute master of capturing place and time through well-chosen observations and details.

That said, guitarists still influence my writing: rarely is there a day when listening to some late ’60s guitar rock does not form a part of my daily writing ritual. Novel writing is a lonely business, and music helps to mitigate the chilly intimidation of the blank page each morning.