There is no harm in taking the stellar work of others and using it to accomplish your own goals. This doesn’t mean you rip them off or plagiarise their novel; that would be illegal and we wouldn’t recommend it. Rather, if you have an idea or are struggling with an aspect of your writing, go searching for the best exponent of it and study how they’ve executed it. To use a sporting analogy, you only become a better writer by testing your skills against better writers than yourself. So let’s take a look at some of the best. What makes them so good? How can we be like them?
1. Irvine Welsh
Irvine Welsh is a Scottish novelist who was most likely born in 1958, although there are rumours it was 1951. He provides social commentary on the Scottish working class and drug abuse. Trainspotting, his first and most renowned novel was published in 1993 and has sold almost 1 million copies to date in the UK alone.
One of Welsh’s greatest strengths is his pacing. His stories roll along so quickly the reader feels like a shuttle runner, racing to each new page with barely a gap for breath in between. Something interesting is always happening. Important events are always on the horizon. There has never been author with less filler; every inked letter is either building character or projecting story. Boring your reader is obviously the first thing to avoid, you’d rather offend them.
This sense of speed is due largely to the use of internal narrative in his characters, and dialogue. The minds of his characters are often scattered, flittering around from sex to drugs to film to music to people to life in general. It sounds like an overload, but it isn’t because we do the very same in our own lives.
Dialogue is what drives the majority of his stories. We learn so much about the characters and the world of the story by what is spoken out loud. The interactions are always punchy, snappy, laced with obscenity and edged with tension and conflict. The dramatic and noisy conversations instil a sense of desperation in the novels; as though the characters are forcing the words out before something bad happens, which it often does.
Constant action invariably keeps the reader with their eyes on the book rather than the TV, computer screen or phone. Without doubt the greatest strength of the Welsh dialogue is his use of the Scottish vernacular. Sometimes ye dinnae ken whut is bein said. It is so embedded in the stories the bulk of the narrative is written in this style, often accompanied by British or Irish. The reader can hear the accents ringing in their head, bringing the people to life in a way that couldn’t have been realised otherwise. Once again this adds to the authenticity and speed of the work. It soon becomes natural to read the specific idioms.
Another aspect which makes Welsh so compelling is the visceral response a reader has to the work. His vivid descriptions of scenes involving blood, faeces, urine, semen, food, drugs, and drink create automatic feelings of disgust and derision but also of fascination. It’s a knife edge but if you balance it, the reader will squirm and shrink further into their bed but at the same time they’ll enjoy it, remaining transfixed. The same effect has been achieved in the film adaptations of his books, most recently Filth.
Irvine Welsh is an exceptional author who is able to make his political point without being blunt about it. His characters gradually reveal their agenda, allowing the reader to form their own opinion while recognising Welsh’s.
Things we can learn from him: pacing, dialogue, authenticity.
Further reading: Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh.
2. Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is an American novelist born as Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931. She is the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993 and is noted for focusing typically on black female characters. Her novel Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.
It takes a long time to read a Toni Morrison novel. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s mostly because you are constantly stopping and wondering aloud ‘how the hell did she do that?’ She has an uncanny ability to make you read passages over and over again, not because you’re lost but so you can fully immerse yourself in and appreciate the beauty of her paragraphs. Infused completely with such rich, earthy detail it’s like the book is held alive in your hands. This affect is reflected in the way she tells her stories, most often not in chronological order but relating them seemingly as they occur to her, as if from memory.
What makes Morrison so special is her use of metaphor and symbolism to convey meaning, detail her characters and describe the world around them. Opening any of her books at random would provide a high chance of finding an example. For the most part her use of these devices is centred on nature and the physical environment. Focusing on flora and fauna allows for elegant writing and Morrison certainly has the imagination and knowledge to excel in this. Due to this her novels develop elements of magic realism, underpinned by the connection between her characters and the land. The people take on characteristics of plants and animals while trees and beasts are given human qualities in turn.
A specific example of this may be seen in Beloved where trees are used as a metaphor. The main character Sethe has numerous scars on her back that resemble a tree and Sethe feels as though it is alive, however Sethe herself is lacking life early in the novel, and the tree is made of dead tissue. Paul D has a tree at a slave establishment he calls Brother and replaces it with human interactions. When Beloved enters the story she is sitting on a tree stump, as though new life has emerged from a dead tree but in reality Beloved is just like the tree stump, stunted and never given a chance to grow.
Toni Morrison has a way of taking things further than you would think possible, making your heart ache and your head swirl.
Things we can learn from her: description, metaphor, symbolism.
Further reading: Beloved Toni Morrison
3. Stephen R. Donaldson
Stephen Donaldson is an American novelist born in 1947. He published his first novel Lord Foul’s Bane in 1977 and his first two trilogies following the adventures of Thomas Covenant are estimated to have sold over 10 million copies. The fact we have to focus specifically on Stephen Donaldson the fantasy writer rather than the science fiction or mystery writer says more than a little about his talent already.
Fantasy, we know all about it right? Unique characters with outlandish names, exotic imagery in amazing new worlds, exciting magic, mysterious creatures, and powerful weapons.
So what sets Donaldson apart from other writers of the same genre, such as Tolkien and Feist? Basically he is without inhibitions, writing strictly for a more adult audience dealing with abstract concepts and some very mature themes. Profanities seem to be relished on the page and some graphic sex scenes also ward off any chance of a young audience. His world building and depth of storyline is breathtaking, a wild imagination concentrated tightly onto paper makes for powerful reading.
What Donaldson does so well is combine the real world with the fantasy world, where actions in each affect the other. The situation is always desperate, the stakes forever high. If the fantasy world is safe, Covenant still has major problems in the real world. The idea makes the world of magic more approachable and keeps us grounded in the struggle of this man from our own earth.
By far the most powerful aspect of Donaldson’s writing is the level of raw emotion exuded from his characters. Amazingly every character that plays any sort of role is given equal depth, for the reader everyone is vital and every one lost is a friend mourned or an enemy vanquished. He teaches us more about relationships and sacrifice than perhaps any other writer, all the while giving us what we love about the fantasy genre. The fighting Haruchai, perennially brave Hile Troy and the enigmatic Vain in particular are characters that beg to be put on the big screen. Unfortunately Donaldson’s own genius of writing so much complexity and sophistication into his work makes it virtually impossible to envision these books as films.
What we can learn from him: the attention he pays to creating each and every one of his characters is what makes his novels so appealing.
Further reading: Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson
4. Christos Tsiolkas
We finish with an author from our own shores in Australia. Christos Tsiolkas of Melbourne was born in 1965 and is the author of 7 novels, including the critically acclaimed book The Slap which has been adapted for the small screen.
Tsiolkas is very conscious of providing a realistic picture of Australia as it is today in all its multicultural glory. Thus he is able to educate and make pointed observations about society today. He does this by giving voices to people many other Australian books, and TV shows in particular, have not.
The originality of The Slap cannot be overrated. Tsiolkas’ inventiveness with the structure and voice is a roaring success. The story is told from the perspective of 8 different characters differing in age, heritage, gender and sexual preference. Each chapter is home to a new voice with the story as a whole playing out chronologically. All of the characters are connected and intersect throughout the novel but respectively they only have one chapter devoted to them. Tsiolkas does this with complete inspiration. The fact that the focus is so narrow in each chapter allows for incredible intensity that wouldn’t have been possible in a conventional structure.
Tsiolkas shares some similarity with Irvine Welsh in that he is eager to tackle sex, drugs and violence in his work. As well as this, his writing ravishes the senses and his dialogue drips with rage, scorn, humour, and at times tenderness. Such heaviness of theme and weight of drama creates the explosiveness often found in his books and why he is such a good read.
What we can learn from him: structuring a novel, clarity and individualism of voice.
Further reading: The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
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If you are ever lacking inspiration, think about revisiting your own favourites and establishing why they held your attention so well.