by Bentley Clark
In an effort to procrastinate writing this article, I did some research on the internet (read: randomly surfed the web for stuff) about my favorite author, Ken Bruen. Bruen is an Irish author of hard-boiled/noir fiction, and his Jack Taylor series is my weakness. In fact, I would sleep with the existing ten volumes under my pillow each night if it weren’t so uncomfortable and didn’t cause such violent dreams. When asked “What would be your advice to new writers?” Bruen responded: “[W]rite every day and read like a bastard. Imitate freely.”
The clouds parted and the writerly muses sang traditional gospel songs—I had found a reason to write about my favorite author. (Irrefutable evidence that procrastination works.)
I have heard the advice on more than one occasion—as have you—that imitating the writing of a highly stylized writer can be a great exercise to help an author get the hang of unique and distinctive rhythm, word use, grammar, punctuation, and storytelling. And that once you master the style of other writers, you are better able to define your own. In my experience as both a writer and a reader, Bruen is so outside the boundaries of conventional storytelling that his writing shouldn’t actually work. Instead, it is compelling and mesmerizing, yet peculiarly spare.
In case you’re interested in an imitation exercise, I put forth these 10 unlikely rules for imitating Bruen freely:
1. Write lists. Now, make them poetic. Use this passage as your guide:
He also put books aside, then later I’d get a parcel containing
and the hook
American crime novels.
2. Use local accents and vernacular. If you nail the timbre and context, you may not even need to explain their precise meaning. E.g., “Arrah, go on our that. It takes a real man to carry flowers.”
3. Make chapter lengths arbitrary. Write only as much as is needed for a particular chapter. Forty words are plenty, but try to keep each chapter to six pages or fewer.
4. Give your protagonist one—maybe two— redeeming qualities. Make him remorseless in his treatment of his mother. Make him unreliable and inexcusably violent. Make him an alcoholic and an addict. Now, give him a soft spot for swans and the homeless. Then let him weep at the death of his favorite publican.
5. Keep your descriptions to a minimum. Let the reader fill in the blanks. Keep the locales of your novel’s most important happenings vague and let the action within them be your focus. For example: a major setting in Bruen’s The Guards is Grogan’s, “the oldest unchanged pub in Galway.” Want to know what it looks like? This will have to suffice: “…it remains true to the format of fifty or more years ago. Beyond basic. Spit and sawdust floor, hard seats, no-frills stock.… The bar is free of ornamentation. Two hurleys are crisscrossed over the blotched mirror. Above them is a triple frame. It shows a pope, St. Patrick, and John F. Kennedy. JFK is in the centre.”
6. Regularly switch point of view from first- to third-person and back again. Let your reader get inside your protagonist’s head, yet still be able to omnisciently follow the action.
7. Make innumerable local references. Do not explain them. Do not apologize for them.
8. Use little to no dialogue attributions. See how far you can take this. One page? Maybe two? To make this work: a) begin with a simple attribution at the outset of dialogue; b) keep sentences short and language clipped—most people don’t speak in full sentences, so why should your characters?; c) make sure that each character’s intention within the dialogue is so clear that there can be no question as to which character is speaking.
9. Create a compelling central plot. Ignore it. Draw your readers in with a mystery—a murder or a mutilation will do—then have your private investigator wander in and out of scenes that might move the mystery to a resolution. Try solving the mystery halfway through the novel; now, make the last half as un-put-down-able as the first.
10. Define your protagonist by his favorite books, movies and music. Send your readers off to read other writers, to watch movies they’ve never heard of and to populate their iPods with undiscovered music. Point them down a media rabbit hole. When they come out the other side, they will better understand your protagonist. Odds are, they will even re-read your novels to affirm this newfound understanding.
Good luck. And if you succeed at all of these, let me know, because I’m sure I will want to sleep with your book under my pillow, too.
Bentley Clark just about had a heart attack when she thought her computer mercilessly murdered the final draft of this article. Share your most heart-stopping and gory story of writing loss in the comments below.
This article was originally published as “On Imitation” in the August 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.
Image “Out Of One’s Head, Relax The Brain” courtesy of thaikrit / FreeDigitalPhotos.net