As an author, Johnny Rich started in non-fiction and journalism, writing a number of guides for students and becoming a highly regarded expert on higher education and careers.
After successfully completing the renowned MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in 2000 where he was taught by, among others, poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Johnny completed his debut novel The Human Script. Despite being snapped up by a top literary agent, it was over ten years before it was finally published by independent press Red Button publishing, first as an eBook (2013) and more recently in paperback (2015).
It has received wide acclaim: Man Booker nominee Tom McCarthy described it as a “captivating, intelligent and deeply affecting exploration of science, literature and ideas”. Meanwhile, online literary salon BookSmoke declared it the “book of the year”.
Johnny’s Three Top Tips for Writers
There’s a lot of poor advice out there for writers. That’s because – as so often in life – there are so many people hoping for quick fixes, silver bullets and magic wands that will transform everything, halve the effort and double the results. So much longing draws advice in to quench the need. But, like salt water, it tends only to make us thirstier, more frustrated that no amount of advice provides deliverance.
With that in mind, I’ve no tips about when you should write, where or with what. There’s no secret to strong characters that isn’t obvious. There are tricks to improve your storytelling technique, but they’re not wizardry. As for style, read other people’s work and practice. Then read and practice more.
Having refused to give much advice, there are, however, three reflections on writing that I do think it’s worth sharing:
1. Turn up to work.
Some people wait for the muse to descend. They imagine inspiration striking and words flowing forth like the sparkling droplets of a fountain in sunlight. It’s a fine romantic notion, but the truth is, I don’t believe any decent novel was ever written like that. Perhaps you could sustain it for a poem or a short story, but an extended piece of writing has more to do with graft and craft than inspiration and aspiration. The only real way to get words on paper is to put them there. The more you do it, the better you get – but only if you’re willing to read with a critical eye, be hard on yourself and throw out what doesn’t work. Then go back and try again.
2. Find the voice.
Written words, just like spoken ones, need to sound sincere. Like they come from a person, not through a veil of artifice. Many people, when they try to write creatively, suddenly reach for adjectives and adverbs, similes and sentence constructions that not only would they never normally use, but their characters would never use. It jars. Your narrative voice – and those of your characters – need to be consistent and authentic.
3. What’s your work about?
It might be an idea – such as Orwell’s Animal Farm being about Stalinism and the abuse of power by authorities – or it might be a feeling – such as McEwan’s Atonement being about, well, atonement. Keep that in your head as you construct each sentence. Remember too that short passages may have their own themes that are separate from the theme of a novel. You might be writing a paragraph where a character is in mourning. So, this passage is about what it feels like to lose someone.
Every word needs to bend to that purpose. If it doesn’t, what’s it doing there? If the answer is that it’s advancing the plot or something like that, then my answer is, no, it’s not. It’s making the plot drag, because what really drives the plot is the reader’s investment in what it’s all about – ideas, feelings, characters or even simply a dramatic situation.
And if you don’t know what your writing is about, then work it out.