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Monday, January 25, 2010

Guest Post: Inspiration

Today I'm delighted to publish a guest post from writer and film-maker Phil South, discussing his special interest, inspiration.

Take it away, Phil...


I often hear writers or aspiring writers talking at parties. Often that's more than enough reason for me to get my coat. Perhaps they're yarning on about what they wrote, how they wrote it, where they get their ideas from, as if they're being asked by Parkinson to give us all the details. Sadly most of the time nobody asked and these poor souls are just GAGGING for someone to ask them about their book, so they just launch into it anyway.

It happened again over Christmas. Standing next to my hosts blazing hot Aga with a mulled wine in my hand and an expression of glassy half-interest on my face, I overheard the words, "Yes, I am very interested in history, in fact I'm sending my book to agents at the moment. Of course, they all turned it down..." I must have let that smirk of recognition cross my face, because the person being told about the book saw me and said desperately, "Phil's a writer, aren't you, Phil?" Damn. I feigned surprise and delight and went over.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm always glad to help writers with their work, nothing gives me greater pleasure, but I've learned that often people don't want to hear the answers to their questions. I used to get this in a former life when I sat in on the advice shops at Computer Shopper shows with members of the public dropping by to ask us "experts" technical questions about their computers. Most of the time people just wanted professional verification they were a bona fide clever dick, and took offence when we inferred they were only half right.

After my first few mild bits of advice were parried, I relaxed and I was okay listening politely and nodding while looking for an opening to slide back into the warm embrace of the Aga. Then the guy said something which struck a chord, something I've heard aspiring writers say before. He said, "I don't read anyone else's stuff because I don't want it to influence me."


Having nothing better to do at that point I started to analyse it. Why would you say something like that? EITHER you are dissembling to cover up a lack of research OR you believe that you might be accused of copying someone else's style. It all sounds like posturing to my ears. Either answer tells you something about how little the speaker knows about the mechanisms and lubrications of good writing.

First of all, Mr Writer at a party, you should be so lucky to be as good as the people who inspire you, and if you ARE as good you won't be like them, you'll be like you. Second of all, it doesn't make you sound like an artist to deny any outside influence, it just makes you sound like a jackass. And lastly, very few people are such complete and perfect geniuses they can support meaningful output without meaningful input.

It's difficult to write about this without frothing at the mouth a little bit. Of course, influence and inspiration go hand in hand. You are the product of your influences. You want to do what you do because someone you like does it well. That's influences. But inspiration?

Inspiration is listening to a piece of music and painting a picture. Or reading a novel and writing a song. Or dancing about geography. It's the world around you, the art and social networking and general human walking about and interacting we do every day. Of course, it would be wrong to copy any of the ideas out of a book that you read. But reading a story by somebody, having a response to it, a mood if you like, and getting the urge to take that mood and do something else with it? That's inspiration.

Bathe yourself in influences, drink and eat art and science and music and words. Take all these moods, your responses to the things you consume, and note them all down. The things you have passion for, the things that are you, will stick. The stuff that's not you will fall away. Eventually, ideas being what they are, some will start to cohere, and you will start to get a piece of art that is the sum of your parts.

Learning how to suck the juice out of the best of culture, pour it in your pen and write your own story with it is what it means to be a writer.


Phil South has been a writer and film-maker for 26 years. He started in consumer technology journalism, also known as playing computer games and writing jokes for magazines like Your Sinclair, Computer Shopper and Mac User. After a spell making animated web sites for Disney Channel UK, he now teaches film-making and photography at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. While waiting to have time to make the ultimate British cult movie, he writes the creativity blog Going Down Writing and the Creative Genius Newsletter, which you can subscribe to via his blog. Phil is also on Twitter - here is a link to his Twitter homepage.

Many thanks to Phil for an interesting and thought-provoking article. Do you agree that creativity is best fostered by immersing yourself in other influences, or do you prefer to keep your inspiration pure and unsullied? I'd love to read your response to Phil's article as a comment below!

Photo credit: H.Koppdelaney on Flickr.

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Blogger Yolanda McCabe said...

Thanks Phil, for opening my eyes to the typical pain in the butt that I am, not only at parties but also with family and friends. I mean that sincerely. In the circles that I move I'm frowned upon for not 'working' for money as I used to. I write novels and am working on a "true story" screenplay, which is taking months of research. Thus, no joy for any income soon. So, I try to convince people about the successes to come by talking passionately about them (also to motivate myself). Little did I know...
About inspiration: When I try to get into a certain writing style, i.e serious, I read Jack London books, or for satiric and hilarious I read Terry Pratchett, for historic characters Anders Sparrman, etc. or listen to Enya for the romantic stuff, Limp Bizkit for the assassin, or Dean Martin for the screenplay. As you know, your mood flavours your writing and so I purposefully choose the influences. You might want to suggest that to the next "Mr Writer at a Party" ;)
But from now on I'm going to use my interaction to learn more about the other people. It will help me with my character-building anyway!
Yolanda McCabe
South Africa

10:40 AM  
Blogger Phil said...

Hi Yolanda, aw I'm sure you're not a pain in the butt at all and perfectly lovely. And thanks so much for commenting. It's tough I know, I've been both the writer at the party and the listener at the party, and being the writer is the tougher job. :)

As a writer you crave feedback, which is natural and necessary, and as you grow as a writer you need, and get, more and more. It all serves to make you better at what you do.

It is true to say that the vast majority of our friends and family don't want to hear about our new baby, our new story, so I find it helps to talk to writers only ESPECIALLY about new ideas or works in progress.

Finished books are easier to talk to non-writers about, so I don't talk about anything to non-writers until it's finished.

Good luck with your screenplay!


12:21 PM  
Anonymous R. Michael Phillips said...

I couldn’t agree more, you should be open to all influences. I'm an artist by trade and the urge to write came quite by surprise. I've dabbled in it a bit before but nothing as monumental as writing a mystery novel. I’ve always enjoyed the writings of Conan Doyle and Robert Parker and may others. Their ability to paint a scene with words and draw you into a story has always captivated me. It also inspired me to reverse the process. Writing really is just painting with words. As an artist, your brush would gently stroke indigo blue or vermilion onto a canvas to shadow a face in remorse. The same can be said of the words you brush across a page to project that same face, slowly drawn down into the collar of a borrowed, wool coat that was shiny from wear, yet retained the strength in its weft and warp to comfort a penitent soul. Having the ability to close my eyes and see how sunlight would dance across a marble floor after a rain, or how the long shadows of dusk transform even the most ordinary of objects into that which we fear most, is inspirational. I enjoy Agatha Christie and Henry Fielding, but I also draw inspiration from the stories hanging on the walls of museums.

5:12 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

Thanks for your comment, Michael, and it seems we are in full agreement. writing is like all art especially visual arts, because it's not just about what you include, it's about what you leave out.

Depicting something and drawing something in exhaustive detail is one thing, but a few deft strokes of the brush from an expert can say more about someone's character than a detailed sketch. Conan Doyle and Ian Fleming are masters of this, such rich detail about places and people but told with so few well chosen words.


10:43 PM  
Blogger Yolanda McCabe said...

Wow Michael! That was soooo well said! The eyes are the windows to the soul... All the more so for a writer :)
People admire my attention to detail but always complain that it's too long. I can't wait to read these writers' works that you mention.
Thanks Phil, for your words of encouragement.My biggest obstacle at the moment is finding depth and realness for my characters. I can give them birth dates (star signs), blood types, childhood experiences, home environment, work setups, ect. I like analysing people and I've got a strong interest in Self-help psychology, but still they seem so flat.
I'm trying to use my father's personality for the main character in the screenplay, but by doing some background checks on the character's ancestry (Saxon) I've found that they're very different as well as similar. It's now easier to picture the man for real because I can compare him to someone I know - he has become a person at last. Please give some advice about how you do it? I don't have the luxury of factual characters in all my stories.
This blog has left me all the richer for the pickings... Did I say that right? ;)

10:07 AM  
Anonymous R. Michael Phillips said...

Thank you both for your kind words. I'm enjoying this post very much. As much as I've gotten from reading, interacting with people has also contributed a great deal to my story. I think character development was the best part of creating my first mystery. I sat on a train platform outside London for a day and met a wealth of people from all walks of life. We talked a little about what I did, but mostly about them. Combining the traits and quirks of those I met inspired a wonderful group of characters I ended up using in the book.
I look forward to reading more about your novels Yolanda, and Phil- I enjoyed the Buck Rogers fluff and I subscribed to the newsletter.

2:25 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

Haha thanks Michael and Yolanda, and yes spot on. I'm actually thinking about making this into a newsletter or blog post, but here's what I think about characters.

As you point out making interesting and realistic characters is all about reference material. Writing realistic people starts by meeting a few fellow humans and seeing what quirks they have and noting down reasons as to why you think they might behave like that, asking questions all the way. Yolanda's self help books come in handy there. :)

I find it's all about asking questions, and as a former actor I find it useful to improvise conversations with the characters, give them a literal voice, hear them say things based on their outlook on life. I find verbalising (obviously in the car or alone at home to avoid sideways looks) provides much more vivid characterisation.

So you have a character who wants something. A man who wants to get back something he once had, his life, a ring, a book, some kind of direction in life... whatever. It doesn't really matter. What does matter is how he feels about that. Is he sad? How does that sadness express itself? Does he do things which show how sad he is? Or does he do things which CONCEAL how sad he is? Does he drink to forget? Does he commit to a relationship he knows is doomed? Questions questions.

As human beings we all do things which seem inexplicable. Often the explanation is very simple. We want something we can't have yet. We want something we have but it's not what we thought it would be. And these characters and what they want should be what drives the story not the journeys they take, cars they drive and what kind of sushi they prefer. All those things are local colour, mood setting.

Good luck with your writing, and I can't wait to see what you come up with.


4:20 PM  
Anonymous R. Michael Phillips said...

Thanks Phil. If you want to see how all that research turned out, my first mystery came out last July- "Along Came A Fifer". Talk to you soon.
Visit me at

4:17 PM  

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