Friday, April 25, 2014


By Russel D McLean

Its easy for a writer to get stuck in a rut, to find themselves slinging the same kind of words over and over again. Its easy to feel like you're on repeat, that once you're known for something, that's all folk want from you. And its easy to feel that once you know how to sling words a certain way that's all you can do.

Writing non fiction used to scare the hell out of me. It was a strange proposition and one that seemed too close to the essays that I did in university; assignments with marks and the sense that you passed or failed depending on some rigid sense of style.

(That said, looking over some of my old essays, I'm amazed I got away with slipping lots of Philip K Dick and Bob Dylan quotes into essays on logic)

I always wanted to try it, but never knew how. And my fear kept telling me that I couldn't write non fiction, that I was destined to write fiction all the time. That I wasn't smart enough to do the whole non fic thing. I could review occasionally, but even then, I never felt I was that good at it; that I needed to get better, needed to find a more coherent and consistent approach (although I am still proud of the reviews that were done - and occasionally still are - at Crime Scene Scotland).

But things happen. And one of those things for me was meeting my partner, Lesley McDowell (aka, most of the time on here, the Literary Critic). We have different reading and writing styles and habits, But I think that one of the nice things about living with another writer is that you learn things from each other, and from Lesley I have learned about approaching non fictioin and criticism in ways they never taught you at university, about how voice is still important and that a sense of narrative is absolutely vital. When I did interviews previously, they were always direct scripts of conversations between myself and another writer. The kind of transcript that can be interesting, but is never quite as fascinating as a narrative interview can be (when done well).

I messed about with a few non fiction things here and there for other websites. I did a narrative non fic pie ce about my relationship with the character of Philip Marlowe for Five Leaves publications. And then I did something I would never have concieved of even six months earlier: I pitched an idea for an interview to a national newspaper.

The idea was to talk to Charles Ardai - head of Hard Case Crime - about one of his novelists being, in reality, Michael Crichton and how these new editions were the first time Crichton's name would appear on the cover. I was going to New York anyway and I approached Charles about the idea before even pitching it. I think getting him on board maybe helped sell the idea. I was given a date and a deadline. And a whole new set of worries.

In listening to the tape of my interview with Charles, I realised that I couldn't just do a straight report. I didn't have the space. I had to find something to hook the article around. I had over an hour of recording and 1800 words to use. But then I started to realise something. In fiction writing, I "leave out the parts the readers tend to skip" (following the advice of Elmore Leonard). So why couldn't I do the same here? And while I was at it, why couldn't I find a "theme" to our wide ranging conversation - something that would allow to start with one idea and develop it through the interview. And it came down to the idea of voices. Charles and I talked about the voices of people with "lost manuscripts" and how discovering something new by a favourite author can be like rediscovering an old friend or a reminder of a loved one. There was a beautiful quote from Charles that I used at the end of the article, even though it came somewhat earlier in our talk. I found the narrative of the interview. I treated it like a piece of fiction.

And it worked.

But in writing that - and writing subsequent non fiction pieces - I have found that my approach to fiction writing has changed, too. There are aspects of the narrative non fiction that I think are helping me better understand how to structure fiction. The discipline of a different style of writing is starting to affect the way I understand the kind of writing I have become used to.

I've always talked about how writer should be influenced by all media. As a corollary I should add that writers should always look to stretch themselves by trying different forms and disciplines. By trying new things. No only - in this new world - will you then have extra avenues of publication, but you will also perhaps make yourself even better at the very thing you already know how to do.

At least that's how its working for me right now.

Russel's new book, Mothers of the Disappeared, will be out in the UK on the 30 April and in the US in August.

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