First it was Swedish chiller Let The Right One In. Then came Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Now there’s a new literary phenomenon burning through Scandinavia and on to the big screen. Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo’s bestselling novels — 11 so far — became a sensation in his frosty homeland. And it’s easy to see why.Headhunters, the first film adaptation of his work, tells the story of Roger Brown, a headhunter who supplements his income with art theft before running into trouble. With killers, thieves, twists and tension, has the 52-year-old cracked the secret formula for writing a bestselling crime novel? Can he teach us? This is the advice he gave us…
1. WRITE FOR YOURSELF
“When I’m writing, I’m imagining an audience of one — myself. To me, writing is not about visiting people, it’s about inviting people to where you are. And that means you must know where you are. When you reach a crossroads, if you think, ‘Where would the reader like me to go?’ then you’re lost. You have to ask yourself, ‘What would make me want to get up tomorrow and finish this story?’ Sometimes the story will point the direction all by itself. Of course, it’s you as the writer who decides, but sometimes you feel like there’s a sort of gravity in the book.”
2. USE YOUR LIFE
“It’s good to draw on real-life experiences. When I’m writing a book like Headhunters, I use the crime genre but I also use myself. I’ve done a lot of different things. I was an officer in the air force. I make music. I worked as a stockbroker for many years. That’s how I had the inspiration for Headhunters. When I worked as a financial analyst, I was interviewed by headhunters. What helps my books is that I have a life, therefore I can relate to people’s lives.”
3. PULL LITERARY HEISTS
“Do I steal from other books? Definitely. And if I’m a thief, I can tell you I’m stealing but I can’t tell you who I have robbed. Well, OK, Mark Twain. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn — those were great books. For me, writing is a reaction to reading. It’s the same reflex you have around a table of friends. Somebody will tell a story, then the next person will tell a story, then the next. Then you have to bring something new to the table. I grew up in a home where I had so many great experiences being the listener or the reader. Now it’s my turn.”
4. HAVE A PERFECT PLAN
“If you have a good story to begin with, it will be great no matter how you write it. I like to have confidence that I know the story — that when I start writing, I have worked it over and over, so I don’t have the feeling after page one that I’m a story-maker. I’m a storyteller. The story is already there, I’m not making it up as I go along. That’s when you have the confidence to tell your readers, ‘Come and sit closer, because I have this great story. So just relax, lean back and trust me.’ That’s the way I feel when I’m reading work by the great storytellers.”
5. GO IN STRONG
“Americans are best at introducing their stories. In the first pages of a book they have a shameless way of hyping their own tale. It’s a tradition. John Irving does it, and Frank Miller, the graphic novelist, has the same way of manipulating you into turning the page. I love that. And it could be anything that makes your readers want to keep going — you can’t think in terms of rules. Just go with gut feeling. If the idea of an opening fascinates you and it sounds challenging, you’re on the right track.”
6. WORK WHEREVER YOU ARE
“I write everywhere, but the best place is in airports and on trains. When you’re sitting on a train or waiting for a plane, you only have a limited time to write. It makes you feel that time is precious. If you wake up in the morning and say, ‘OK, today I’m going to write for 12 hours,’ you don’t feel that. I like to know I’m going to do as much as I can in just one or two hours.”
7. WATCH CRIME FILMS
“My generation of writers has probably seen more movies than read books. In one of his books on screenwriting, Syd Field says, ‘Action is character.’ And you can adapt that in novels: it’s all about show, don’t tell. And to do that, you need action. People doing things, like in Seven, for example, the crime scenes tell a story. These tableaux are intensely effective in movies and in novels. If you consider No Country For Old Men, I can’t see anything in the book that’s not in the film. The language of the novel works perfectly when translated to film. Novels are borrowing the language of films, and novels are essentially doing what films do.”
8. LET THE TITLE CHOOSE ITSELF
“There are no rules when it comes to the title of a novel. Ideas come in all different ways. With The Snowman, the novel started with the title. I thought, ‘That sounds like a great title!’ And then I started thinking about what the title implied in terms of the story. So that was the start. In other cases, it’s the last thing I do. Sometimes it comes midway through the book. Like I said, no rules. Headhunters was obvious, because of the double meaning. That came quite quickly — it was a no-brainer.”
9. BE THE PSYCHOPATH
“Writers work similarly to actors; you have to be able to identify with a character. Even if you’re writing a psychopath, you have to find that little piece of psychopath that you have within yourself, and then you have to enlarge them a bit. Scary? Well, that’s what you have to do. Most humans are complex — we’re so full of different ingredients that we’ll be able to find most things within ourselves. Just use your imagination. Crime writing can be a dark universe, so, mentally, it’s tiring to write. I’m writing children’s books at the moment, my first was called Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder. It makes me feel better.”
10. WRITE WHAT’S THERE
“It’s not a matter of trying to write a bestseller. It’s writing what you have. And if you are lucky, you may share your taste of storytelling with a broad audience. I had no idea my stories would reach a wide audience. I thought they were more for a small audience. So I was surprised when I realised that I had so many people in my home.”
Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.
Do Not Ramble, Though
I won’t ramble on about that.
Keep It Simple
As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story ‘Eveline’ is just this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.
Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.’
Have The Guts to Cut
It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.
I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.
Sound Like Yourself
The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.
Say What You Mean To Say
I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable — and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledly-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.
Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.
Pity The Readers
Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years.
So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify, whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.
That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.
For Really Detailed Advice
For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, a more technical sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style, by Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White. E. B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.
You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.
John Steinbeck, the author of masterpieces such as Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden… shares with people 6 tips on writing from Fall 1975 issue of The Paris Review.
Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.4
Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
And he adds finally:
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”