“Tell lies, beautifully,” said Chuck Palahniuk to me, the first time I ever met him.
(Actually, he wrote it, inside my copy of Lullaby. Look, there’s even a photo to prove it.)
The point is, lying is good. I do it all the time, even when I’m telling the truth. I lie, and you like it. Yeah, you do. You lie, too… and really, it’s okay. Especially if you’re a writer.
But lying is just one of the ways to get what you want. In fact, you should engage in all manner of devious behaviour. This is something I try to instil in the children I teach, on a daily basis. “Every little helps,” I tell them, and there are dozens of ways to do it. For example, Austin Kleon—author of the New York Times bestseller, How To Steal Like An Artist—suggests recording overheard conversations. Sneaky. Roberto Bolaño, meanwhile—another of my all-time favourite authors—openly advocated stealing books. I haven’t gone that far (yet) but larceny is definitely up there on my list of must-dos, if you really want to make it in this game. Here are just three of my ideas, of how, and why:
1. Steal pens.
One of the best exercises for any writer is to do ten minutes of free-writing, every day. For this you need a pen (or pencil) and in my experience, you can never have too many. There is nothing more frustrating than being mid-flow when your pen runs out and you don’t have an immediate replacement. This happens a lot—in fact, it happened to me during the drafting of this very piece.* So, stock up. Wherever you go—the bank, the coffee shop, someone’s house—if you see a pen, pinch it. What? They’re not going to need it. Unless they’re a writer, in which case they’ll totally understand, and completely forgive you.
2. Make up stories.
I don’t just mean the ones you’re writing. Make up stories about the stories you’re writing—or even the ones you’re not writing. There are things going on around you, all the time, which can be turned into great stories. People you see, conversations you hear; incidents and accidents, hints and allegations. Wait: they’re the lyrics to that Paul Simon song, aren’t they? Oh, yeah. Well, more on that in a sec. My point is, if an idea occurs to you, and you don’t have a pen to hand (because you didn’t follow my first piece of advice) then simply tell whoever you’re with. “Oh, I’m writing a story about that…” Chances are they won’t be listening to you anyway, and therefore won’t remember when they never get to read it. But by doing this, you might just find that an idea takes seed. If it’s a good idea, it’ll come back to you, and you’ll write a story about it, and it’ll go on to be a New York Times bestseller. Possibly.
3. Subsume song lyrics.
Music is one of my greatest sources of inspiration, but using song lyrics in your writing—even quoting them, with the proper attributions—is tricky. My understanding is that they’re all owned, by some corporation somewhere, who will slap the handcuffs on you the minute they catch you using one of their artists’ words without permission. However, one way to get round this is to hide them within your prose. Turn them into your own lines. Change one or two of the words, if you must, but if there’s a line in a song you really like, or one that fits the voice of your character just perfectly, incorporate it into the narrative. Who’s going to notice? Those bigwigs over at the Warner Bros HQ? Ha! Yeah, right. I’d like to see them find the Mars Volta lyric I used in the last story I had published…