I’m a huge, huge fan of Karl Pilkington.
For those who aren’t aware, Ricky Gervais’ best mate is adoringly known as “An Idiot Abroad” by the British public and beyond. He was fantastic in the Ricky Gervais Show, with Monkey News and Karl’s Diary some of his highlights, and I could pretty much listen to his ramblings all day long.
The hilarity of Karl comes from the fact that he isn’t the cleverest of chaps. He has some naive, innocent views of the world that match those of children. And he takes the jibes that come his way with such good humour that he has become a global phenomenon.
So imagine my delight when I saw Karl has a tutorial video out from way back in 2009 on how to write a book.
I braced myself to laugh. Braced myself for my sides to hurt, like they always do whenever I watch anything Karl Pilkington related.
Funny thing happened. Sure, I laughed. But more importantly, I was amazed.
Amazed because I can’t believe how right Karl is in his guide to writing.
The full video is here, and it’s well worth watching, even just for some of Karl’s hilarious remarks. But I wanted to break down this video point by point. The thing to remember is that Karl’s views generally go against common opinion. So it’s amazing to see how spot on he is about writing and publishing. He is a genius after all.
1.) “You just write.”
Spot on! Karl makes the point that writing a book isn’t as hard as a lot of people make out. And he’s totally right. If anything, writing a book is fun.
Sure, us writers like to hide behind the “tortured artist” facade. But the truth is, we have a blast writing our stories. And the best way to write stories? Just “write what’s in yer ‘ed”, as Karl says! Find the time. Get motivated. Dare to be bad. And just get the words down.
2.) “I write the way I speak, as well.”
Again, Karl might not realise this, but he’s absolutely nailed the idea of a successful authorial voice.
A lot of us writers get bogged down with trying to be too fancy. By imitating styles, or trying to sound like someone we’re not. Funny thing is, we’re actually at our most original when we just write in our own voice. Sure, it reads boring to us. But to others? It’s original. It’s unique.
It’s the difference between a run of the mill novel and something a little different.
“There’s no point trying to be clever ’cause I think you just get caught out.” Indeed, Karl. Just stay true to yourself.
3.) “A book’s based on word count anyway, so it doesn’t matter whether you use a word with fifteen letters or not.”
A bit more of a comic point, but again, Karl’s right.
Don’t throw fancy words in just for the hell of it is the key thing to be taken from this point. As argued in the last point, just stay true to your own voice, your own vocabulary.
“Stephen Fry can throw big words in and get away with it.” He’s right. Stephen Fry is a master wordsmith. Only use what you’re confident using. Keep learning, and new words will just seep into your work without having to force them in.
4.) “I tend to spend ages trying to say what I want to say instead of using one word…”
Again, I’m not sure Karl realises this, but he’s hit two things on their perfectly round heads here: the concept of show, don’t tell, and the idea of pacing.
While Karl admittedly argues his case is simply to get the wordcount up, he’s right that more words are often better than one in certain situations. Sure, it’s easy to say, “the guy was sad”. But isn’t it better to say, “I saw his eyes were bloodshot. The letter in his shaking hand was covered with small, damp teardrop patches. When he spoke, his voice crackled. I could smell sweat on him, see the unshaven beard sprouting from his face, his kitchen counters coated in ready-meal-for-one cartons…”
Hammy example, sure, but showing something is almost always better than telling, unless summarising, which is a whole different topic.
5.) “Short chapters…”
I literally punched the air with this one, as with point 1. Yes! He’s so right.
“People these days have short attention spans. There’s too much going on… music on everywhere, people texting, emails coming in…”
The short chapter is really important in modern fiction, I believe. Or more specifically, a short scene. Lester Dent talked about it in his Master Plot Formula, which went on to inspire a whole generation of literature.
1,500 is the scene length sweet spot. Karl’s right. Again. Wow.
6.) “You need quiet…”
Okay, so some people prefer to write with music, but I think Karl hits on something else right here: distractions are a killer.
In Karl’s own words, “There’s a person who goes up and down our street on an office chair, she’s like the local mental woman, and it’s fine if you’re not writing a book…”
In slightly more eloquent terms, cut out distractions. Cut off your internet while you write. Put your phone in another room. If there is noise outside, put headphones on and listen to some white noise.
Or you’ll never finish a book.
7.) “People always say, ‘write about what you know,’ which is all very well when you know something.”
Ha! Again, unintentional genius from Karl.
I’ve long been allergic to the idea that you should solely write what you know. While drawing on real life experiences–real life emotions–can be key, it’s easy to get too autobiographically bogged down in it.
So sure, use your own experiences. But don’t be afraid to write about stuff you don’t know about, too. As long as you do a tiny bit of research, just let your mind wander. That’s the art of creativity.
8.) “Most books, you don’t want a challenge. You don’t want to feel like you’re doing an exam when you’re reading a book. You just want a bit of filler. Toilet books, that’s what my books are.”
Hilarious, but more truth beneath the comedy.
Commercial fiction’s sole purpose is to entertain. To take readers away from their actual daily lives for just a short while. To grab the reader, drag them down into the story and hold them there. That’s the goal.
Although “toilet books” is a funny way of putting it, what Karl gets right here is that books don’t have to be unnecessarily clever or complex. They just have to be a good, fun stories that keeps readers coming back for more.
If it is to the toilet for more… so be it. Just prepare for some upset family members.
9.) “It’s all in the marketing.”
A real-life Nostradamus, this man.
“There’s loads of books out there that aren’t even that good. Just because they’re marketed, sales go through the roof.”
Okay, so we all like our own books a bit more than Karl likes his. But he makes a key point, once more. A good bit of marketing can work wonders on the sales of a book.
How to market? Advertising through Bookbub, Bknights, Booksends, etc. Facebook and Twitter interaction. Blog posts. Mailing lists. All of it, marketing. All of it helpful.
And for a nice modern twist on the idea that eBooks are forever: “The Bible, at the end of the day. Dead old. But every Sunday, there’s a vicar somewhere doing a book reading in a church, and someone thinks ‘Ooh that sounds good, I’ll buy a copy of that’. It’s all in the marketing.”
I hope you enjoyed these genius Karlisms. He’s so right about so many things, so much so that my respect for him has just gone through the roof. Well, into the clouds and beyond — it was already way through the roof anyway.
Check out the Ricky Gervais Show podcasts. Or An Idiot Abroad. Or The Moaning of Life. All hilarious, classic Karl.
And remember. Just write. That’s the key.
You’re gonna have to believe Karl on this one.