Thursday, December 13, 2012

Minimalism and action: Best-seller Seb Kirby on writing style

As soon as I started reading Seb Kirby’s Double Bind, I thought: “Yes! Here is a writer who knows how to waste no time, nor words in getting to the action.” Double Bind grabs you immediately and whips you along.

Seb's style seems to blend genres seamlessly. I wondered, "How does he do that so easily?" So naturally, I subjected the author to my interview on his writing style.

How would you describe your own writing style?

I like to write short chapters, short paragraphs, short sentences. I agree with Louise Brooks that “writing is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent elimination.” and with Alfred Hitchcock that “drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” I also like Blaise Pascal’s comment: “I have made this letter longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” I spend a great deal of time editing (which Stephen King calls “polishing”) what I've written in order to try to live up to these views.

Are there any authors whose style you admire? Do you try to emulate them?

I discovered Ray Bradbury when a teenager. I appreciated his writing then for its strength in storytelling. I admire it now for its minimalism. This arises, I think, from the fact that Ray Bradbury wrote short stories. (Even novels like Dandelion Wine or The Martian Chronicles read like collections of short stories with a common narrative.) Then, the writing needs to be expressive but succinct. I try to write like that.

I also admire thriller writers Harlan Coben and Robert Harris. Both have a talent for creating a vivid sense of place without detracting from the plot flow that is so essential to a good thriller.

Are there authors whose writing style you dislike?

Well, I think that writing style is a very personal thing and that every author will have their own take on this. There's no right or wrong way. As W. Somerset Maugham said: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no-one knows what they are.” So, I end up liking Ray Bradbury's style but I wouldn't want to dislike any writing on the basis of a style different to that. The only recent read in which I found it difficult to stick to this long held view was Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which I found stylistically annoying. But then it went on to win a Pulitzer and get turned into a successful movie, so it's clear that one person's style hate is another person's literary classic in the making.

How important is your writing style to you? Are you happy with your style, or are there aspects of it you try to change during rewriting or editing?

I'd say my writing style is still evolving. I try to set myself a formal challenge in each new story. This can be a simple thing, like “Write the whole book without using any ‘said’ attributions in the reported speech.” Or it can be something more complex, as in my second thriller, Double Bind where I set myself the challenge of writing as much of it as possible in the first person present tense. Either way, I hope that this keeps my writing fresh.

Overall, I'm a keen follower of Stephen King’s approach as set out in his On Writing. In terms of writing style, there are two of his comments that I take seriously. The first: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” So, where at all possible I don't use them. The second: “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” I never use a dictionary or a thesaurus.

How can readers identify your writing style? Are there particular words or kinds of words that you tend to favour? Sentence structures? Or is it more in the story, the pacing or the characters?

My writing style is, then, I think, readily recognised by readers. It is often commented on in their reviews. About ten percent deduce that this writing style is poor and not for them. But a majority seem to get what I'm aiming at and say that the pace and tension of the thriller is enhanced and that enough space is allowed for the reader to make up their own mind, for example about the appearance and mannerisms of the characters. That's what makes a minimalist approach like this worthwhile.

Do you think your genre imposes certain restrictions on writing style?

There are bound to be restrictions involved in writing thrillers. After all, the main aim is to entertain and, if you're lucky, thrill. But that's good discipline. It restricts the temptation for the author to intervene too much.

Do you think your audience responds to your writing style, consciously or unconsciously?

This is a very good question that I don't know the answer to. Maybe it's something that writers don't give enough attention. Certainly it's not something that there's much room for in the writing process where the story takes on a life of its own. For a thriller writer, the issue most often becomes: “Can I really do that and make it seem consistent and believable in the context of the whole story?”

How important do you think writing style is to an author's commercial success?

Yes, it's important. To be clear, easily understandable and inspiring are worthy aims of any writer and the means with which you try to achieve this has a real influence on how successful you might be in achieving those aims. Most would say that there is a great deal of serendipity and hard work involved in whether this translates into commercial success or not. But without it, that success is much less likely.

Seb Kirby's debut novel, Take No More, has been widely acclaimed as a first-rate mystery thriller. Drawing from his love of classic books from H G Wells to Charles Dickens, he has mastered the art of storytelling. His second novel, Double Bind, is a psychological sci-fi thriller filled with twists and turns, a hallmark of Kirby's gripping imagination. A sequel to Take No More will be available in early 2013.

Find Take No More on Amazon.
Find Double Bind on Amazon.


  1. This is a fabulous post and makes me even more eager to read Double Blind. Our writing style preferences are similar, Scott. I like a story that clips along and isn't weighed down with needless details. I usually skim through description to dialogue anyway.

  2. Anonymous5:22 PM

    Terrific interview, Seb! I've been dying to get into both of your books, which I'll be doing shortly. Can't wait! :)

    1. Thanks, David! I've started reading your VELVET RAIN and rate it very highly! And, by the way, Scott, thanks for publishing this. It's great to have the opportunity.

  3. Elise, Thanks. Great to hear that we have similar styles. :)

  4. Anonymous11:55 AM

    Great post on a difficult subject. I've also taken the no-adverb advice, possibly to extremes - seeing one in a book can turn me off straight away, which is perhaps a bit silly. Ali B

  5. For the most part, I think the days of taking pages to set a scene are gone. Personal interactions and anything that moves the plot forward are key, to me at least. Faulkner will always have his fans and admirers, but I don't count myself among them!

  6. I'm ashamed to say I've never read Ray Bradbury's fiction (although I have read his essays on writing). I must amend this! Brevity is a great writing skill to have, think I'll have to add Seb Kirby to my reading list.

  7. A good post. I'm a great advocate of 'short chapters, short paragraphs, short sentences'. My role model is Kathy Reichs. That said, she throws it all at us in one page - summaries, reflections, body language, etc. Dan Brown on steroids. But, for a certain kind of story, it works.

  8. Great interview. There is much to learn in this. As always, thank you for the great content.