“There are three secrets to writing a novel.” Somerset Maugham famously begins. (And, as you can see from his picture, what Somerset says stays said.)
To understand these secrets though, I think we need to know what a novel actually is. Or what it should be.
“The main question to a novel is — did it amuse? were you surprised at dinner coming so soon? did you mistake eleven for ten? were you too late to dress? and did you sit up beyond the usual hour? If a novel produces these effects, it is good; if it does not — story, language, love, scandal itself cannot save it. It is only meant to please; and it must do that or it does nothing.” – Sydney Smith
So, a novel is an entertainment? Something designed to while away unwanted hours. But nowadays there are many other things that can do that. Candy Crush for instance. Or Angry Birds.
“Ah now! Wait just one second.” You sneer. “You can’t replace novels with silly computer puzzle games.”
No, I know. Don’t get so defensive. That’s not what I’m saying. But I know of many people who have mistaken eleven for ten or been unable to dress after a mentally strenuous session of Candy Crush. I’ve seen people walking along the street peering at their phones with less than a healthy regard for their own safety. Must-Swap-One-More-Candy.
My contention is that a novel is more than a recreational distraction. Novels teach us things. A novel can expand our minds.
“So does Candy Crush. As you said it’s a puzzle game. Keeps the brain active.” A young, probably fashionable person says from behind you.
Perhaps it does. Look, I’m not having a go at Candy Crush, but I don’t think it can offer the same intellectual challenges as a well written novel.
“Have you tried level 432?”
Two ninjas silently (obviously) remove the young person from the blog.
“What about crosswords?” A tweed-jacketed harridan shouts from somewhere over to your left. “They’re my cup of tea! Much more satisfying than made up stories!”
As an entertainment, you mean? (I am, quite frankly, rather intimidated by this crusty old lady.) Isn’t a crossword just a…
“It’s not just anything, young man! A good cryptic crossword keeps the old grey matter ticking over nicely. If I want to read something, I’ll read something huge and non-fiction.” She takes a solid step forward. The ejection ninjas have disappeared.
“A novel is never anything but a philosophy expressed in images. And in a good novel the philosophy has disappeared into the images.” – Albert Camus
This sounds great – much more rigorously clever than a smartphone app could ever hope to be.
But, even if you say it with a comedic French accent, it’s too constraining and vaguely patronising. I’m sure there are novels where the images only serve to drive a plot forward rather than serving a philosophical agenda. And I assume there are novels that express a philosophy via modern dance (almost certainly written by James Joyce)
But I think he’s on the right track. Philosophy or a philosophy can be hard to get across, and novelists are well practised in showing rather than telling, so the novel would appear to be the perfect opportunity to clear up these pesky thoughts, downloading the novelist’s ideas directly into the reader’s mind.
Also, novels can compete with crosswords when it comes to providing us with literary puzzles.
“All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.” –Michael Chabon
There are few, if any completely original novels. Someone once told me that Dostoyevsky had written a version of every single story there was, even though he’d only written seven novels. (I know it seems that he’s written sixteen of them, so perhaps this gem of information isn’t quite pure) But it’s a useful skill to understand how one novel is influenced by another. Or how a literary trick from one author can be utilised to highlight or undermine a reader’s understanding of a theme.
This can obviously be a dangerous game for the novelist though. Too much reliance on the clever references or ironic pastiche can overwhelm the reader leaving him with a cryptic crossword so unfathomable it might as well have been compiled by a hippopotamus.
For me, a perfect novel incorporates all these ideas. It will entertain, as well as enlighten. It will teach as well as intrigue. And, ideally, it will reward me for close attention to its inner workings.
“There are three secrets to writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.” – W. Somerset Maugham
I’ll show them!
This blog is now nearly a year old and I’m still no closer to publication.
I’ve entered and lost three writing competitions, I’ve sent “The Clockwork Butterfly” to every UK agent who purports to enjoy YA fantasy fiction, and I’ve even sent “Entering the Weave” to a publisher who claims to accept unsolicited manuscripts.
And what have I received in return?
Rejection. Or, even worse, nothing at all. Agents and judges and editors are roundly ignoring me.
Well! I’ll show them.
“What will you show them?”
I’ll show them how inexcusably wrong they are for their brush offs and cold shoulders. I’ll make them eat their form letters and standard responses. They shall rue the day they ever dared to not accept me into the halcyon pastures of the publishing world.
“And how, exactly, will you do this?”
I’ve had a new novel idea. A great, zeitgeisty idea that will redefine the very nature of books. Hardened literary agents will swoon at its audacity and grizzled editors weep with envy at its originality. And I’m going to write it fuelled by the energy of bitterness. I’m going to shout it into my keyboard, scratch it with bold, black marker pen into my notebooks. Each word shall carry the weight of revenge upon it like a medal.
“Is it a comedy?”
No! It will be a visceral indictment of today’s society. (Although there will be some funny bits)
“So… once you’ve written it, what are you going to do then? How will this revenge manifest itself?”
Well. I’ll send it to all the agents and publishing houses. And when they write their fawning emails back, begging to represent it or publish it, I shall ignore them, or send them a polite, impersonal rejection right back. That’ll teach them. It’s foolproof.
“I’m not sure, it’s quite foolproof. Have you ever heard the saying: ‘Cutting off your nose to spite your face’?”
“Aren’t you doing that?”
“Wouldn’t it be better to write a really great novel. A novel fuelled, not by revenge or bitterness, but by passion and empathy. A novel so original, so well written anyone who reads it falls in love with it.”
Hmmmm. That does sound slightly better.
Kirsty Young: Hello, I’m Kirsty Young. Today’s castaway is a writer. He was a late starter: his first taste of publishing success was in 2015, when he was 45. But since then he has been a powerhouse in the world of fiction, seemingly just as comfortable writing Young Adult novels as he is creating comedies for the screen. When asked about how it felt to get his first novel published, he said: “It’s taken fifteen years to get to this point, now I can have a rest…” He is Simon Yates.
KY: But, Simon, you didn’t have a rest at all did you?
Simon Yates: [chuckles nervously] No, Kirsty. I guess that first taste of success was addictive. I’d completed four novels at that point which had taken my whole life, but a lot of my time had been taken up by sending out queries and manuscripts to agents and publishers, attending my place of work all week, and long bouts of procrastination…. All that practice gave me momentum when I began writing full-time. It gets harder to write with every rejection letter you receive, but after publication all my previous disappointments fuelled my drive to continue.
KY: If that’s what made you write then, what motivated you before that?
SY: Well, I’d always wanted to be a writer. I got a typewriter and some carbon paper for Christmas when I was in my early teens, which I remember asking for. It wasn’t a random present. And it wasn’t a career pointer from my parents either. My dad was far too sensible for that.
KY: So your father would have disapproved of you being a writer then?
SY: When I was in my twenties I was a complete wastrel anyway so I suppose he’d have been pleased to see me doing anything even vaguely constructive. But when I was growing up he’d have very much wanted me to pick a solid profession with prospects and a pension and things like that.
KY: Why do you say you were a wastrel?
SY: [laughs] Because I was! After I finished University I worked in a pub, then graduated to getting drunk in the pub. And then finally, to save time, I started living in a pub!
KY: Living there?
SY: Yes. The landlady of the pub is now my wife.
SY: Yes. That was the turning point actually.
KY: So you stopped being a wastrel then?
SY: Not immediately. It was more of a gradual process. I did start to write a novel… [snorts] but I was still not prepared to put in the work. I had an idea in my head of what a writer should be: flamboyant, artistic, prone to fits of depression… I rather thought if I lived my life to those principles I was bound to be a success.
KY: And did that work for you?
SY: No. I wrote about 10,000 words in six months. And every one of them was rubbish.
KY: Time for your first disc.
SY: It’s a poem. I remember it from my childhood because my mum knows it off by heart. I love the way it tells a whole story in so few words, from zero to hero and back again, and I like to think that it stirred an early appreciation of how words, if they’re chosen perfectly, can summon up images that go far beyond the mundane definitions. It’s “The Tale of Custard the Dragon” by Ogden Nash.
— Reading of The Tale of Custard the Dragon
KY: So, was your mum a big influence on you? Creatively?
SY: Oh, yes. She told me when I was about thirteen and really leaning towards maths and computer programming, that she thought I’d end up with a career which involved writing. And I’ve never forgotten that. I have no idea what she based her theory on, because all the evidence at the time was pointing towards me being a real science nerd, but… well, I guess she knew me better than I knew myself at the time.
KY: Were you a nerd?
SY: Absolutely. Massively. I had two very close friends (we used to play D&D together) and one of our greatest pleasures was disassembling the machine code of games I had on my BBC Micro computer. We had to do it by hand looking up the number of each opcode… I’m sorry I can see I might be boring you.
KY: [yawns] No. No. But I think it might be time for some more music.
SY: I remember seeing this band on the telly in 1977. The lead singer was dressed in a black and white motley leotard, and he strutted around the stage like a peacock on steroids. No man should be able to get away with behaving like that but Freddie Mercury absolutely rocked it. They weren’t performing the song I’ve chosen, but this was my introduction to them and I’ve spent the last fifty years in awe of Queen’s, and especially Freddie’s, entertainment factor. The song I’ve chosen is “The March of the Black Queen”
KY: The listeners couldn’t see how much you seemed to be enjoying that…
SY: Thankfully. I’ve always felt faintly embarrassed by how much I loved Queen’s music. My best friends at school were all into The Smiths or Joy Division or whoever, but there was something so unashamedly entertaining about Queen that made more “serious” music seem a bit drab. And I want to write like that. To me, the most important thing is to entertain.
KY: You’ve said you had a comfortable, happy childhood. Your mother was a teacher and your father a company director. Were there any tensions growing up?
SY: No. No. None. I moved schools when I was fourteen, which was about the only difficulty I had. And that only lasted for few weeks, when I started to hang out with some cool kids playing Dungeons and Dragons.
KY: [snorts] Dungeons and Dragons? Really?
SY: Yes! While other adolescents were out trying to score 2 litre bottles of Woodpecker from the off licence, I was roleplaying my level 7 female magic-user through the Forgotten Realms with my buddies. I think I learned a lot more about people that way than actually talking to real ones.
KY: Your, erm, understanding of women and more particularly feminism got you into a bit of hot water early on in your writing career didn’t it?
SY: Yes. “The Rise and Fall of Ultra-Knitting” That was very confusing. I’d had some success with my young adult fiction and I’d had an idea for a short story pointing out the unfair tactics employed by men in the battle of the sexes. So I entered “The Rise and Fall of Ultra-Knitting” into the Bridport Short Story Competition where it came 2nd. Everyone at that point seemed to understand what I was trying to say. The top 13 entries are also entered into the BBC National Short Story Award, and I suppose because of the wider audience some people started to complain that it was sexist.
KY: Well isn’t it?
SY: Yes. Sort of. But it’s supposed to be a damning, but probably fictional, indictment of men and their methods. A vocal minority, or perhaps the clandestine group of men portrayed in the story, caused such a fuss that my story was disqualified from the competition. And I was almost blacklisted from the industry.
KY: So how did you manage to turn that around?
SY: Well, I didn’t do anything. The more I tried to explain the worse I seemed to be making things. I think I’ve got the Daily Mail to thank really, although it certainly wasn’t their intention to help. I seemed to be top of their hit list at the time, hated more than all the murderers and terrorists and foreigners. But, as you know Kirsty, most right thinking people generally believe the opposite of what the Daily Mail says and so gradually people started to actually read the story properly.
KY: There was one particular celebrity on your side though, wasn’t there?
SY: Ahhh, very clever! I can see why you’ve been doing this for so long.
KY: Thank you.
SY: Yes. Jessie J was particularly vocal about it. She’d written a song a couple of years before called, “Do It Like a Dude” which carried a similar message, and was equally misunderstood by the hard of thinking. So, with the aid of your clever steering, that brings me to my third choice, which is by Jessie J and was also the first song that my youngest daughter brought to my attention. It’s:
KY: That song is about bullying isn’t it? And that’s something you’ve explored in more than one of your books.
SY: Well I don’t know if “explored” is the right word. Some of my books have got bullies in them. Charlie’s Worries and Entering the Weave certainly, but they’re just characters used to further the plot or introduce some threat.
KY: You always seem to take quite a sympathetic view of them though. Is there a reason for that?
SY: [pauses] I don’t know. I was bullied slightly at school. When I was 14 I moved schools. From a fairly posh, private, all boys school to a mixed comprehensive. I had a few problems adjusting, but I think I was at fault just as much as the bullies were.
KY: That sounds like you’re making excuses for them. Are you saying you asked them for it?
SY: I suppose I am. I didn’t ask for them to put my finger in the woodwork vice or any of the other minor acts of violence they performed. But I can see how I wound them up. I was very sarcastic and horribly confident of my intellectual superiority.
KY: They put your finger in a vice? That sounds pretty brutal.
SY: Yes. It was. But they weren’t serious about it. They forced my finger in to the vice and started to tighten it. I remained completely silent and didn’t offer any resistance. Eventually, and fortunately before they broke my finger, they let me go. They obviously just wanted me to struggle or cry, but their fear of punishment kept them from doing any real damage. So they weren’t that bad.
KY: That still sounds charitable.
SY: Yes. Possibly. I just don’t really blame them. I can imagine I was insufferable.
KY: You’ve had three very different choices so far.
SY: Yeah, in a way I suppose. But I think they all tell a story. When I was really young I used to listen to Benny Hill’s “Ernie – The Fastest Milkman in the West” and my dad had a song about a bubble car that chased him in his sports car and it didn’t matter how fast he went, but the bubble car kept up… I’ve never been able to remember what that was about exactly, but I loved the fact that I was being told a story in a song.
KY: You said earlier that your father wouldn’t have approved of your artistic endeavours, but it sounds like he was more encouraging than you give him credit for.
SY: In many ways he was arty, but he valued pragmatic abilities higher than aesthetic. He was a really talented painter and could play the piano and guitar by ear. But learning properly, I think, would have seemed like a frivolous waste of time. But he was a big influence over me when it comes to music. He considered the vocals of a song to be no more or less important than any other instrument and made me listen to various tracks where he’d pick out a sound that was almost subliminal to me, and then wax lyrical about why he thought it was so good that it was there.
KY: And does that lead us onto your fourth title?
SY: Yes indeed. This is a classic case of that. We were driving somewhere, just me and him in the car. I think we were going on holiday and we were listening to Alchemy by Dire Straits. There’s a bit in Private Investigations where a sound from the audience actually changes the tune slightly. Every time it came on he’d tell me to listen carefully, and then say “There! Did you hear it?” Eventually he started to rewind the cassette because I was totally incapable of hearing what he meant. So we listened to the same ten seconds about fifty times before I finally fibbed and pretended to hear it. It was good fun in a weird way, although I think he thought I was being dense just for the sake of it. It also made me realise how much depth there can be to music, and sometimes you can listen to a piece a thousand times and still not wring every bit out of it. Much like a great novel. So my next track is “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits because it’s brilliant and it will always remind me of my dad.
SY: Oh no. It was just getting good!!
KY: Well, we can’t listen to music all the time, we’re here to find out about you. But this isn’t the first time you’ve been on Desert Island Discs is it?
SY: [laughs] Blimey. You really have swotted up. I wrote a blog entry back in… oh I don’t know 2014? which was a transcript of my future appearance on here. It was just a bit of fun really. Writing practice I suppose.
KY: But you were obviously sure you were going to make it then though?
SY: No. It was just nonsense really. I’m an ninja-level procrastinator and when I wrote it I’m sure I thought I was somehow helping my writing career, when actually I was just putting off doing any constructive work on “Charlie’s Worries”.
KY: So. You’ve told us that in your twenties you thought of yourself as a bit of a wastrel. What changed?
SY: Meeting my wife. It’s as simple as that. I was very prone to self sabotage I think. Probably scared that trying too hard might end up in failure and if I didn’t attempt anything I couldn’t fail at anything. Plus, I would tell myself that living the life I was living was edifying for a writer. My life was much rawer than someone who worked for a living, closer to the edge.
KY: And she taught you otherwise?
SY: I’m not sure how it worked really. When we first started living together she seemed perfectly happy to let me carry on with my revelries. It became a bit of a joke that me going out for a couple of hours in the afternoon would mean me rolling home six hours later and barely able to speak… Surprisingly, she didn’t shout or rant about it, I guess it’s something they teach women at their clandestine training camps. She used to work lots of hours 80-90 a week and I suppose subconsciously I knew I was not really pulling my weight.
KY: And so you stopped?
SY: Gradually, yes. It probably just ran its course I suppose. I was worried at one time that I might descend into addiction, but strangely that never became an issue. I’d go out, drink copious amounts and come home happy. But I can’t even begin to imagine behaving like that now. Marriage and children and a normal working life have taught me that you don’t need to be staggering around the streets to mix with people who have interesting lives. And, for me, not being drunk all the time makes it easier to write.
KY: I don’t know how she put up with you.
SY: No. Me neither. But I’m glad she did. I’ve chosen one of my pieces of music from those times though. Whenever I’d come home, I would always go straight to the jukebox and put on a particular song. It was quite loud and long and no matter where she was in the building, upstairs or in the cellar she’d know I’d got home safely.
KY: So, what’s track number five?
SY: It’s “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead.
KY: You do like long songs…
SY: Yes, well I wanted to get my money’s worth.
KY: You moved down to Northampton then and got a job working for a Engine Tuning Company. Did you enjoy that?
SY: Yes. Immensely. It was exhilarating to actually be doing something constructive. Writing computer programs is like a very rigid version of writing prose. There are far more rules and the logic always has to work, but some computer code can be crafted so well that it looks like art.
SY: Well, maybe not quite art. But artistic.
KY: I assume that’s where you got the idea for your “Programmer’s Guide to Life” series.
KY: But what made you change from programming to writing? Especially as you say you were enjoying it so much.
SY: Well, my youngest daughter was born in 2002. At that time a couple of friends and I had started a business based around a program I’d written. I had thought, foolishly, that I’d be able to commit to carrying on the development of the program along with looking after a new baby. I’d had a fantasy that my daughter would sit quietly in her high chair next to me while I wrestled with the complexities of the latest API for 3D graphics… It turns out that babies are quite messy. And noisy. And don’t listen to instructions very much.
KY: And that came as a shock?
SY: I know it shouldn’t have done. But it meant that while I still worked full-time I didn’t have the energy or concentration for complex coding in my spare time.
KY: So you wrote a novel? Most people wouldn’t think that would come any easier.
SY: It wasn’t easier. It was just different. If you make a mistake with a piece of code, the program doesn’t work. If you make a mistake with a piece of writing, it doesn’t read very well but you can still continue and come back to it later. You might need to rewrite the whole section or chapter or even the whole book, but it’s subjective. You might actually find that you like what you’ve written when you come back to it, whereas with a program it will never work unless you find the error. And if someone is throwing baby food at you that can be quite challenging.
KY: But surely writing a novel requires some peace and quiet.
SY: Oh absolutely. But it’s very much something you can ponder over while a two month old baby snuggles into your chest. I found it inspiring, and while some people might be able to channel that inspiration down more logical avenues, I had a real urge to start writing again.
KY: And so you wrote “The Clockwork Butterfly”?
SY: No. Actually I wrote “Entering The Weave”, which I finished in 2007. It was picked up by an agent, but never found a publisher. And by that time I’d been bitten by the writing bug and realised that that was what I wanted to do. So then I wrote “The Clockwork Butterfly”
KY: Time for your sixth choice.
SY: When I sat down to make my choices, this band came to mind immediately. I could easily pick eight tracks just from them because although I don’t have specific memories associated with particular songs, I think as a whole they formed the soundtrack of my life. Certainly my teenage years and my twenties. It’s Pink Floyd, and the song I’ve chosen pretty much arbitrarily is “Comfortably Numb”
KY: Another long one.
SY: I could’ve chosen “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. Parts one and two are twenty-five minutes long.
KY: Do you listen to a lot of music?
SY: Not nearly as much as I used to. I listen to a lot of podcasts rather than music. When I’m writing I’ll often put some music on in the background, but it can’t be too intrusive, so I’ll usually put something on that’s either very familiar or purely instrumental.
KY: Like your next choice?
SY: No. Not really. I find a lot of my favourite classical music very distracting, even when it’s familiar. If you listen to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos there seems to be a lot of mathematical trickery going on, or with Schubert’s Sonata in D Major I find myself playing Haruki Murakami’s game of listening for the mistake. There always seems to be more than just the music when it comes to really great classical pieces.
KY: Is there with your choice?
SY: Well, not so much really. Although, like all my other choices, it tells a story. Or rather describes some scenes I suppose. I liked it at the time though because, although it was written just over 300 years ago, this recording felt very modern. It was certainly the first piece of classical music that I considered to be as entertaining as pop music. Interestingly I think both Patrick Stewart and William Shatner have recorded versions of it with them reading the sonnets that Vivaldi possibly wrote to accompany it.
KY: So what is it?
SY: It’s Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
KY: So, after the publication of your first novel, you really went from strength to strength, didn’t you?
SY: Well, yes. As I said at the beginning, it was very hard to get published initially, but after my first hundred or so rejections, I really learned to knuckle down and write. So by the time my first novel was in the bestseller lists I had five more ready to follow them in quick succession. My agent and publisher did a fantastic job of timing the releases, but before I knew where I was I’d become an overnight success.
KY: After fifteen years of trying.
SY: Exactly. I think that’s the way of it. A year before I’d entered some writing competitions and hadn’t even got on the short lists. I remember a golfer, maybe Palmer or Player, said something like: “The harder I work, the luckier I get” And I think my success can be attributed as much to continued effort as it is to the quality of the writing.
KY: Do you really think so? Or is this just false modesty?
SY: No. Not at all. There are hundreds, thousands of great writers out there who never get their work published. It’s a lottery really. When you’re submitting, you’ve got to absolutely blow your reader’s mind. It can’t just be good enough to be published. I’ve heard agents say they wouldn’t take on a new author unless he or she was better than the clients they already had. So this leads to inevitable disappointment, even from books which are perfectly publishable. And writing a novel is hard, time consuming work. You’ve got to be bloody minded, lucky and probably a little bit stupid to carry on…
KY: So that’s the message then? Keep plugging away.
KY: Right. Time for your final choice.
SY: I love musicals and I couldn’t come on here and not choose at least one show tune. The problem was narrowing it down. or just choosing one. But in the end I decided on this one from Evita. It’s not in the film version or the more recent stage revival in this form, which probably means that Andrew Lloyd Webber or Tim Rice don’t really like it that much, but for me it’s perfect. It moves the story along giving out a mass of information, the wordplay is sublime and it absolutely rocks. It’s “The Lady’s Got Potential” from Evita
KY: So now I have to ask you how you think you’d get on alone on your desert island.
SY: I think I’d be OK. I’m fairly practical and necessity is obviously the mother of invention so I think I’d enjoy the physical challenge of surviving.
KY: And mentally?
SY: Well that’s hard to say. My family and close friends will say that I’m a bit of a misery guts where people are concerned, but I think that’s a bit of a show really. For the first few days it’ll be bliss I suspect, but then, especially without loads of books to read, I think I’d get a bit lonely.
KY: You won’t have a lot of reading material, but I’ll give you the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. What other book will you take?
SY: You’ve made this easier recently. In the past you didn’t allow encyclopaedias or reference works. And you even allow “The Complete Works of…” whoever.
KY: Well, just for you, I’ll make an exception you can only have one.
SY: Damn! Well my favourite book of all time is “Slaughterhouse 5” by Kurt Vonnegut and I think that it probably covers most aspects of human experience. From war to being captured by aliens… so, yes. “Slaughterhouse 5” please.
KY: And your luxury?
SY: Oh, now this is hard. A few years ago someone asked for a tennis court and you gave them Wimbledon Centre Court… now that includes the roof and the stands I assume?
KY: No. You’re cheating…
SY: OK, then… I guess I’ll go with a piano? No. No. I think it’ll have to be a great big notebook and a pen. Actually how about a Stationery Shop?
KY: [laughing] You can have the notebook and pen. Now, if the tide swells and washes away your record collection, which is the one disc you’d save?
SY: Oh, now this is difficult. I’ve sort of attached some sentimental meaning to a lot of these so choosing one might upset the others…
KY: I’ll have to push you.
SY: “Paranoid Android” then.
SY: Because otherwise Marie would kill me.
KY: Right, Simon Yates. Thank you very much indeed, for letting us hear your Desert Island Discs.
SY: No, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
They were talking about writer’s notebooks on Radio 3’s Freethinking – Writers and their notebooks (21st May 2014)
Now, I love notebooks. In fact I love all stationery (apart from hole punches which, to my mind, are too Stalinist to count as proper stationery) Everything else, however, excites me – from fountain pens to pencils, from foolscap to stencils. Perhaps it’s because I can sense the budding creativity each item might help bring forth. Or, perhaps, I’m just weird.
My love reaches its fetishistic peak with notebooks. Spiral-spined, leather bound, plain, lined, squared, A5, A4, thick or thin papered. It doesn’t matter, they are all potential receptacles for my literary lust.
Anyway, part of the programme was a short interview with David Mitchell (the author of Cloud Atlas, not the ranting comedian) and he spoke about some of the things he kept in his notebooks.
Some of the previous guests interviewed had confessed to lists of random things or conversation snippets or brief descriptions of unusual objects or scenes. All of these things are predictable and useful. I’ve done the same and enjoy flicking through an old notebook, trying to work out how the flotsam and jetsam of thought might have fitted together when I was jotting it all down.
But David Mitchell described an entirely original (to me) use for his notebooks. He writes letters in them. Fictional letters to and from the characters appearing in his current work in progress. He said it helps him get under the skin of the person he’s imagining. Obviously, from the content of the letters, he can learn explicit things about them. But he can also imply more subtle information from the style, the vocabulary, the tone.
I think this is a brilliant idea which I am going to steal. It could lead to truly interesting revelations about all sorts of people. I can write any letter, asking any question to any character at any point – before, during or after the events in my novel. Their letter back surely can only make them richer and more vivid in my mind’s eye.
One of the other tips for writing I’ve frequently heard is: “just write rubbish if you’re stuck”. There are various versions of this. A famous author, whose name I have forgotten, wrote that when she stumbled into a Writer’s Block she’d drink some gin, write two pages of nonsense and go to sleep. Upon waking she would find the Block behind her. Other luminaries have professed to writing a few hundred words of waffle first thing just to get the juices flowing, like an athlete limbering up before a race. I’ve always liked the idea, but found it impossible to find rubbish to write about. I’d end up spending half an hour trying to decide what to write and end up having to hurdle two Writer’s Blocks instead of one…
But this is perfect.
I do declare that from this day on I shall write a letter to or from one of my own characters. This time next month I shall post some of the 30 letters I’ll have written…
There were a number of reasons that I started to keep this blog:
- To practice this writing thing as often as possible; to give me an outlet where I didn’t need to concentrate on characterisation or plots.
- To record and document my progress towards getting published, as a history for me and any other aspiring author.
- To motivate myself by transforming each rejection from a personal slight into a mere statistic.
Recently, I’ve been busy.
“That’s no excuse. Writers write. You can’t publish a blank sheet of paper.”
I know. I know. I know.
But I have been busy. And I’ve still been fairly productive in the writing department, so shut your face.
I’ve now had a soul destroying 29 rejections for “The Clockwork Butterfly” and 3 submissions have timed out following an email asking me to assume the worst after a period of time. The last rejection I got was 10 days ago and so I’m beginning to assume the worst for the rest of them as well seeing as though the longest one has been out there for 91 days now…
Still. Nevermind. I’ve almost got Charlie’s Worries to a point where I can start submitting it, so I’ll be able to go through the whole heart rending process again. (It really helps that it’s only about 30,000 words long, rather than 150,000)
I entered Hot Key Unlocked and managed to write about 2,000 relevant words, following the brief laid out by the rules of the competition. Although I’d been thinking a lot about the plot I only put fingers to keyboard on the Sunday it had to be submitted. Of course, I knew I wouldn’t win. I’ve never written anything sexy or spicy before and found it hard to find the balance I wanted. In the end, though, I was pleased with what I produced and as the days went by I’d fooled myself into thinking that I might win.
And I was disproportionately disappointed by this. After a day or so, after realising that I’d actually entered it to test my focus, rather than become the new Barbara Cartland (or more probably Dame Sally Markham) , I got things back into perspective and saw it for what it was: a good exercise and excellent writing practice.
Next up is NaNoWriMo and I’ve got a nicely absurd idea for this. I need to remember that this is another exercise to work my writing muscle and not necessarily an attempt to create a novel fit for publication. I want to try and have fun with it.
So, by the end of November I should be ready to start my next project “The Motley Life of Edison Swift”
For me, one of the hardest things about writing a story is keeping the plot under control.
Most authors seem to be able to construct a nice, orderly line which connects each scene and pushes the plot sensibly towards its resolution. When I try to do it, I feel like I’m wrestling with an uncooperative python. Whole new characters and concepts erupt from the page like pirates, hijacking my meticulously planned narrative and steering it wildly off course.
“Aha! Simon-lad! You weren’t be expectin’ a dragon to raise its head there now, were ye?” This literary usurper even has a pirate voice.
“No. Of course not. There aren’t any dragons in this story. It’s about an accountant.”
“There be dragons now! Deal with it, landlubber.”
This can be fun and I know it’s led to some good ideas – I sometimes feel like I’m discovering the story for the first time, rather than distilling the thoughts that have been clogging me up all day.
But it means that I don’t tell the exact story that I set out to tell.
I tried to write “The Clockwork Butterfly” as a simple, linear (although obviously incredibly exciting) fantasy story. Six years later it turns out that it includes a massively complex time travelling paradox (and Vikings and vuryl and the Carnival Umbretico) that will require at least seven more huge tomes to explain. It certainly, to my mind, makes the novel richer and more interesting, but it bears only passing resemblance to what I imagined when I started.
“Charlie’s Worries” seems to be taking a similar diversion at the moment too. I was thinking about this problem yesterday morning and I decided that I would use the upcoming NaNoWriMo to exercise my focussing muscle. After a few moments thought though I realised that this wouldn’t be appropriate really. NaNoWriMo celebrates the wild flights of fancy that come and encourages the writer to be as free as possible. It would be counter-productive to impose any self-imposed constraints.
So I shrugged and forgot about it for a bit.
Later, while trying to match various agents with their twitter accounts, I came across a link to Hot Key Unlocked. A writing competition sort of thing? A competition where I’m given a strict outline to work to? A competition that is absolutely what I would not usually write?
This is surely too much of a coincidence. This is the perfect opportunity to test my focus. To write the first 2,000 words of a 20,000 word novella about romance and love and sexy stuff will test me to the limit.
It’s got to be submitted by 13th October. So I’m going to give it a go.
When I was younger, I desperately wanted to go to Narnia.
I had a remarkably specific theory that my adventure would begin in a shop. So, whenever I went shopping with my mum, I would spend most of the time rooting around each shop trying to find a magic wormhole. Now I’m more grown up I can see that this might have been distracting or perhaps even slightly annoying, but at the time I was utterly convinced that one day I would be successful.
As I got older and the seventies turned into the eighties, I began to resent the ordinariness of the time that we lived in. In days of yore there were battles to be won, dragons to be slain and damsels to be rescued. In the future men would travel to the stars where there would be space battles to be won, aliens to be disintegrated and space maidens to be rescued.
But now? Now, all we had was a brook, a disused railway line and a forest. But where was the excitement in those? We whiled away our time catching sticklebacks or wading as far up or down stream as our inadequate wellies would allow. We followed the railway line to its ends, scurrying through the hostile areas ruled by the teenagers from the “Scotch” estate. And we’d lose ourselves for hours in the dark recesses of the acres of woodland. But it wasn’t an adventure. You couldn’t write a book about it.
The eighties became the nineties. I went to university and began the long project of working out how women work. A project doomed to failure as I loved and lost and loved again. My heart was broken a few times and then finally fixed when I met the love of my life. I lived on the breadline. Sometimes using change from WH Smith vouchers to buy some food and I joined a startup company that might have changed the way computer games are written. But none of this was worth writing about.
And then in the noughties I became a husband and a father. I watched a tiny human develop from vomit producing helplessness into belligerent disdain. We bought a house and I lay awake worrying about the size of my mortgage and how my careless sarcasm might affect the children sleeping in the rooms across the landing.
More recently, my better half has had professional injustices thrust upon her. She’s fought against despair more bravely than I certainly would and yet she has been sorely wounded. This is my time to shine. I can be a hero by being gentle and kind and just loving her with all my heart. Here are different battles to be fought and more complex dragons to be slain. And literally a beautiful damsel in distress to be rescued.
I never quite realised how many stories there were.
Where should I start?
One of my friends at work (and by friend I mean annoying colleague) gave me some advice about writing the other day. He basically said that good writing didn’t repeat the same word over and over again when referring to the same thing. It was better to trawl through a thesaurus for another word that had a similar meaning, rather than repeat one he’d used before.
The sailor gazed up at the colossal ship. He watched the mariners aboard the gigantic vessel, busying themselves with seafaring duties. The enormous craft’s massive masts soared high above them, immense sails, huge against the midday sun.
I have resisted the urge to punch his face until now, but I can feel my ire stirring again.
Stephen King says in his book On Writing that the aspiring writer should never use a thesaurus. Ever. I may be misquoting him, but I think he means that your writing should flow from your own personal font of words, not contaminated by someone else’s subjective list.
Sometimes I (to my eternal shame and probable literary damnation) do use a thesaurus. It occasionally gives me the inspiration I need when I’m searching for just the right word or phrase to express my exact meaning.
But it has to be used wisely.
Go to thesaurus.com and look up Majestic. You’ll find a marvellous list of synonyms from august to superb. Click on Lofty and you’ll link through to another list containing Tall. Click that to find Lanky. And that to find Meagre.
So, Majestic sort of means Lofty, which sort of means Tall which sort of means Lanky which sort of means Meagre.
How can this be? How can a word sort of mean something that sort of means its opposite?
Well, the answer is that most thesauruses (thesauri?) are completely context-free. Or, to put it another way, they are only one-dimensional.
“A one-dimensional thesaurus?” I hear you say. “Have you gone completely bonkers? Are you suggesting that we should have a two-dimensional one?”
Well, sort of. Perhaps a multi-dimensional thesaurus would be more appropriate. Or better still, because it sounds more scientific and less science fictiony, an n-vectored thesaurus.
“I give up.” You say. ” I’m a writer, not a nerd and this is changing into a geekfest.”
“Don’t go!” I plead. “I promise not to use n-vectored again.”
What I’m trying to say is that a thesaurus doesn’t understand the context of the word you’re looking up.
I’m not only talking about the fact that words can have many different meanings. In the sentence “Time flies like an arrow while fruit flies like a banana”, both “flies” and “like” mean two different things. “Like” means both “similar to” and “enjoy”; “flies” means both “the act of flying” and “those pesky, six-legged things that do the flying thing”.
What I want to draw attention to is the fact that to an adept reader most words convey more information than merely their defined meaning.
Mary stood, unaccompanied, at the orphanage door.
To me, there is little to infer from “unaccompanied” other than the fact that she’s the only person there. It’s a very matter-of-fact word that seems to hold very little emotion.
Mary stood, alone, at the orphanage door.
Now we start to get subjective. I think there is slightly more pathos in this sentence. She’s not milking the scene, but alone probably pulls on the reader’s own memories of feeling alone rather than being unaccompanied.
Mary stood, forlorn, at the orphanage door.
Now, forlorn’s main dictionary definition is “desolate or dreary” and so the reader is forced to assume that while Mary might be on her own, she is definitely sad. And this is what I mean by vectors of meaning. Forlorn has (at least) two in this context. “Desolate and dreary” and “Unaccompanied”
Mary stood, forsaken, at the orphanage door.
This implies someone has left her alone there, which adds a third vector. I would also read a level of sadness into it too. But is it less sad, or more sad than “forlorn”? What is the sadness vector’s magnitude?
This is a hugely subjective question that probably depends on all sorts of factors: what you’ve read, where you were brought up, general outlook on life. It could even be that you’ve seen one specific usage of that word that struck a particular chord with you. But the point is, changing one word for another that sort of means the same thing can change the emotional context of your writing.
It gets worse too.
Mary stood, isolated, at the orphanage door.
In this case Mary could be surrounded by people, but distinct from them for some reason.
All these words are synonyms for alone on thesaurus.com and each one serves a different, specific purpose.
- 23 Quotes By Stephen King To Help You Become A Better Writer (stilettosandtequila.wordpress.com)
- Response to Stephen King’s “On Writing.” (laurengroenig.wordpress.com)
- Great Writing Tips from the King… Stephen That Is (writeofmind.wordpress.com)
- Using a Thesaurus: Good or Bad?: 2013 365 Challenge #229 (writermummy.wordpress.com)
I was listening to Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs where the guest was Daniel Kahneman He’s obviously a hugely intelligent chap, and he chose a thesaurus as the other book he would take to the island. The reason he gave was to play a game with it to while away those endless castaway days. And the game was to identify the differences between the words put forward as synonyms for each entry…