Novel Writing – more than just story-telling?

Webucator” has asked some authors for their views on writing novels ….  here’s my response..

What a question! My thoughts on novel writing …. and as a part of the National Novel Writing Month campaign … well, that’s taking a risk!  Given what I’ve said about it in the past .. though now my views have mellowed.  So congratulations to all those who braved the challenge of writing 50k words in a month!

NaNoWriMo … love that abbreviation .. it wiggles round the wips … especially for non-americans like me .. who didn’t grow up talking out of the sides of their mouths!  I grew up in Australia, and we mumbled  – our excuse? .. trying to avoid the flies sneaking in .. it wasn’t really, t’was probably anxiety at hearing our own voices – like when you hear yourself on playback for the first time! Cringe.. Hey, that was a lifetime before YouTube! We were pretty self-effacing in those days. …So maybe writing is a way for me to say something without hearing my own voice… maybe that’s why I write… maybe. Maybe that’s Freud sitting astride the elephant in the corner.  “Tell me Sigmund … what do you think?” .. “Let it go, boy!” he whimpers. The elephant’s backbone must be hurting.  I do as I’m told.

So back to “Na-No-Wri-Mo”:  “try it” I say, “just try to say it”.  “Move your lips .. try it” .. the trouble comes when you get to the “wa-ri” … it’s the only way I can say it .. and even then it feels likecover3 I’m the only old guy at an elocution class.  ….. Sigmund tries and fails .. his guttural Austrian accent makes it sound like “Ve azk ze qvestions”..  I squirm.  “Should I be afraid?”   “Vy are you zo afred? Iz it somezing to do wiz yur childhood?” he offers … Disgusted. I shut him down…. perhaps too curtly. “Let’s get on with it.” I grumble.

… Now, I should make a clean breast of it. I’ve only written one novel .. it’s new cover is just here on the left … no right …  I’m still struggling to master wordpress’s  editing and formatting tools … especially as I have rather neglected my “author blog” for quite some time. I’ve even let down the twittersphere of late. Too much to do… No, not “NaNo”, though I do have a couple more novels on the slow burner and I’m just about to turn up the gas. … But I do have a good excuse for all this delay and neglect; and it does go some way to answering one of the questions you pose… notably, what pays the bills?  Well, it’s been a tragic year for novel writing as far as I’m concerned. I’ve barely had the time to translate my e_book: “Beginnings” into a createspace print-on-demand masterpiece !!!!.. and I’ve still not pressed the final button to set it free – I’ll do it tomorrow .. it’s hard to let go .. maybe I should ask Sigmund about that?  Sorry, he’s dropped off to sleep. Wait, I’ll do it now. I’ll publish “Beginnings” in print and be damned!

But yes, you’ve gotta “earn a quid” (or a “buck” as many of you would say) .. when you can. And it just so happened that a couple of the books I wrote in a previous incarnation needed new editions and a couple of others needed writing and the odd article … and they’ve taken me just about the whole year to do …. don’t scoff or scorn, one’s a 1,000 page plus encyclopedia on aviation law… it’s the third edition. The other two or three? .. Well they’re much the same sort of stuff but quite a bit less lengthy .. anyway only some ‘proofs’ left to polish off now and another little “spin-off” project to complete. ..  So my unfinished new novels beckon.  Anyway, it’s not that the money these publishers pay that actually pays the bills .. even though they’re some of the richest publishing corporations in the world ..  of course, they don’t stay rich by lavishing money on their authors.  But that’s publishing, I guess.  So, I don’t do it for the money …   No. No, I don’t rely on writing for a living. I wish I could.  So why do I do it? It’s tedious sometimes .. and frustrating .. and incredibly time-consuming .. and incredibly underpaid .. but I  think I must love it.  Just trying to get the words right .. or is it the right words … or is it .. just to write words right!

Sorry to say, but it’s the old career I gave 537026_10151863541959885_645410101_nup as an academic lawyer that just about finances my life now  – of course there wasn’t much less left after it subsidized going off and sailing the South China Seas … …but that was just another shattered dream .. and life’s full of  them. .. a bit like the internet and property bubbles that transferred all the wealth to the super-rich. Anyway, even if I had used all this last year to finish the sequel to “Beginnings“, the royalties it’d likely be bringing in might just buy dinner at a chinese take-away.  So it’s not for the money that I write. It wasn’t even for the money that I wrote books during my academic career. Lots of academics don’t do it. … It’s that you want to be heard. … Or I do! … You want to communicate. You hope that someone might  just get something out of what you’ve written…  learn something, think something new, get some pleasure or even some comfort ..  Ideas have a life of their own, after all  .. at least I believe that … and maybe, just maybe they can help to make the world a better place ….  My other books were useful and some were appreciated, but I was and still am hoping for much more with my novels. …. Strangely though, I’m a bit embarrased when my readers tell me how much they’ve enjoyed “Beginnings”. You’d think I’d be glowing! Weird huh!

Do I have any advice for fiction writers?  Decide what you really want to achieve. .. getting published .. making money or what?  Well, what I want to achieve may be quite a bit different to what lots of other writer’s want. I want to write great literature   … and I want to write literature that will be read in a hundred years’ time… and maybe even make a difference. … “Modest aspirations,” you say!  As to wanting literary longevity, my friend Sigmund would no doubt tell me it’s because I’ve written lots of ‘law books’ and they go out of date every few years or so and are forgotten!   “OK , Siggy … but it’s not just that!”  And what about: “great literature”? What is that? You may well ask. …. For quite some time I’ve asked myself that question  … and I even blogged about it… it’s hard to put your finger on it and even harder to do. .. Then, just lately, I read a little book called “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning“, about a young man’s wanderings by poet-cum-author Laurie Lee, and then an almost impenetrable mist thinned and  lifted,  dark ominous clouds parted and the word “poetry” appeared.  It reminded me of my old High School English literature teacher, “Buster” Bevan, when he quoted from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”:


“Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard of no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”


And this was before  my university studies in English “literature” dashed for decades any hope of my actually writing literature … and left me with the law.  But to make that sublime choice of words, that flourish of imagery, elegance of simile and shock of metaphor …  it adds so much to what is just a nice little story .. and there are lots of nice little stories around, but not much literature …. yes … there were moments when Laurie Lee overdid “it” and maybe then “it” didn’t quite work .. when the flurry of words let something other than the simplicity and beauty of the image weadle its way in … maybe that’s what went on in de Waal’s “The Hare with  Amber Eyes” …  So I read the last book in Laurie Lee’s autobiographical trilogy, called “A Moment of War” when he trekked over the Pyrennees in winter to join the republican forces and fight Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War .. what a debacle … and  this time there was more than just a nice little story … and the poetry was back but muted  and never overdone … and I was back home again … back with my book, “Beginnings”  .. set in the Basque country in the aftermath of the conflict that should have warned the western world about the rise of fascism, but didn’t.  …  Doesn’t history repeat itself …

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Who’s blogging who? I blog therefore I am.

It seems to be settled wisdom that blogging a couple of times each week is the bare minimum if you want to make a name for yourself on social media.  This seems to be especially true if you are a writer:  Kristen Lamb calls it the “digital core of your author brand” in her wonderful book RISE OF THE MACHINES: HUMAN AUTHORS IN A DIGITAL WORLDI recommend it as a guide to all those social media beginners, like myself, who want to make the best use of all there is, but most of the time don’t know where to start or are conflicted about how to proceed.  But one of the big questions is: what am I going to say?

You need to understand who you’re talking to

Of course there is so much to learn, but for me, one of the most important lessons that I took from Kristen is that while it is great to have the supportive and positive company of other writers, they are not really the people that an author wants to connect with.  Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy and  appreciate interacting with others who are going through the same highs and lows, trials and torments as I am.  But it’s ordinary people who are our potential readers and of course we want to reach as many of them as possible. How do we do that? ……  Well we blog and tweet what resonates with ordinary people – just like we should be doing on Facebook. And to take it a step further, I try to do what I seem to remember another social media inspiration, Rachel Thompson suggests you do on Twitter:- each day try to follow fifty (though I settle for just a few) new people (and not other writers or publishers or agents ).   ….. If you choose people you like the look of, then it’s likely they’ll like the look of you and follow you back.  You can always unfollow those who turn out to be not what you’d hoped.

Me and my “brand”

Now this is all very well for writers wanting to develop their “brand”. But you are your “brand” and one of the areas where I start to nuance all the good advice that the best people give is when it comes to things I care about ….  and after all, we are human beings (hopefully intelligent) and we care about other things than writing and selling books or whatever. And it seems to me that the things we care about should be the things we blog about.

Often it’s said “don’t blog about politics or religion – you don’t want to alienate or offend anyone” but these things are more than central to each of us a human being.  Of course, I’m not talking about “ranting”. That’s crazy as no-one wants to listen to a “rant”, even if you agree with their basic values.  But I’ve been struggling with a tendency to send out occasional “social conscience” posts – pretty much what my personal FB page had been full of … until recently.

Of course, there are “ways of doing things”.

Now Kristen Lamb’s recent blog: WANT TO BE SUCCESSFUL? BEWARE OF END-OF-THE-RAINBOW THINKING is a pretty good – perhaps a great – compromise.  It’s full of useful advice as usual, especially for writers – because that’s what she does – but it raises social issues as well; although discreetly.  Perhaps much more discreetly than I would.  But hey! its her blog and she has ten times more followers that I’ve had hot breakfasts despite my advancing age.

What I hear Kristen talking about in this blog is how so many people have crazy expectations, thinking that they should walk straight into top-paying jobs (or best-seller status) without putting in the hard graft.  Kristen also raises the point that something has happened in today’s society where we’ve forgotten what everyone knew in the past: before you exercise a trade you do an apprenticeship and it can take many more years to become a master craftsman.    I’ve often heard it said that it takes “10,000 hours” of hard work for anyone to become competent at what they are doing. That’s 5 years working  forty hour a week, 50 weeks a year.  After that, you can start to get better.

I just wanted to take these points a little further.

I wanted to ask the question: why?  Why do so many people, especially younger people think that we can “have it all” straight off the bat?  And what can we do to counter this fantasy about how life works.  Kristen makes the point that media glorification of  inane celebrity culture has something to do with it. Of course the media who pursue these stories of super rich celebrities, actors, sportsmen and callous corporate raiders will just say that they are giving the people what they want.  Don’t you believe it.  It’s like filling supermarket shelves with crisps and chocolate bars because people supposedly like to eat them.  Maybe occasionally we do, but they can’t be our regular diet.  Try it and see.

So who takes responsibility for a better moral compass?

Now, we’re not going to stop the media and the PR and food supply industries and others from selling us the cheapest stuff that makes the most profit for them – while usually doing us no good at all.  And governments don’t seem to want to take any responsibility in these areas.   So that leaves the family.  ….. As mums and dads, grandpas and grandmas, it is our responsibility to help this generation of kids and the next understand that we get nowhere without hard work and that the good things in life aren’t necessarily what the media, the marketers, the conscienceless corporations want to make us think they are.

So what does that mean for my blog?

To me, a blog must reflect the writer’s own personality and character. We’re real people not shallow marketing models. We’re not here to be politicians trying to please everyone.  We never will. So we should be ourselves.

But it doesn’t mean we should feel free to trample over other people’s personal beliefs and values just because they’re different from our own.  It’s just common sense. If you want someone to listen to you, it seems to me that there are a few basic rules … and I hope that I can follow them:

  • be true to who you are as a person; but
  • speak your readers’ language  – in other words, talk to them in terms they are likely to understand and identify with; and
  • show the same respect for other peoples’ values and beliefs that you would hope they’d show you.