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 …


A World of Dirty Politics, Power and Greed in 14th Century France.. plus ça change …

Just finished reading “The Iron King” written by Maurice Druon in 1955 and recently translated into English.


This is a powerful and wonderfully written story (aside from the first few pages which no doubt editors or translators managed to mess up – I’ve seen this before). It’s the first of a very popular series in France – Les Rois Maudits – (The Accursed Kings) written over fifty years ago, and out of which a successful TV series has been made… not that this necessarily means a lot when you see some of the rubbish that’s made into films. It’s also supposed to be the inspiration for the ‘Game of Thrones’ which I had the misfortune to watch one episode of on an international flight and had I been anywhere else I would have fallen asleep.

But quite to the contrary, “The Iron King” is a great piece of literature wrapped up in an historical tale of the last months in the life of French King Phillip the Fair in the early thirteen hundreds.  It’s historical fiction verging on fact which I find incredibly interesting but I can imagine that those not interested in history and in particular French history might not be too enthused by the story. Of course, there are also those who aren’t looking for literature but something rather less. Indeed, there’s so much in this fast-moving, tightly written, entertaining and colourful tale – human folly, political intrique, extreme greed, love and loss, insights into the lives of the powerful and the weak, the rich and poor, in an unforgiving and violent era … and above all, how so very little has changed today, except perhaps for the level of violence and who it is that wields the power over the lives of ordinary people. I’d highly recommend it if you enjoy or are interested these kinds of issues. You can get it on Amazon:

Will Serializing A Novel Work?

As a kid I used to read comics. Superman and its spin-offs,  Batman, The Shadow and others that I can’t even remember. I had great collections of them until one day I loaned them and never got them back.

But the point was that many people (kids at that time) bought these serialized versions of what weren’t even novels, but on-going little adventure stories … and they (I, as a kid) lapped it up.  So maybe, I thought, …  just maybe … this might work with my new novel: BEGINNINGS : Where A Life Begins …. Tales of Survival and Revenge … as I describe it on the cover.   And it’s good to see that I am not alone in this experiment (see below related articles).


The trouble is it is some 550 pages long and I’m unknown as a  fiction writer …. and it’s unlikely that the readers of thecouple of dozen academic books I’ve written are going to constitute much of an audience.  But maybe readers will give a “short novel” a try – especially if it’s free – and if they like it, they’ll “buy” the other installments or maybe even the whole book!  And I suppose that there is the advantage of having 6 or 7 books out instead of one.

The first question was of course: would each of these “serials” work as stand-alone pieces of literature?

I answered “Yes, I think so.”  It’s an historical novel involving the idea of genetic memory  – that I’ve already talked about in an earlier post “Just how much do we have in common with our ancestors” – with a central story set in the Basque country of Spain and France between 1939 (the end of the Spanish Civil War) and 1959 (when there was a lot going on down there eg the development of the ETA terrorist movement)  …..  BUT with large parts taking place in different eras the past

– upper palaeolithic times (10,000 years ago);

– phoenician times (last millenium BC);

– Hannabil’s wars (just before the Christian era) ;

– Visigoth rule of the Kingdom of Toulouse (Spain and southern France) (5th century AD); and

– the Spanish Inquisition (15th century AD) ,

all the while hopefully keeping their connection with the central story.  So I figured I have 6 installments in it; each with plenty of adventure, love, violence, politics, revenge and all that.

Another issue was: what do you call these installments?  ….  Novellas, Short Novels, Novelettes.  Well, without getting into the debate about how many words is a “novella” (see  the articles below) and what is a novelette and can an installment of a bigger novel be any of those, I thought I’d settle for “short novel” as they are all more or less 100 pages long; and making it clear that they are installments .

The second question was: what about titles and covers?  Before you needed one of each and now you need SEVEN!

I answered “HELP”…..  I was hard enough coming up with one good title for the book itself …  I lately changed it to a one-word title:  BEGINNINGS,  after scanning all the titles in the airport transit lounge bookshops in Heathrow, Hong Kong and anywhere else I happened to be.  I plan a sequel but it will still be BEGINNINGS, but with a different subtitle.  ….. But I still needed new titles for each of the “short novels”.  Fortunately, I had already divided the novel into 12 parts with their own part names, so, with a couple of parts per short novel on average, I could still develop the existing ‘part names’ into 6 different installment Titles.

But then came the hard part…… Covers!   Now I have gone against all advice and designed my own cover for BEGINNINGS: Where A Life Begins.   It has taken time looking at lots of book covers; a reasonably good free programme eg Paint.NET; …. lots of experimentation, calling on the little bit of artistic talent I possess and selected artwork of friends and relatives …..  and I have a cover I’m pretty happy with.   But now I need 6 more and they all need to have some part of the original cover to make it clear that they are all part of the series.  I haven’t quite finalized all this ….  so any input is welcome  …. but the basic idea is that the top half of the complete novel cover will be the top half of the six covers for the serial installments …. and the bottom halves will contain the Title of the installment eg “I. Genesis & Resurrection” and artwork that represents what happens in this installment.



AMAZON cover1_enamed  AMAZON cover2  AMAZON cover3  AMAZON cover4b  AMAZON cover5a AMAZON cover6a

Related articles (serialization)


Unsure What Historical Fiction Is?

What do you think?  Lately I’ve been looking at the works of writers of historical fiction and what I mainly saw was authors like Elisabeth Storrs who sets her novels in the Etruscan era  and Alison Stuart whose novels are set in the 17th and 18th century England and started to worry that my novel “Where a Life Begins” wasn’t really “historical fiction” because it jumps back and forth between the wartime and post-war 1940’s and 1950’s and several different eras in Spain: Upper Paleolithic; Phoenician-early iron Age, Carthaginian, post-Roman-Visigoth, Christian-Crusades-Inquisition.  So it didn’t focus on just one era of history.  Was this a ‘no-no’? Could I be accused on being an ‘history  dilettante’? Its such a difficult genre to succeed in and avoid criticism.

Thankfully, I started to feel better when I came upon other sources that suggested that historical fiction could be divided into as many as 13 sub-genres (and there are others).  There was the “traditional” one, as mentioned above (though those authors might not agree); the “multi-period epics” that show how a specific place changes over the centuries; the “sagas” that follow families or groups of people over generations; the “western (US) historical novels”; the historical mysteries; romantic historical novels; historical adventure novels; historical thriller; literary historical novels; “time-slip novels” where characters shuttle between eras; “alternative history” novels where history happens differently such as where Hitler’s destiny is altered at an early age; and even “historical fantasy novels“.

I certainly breathed a sigh of relief as I’d been referring to “Where A Life Begins” as historical fiction.  But it still doesn’t seem to fit into any of these categories and so I’ve been “cross-genring”  (I know that’s not a real word) it, as historical/criminological/political/adventure fiction … though some people might even see some science-fiction or fantasy in it – and even history from a woman’s perspective, but I suppose such sub-genres don’t exist in the “real world”.  But does it matter?