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 …


Serialized Version of “BEGINNINGS” now available – First Instalment FREE HERE

The serialized version of             BEGINNINGS: Where A Life Begins  …. Tales of Survival and Revenge ….      is now available on AMAZON and on LeLivroBeta   in 6 (six) instalments.                                                  EACH INSTALMENT IS A STAND-ALONE SHORT NOVEL.

Click here to GET THE FIRST INSTALMENT FREE !!!!!    from LelivroBeta.    So only if you like it do you move on to the next instalments!!!

BEGINNINGS : Where A Life Begins …………………..An epic action-packed novel set around the escape of a talented but troubled young mother and her unusually perceptive daughter from the violence of fascist Spain at the end of its bloody civil war and their struggle to make a new life in southwest France. The next two decades bring war, Nazi occupation, political unrest, the birth of the Basque terrorist movement and the appearance of an undercover Franco military officer seeking revenge for millennia-old grievance. Exploring a vast historical sweep of thousands of years down to the present , it is filled to the brim with powerful characters, violence, romance, true historical detail, multi-layered themes of love, hate, murder, revenge and political intrigue as well as a dose of science, myth and mystery.

A FREE copy of the First Instalment ..  I. GENESIS and REVENGE is now available.  It is the story of violence, heartbreak and the genesis of a bitter cycle of murder and revenge around the Basque country in Spain.  EACH INSTALMENT IS A STAND-ALONE SHORT NOVEL.

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In this FIRST instalment, “I. GENESIS and RESURRECTION”, the story begins with Maria – alone, heavily pregnant and with her baby son in her arms – desperately fleeing the persecution inflicted on her people by the Fascist dictator Franco at the end of the Spanish civil war. On her escape into France, her infant son is the victim of a callous border guard but she and her unborn daughter are saved by an unknown assassin; both actions echoing past and future violence and vengeance. The trauma sends the unborn child’s mind deep into the past where a horrible crime against her ancestors in prehistoric times hints at the genesis of otherwise inexplicable hatred and violence that have often re-surfaced down through the centuries. Back in Bayonne, Maria buries her infant son in a world of self-recriminations. It is only through communion with her unborn child and a new friend that she begins to face life again, but unaware of just how dangerous the birth of her new child may turn out to be.

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.



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Related articles (serialization)


Just how much do we have in common with our ancestors?


photo: Courtesy of Cary and Kacey Jordan;

Ever wondered just how much you have in common with your ancestors?  We all – even young adults – know what it’s like to start seeing our parents in ourselves.  You know …. when you react to something a friend says or you say something to one of your children and ZAP!  You just know that you could hear your mother or your father saying that or reacting that way.  And don’t you just find this happening even if that reaction or expression was something that you didn’t particularly like about your mum or dad?

Of course, you’re going to say that we spend so much time with our parents that it’s no wonder this happens. It’s just learned behaviour.  But we spend lot of time with our siblings too but I, for one, never feel that I sound just like my brother.  No that’s not completely true.  There are times, though they’re pretty rare.  But do any of you think you sound like one of your grandparents?  Probably less often.  Of course, they’re another generation removed and we usually haven’t spent as much time with them as we do with our parents. Unless, that is, we’ve grown up in one of those cultures where both parents are busy working or are absent and we’ve been brought up by our grandparents.

But what interests me a more about this is to what extent we have outward, conscious characteristics or other behaviour in common with our more distant ancestors.  And more than that, just how much of what we are, what we know, what we believe, think and do is somehow traceable back to these ancestors.

Indeed, we inherit our genetic structure from our ancestors and the tiny variations in our DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid),) that make us who we are, can certainly be traceable back to those ancestors.  DNA is the hereditary material present in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a particular person’s body has the same DNA. Most DNA is located in the cell nucleus (where it is called nuclear DNA), but a small amount of DNA can also be found in the mitochondria (where it is called mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA.



In recent years there’s been a lot of research into Mitochondrial DNA: that type of DNA which is only passed on from mothers to their children.  So, it’s a peculiarly female phenomenon – sons can’t pass it on – and variations and markers in MtDNA are used by scientists to trace maternal genealogy down through the centuries and indeed through millennia.  To some extent, the same can be said for the role of Y chromosomes in tracing male genealogy.  Variations and mutations in mtDNA and Y chromosomes can and do occur from time to time, but are rare.  These variants establish markers that can be a distinct and identifiable element of the genetic makeup of women and men living many hundreds of generations ago, but can be identical with that of many adults and children alive today.

That these links actually do exist and that lineage can be traced back in this way is real, though it seems almost science fiction.

How far might genetic links affect our consciousness?

Now comes the hard part.  All this raises another question: just how complex and meaningful are these genetic links and what are their implications?

Could they be, in some people, the basis for the transmission of some form of knowledge, insight or some degree of genetic memory?  I don’t believe that babies, like that beautiful little one pictured above, are born with minds like an unformatted hard disk drive.  In other words, it cannot be that there is absolutely nothing in a baby’s brain – neither memories nor instincts or whatever you want to call them – just because science has not yet identified them.  And if there is something present in a baby’s consciousness, then leaving divine intervention aside, where-else could it have come from than the genetic databank that they were born with?

If this is so, could we have some awareness or “memory” of the lives lived in the past by other people with whom we have intimate genetic links? This may be merely some insight into those ancestors’ beings or some empathy or identification with them; or possibly, an ephemeral sharing of moments in the lives of those ancestors can exist through these genetic links.  We must ask ourselves: can knowledge and memories somehow be imbued into the genes or the genetic make-up of humans and then passed on over generations?

While we all share genetic links with our ancestors, not everyone is aware of them and some people may be more sensitive to these links than others, just as there are a number of documented cases of children with an uncanny knowledge of the lives of persons who have passed on well before they were born.  Of course when you hear these stories, there are many sceptics and science demands that we be sceptical but it also demands that we keep an open mind.

Ethnic groups with more enhanced genetic links

Now there seem to be certain ethnic groups where this genetic link may be purer, more acute or identifiable and more direct than for others.  Notably these include certain families of Lebanese origin, whose ancestors were the Phoenicians and Canaanites living in the great middle-eastern melting pot of civilization at the time of the genesis of monotheism and other major cultural advances some four or five thousand years ago.  In this part of the world, hatreds and ‘tit-for-tat’ violence have trickled down through generations over thousands of years, perhaps founding many of the apparently irrational conflicts still going on today.

There is also the Basque people from the eastern corner of the north coast of Spain and south-west France, whose ethnic identity and genealogy were insulated and isolated through millennia by simple but significant geographical and cultural barriers.  The unique nature of the Basque language and ethnicity, with their roots in the dimness of their own antiquity may also be emblematic of modern Basque social conflict with its controversial origins and complicated and often fratricidal extremes.

Though these two ethnic groups may be completely different, I posed myself the question:  could they indeed have come into contact and have mixed their genetic material some three millennia ago?  There is evidence to suggest that this may have occurred, given the seafaring exploits and trading empire of the Phoenicians.  And this gave rise to the further question: would the descendants of this genetic fusion be more likely than most other people to have access to whatever memories of their ancestors’ histories and lives that might have been engendered into their DNA?

With all that in mind, I also thought that significant moments in the histories of these ethnic groups, particularly those involving … birth and death, battles and revenge, murder and survival … could provide a telling back-drop and moving social context within which to explore the implications of genetic memory links between women and men alive today and their far-distant, long-dead ancestors.

Well, all of this has been the inspiration for the historical themes and part of the underlying subject of my novel “Where A Life Begins”, which is as much about human identity and what makes each and every individual who they are, as it is about the grander themes mentioned above.  For anyone who may be interested, “Where a Life Begins” should be available within the next couple of months.  I hope you’ll enjoy it.

some other links

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?