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 …

Advertisements

Word waterboarding! Less may be more

Why is it that some people seem to have the idea that the more words they write the better.  What do you think? I don’t think it is necessarily better for them or for the reading public. Indeed, it may be positively unhealthy as there even seems to be writers worrying about word count addiction and word count obsession.

A few days ago, I got involved in a discussion in a thread on LinkedIn where someone was asking how many words each day people write, and this was followed by a swathe of comments, some seemingly bragging about daily word count as if somehow “stream of consciousness” writing ten hours each day spewing out thousands of words was the “way to go”.   Other commentators on the LinkedIn discussion thread even wanted to include in their writing tally, their blogs and how many letters and memos they write at work and their shopping lists (no, I think I’m exaggerating there).  There are also these daily word count writing contests on twitter which I can understand help to motivate people to “put pen to paper” (so to speak) and the NaMoWriMo competitions which seem to encourage people to write a novel in a month.

I can understand that in this era where most authors earn very little from each book, most can only make a living from writing if they have lots of books out.  So the more you have out there the better: the more likely readers are going to buy one or more of your books and the better known you become.  Also I agree that to learn how to write, you need to write, but I do have serious reservations about  these various arrangements, competitions and schemes as they seem to me to be saying that word count is the main thing in writing.  Of course, if someone can write five thousand words each day and barely have to edit or correct them and it’s brilliant writing then I take my hat off to them. But I don’t believe that most writers can do this.

Even though I’ve only written one and a half novels and a few one-act plays, I did have the dubious good fortune of writing a PhD thesis many years ago and since then I’ve supervised and examined varous theses.  I’ve also written twenty or so academic and professional text books (in law), and to me, one of the basic rules learned from the writing of theses, is that about one third of the time is spent researching and developing the works, the second third in writing and the last third in polishing (revising, editing etc etc).  Of course academic writing isn’t the same as writing good literature.   But it seems to me that this sort of division of time is at least what is required in writing fiction and non-fiction as often writers don’t even start with a solid knowledge of the topic they are writing about (unlike a doctoral candidate) and have to acquire much of that along the way.

I’ve always thought that great writing should be a bit like poetry: each word being considered, carefully chosen and carrying a wealth of meaning.  Quality not quantity:  in an earlier post, I’ve already tried to come to grips with what “great writing” is.

So I would rather know how much time a writer is spending in editing and revising than how many words he or she is writing each day.

…..some other blogs (there are lots more):

http://mltrefry.wordpress.com/2013/08/30/oh-word-count-why-do-you-mock-me-so-a-slight-ramble/

http://edraby.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/rabyd-writer-writing-for-word-count/

http://concerningwriting.wordpress.com/2013/09/27/weekly-writing-wrap-up-september-20-26/

http://writepush.wordpress.com/2013/09/23/revisions-revisions-revisions/