Monday, 9 May 2016

How NOT to Write the Novel of a Lifetime


I once had a young student in a local workshop, who told me (eyes shining)…I want my first book to contain everything that’s important in the world…

I knew how he felt. Once you realise you are destined to be a writer, the next step is to want to write about things that will influence society. You want your work to last a lifetime – longer – to become a literary classic. You want to be seen to take on the big questions, the crucial arguments of your time. You’ll want to say new, controversial and exciting things and get reviews that promise great things for you. 

But please don’t be in too much of a hurry to get on with this ‘idea of a lifetime’ – don’t start trying to get everything that’s important in the world into your first book – for at least for the reasons below:
Only known color photograph
 of the author, 
Leo Tolstoy,
in 1908 by
Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky
  • Tolstoy has already written War and Peace. Proust has already written Remembrance of Things Past. 
  • It took Proust 14 years to write the 7 volumes of his novel.
  • War and Peace is filled with seriously big-league subjects and has hundreds of characters, but Tolstoy didn’t consider it to be a novel, so much as a work of philosophy. 
  • People are drawn to the small things in life. This is where fiction often gains supremacy over non-fiction. By keeping things local, personal, focused and tight you gain the reader’s attention, their empathy and identity. By concentrating on the particular, you can, by symbol, example and theme, subtly examine the larger issues. After all, Remembrance of Things Past focuses on a biscuit dipped in tea.
  • Maybe you are destined to write this ‘idea of your lifetime’. But if you actively seek it out and attempt to write it at the first stage of your writing life, it will not be the achievement it might become if you begin by honing your skills as a published writer. 
  • First writings are the ones that are most likely not to be published…or even publishable. Most new writers have pushed many ideas, half-written and unfinished, into a bottom drawer before they see their name on a contract.
  • Proust himself said… The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes…It is quite likely that your ‘idea of a lifetime’ may actually be discovered when you are writing the inconsequential, the everyday, the ordinary. The trick is to see these things with ‘new eyes’.
As a writer, I suggest that using big, political or social themes as the building bricks of your novel is the wrong way round. Focusing on characters, their lives and how they are affected by internal and external events, will allow those significant themes to be drawn out of the writing, rather than stuffed in.

When I began writing about my central character in The Shaman Mysteries, I knew I wanted to create a character that people would love, and feel strongly about, so that when she got into deep hot water – which she always does, of course! – they would want her to to use her wits and courage to end up safe and well. On Goodreads, a reviewer says of In the Moors

That’s exactly what I want to hear, because while writing the book, I concentrated on Sabbie’s story, using my experience of shamanism, because it was something I felt strongly about, to enrich that story. The big themes emerged in a natural, organic way – I was writing about metaphysics, abuse, trust, madness, and how we cope with childhood trauma. Recently John A contacted me on Facebook to say; 

I am right now in the middle of your first novel! I like the main character and her inner fights (about relationship,money charging,…), even if she is a woman!  No, its very insightful and I am learning with every page something new: Great!! 

It's perfectly fine to write about the mundane actions of life. Sabbie loves her vegetable garden and her hens, and readers find
that absorbing and enjoyable. But it often leads me to the point where I can engage in larger issues. Here’s a little excerpt from my latest book Beneath the Tor. Sabbie has just arrived back from the funeral of a friend;

I went out into the garden with the hens’ breakfast. I stood in the rain, letting it trickle over my face. I wanted something to soothe me, cool me. Alys’ death was a heartache. I touched my neck, half expecting to feel an open sore, my throat felt so raw.
The cock, Kaiser, didn’t come near me as I checked the nesting boxes. He sat on his favourite post, watching his flock get under my feet. There were three eggs, still warm. Suddenly, my appetite was back. Scrambled eggs, maybe with one of my greenhouse-ripened tomatoes. I just loved this time of year in my vegetable plot – there was food sprouting in every direction. Even if the therapy business I ran from my front room went a bit slow, I knew I’d eat dinner.
Only three eggs from six layers. The two old Warrens, Ginger and Melissa, didn’t lay so often, but Jessie, Emili, Rihanna and Florence were still young and–
I stopped. Florence was not under my feet. She was not anywhere at all.
“Florence,” I called, even though she had no idea that was her name, “Flo, where are you? Chuck-chuck?”
Panic welled up. I didn’t understand this; none of the other hens were missing. They didn’t even seem perturbed, which they would have been, if a fox had come near them. I’d already experienced a fox in the night. It had wreaked havoc. Blood and feathers everywhere. I thought of other, more stealthy predators. A polecat, even a sparrowhawk, might have snatched her away if she’d escaped from the run.
I worked around the perimeter of the garden, chuck-chucking. 
Florence was my secret favourite. She was a curious hen, bright eyed and comical. I’d had her and her siblings for over a year; a farmer had given me a recently-hatched clutch of Sussex hens and they’d been productive and so beautiful to look at.  
 I went into the lane at the back of my garden. My house was on the edge of a sixty-year old estate. Behind the lane was a patch of scrubland. I half slid down the slope to the stream that was almost a drain, filled with rubbish and old bikes. I clambered back up, still calling, over and over. “Florence? Flo? Chuck-chuck-chuck?” Florence wouldn’t go missing by choice. As soon as dusk fell, my hens took themselves off to bed.
“Damn. Damn!” I kicked at the water-butt, making it slosh and spill. It seemed a shitty thing to happen, as if the spirit world was reminding me that the loss of a hen was not to be compared with the loss of a partner. Brice must feel a hundred times worse; a million times more heartsick.
There in my garden, I sobbed for the deaths of Florence and Alys.

The real voyage of discovery…having new eyes…
Start with something about as mundane as you can get; The Kitchen Drawer.
  • Go to your kitchen drawer. If you have many, chose the one most in need of a tidy! If you can’t use a kitchen drawer, chose something that is filled with a jumble of haphazard, random items…office desk, old vase, glove compartment.
  • Take out every item. Look through them, and chose one that draws your attention. 
  • Make a list of the practical uses this item might be used for. 
  • Make a list of things this item could be no practical use for whatsoever. 
  • Put your first list to one side and concentrate on the second. Chose one impractical use from your list.  For instance, from a desk drawer, a paperclip cannot be used as a boat.
  • Think about a way this item could actually be employed in any of the items on the second list. 
  • Let freewriting take your imagination take you on a spree as you put this item to an ingenious use – let you over. For instance, you could straighten the paper clip, stick a square of paper through it and push it into a piece of cork. This could be used a child’s toy boat.
Finish one draft of this exercise, and, before you start the next part of it:

  • Okay, you’ve got the implausible and impossible out of the way. And you’ve had some fun
  • Now return to the first list. 
  • Remembering how you had to stretch your mind to ‘see’ that second list and write about it, choose an item on the first list
  • Try to follow Proust’s advice and… have new eyes…as you work on this idea

(At this point, you might like to give the empty drawer a good clean – repetitive work of this kind can empty your mind and get your juices flowing. It gets the drawer clean too.)

Back at the workshop, I hope I managed to convince my erstwhile student that she could, one day ‘write a book that contained everything important in the world’, but to do so, she should turn round by 180 degrees and look, not at the big, big issues, but the people they effect. Find your characters. Fall in love with them. Even if they are plain, ordinary members of society, with dull jobs and a perfect family, once you start to write about them, I am sure that they will come face-to-face with the challenges and obstacles that built the tension in a story, and as they do so, you will discover your themes, and be able to explore those significant issues you are longing to write about. 

The Shaman Mysteries are availabe from Amazon or from Midnight Ink Books

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for making the effort to describe the terminlogy to the beginners!
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