Be clear what your objectives are

“There are men that will make you books, and turn them loose into the world, with as much dispatch as they would do a dish of fritters.” – Miguel de Cervantes

When you’re writing a book, it’s best to be modest about it. I remember getting over-excited because an agent had asked for a full manuscript of my first novel, and telling all my friends about it. That novel remains (rightly) unpublished. It was another eighteen months and a different book before I really had anything to tell them about, and then they didn’t believe me until they saw it in the shops.

For most of us though the modesty is just a front for our secret ambitions. We may say, “Oh, it’s just a stupid story I’m writing,” but secretly we dream of applause, awards, and interviews with Mariella Frostrup. It’s well worth taking some time though to be honest with yourself about what you’re really trying to achieve, because if you do you’re far more likely to achieve it.

Some people don’t care whether they are ever published, or even read. They write purely for their own pleasure, or as a form of therapy. If this applies to you, then enjoy your writing, and count yourself lucky. For one thing, you need never write when you don’t feel like it, which is a wonderful freedom.

However be warned that by the time you have completed a novel you may feel very differently about it. You will have poured a lot of time and love into your creation, and you’re likely to find that you want to share it after all. If you do, you’ll probably need to do a lot of work on it first. A book that has been written solely to please its writer is rarely pleasing to a reader.

This is particularly true if you’re writing as therapy. Other people’s angst, like other people’s dreams or holiday anecdotes, are not usually very interesting, although we find our own fascinating. (I know that there has recently been a vogue for the “misery memoir”, but in that genre it is the extremity of the experience, rather than the feelings of the protagonist, that seems to fascinate readers. Personally I find the whole phenomenon ghoulish and distasteful.)

If, on the other hand, you are writing for publication, you still need to be clear about what that means for you. There are essentially two routes to go down: self-publishing, or traditional publishing. Unscrupulous people work very hard to blur the distinction, but in fact the difference is very simple. Traditional publishers pay the writer an advance, and publish at their own risk and expense. If the publisher asks you for any money at all, whether they call it fees, contribution to costs, expenses or anything else, then you are self-publishing. (You should also beware anybody who advertises for new writers.)

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with self-publishing. You may just want to see your story properly printed, in a form you can share with friends and family. In that case you should choose a good, honest company that offers a quality product at a reasonable price, and doesn’t try to dazzle you with false promises. Make sure that you check them out on a reliable site like Writer Beware or Preditors and Editors.

The goal for most writers, though, is publication in the traditional sense. They want the endorsement of respected figures, the chance for reviews in the mainstream media and to see their book in bricks-and-mortar shops. For the purposes of this blog I’ll assume that this includes you. To achieve this you will need more than just talent. You will need a big slice of luck, a lot of patience and will have to work very, very hard.

Only you can decide what is important to you, and it doesn’t really matter what your motivation is, as long as it’s strong enough to sustain you on your journey. However there is one very bad reason for writing a book, which will be the subject of my next post.

A modest proposal

I have this idea. It might just save the world. Now, I know what you”re thinking: we”ve heard all this before. There”ve been loads of ideas that were intended to save the world, but they”ve mostly made things worse, if they weren”t utter rubbish. What have you got, Killeen, that”s new?

Fair enough. Just hear me out. This is my idea:

We ask everybody, whenever they speak on a matter of public interest, where they stand on the killing of children. Now, I don”t imagine many people will think killing children is a good thing. I imagine they”ll generally be against it. But there are some who will see it as a necessary evil, and this is where my idea becomes brilliant.

Some people, particularly politicians, will say that, for very good and serious and grown up reasons, some children will have to die. This is because we cannot infringe the right of Americans to arm themselves against potential tyrants, or Israelis to defend themselves against aggression, or Muslims to fight against western-Zionist oppression. Or because drone missiles will sometimes accidentally hit a wedding feast instead of a terrorist cell, and suicide bombers will kill kids as well as soldiers.

After we”ve established this, we can divide the whole world into two groups of people: those who consider the death of children a price worth paying for their struggle, and those who see it as unacceptable at any cost. This means whether they are politicians or freedom fighters, Jews or Muslims or Christians, Americans or Palestinians or Israelis, Republicans or Loyalists, New Labour or Taliban, we judge them, not on our tribal loyalties, but on where they stand on the killing of children. Then – and here we enter the realm of inspiration – we lock up all the people who are willing to see children die, and we throw away the key. All of them. Once we”ve done that, the rest of us can just get on with trying to solve the world”s problems. My hunch is, we might just get somewhere.

Madness? Maybe. Or maybe it”s the way things are now which is mad. It”s just an idea.

… write what you know!

“The ablest writer is only a gardener first, and then a cook: his tasks are, carefully to select and cultivate his strongest and most nutritive thoughts; and when they are ripe, to dress them, wholesomely, and yet so that they may have a relish.” Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare

In my last post I argued that the old adage “Write what you know” is very bad advice for beginning writers. So what are you going to write about, if you are not just going to fictionalise your life? The answer, as you have probably guessed from the title of this post, is that you have to “write what you know” after all, but that real life only provides the raw materials. It is your skill that turns it into a story.

That story will be made up of elements from your life, things you have experienced or read or thought or felt or dreamt. It has to be, because that’s all you have to work with. However the elements need to be selected, polished, and arranged. They need to be crafted.

That process of construction is the true art of writing, and should be seen as liberating rather than frightening. You are not constricted by “what really happened.” Everything in your universe is yours to play with. Connect, conflate, and contrast the astounding and the disparate; make them into something beautiful, something that will provoke joy, sorrow and wonder.

You are a chef, creating a feast for your readers. The ingredients that make up your feast all come from your life, but they will vary in type and proportion. Some will be brief but intense, the spice in your recipe: a flash of insight, a poignant memory, a witty remark made by a friend. Others will be more substantial, giving body to your work.

It could be a job you have done, or an area of expertise, which gives you insights into a world most people know nothing about. You don’t have to be a detective, a spy or an astronaut to make this work. In What Was Lost, Catherine O’Flynn turned a dull job in a shopping mall into an award winning novel, in which the mall comes to symbolise the disappointments of adulthood.

For other writers, it will be a defining event of their lives, or a question central to their existence, that dominates their work. James Ellroy has spent his career coming to terms with his mother’s murder, in a series of brutal, agonised thrillers. However he is too good a writer not to balance this with other ideas; he sets his tales of serial killers and crooked cops in the context of a secret history of Los Angeles during the middle years of the twentieth century.

If your genre is historical or speculative fiction, then the relationship between your real and invented worlds becomes necessarily more indirect. Historical fiction leans more heavily on your reading, speculative fiction on your dreams and fantasies. However it is important that your creation has some connection with reality, or readers won’t engage with it. You may never have been a Roman legionary patrolling Hadrian’s Wall, but you probably know what it is like to be cold, and weary, and bored, and far from home. You need to bring relevant experiences from your own life to your imagined world, to bring it to life for others.

Your characters, too, will draw on the people you have known, and on your own personality. However, I have warned before about the dangers of basing characters too closely on friends and family. It is better to take traits, mannerisms and quirks from real people, and blend them with invented details. Somewhere in the mix your characters need to come alive, to develop at least the illusion of independent existence. I’ll be writing about this process in a future post.

Above all, the story of your novel must be yours to tell. By this I mean that whatever your story is, it must connect to something deep within you. You need to care passionately about it, to feel intensely for the characters and their problems. This is an importance source of the fuel that will keep you going.

Of course your story will be inspired by other stories you have heard and read. This is unavoidable, and not a bad thing. There is a theory that there are only seven basic stories in the world anyway. However you need to make sure that you have brought enough of yourself to make it truly yours. If your story can be summed up by comparing it to somebody elses, but with a single twist- e.g., “like Twilight but with zombies instead of vampires”- then it probably needs more work.

Perhaps it is time to retire the phrase “Write what you know”. Perhaps it should perhaps be replaced by “write what you feel passionate about.” Your life experience is your launch pad, but if your passion takes you into unknown territory, then do some research, use some imagination. If your novel isn’t an adventure for you, how can you expect it to thrill your readers?