There. I’ve said it. It feels like a confession at Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ve often thought about writing a novel, and now I’m of retirement age I have a lifetime of experience upon which to draw, and more time to spend on personal projects. But it’s slow going. My prevarication techniques, aside from writing blog posts like this one, include reading ‘how to’ books and evaluating various tools (this is the 21st century – no-one uses just pen and paper any more, do they?)
I already (self-)published one book, on how to start playing online poker. It’s not so much a book as a pamphlet, but at least it enabled me to learn what’s involved in packaging a book and selling it online. Every now and again I get a puzzling e-mail from Amazon telling me that they’re sending me some money, and it takes a while for me to realise that some more folks have stumped up to acquire a copy of my opus minor.
What I’ve found fascinating about my research into how best to create my masterpiece is the breadth of the spectrum of opinions on offer. At one extreme are the people who plan everything in minute detail, creating plot outlines, character profiles and back-stories and only really starting to write in earnest once they know exactly how everything is going to pan out. At the other, there are writers who have no idea where their next inspiration is going to come from, or where it’s going to take them. The first group are exemplified by Libby Hawker in her book “Take Off Your Pants” in which she rails against the practises of the second. Perhaps the best known of the second group is Stephen King, in whose “On Writing” there is a comparison of novel writing with archaeological excavation, as in brushing away the sand in which an object is embedded, so as to gradually discover what it is.
As if this research didn’t take up enough time, I found another avenue to explore. Without some form of cerebral stimulus exercise bikes and rowers can become time machines, in that they make time seem to stand still. However, they can be made more tolerable by listening to podcasts, and I found the ideal series in the BBC World Book Club which has an archive of sessions with famous writers (including several Nobel and Booker Prize winners). In the last 1,000 stationary miles I’ve listened to dozens of authors describing – among other things – their own writing processes. And – no surprise – they all sit somewhere on the aforementioned spectrum, which is actually more of a polarisation than a continuum.
I mentioned tools for writers. There are dozens, but the two I have found most useful are Scrivener and ProWritingAid. Until I started writing myself, I would never have dreamt they existed. Now I couldn’t imagine being without them. Sadly, there isn’t an Android version of Scrivener so I use Jotterpad on my tablet and sync back to Scrivener using Dropbox. And ProWritingAid? Well, I thought I could write pretty well – at least technically – until I tried this. What an eye-opener! I’m not a slave to it because if I were then none of my work would ever contain an adverb, but the value of having a dispassionate evaluation of your output can’t be overstated.
So what have I learned from all this? Mainly that I am going to have to stop prevaricating and try things. To find out what works for me… in which camp do I belong? Also that for most writers, the production of a readable novel is much harder work than I would have ever believed because of the care that has to go into editing and re-editing. I added the qualification ‘readable’ with good reason. The ability to self-publish using the Internet is undoubtedly a boon, but it certainly removes any filters on quality. There are a number of sites, like Wattpad, that allow peer review of drafts and first cuts. Sadly, the modern climate of ritual positivity dictates that everyone is ‘encouraged’ no matter how dire their cliche-ridden prose. The result is a constant waterfall of trashy writing, the quality of which is almost laughable.
Perhaps the best advice is encapsulated in the Twitter account I was exhorted to follow today… JustFuckingWrite (@FuckingWriteNow)