How to Avoid Being a Famous Novelist

Anyone who’s ever written anything intended for publication, has probably imagined how it’ll be when they become a famous writer – I know I certainly have. But as most of us know, it’s easier to dream it than to do it.

Here’s a few of the methods I’ve used  to avoid being famous:typewriter keep writing

  1. Await the Muse

Lots of famous artists and writers have spoken about ‘the Muse’ as if it is some magical being who, from time to time, will alight from on high to impart the gift of inspiration, allowing the mere mortal to spout forth their creative endeavours. And of course, the ancient Greeks believed this sort of thing did actually happen, that inspiration was a gift from the Gods.

Okay, but while there may be those who buy into some version of this romantic dream (that inspiration will turn up eventually and it’s just a case of hanging around til it gets here), it’s pretty clear that any writer worth their proverbial salt will just sit down and start writing. Cos that’s, like, how you write.

Moral: Don’t wait for inspiration – be the inspiration.

  1. Get a How-to Book

Many successful writers (and many unsuccessful ones) have cashed in on the old I-can-teach-you-how-to-write bandwagon. I’ve read a lot of these tomes over the years (mostly when I was still churning out self-indulgent poetry), and while some were useful, most were little more than a list of tedious writing exercises.

I’ve met enough wannabe writers to know that some of us just need a bit of a push, while others will never make that leap. The hard truth is, if we don’t already have at least a smidgen of talent and enthusiasm, it’s probably a waste of time.

Even the likes of Stephen King has contributed to the vast library of inspirational literature with his book ‘On Writing’ (one of the good ones). Although to be fair, he does point out that he doesn’t think writers can be made, but rather that we all have most of the skills necessary to be able to write well, so long as we work at it and keep working at it.

Moral: We can all learn from the masters, but we mainly learn from doing it ourselves.

  1. Keep at it – Even When it’s Crap

So you started writing the Great Gothic Novel (or whatever) and it’s not going to plan. But writing is hard, so it’s reasonable you should have to spend hours on end squeezing out every single word like it’s a darn kidney stone, playing the ‘troubled’ writer, the martyr, right?

The first stage play I embarked on took me twelve years to write. Admittedly, I started it when I was a mere teenager, but I came to believe that until I’d finished it I wouldn’t be able to write anything new. Of course, I was wrong and I should have just given up and written something else, but at the time, it felt like a bit of an albatross around my literary neck.

Moral: Just because you started it, doesn’t mean you have to finish it.

  1. Leave it Alone

So you’ve written you novel and it’s great, you really like it, there’s nothing else you could do to improve it. Well, except for a few grammatical errors, one or two typos and that chapter that kinda goes off at a tangent and doesn’t really work in the context of the book, but still.

Writers are called writers because that’s what they do. I know I’m not alone in saying I don’t think any piece of writing is ever really finished. There are always things that can be improved upon. Whenever I look at stuff I wrote years ago, the errors loom large and I wonder how I didn’t spot them in the first place. And then I think – yeah, that’s because I didn’t look hard enough.

Moral: Writing is re-writing. Don’t settle for average. Be the best.

How to Stay Clear of the Three C’s

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, or perhaps it’s just that I don’t have as much patience these days, but when I decide to add a new book to my ‘Want-To-Read’ list, it’s because that book has passed my Three C’s test. And no, I’m not referring to the business model developed by organisational theorist Kenichi Ohmae, I’m talking about that bane of every budding writer’s life:Or put it another way bloke copy

  • Clunky
  • Clumsy
  • Clichéd

So, just to clarify, let me define these terms, cos I bet you’re thinking clunky and clumsy are pretty much the same aren’t they? No, they aren’t.

Clunky

This is where a writer gets bogged down in a piece of dialogue, narrative or whatever and produces something like this:

Only those with a keen eye would notice his 14-karar gold bishop’s ring with purple amethyst, large diamonds, and hand-tooled mitre-crozier applique.

(Dan Brown)

Okay, we get it – he’s got a big ring, we don’t need an analysis. A bit of pertinent editing would fix this slightly run-away description, and to be fair, you’d expect best-selling authors to know better, but it just goes to show. Admittedly, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (from which this extract is taken), but writing in such a decidedly clunky way, constantly disrupted my reading.

Clumsy

By this I mean the way some writers put too many words in, use the wrong words or write sentences the wrong way around. This extract is from a free ebook that reads pretty well for the most part, except for things like this:

I heard that he and his Mum were really poor, like dirt poor, so I try to do my best to not talk about the latest gadgets Dad got for me when I was around him.

Not a terrible sentence, but the second part would read better as:

…so when I’m around him, I try not to talk about the gadgets my Dad buys me.

Sometimes the best way to spot things like this is by reading your work aloud. This makes it easier to hear the bits that don’t fit, are too rambling, or are just plain wrong.

Clichéd

Most of us are familiar with this one, but it’s all too easy to let one of the little buggers slip by if we’re not careful:

It was easy to see how he’d let things slide. Having got his feet under the table with the little woman, he’d allowed her to get the upper hand. Being born on the wrong side of the tracks, he’d often let his mind wander back to those halcyon days when the nights were long and summer seemed to last forever.

Okay, so I made that one up and maybe it’s a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea. Clichés aren’t always a bad thing, though – if you can turn one on its head and create something new, they can work quite well:

That old nugget ‘Fur coat and no knickers’ might give us:

No coat and fur knickers

Or

Crew-cut and faux knickers

I’m not saying either of these are the literary equivalent of magic beans, just that shifting things around can be useful.

And on that note, Abyssinia, TTFN, Ta-ra for now, goodnight and good luck…etc.

The Book of Moron (Why Not Everyone Should Write From Experience)

There’s an old idea that talks about everyone having at least one book in them – the story of their own lives. So it follows that every single one of us should be able to write at least one original story, right?

Nope. Nope. Nopedy nope.No Phone on Planet Pluto

Sure, it’s fine to write about your own life if it’s actually interesting/useful/educational, but few of us are lucky enough to have lives filled with the sort of adventures anyone outside our immediate families will find remotely appealing. But there’s no reason why some aspects of our lives can’t be used as a springboard for exploring a subject and turning it into a piece of fiction.

Making it Up

While I’ve often included small ‘bits’ of myself or my life in my writing, I usually take a very small part of the experience and create new characters around that experience, rather than simply writing about it as myself. For instance, a story I wrote about two men collecting occupational therapy equipment wasn’t based on anything that had happened to me, but since I know about such things, I was able to write about it with some degree of inside knowledge. The characters in the story do not exist outside my imagination.

Inner Demons

Back in the late Eighties, I had a bout of depression brought on by a series of events which, at the time, seemed pretty horrendous, and certainly did not strike me as an obvious theme for a bit of comedic writing. However, twenty years on, I felt differently about it. What I ended up with was a monologue that became one of ten pieces that formed a stage play called ‘No Phones On Planet Pluto’.

I wrote the play with Suzanne Enoch as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, and of the ten monologues that made up the show, seven of them were mine. However, only that one initial piece was written from direct experience – the others were inspired by particular conditions, such as OCD and schizophrenia.

At the time of writing, it was a useful and cathartic process and helped me to put that period of my life behind me. Even so, the work didn’t go down well with everyone, and I did wonder later on just how much of our lives, our feelings and our experiences (good and bad) we should allow ourselves to put out there in the world. While I have no regrets concerning the piece, I also know that I could have done it differently, such as writing it for a female performer, which would have changed the piece considerably and made it less identifiable as being from my own life.

Doing it For Ourselves

I think there’s a line somewhere that can be crossed if we so wish, and as writers, we do tend to go in for crossing-the-line a fair bit, but it’s worth remembering that none of us has sole claim on our experiences, and in putting forward our own points of view, we might also be stamping pretty hard on those of other people.

‘A Clergyman’s Daughter’ by George Orwell

A Clergyman's Daughter
A Clergyman’s Daughter
4-stars

George Orwell’s second novel sat on my bookshelves for several years before I eventually got around to reading it. I feel a little guilty that it took so long, since in many ways, it’s a damn fine book.

Living with an ungrateful and demanding father, Dorothy sees little to look forward to in her humdrum existence. Treated badly by local lothario Mr Warburton, she suffers a spell of amnesia. Vanishing from her home, she joins a group of hop-pickers, then finding herself with little money, is forced to stay in a hotel frequented by prostitutes. However, there’s always the possibility of a ‘better’ life on the horizon…

The novel was a bit of an experiment for Orwell and it seems he was never terribly happy with it. In fact, he left instructions it should not be reprinted after his death (though he did agree that cheap copies might be made available so any royalties would benefit his family). Much of the story is taken from a journal Orwell kept while picking hops in Kent during 1931.

Based on this period in Orwell’s life, as well as his experience of teaching at two schools (from 1932), and his involvement with the curate at a nearby church, Orwell’s description of hop-picking is wonderful, and he clearly could not have described the process, the people and the conditions so vividly, had he not been through it himself:

It was slow work in the early morning, before the hops were dry enough to handle. But presently the sun came out, and the lovely, bitter odour began to stream from the warming hops, and people’s
early-morning surliness wore off, and the work got into its stride.

This isn’t my favourite of Orwell’s novels, but I liked it a lot more than I expected to, which is nice.

 
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Three Easy Steps to Not Finding Your Writer’s Voice

Find Your Voice

Yes, you read that right – this is a post about not finding your writer’s voice. But first let’s just clarify what I’m talking about.

Every writer has a voice. Sometimes it’s exactly like their actual voice (the writing sounds the same as the way they talk), but more often it’s a sophisticated version of that voice – interesting use of language, clever dialogue, original metaphors and so on – the sort of things that most of us have to work at to get right.

However, while many of us can identify the voice of our favourite authors (simply because we read a lot of their work), some writers constantly change styles, genres and vocabulary, so even though there may be elements of what we know, they keep coming up with something new.

And that’s what I’m aiming for – the ability to write in ways that are continually surprising. And yes, actually, I do think I’m well on the way to achieving that particular skill, but it did take quite a while to find my voice, and part of that journey was being able to recognize it when it arrived. And also when it hadn’t.

Here’s a few ways to avoid finding your voice:

  1. Read an author’s work. Read it regularly. Be familiar with how they write, the kinds of words, phrases and language they use. And copy it.

I did this. Not intentionally, of course, but I did it. Many years ago when I was writing a lot of stage plays (well, trying to write a lot of plays), I read tons of work by ex-Hull Truck Theatre playwright John Godber. I loved his writing, I wanted to be like him, I wanted to write plays that were witty, hilarious, original and popular. And I assumed that the scripts I was churning out at that time were my own work. But they weren’t. They were Godber’s. Or at least, they were striving to be. When I eventually realised I was unconsciously copying my hero, I stopped and moved on.

Moral: Don’t copy other writers.

  1. Find a style, genre or theme that seems to sell, and write stuff that fits the bill.

I did this. Back in the early Nineties, I discovered there was money to be made writing short stories for women’s magazines, so I decided to give it a try. I wrote dozens of stories, stories about romance, lost love, new beginnings. I sent my precious tales off to magazines and waited for the money to roll in.

Of course, it didn’t. And why? Because I wasn’t really interested in all that girly stuff – I just wanted to write something that would get published. But none of those stories ever were published because the editors realized that while I may have had a smidgen of talent, I didn’t know anything about romance, and it showed.

Moral: Don’t try to write stuff you aren’t interested in.

  1. Take one of your favourite characters and write about them.

I did this. I’ve done a bit of the ‘fan fiction’ thing with two of my fav characters (Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson). It’s fun and relatively easy, but of course, these guys aren’t my creations, so even if other people enjoy reading The Watson Letters, there’s always that thing about piggybacking on someone else’s hard work. And yes, I know some famous authors have done this very successfully (Anthony Horowitz has also had fun with Arthur Conan Doyle’s creations), but still.

Moral: make up your own damn characters!  

Finding your own voice isn’t easy, but working at what you do – taking out anything in your writing that isn’t you, is the best way to hit the target. I still occasionally find myself slipping into an oddly familiar style, but I can usually spot it before the thing gets out of hand. Recently I came across a piece I’d written a few years ago. Reading it aloud, I heard the unmistakable Yorkshire twang of Alan Bennett. Which just goes to show.

The Trick is to Keep Reading

I remember reading ‘The Baader-Meinhof Complex’ by Stefan Aust and wishing I could somehow speed things up. Of course, I wanted to enjoy every word and not miss anything, but the book was so damn heavy and unwieldy, I sometimes felt like I was preparing for battle, instead of settling down for a good read. It was two years before I finally finished it. Phew.lateststoryBooks copy

Which is one of the many reasons I finally got around to acquiring a Kindle. Oh, the joy!

Weighty tomes wasn’t the whole story, though – it often used to annoy me that everyone I knew seemed to be able to read quicker than me. For years I assumed I was a slow reader, but now I know what the problem was – I simply wasn’t reading often enough. Whenever I picked up the current book, it’d take me a while to get back into it, and the longer the time between each ‘fix’ the harder it became.

Now, I read every day – two or three times a day if I can – and the difference is palpable – my attention span is greater, I take in information more easily and I get more satisfaction out of it. Or maybe it’s just that I’m getting old.

Though I love my Kindle, I can’t give up ‘proper’ books – I love the smell, the feel of them, the different fonts and typefaces and (since most of those I buy are second-hand) the sheer ‘history’ of the things. Put another way, as Rogers and Hammerstein didn’t say, ‘There is Nothing Like  a Bo-o-o-ok…’

So these days I have a pile of the physical entities by my bedside and a Kindle in my work bag. It’s amazing to think I used to while away my lunch breaks sitting at my desk surfing the Web and skimming through all the bad stuff that’s happening in the world. Now I read.

In the doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room I used to feel a little exposed if I was the only person there with a book in my hand, but if I read on my iPhone it’s fine (after all, I can pretend I’m surfing the Web, skimming through all the bad stuff…)

And amazingly, I’m getting through a lot more books. I don’t really know why I’m surprised at this, but notching up another literary tome on my figurative bedpost feels pretty good. And since I joined Goodreads, I’m actually writing reviews too! Mind you, they’re not great reviews. I’m not really a review sort of guy, but I’m sure they’ll take on a more substantial role as time goes on. Maybe they’ll even turn into stories or novellas in their own right, epic novels, whole series… Okay, I’ll stop now.

And as Stevie King says, if you want to be a writer, you have to do two things: read a lot and write a lot.