When Writing a Novel, Not Knowing Everything is Part of the Fun

open roadWhat’s the best holiday you’ve ever been on? Chances are, regardless of what sort of holiday you enjoy the most, it would be one where you didn’t know the full outcome before you went away.

By this I mean you didn’t plan every last little thing before you packed your bags and set sail/took flight. You maybe had a rough idea, but even if you did do a little planning, there were still unexpected moments that made the trip worthwhile. It was more fun that way.

The wise old Greek philosopher Socrates was once recognised as the wisest man alive by the Oracle of Delphi, Pythia. It was probably a good observation. After all, Socrates was, well, Socrates, right? A smart dude.

Socrates responded to this praise: “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

He wasn’t just being falsely modest. He was stating a fact.

What does Socrates and the best holiday you’ve ever had got to do with your writing? Not knowing everything is smart. It’s a sign of confidence, not weakness.

As a writer, I don’t plan every last thing before wading into my first draft. I let myself go. Discover things as I go along.

I can’t recommend this mindset enough. Let yourself get a little lost every now and them. You can always double-back if you need to.

For me, it’s the not knowing everything that’s the fun part. I do a little planning, but with an emphasis on ‘little’. Just like Socrates, be aware that you don’t know everything. Embrace the unexpected as you go. Your novel-writing adventure will be much more fun for it, and it’ll probably be a better novel once you’re done.

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Writing Exercises To Give Your Creativity A Bit Of A Workout

WritingIf you find yourself lugging heavy boxes around, and realise you’re struggling, you might think “man, I need to hit the gym”. It’s a logical conclusion. Working out over a period of time will make you stronger and better equipped to lug heavy boxes. Makes sense.

Arguably the same is true with your mind. That’s why brain-training exercises are so popular. You either use it or lose it.

Many writers appreciate writing exercises for the same reason. Often I find it helps, if I’m stuck on a particular writing puzzle, to walk away from writing all together. I’ve read that walking is a physical exercise that operates at the same pace as thinking. So if, say, I’ve got an awkward plot-point to work through, a nice walk away from the computer through the countryside means I come back to it later and – bang – the ideas are flowing, even if I haven’t been mulling the problems over. Actually, not thinking about my problems helps me solve them. Does that work for you?

Regardless, there’s a school or thought that says just like how cardio-vascular training improves your general fitness, writing exercises improve your ability to write your own projects. Do them regularly, and you won’t run into as many story problems, or if you do run into them, you’ll be better at solving them.

I don’t know if that’s really true or not, and I’ll be honest, I don’t do writing exercises – or “prompts” – at all. But if it’s something you think might help you, there are lots of sites that offer you interesting, challenging and fun creative writing exercises. These ones from writers digest look particularly good.

Why not give them a go? Creative writing prompts. Little exercises to get the creative juices flowing, and who knows, maybe springboard you into a whole new project!

Become A Selfish Writer

notepadI’ll keep this short. Often, if you’re a copywriter or something like that, you’ll be producing “content” that you’ve been hired to do. It won’t be something you’d chose on your own. You don’t have the luxury of being picky.

But if you’re writing your first novel, chances are no one has commissioned you to write it. It’ll be something you do on spec, either to self-publish or to send out to literary agents and publishers.

And with that being the case, I can only recommend one thing that might make the task more achievable: Write what you want to read.

That’s it really. Just become a selfish writer. Write the kind of story you would want to flick through in a bookstore. Could you imagine yourself coming across it in a recommendation from Amazon? What would the back blurb say? Would you be interested? Even if you’d never bought anything from the author before?

It’s an imprecise measurement for sure, but it’s probably the nearest thing we have when we’re starting out on a writing project to an “acid test” for our work. If you can genuinely imagine yourself being interested in your work, then you’ve got a much better chance of it resonating with others too. We’re all different in our tastes, but not so different that we’d hate every single thing that other people like. If you like it, chances are other people will do. It might be a few dozen people, several thousand people, or even millions. That part is down to the luck of the draw.

But if you can write something you really care about, something that selfishly you’d love to read yourself, then it will have a vibrancy and authenticity to it. It’ll be credible. Your enthusiasm and care will burn onto the page, you won’t be able to help it.

In short, writing what you want to read is the best way to guarantee your work will be the best version of itself.

Rewrite Until Your Work Has Clarity

Keys on a keyboardI’ve written previously how as a novelist I strive to write until my work no longer looks like ‘writing’, that is to say “writing in such a way that nothing gets in the way of understanding what I’m trying to communicate”. But as some have written and told me, that’s really easier said than done. And they’re absolutely right. Writing often sophisticated ideas and concepts in a way that’s simple and clear for even a cursory glance, is, as one emailer from Newfoundland so perfectly put it, wicked difficult.

And in a way it’s unfair to a writer. You spend all your time writing and rewriting your masterpiece, getting it just right, only to the reader to pick it up and devour it in a simple and straightforward way. Without effort.

I liken the process to being a video editor. If there’s even one frame of video in an edit that shouldn’t be there, if you cut one frame too soon (or one frame to late), it sticks out like a sore thumb. Everyone will notice it, and it’ll be distracting. You will have done a bad job as a video editor. But if you really work at it, and craft the edit to perfection, no one notices the edit itself. You essentially disguise the craft. It’ll be a film so perfectly edited, that no one even thinks of the work as “being edited”. That’s a good thing, but it’s a real shame for the editor who spent so much time and effort in the cutting room floor in the first place. There’s every chance they won’t be recognised for their work.

Of course there’s lots of different ways to approach the style of a book. But writing in a straightforward and clear way is generally the sweet-spot for contemporary popular fiction.

And despite it being difficult, simplification is the key to success if you’re writing this way. Keep going back until your points can be understood with a simple cursory glance. If readers really have to study your words, they simply won’t read it properly. They might miss your point and get lost later on. They might even get bored and turn to something else. Disaster.

You need to have a style, sure. But next time you’re starting a new writing project, why not try to let that style come up subtly, through the ideas and stories you’re communicating. Try to avoid, as Elmore Leonard once put it, “the author sticking his nose in”. This might help give you a simplicity, and reduces the barrier between writer and reader.

I’m blown away by the positive responses I’m getting on my latest book, Succession of Power. My goal was for it to be read quickly (the story moves at a fast pace), and it took a lot of work for the narration to move with clarity and simplicity. A few of the reviews and personal emails I’ve had have pointed out how much they enjoy the pace.

I’m touched by that of course, but even more pleased with what that compliment really means. They felt it was pacy, because it was so easy to read. That’s the magic.

I only hope my next big project – whatever that may be – will live up to that standard.

The best of luck to you and your writing, however you’re getting stuck in with it.

UK General Election 2017: Brexit

No10It’s being said on every channel and media network that we’ll now get a “softer” Brexit. Theresa May took a gamble, to increase her majority and failed. That means the people have told her they don’t want her type of “extreme Tory Brexit” as described by Nicola Sturgeon and the like.

The problem is, the numbers don’t appear to support that.

As I write this, there’s a delay on the vote count for Kensington and Chelsea. But either way it’s going to be either a Labour or Conservative seat. That means it’s another MP elected by a party that explicitly campaigned on a promise to deliver Brexit. You could argue that the Tories wanted a “harder” (cleaner?) Brexit, and the Labour Party, sort of, well, I guess they didn’t really spell it out did they? Which was clever, with hindsight, making them all things to all people. Either way, it’s another MP in the Brexit column.

If you add up the number of MPs elected from parties who are essentially still pro-remain (and by that I use the generous version of remain to mean those who accept Brexit will happen, but want it to be so light as to be insignificant), and assuming that the one independent/other elected who I’ll just assume is a remainer because I don’t know, you end up with 60. That number might be filled with some who personally really support Brexit, but I’m just going on the basis of party line rather than what happens to be in each individual’s heart.

Now add up the parties who were overtly pro-leave. That’s Labour, Conservative and the DUP. 590 MPs. Again, some of those individual MPs were opposed to leave, and vocally so. But they are a minority in every case, and their parties were clear.

So ten times as many MPs were elected on a party platform to support Brexit than not.

We may very well get a less clean Brexit as a result of this election. In fact, that’s likely. And I’m not suggesting that this is either right or wrong. It’s just interesting to see what the numbers – so far – appear to be telling us.

Rewrite it Until it No Longer Looks Like Writing

Chapter-1I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like the idea that there are “rules” of writing. There are rules to writing in a certain way, sure, but that’s a very different thing.

In this day and age, there are certain traits that you’ll find in most modern popular fiction. And one of those traits is to write in a way that is almost invisible.

The crime fiction master Elmore Leonard was a perfect example of this. He once said: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” A simple concept, summed up in his perfectly brief style.

That doesn’t mean you have to incorporate the brevity of Leonard if you want to write in a way that resonates with a contemporary audience. Nor should you try. (I always thought that his famous “Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing” essay should have been called “Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing Like Elmore Leonard”.)

It’s just that these days, readers often want a frictionless experience. Things need to be effortless to read. If I have to stop and look up a word, you’re taking me out of the story for one moment. You’re increasing the odds that you’ll lose me. I worry that there’s some very talented modern upcoming authors out there who read the “canon” of great literature, and are indoctrinated to write like the old masters. These are the best novels of all time, so you should aspire to write like them. That’s what many new writers believe.

The problem with that train of thought is that the likes of Hardy, Dickens, etc., were all products of their time, just like we are now. There was a “canon” during Dickens’ time that, of course, wouldn’t have included Dickens. He didn’t write great works so people could study them. He wrote what people wanted to read back then, even if they didn’t always realise it. Dickens wasn’t the Shakespeare of his day, he was the James Patterson or David Baldacci of his day. It’s almost a sacrilegious thing to say about him in certain circles these days. But it doesn’t stop it being true.

So if you feel your work is only validated by having the fanciest prose, please feel free to stop clinging onto that notion. Write cleanly and easily. If it’s easy to read for a contemporary audience, then 99% of the time, it’ll travel much further.

The problem that often occurs with long “wordy” moments, is that your reader can end up feeling like they’re wasting their time. They might start even skipping long unnecessary bits, as you drag out events, descriptions or other pieces, for no good reason.

A reader’s mind is a powerful thing. They will fill in the blanks themselves. My last book, Succession of Power, contains only one description of the protagonist, Secret Service Agent Mike Stevens. The morning of the main story’s events, he has a shave before going to work.

That’s it. We don’t know his age. We don’t know if he’s black or white, or green with pink polka-dots. We know nothing about him. But the feelings he has, the words he speaks, and the actions he takes help form a picture in your mind of him; even if your picture is radically different the one formed in the mind of another reader.

Anyway, this is just my observation from doing this for some time. It’s not a rule, but if it feels like one to you, then please, tear it up. Trust your gut. What feels right for your story may very well be right.

In An Age Where Facts Matter, Keep Writing Fiction

Blank white book w/path

The biggest new phrases in our lexicon are things like ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’. It’s easy to say that old adage “you’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts”, but it’s a perspective currently lost in the world of news and politics.

Many say – and understandably – that we need to grasp facts now more than ever before. They matter more than they have ever done. Now is not a time of escapism, of hiding from reality by delving into a fictitious world.

I respectfully disagree.

We need fiction now more than ever. We need stories more than ever. Because they’re often the best way of seeing the real truth.

I still can’t quite figure out why the book I wrote last year – Succession of Power – is selling so well. I’m sorry, that sounds like a very arrogant thing to say. I hope you understand that I’m just genuinely curious as to why a book with easily the lowest-key launch of anything I’ve ever written has done such good “business”.

A friend who read it said that she enjoyed that it features a woman president. Someone who was strong enough to stand up for herself when the forces of darkness rise over her. She said she felt that this was a reference to Hillary Clinton – the president that “should have been” (in her eyes) – taking control when all around is out of control.

I certainly don’t think the character Mary Rosalind is the same as Hillary Clinton. It’s pretty clear that Clinton wanted the presidency for most of her life, and spent all of her time trying to achieve that goal. It’s a perfectly respectable aim, but it was never the goal of Rosalind. Mary was quite happy in the position she was given, just a little frustrated that her brilliant achievements weren’t acknowledged.

But I see what my friend means. A lot of people look at the big political decisions of the past year, and are depressed. I’m personally not depressed about the politics of 2016 (or at least, not any more than any other year), and I don’t think that’s just my natural optimistic comportment. There’s a lot of things to be objectively happy about if you’re lucky enough to live in the West today. Arguably we’ve never had it better. Who cares who resides in the White House? And when it’s someone awful, then let’s take the positives out of that: it means more people are concentrating on the nuances of the Constitution than they’ve done before. That’s actually quite refreshing, if you’re more libertarian-minded. Welcome back to the fold, anti-war, anti-government overreach protestors. Where have you been for the last eight years?

And here’s the funny thing about writing fiction. Though the stories can be larger than life, they only really resonate when they speak a truth. When they tell us something about human nature.

That’s all Succession of Power has tried to do. In the middle of a crisis, a president – and a small band of allies – do all they can to stand strong for the moral principles of a republic, when everyone around is losing their heads. It’s about how not doing something is often more noble and brave than doing something.

But heck, if you’re just looking for a story where there’s a woman president who knows what the hell she’s doing, despite being surrounded by stupid, solipsistic men, then I hope you enjoy the book. And it’s available for less than a few bucks on Amazon right now.