They say that if you want to learn to drive a car it is best to learn in a car with manual transmission. The reasoning says that manual is more difficult than automatic and once you’ve learned how to manage a gearshift anything else is plain sailing. Well, I learned to write what passes for humor in one of the toughest places I could think of. I used to have a regular weekly column in a Sunday newspaper. It was in the sports section and the main topic was angling. The remit was: it has to be about angling issues and it has to be entertaining. You might think this is easy, but there are only about three angling issues and making something “entertaining” is the “Holy Grail” of every writers. So I had my work cut out. I was also writing to a deadline and I can think of no more effective wet blanket than the phrase: be funny; you’ve got ten minutes. Nevertheless, they published me for 7+ years before other work commitments took over or did they get fed up with me? Can’t remember.
Robert Carraher over a The Dirty Lowdown blog has done a great review of my book “Muscle for Hire“. He very kindly told me to feel free to publish it on this blog so here it is…
“The Taco Town takings were took from Tori’s Toyota on the way back from Tulip’s” Jimmy nodded. “The Toyota too.”
Originally from Scotland, Sean has traveled about a bit, including living in Ireland, England (twice), Italy and the USA – which is where He lives at the moment. he has worked as a freelance journalist for about seven years and has had poetry, short stories and articles published in a variety of publications. In April 2011 he published four novels as Kindle eBooks on Amazon. They range from the thigh-slappingly funny, to the nail-bitingly tense, but mostly somewhere between the two. Be sure to get them at Amazon or Smashwords.
I read an interesting interview with Mike Faricy over at Robert Carraher’s The Dirty Lowdown blog. In it Mike says that he starts his writing day by editing the stuff he wrote the previous day. It got me thinking about my own process and I do something similar. Revising scenes that I’ve just written is a good habit to get into, but I’m afraid I’m not religious about it. However, I always do it the day after I’ve had a good day’s writing. When I get into the zone and start hammering out 3k and sometimes as much as 4k words in a day (I think my record is 5k) I can tend to accidentally skip a word here and there. So It’s good to proofread, I guess. When I write fastest is when there is a lot of dialog. There’s a kind of rhythm, give-and-take, aspect to dialog that you can get into, and again I can tend to skip the odd word – and some of them are decidedly odd – or even get confused as to who is speaking (although that’s rarer now).
One thing I have noticed is that, as I write a scene, traits emerge in the characters which make me want to change some of the later chapters. So quite often I do. I also become aware when I’m writing that what I thought was enough material for a whole chapter, can turn out to be enough for about ten lines. That happened when I was writing “The Blood Menagerie“. I got near the end and realized that two of the closing chapters just didn’t have enough in them to justify the space, so I ruthlessly – though, not without a pang – chopped them out. Two chapters is a lot to lose from a book and in the finish up the novel was about 65k words long, which is short for me. However, I think it is also tighter and somehow zingier without the extra baggage.
Of course editing as you go along saves work at the end. It’s also easier to see whether the plot is going in a different direction and make the appropriate changes. It’s easier to make adjustments to a synopsis than it is to rewrite an entire book. One of the things that helped me get into the habit of revising stuff I had just written was when I worked as a freelance journalist for a few years and had a regular column in a Sunday newspaper. Okay, so you’re writing to a deadline, but if you start producing work with glaring errors, they can just drop your column. So I went over it all meticulously before I sent it in. That habit remained and it has stood me in good stead.
Excuse me while I go over what I’ve just written…
I spent years hawking my books round publishers and agents and ended up with my fair share of rejection letters. The good ones told me how excellent they thought my writing was but it was “not for us”. The bad ones – well don’t remind me… If it weren’t for indie publishing I’d still be getting frustrated to distraction by the exercise in futility that submitting to traditional publishers has become. Now I have four published novels to my name (see the sidebar to the right) and am tentatively thumbing my nose at the establishment.
Of course, it’s now up to me to sell these books like crazy. But when you think about it, is that so much different from the traditional model. Non-fiction publishers will only publish your book if you can prove that you’re “on the circuit”, i.e. that you already have an eager audience of conference-goers to sell your work to and that your network of contacts will snap up as many copies as they can print. Fiction publishers will spend a minimum on publicity unless you happen to be Jonathan Kellerman or James Patterson; but even then you have to do the round of book signings, talk shows and interviews. It seems that being an author is hard work, but the easy part is the writing.
The growing trend of authors moving over to indie publishing through Amazon Kindle Store, Create Space and Smashwords will leave publishers asking themselves if they have been too discriminating for their own good. Of course, one of the disadvantages of self-publishing is that the public don’t get a gatekeeper – someone to tell them “this guy is a damned good writer”. What they get instead are any Johnny-come-lately shoving his book out there to further dilute the already watery mix of talent. Or do they?
What this doesn’t take into account is the power of social media. People, when faced with a sea of possible purchases, such as the pool of indie publications, don’t just close their eyes and throw a dart. They look for reviews, they see what other people are saying about the books available. These days, indie reviewers are becoming more articulate, more respected and more authoritative. But even if the book-purchaser buys a lemon, is it going to break the bank? Not when really fine novels are being sold for anything between $0.99 and $2.99. They can afford to be a bit adventurous. They can afford to give new and untried authors a go.
The question is, now that indie publishing is accruing to itself all the requisites of a new and vibrant market, how long does traditional publishing have before it simply fades away and dies? And if it wants to somehow cash in on the new publishing model, what does it have to do to survive?
One of the things I’ve always been fascinated with is what process writers go through to churn out a novel. I’ve heard various methods. Some writers, like John Buchan for example, prefer to have the entire story straight in their minds before they set pen to paper. Others start writing without knowing what’s coming next and have the bizarre, but very common, experience of having the characters take over the telling of the story, with the author as spectator. Other authors meticulously chart out the action in detailed synopses and timelines. I think I’ve tried most of these methods. But in the end, I settled on what seems to work for me.
So I think my answer to the question ‘how do you write a novel’ would have to be a rather nebulous and non-committal, ‘it all depends.’
In the course of my research into how railroads operate, as part of my background reading for the novel I just started writing, I’ve discovered an interesting fact. It used to be that hobos got around the country by jumping on freight trains and moving from one city to the next to collect food stamps and benefit checks. Well it turns out that “catching out”, as train hopping is called, has become the burgeoning hobby of bored yuppies. Weird. Who would want to sit for hours hiding from railroad police personnel in the hope that they could jump onto a moving death trap and sit for days on a hard floor lashed and beaten by the elements? On the other hand, who would want to sit in an office upward of ten hours a day?
Anyway, the novel is progressing fairly well and I have pretty much nailed my synopsis. Thirty chapters in all, each of which should average about 2.5k words. I’ve written the first couple of scenes and I think they work pretty well.
The key will be to keep up the momentum until the book is finished. That will depend on a number of factors but mostly on how much time I can devote to it each day. Watch this space.
I just started writing another novel. The working title is “Memorial Day Freight” (although “Freight Worse than Death” sounds enticing too) and it’s the third in my Twin Cities Series. It’s a story about embezzlement, kidnapping, murder, suicide, building construction and railroad freight. The action takes place in the lead up to Memorial Day and several of the plot strands culminate on the day itself.
I say I’ve started writing it but so far the bulk of my time has been taken up working out the plot and writing up a synopsis. Usually what happens to me is that I start writing and before long come to the conclusion, I don’t know a damn thing about freight trains OR construction. Embezzlement is something I do know about. But lest you get the wrong idea, it’s because I used to work in the finance industry and investigating frauds was part of my job. This was not quite as exciting as it sounds – well, actually sometimes it was (like the time I was sent to Milan, Italy to investigate potential embezzlement and there was suspected Mafia connections).
Anyway, my next job is to do some research into the stuff I intend to put in this novel that I currently have zero knowledge of. It’s one of the most interesting parts of being a writer.
Another interesting part is getting paid royalties. But, then, I have to write the book first…