A few weeks ago I went to visit an old family friend, an ex-neighbour who has retired and moved down south to live by the beach. He’s been a family friend, our closest family friend, for as long as I can remember. I grew up with his son and in many ways he’s been like a father to me. He also happens to be a published author (a novel, a few novellas, short stories and poetry), a fact that didn’t mean much to me throughout my childhood.
The last time I went down there to his new house (a couple of years ago), it wasn’t even close to being finished. This time, it still wasn’t, but at least it’s getting there. I recall the last time I saw him — it was just before I was about to leave for the UK. At that time I hadn’t decided writing was what I wanted to do, but by then I already had a keen interest in it (and was secretly plotting my escape from the law). Even back then, we talked a little about writing and what it was like to be a part-time writer (he did have a full-time day job). The only thing I came away with was that it’s very very hard.
This time, things were different. I had finally made the decision to give the writing a serious go, and our conversation naturally gravitated towards that. Over a long lunch, dessert and tea, we talked about what it was like to be a writer and how to become one. These are some of the pointers I took away from that day.
Write what you know
He said it was important for a fiction writer, especially writers just starting out, to write about what they know. By this I don’t mean writing narrative non-fiction or anything like that. It means using your life’s experiences and things that you know about to form the foundation of your story.
Fiction, naturally, is about making stuff up. But it helps to start off with something you are familiar with and branch off from there. It’s doesn’t even have to be something you have experienced personally. It can be something you read in the paper or a story you heard from a relative or friend that you thought was interesting. Steal bits and pieces here and there to create your own reality.
Sounded like good advice to me. The problem is, I always feel like my life experiences and knowledge of the world are somewhat limited. I was fascinated to learn that he has held dozens of jobs throughout his life and had plenty of amazing experiences as a youngster. For example, he travelled to Europe as a twenty-something kid. With hardly any money in his pockets, he purchased a bike and rode it from Paris through Belgium and Germany all the way up to the Netherlands. He relied on a book that taught him how to live off a pound a day and slept wherever he ended up for the day. Of course, it was a different era back then, but I could only imagine the type of things he would have seen, the people he would have encountered. Similarly, when both his parents passed away, he travelled to India to get a better perspective on life, and came back realising just how lucky he was.
Me? I’ve lived in four countries at various times in my life but I’ve only worked in one full-time job (that clearly was not for me!). I’ve travelled to many places but always as a sheltered and ignorant tourist. I’ve worked hard but have never tasted any true hardship in life (and continue to hope to avoid it). No wonder I can’t come up with any good ideas! Looks like I’ll need to either get out a bit more or start stealing.
Characters make or break a story
This is often said but not appreciated as often as it should be. He said it’s always his aim to write interesting characters — characters that are real, characters that connect with the reader. Characters with special quirks that readers are likely to remember.
He listed a few writers (I won’t name them) who don’t necessarily write the best books or come up with the best stories, but have succeeded over time because of an endearing character they’ve created. I thought about it and knew it was true. Sometimes all you need is a unique character with memorable traits and you’ve got a book franchise!
He acknowledged the success of crime fiction at the moment and suggested perhaps I could create a quirky detective who happens to be an ex-lawyer! Mmm…maybe he’s onto something here…
Read, read and read
Another piece of advice that writers hear all the time. To write, you have to read. To become a better writer, you have to read as much as you can.
He told me that even the crap books you read will help you in some way (because they help you realise what NOT to do). Everything you read will help you (consciously or subconsciously) when you write, but it’s good to read the classics. Read the Russian greats, read Dickens, read Shakespeare. These are classics for a reason. Learn their techniques and harness them. He said a crap writer can make the most exciting event boring, but a great writer can make the most boring event exciting.
This is a person who left school in the eighth grade (to make money) but is a terrific writer because of the amount he reads. At one stage, he told me, he would read one book a night. He’d start reading and he wouldn’t stop until he finished it, even if it was 3 or 4 in the morning.
I don’t have the attention span to read a single book in one sitting, but it wouldn’t hurt if I read more. Or at least tried to.
It’s good to plan your story out in advance, but it’s even better to let the story take a life of its own. Let the story guide you.
I still have trouble with this planning business to be perfectly honest. When I don’t plan, the story or chapter simply becomes a complete mess with no direction or structure. But no matter how much I plan, when it comes to the actual writing I always end up breaking away from the plan. I wouldn’t say the story necessarily “takes a life of its own” because I usually end up getting stuck and not knowing what I should do next. That can be really frustrating.
Write poetry only when you feel like it — then use it to wipe your bum.
It was a great day chatting like we had never chatted before. He told me that the publishing business is all about making the right contacts. It’s hard to get through that door, but once you do, things get much easier.
The biggest shock of the day? He told me that he really only had one proper novel published and it was the worst piece of shit he had ever written. The reason? He co-wrote it with some stupid moron — his editor. He developed the plot and the characters and wrote the first half of the story and he/she extended it and wrote a second half. As a result it was obvious that the two parts of the book were written by different people. And he/she insisted that his/her name should be put first on the novel. He said he didn’t give a stuff so he agreed but it annoyed him. And when he showed me the novel I was stunned to find that the co-author was my lecturer! How’s that for a small world?