Monday, September 26, 2005

Lessons I have learnt about writing novels - The Premise

Last week w1ld child asked if I had any advice about writing novels. I shall therefore attempt to impart some of what I have learnt so far.

The first point is that you have to want to write. If you only like the idea of having written a novel, then you probably ought to put your energies into something else. I have been writing for fun ever since I could string a sentence together on paper and I have been making up stories for even longer. This doesn’t mean I am necessarily any good at it, but it does demonstrate that this is something I find enjoyable and therefore relatively easy to do. Writing a novel is a hell of a lot of work and if you have to squeeze every word out of yourself and onto the page, you’re probably better off doing something you actually like doing.

The second point is that obviously, you have to have an idea, a premise. This doesn’t have to be anything very complicated, profound or especially original. Often people who can and want to write waste their time waiting for some genius idea to float in through the window. However, you can do complicated, profound and original further down the line.

An idea may just be a question - this is the way I always think. Something like “What I found out that the old man across the road was a Nazi war criminal?” For some reason this pops into my head, probably because of the death of Simon Wiesenthal last week.

This leads on to other questions like, how would I find out? How would I react? How would the guy react? And obviously you’ve got all number of ways in which such a situation could be resolved. You confront him and he kills himself. You confront him and he murders you. You blackmail him and buy financial solvency with your silence. There are many other directions this could go of course, but you see my point.

Ideas like this pop up all the time. Recently the wonderful Vaughan who is a much better writer than me wrote a rather lovely blog entry about travelling on the Tube concluding

I want to secretly leave notes for people travelling on the London Underground, tucked inbetween the seat cushions. A way of communicating in this never-sleeping city.

Talk about a gift! What if you found such a message? Anyone with any imagination can see how such a scenario could lead to a poetic if contrived romance, in which as if by fate, a beautiful stranger happens to find the message and find it so enchanting that he or she seeks out the author, believing Vaughan to be their soul-mate. This could end happily or with some great (preferably violent) disillusionment.

Or it could be that Vaughan leaves a series of profound messages so that various characters undergoing crises in their lives pick them up and find the answer to their questions. This would be perhaps even more contrived, so maybe you could pick on just one such character and obviously the message should be fairly cryptic and take a bit of interpretation before the answer became clear.

Or it could be that Vaughan is in some sort of trouble, but under the constant surveillance of some bad guys of some description (government agents, gangsters, aliens or whatever) and his only way of asking for help is to write these notes and slip them down the between the seat cushions on the Tube.

You can probably think of many more, hopefully far more sensible ideas, but you see what I am getting at. All you really need to get started is a hypothetical question that you're interested in answering. Hopefully everything falls into place from there.

The third point is two pronged; write what you know and write what you want. Writing what you know does not mean that you must write about characters just like yourself and your friends doing the job you do and living in the place you do – unless you can make yourself, your friends and your work seem like the most fascinating subject on Earth, this is probably ill-advised. It is more about emotional experiences and aspects of the human condition which you know something about and crucially have something to say about. This may sound a little “deep” for someone writing a thriller, but I think it must apply across the board.

This is the most essential ingredient really. It helps to be able to write about familiar things – it would be very hard for me to write about the adventures of an accountant living in New York because I know nothing about accountancy and I have never been to New York. However, if what I had to say depended on my main character being an accountant in New York, then I would have to make this happen somehow. I could learn something about accountancy through research and I could watch loads of movies and read lots of book set in New York such that I could almost imagine having been there. But I would have to understand the character of my accountant as I understand my closest friend. Otherwise, I would come across as a fake.


Anonymous said...


I've never been the protagonist of a novel before.

I'm favouring the great but violent disillusionment ending, obviously. This will not surprise you, knowing my temperament. :-)

But I am beginning to get more and more interested in this leaving notes on the tube idea ...

marmiteboy said...

I seem to recall, from an earlier bolg entry that part of your novel is set in the wonderful county of Cornwall. What part? I'm very familar with that part of the world as most of my family have migrated there over the years.

The Goldfish said...

Ah no, my novel is set up here in North Yorkshire, but the protagonist's parents live in Cornwall, coincidentally enough. Near Truro but the action never goes down there alas.

Anonymous said...

From my limited knowledge of writers, I have observed that it's not so much they want to write, as that they *have* to write, come what may.

We most of us like the odd bit of dilettante tinkering, but your born writer has an obsession - s/he'd write if they were carting him off to a gulag the same day.

The Goldfish said...

I don't know Charles. Harper Lee wrote one book. Just one book. And it was brilliant. So I don't know. That's kind of what it's like for me but, I think there are different ways of coming to art. I may elaborate on this point in a later post.

marmiteboy said...

Ah Truro, know it very well. One of my favourite cities and somewhere I would love to live someday.

Anonymous said...

Margaret Mitchell wrote only one book, come to that: but is that all she & Harper Lee wrote, or all that saw the light of a publisher's day?

Samuel Pepys never had a word published, nor did Francis Kilvert, but they wrote as if it were breathing to them.

I don't know either.