Archive | November, 2012

November: Can a novel be written in a month?

28 Nov

No. That’s the short answer, in my opinion, not if it’s going to be properly thought through and crafted. I’ve recently been talking to a fellow writer who wrote a novel in five weeks (though, to be fair, it was much longer in the planning), and it got me thinking.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the manuscript that I’ve just finished took me six years to write and a decade before, I abandoned another novel  after seven years’ work.  And yet, like elsewhere in art, it seems, the idea is with us that something of worth can be created with a minimum of effort.  It’s no longer necessary to learn your craft as a painter.  Present an unmade bed or a dead sheep as an installation, eighty years after Marcel Duchamp displayed his urinal (check out his Nude Descending a Staircase to appreciate his technical skill).  No need any longer to work the pubs and clubs for years to learn your craft as a musician.  Appear on The Z-List Factor singing a cover version-by-numbers and become an instant celebrity.  There’s no need to have achieved anything much at all, in fact.  Be famous simply for being famous.  Instant gratification.

The author’s writing desk

And so the USA now holds ‘National Novel Writing Month’ every November. When I last looked at its website, it proudly proclaimed that 2,830,358,650 words had been written collectively.  To what end, we might ask?  ‘Words, words, words…’  There are plenty of them out there already.  Ah, but it gets people writing, we’re told.  But surely, if you have something to say then you’ll write it anyway?  People are at liberty to do whatever they like, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, in my view.  And so this is by no means intended as an attack on those who wish to write a novel in a month.  Nonetheless, the idea that writing that counts (rather than a word count) might be created in a matter of weeks is, it seems to me, misplaced at best.  If it’s just for your own or your family and friends’ entertainment, then that’s all fine and dandy.  If it’s to be put out for public consumption, it’s another matter.  Surely, any prose worthy of the reader’s precious time ought to have been thought through very carefully indeed by the writer.  Writers work at different speeds.  It took James Joyce a couple of decades to write Finnegans Wake (see Extract 2 from The Brief Literary Career of Lewis Burgess) while Jack Kerouac apparently wrote On the Road in a matter of weeks.  Talking of which, Anthony Burgess famously produced four novels in a year, including the seminal A Clockwork Orange, when he thought that he was about to die from a brain haemorrhage.  Burgess was a great talent, of course, but even he spread himself too thinly at times.  In general, the result of writing several thousand words a day will be hackwork.  I should know – I’ve done just that for magazines.

Words, words, words… lots of them

Over the last year or two, I’ve been reading Tove Jansson’s Moomin books to my children at bedtime.  You’d think at 26 and 28, they’d have grown out of them.  Okay, so they’re actually six and eight, but I still enjoying reading them at my age.  We’re working through the series in order, now two away from the last, Moominvalley in November.  They’re books for children, perhaps twenty or thirty thousand words long.  And yet, in a quarter of a century, Jansson published just nine of them.  They’re timeless, containing captivating stories and characters, beautiful descriptions and amusing dialogue (not to mention the enchanting illustrations). All right, so Jansson was a genius and I’ve already put on record my admiration for her adult fiction (see 21 Great Novellas and Travelling the world through books: Finland). But there might just be a connection between the time spent crafting them and the quality of the finished article…

If we were to have a national novel writing month over here in the UK, we’d probably use some dreadful pun to promote it.  It’d be Novelber, perhaps. No, a novel can’t be written in a month. The clue is in the name – November.  Instead we have Movember ( We spend the month growing hair above our top lips to raise awareness of men’s health issues. And we look splendidly silly with them too.  Moustaches are inherently absurd. They’re sported by dictators, after all.  In my view, though, it’s probably a better use of our time.

All text and images © PSR

The Twin-Pronged Approach

25 Nov

So, some six years after embarking upon it, I have finished my blockbuster of a novel with a World War II setting.  Most writers vacillate between the belief that what they have written is a work of genius and the horror that they have laboured for years over a pile of trash.  I’m no different.  For all that, I still feel that this is far and away the best manuscript I have produced.  It isn’t about to appear on Amazon or Smashwords, though, so there are no plugs for it here. Instead, I am following the Kafkaesque and potentially futile path of trying to get a publisher to read my work and take it on (I’m not going to discuss this issue here – it will be the subject of a future blog).  I am thinking of establishing a publishing house called The Castle Press, an institution which authors will approach in vain, never managing to find its address or telephone number. Sometimes they will believe themselves to have entered into a dialogue with the Press only to have their latest correspondence returned unopened, the address marked as unknown…

I have a writing friend who constantly revisits and revises works that he began a decade and more ago.  I can’t work like that.  Once I have completed a manuscript and revised it, I find it slipping away from me, almost as though someone else had written it.  And so it is with the aforementioned blockbuster. I have given copies to a number of trusted fellow writers and readers and will mull over their comments and, no doubt, make some final revisions and that will be that.

Book ideas are another matter.  I have a vast store of them.  Over the summer, I began thinking about embarking upon a new work.  Choosing which one to develop next has always been a process fraught with difficulty, filled with regret for paths not taken.  If, like me, you have to make a living from other endeavours, writing time is at a premium and manuscripts take years to complete.  Choose the wrong one and precious time is lost, never to be got back.  I spent seven years around the turn of the century on my great Condition of England novel, only for it to emerge, dead in the water.  I never approached a publisher with it nor gave it to anyone else to read.  It’s an experience that I’ve no wish to repeat.

An abandoned work, seven years in the writing…

This time around I’ve adopted the twin-pronged approach, working on two ideas at once.  It’s not an approach that I’ve taken with fiction before.  I have worked on journalism at the same time as shorter fiction, but that is qualitatively different, it seems to me.  Over at my writing retreat in Brittany this August, I began work on a sequel of sorts to my last manuscript, this time with a Cold War setting, exploring mankind’s unique ability to destroy itself, along with the rest of the planet and its inhabitants. And then a month or so ago, I started planning out another, altogether stranger work.  It’s takes an alternative historical approach to explore the various disasters that befell Europe in the twentieth century and their fallout in the present century. Working this way provides me with a number of potential gains.  First of all, if one of the manuscripts leads to a dead end then I still have the other work upon which I can fall back.  Secondly, when one of the projects stalls, as inevitably it will, I can put it aside for a period of time and work on the other idea.  The time that elapses should then allow me to return to the manuscript that I’ve placed on hold with ‘fresh eyes’.  And thirdly, more of those ideas screaming at me to be born get the chance to be brought into being and my writing output is potentially increased.  So little time, so much to try and achieve…

Thus far the approach seems to be working and I’d recommend considering it to my time-pressed fellow writers.

An image related to my latest book idea…

All images and text © PSR