Archive | November, 2013

If You Could Save Only Eight Books… Part One

22 Nov

I’ve been very short of writing time in recent months. As a consequence, my work-in-progress has been somewhat neglected. So, no, I haven’t written fifty thousand words in the last four weeks… I did manage to fit in a writing afternoon one day this week, though. And in those precious hours, I sketched out the idea for a short passage.

Most of the characters in my book have left their homes in a hurry. They have with them very few possessions. One character finds himself living in a confined space with a tiny bookshelf that will only accommodate eight books. I’m not going to tell you which eight books he has selected, not for the time being, at least. From time to time, my book is in the habit of addressing the reader directly. In this case, it asks him or her which eight books he or she would choose. I tried it out for myself, first of all. 

When I first thought about, it seemed that they’d have to be long books. That way I’d get more reading material. And then it occurred to me that trilogies by some of my favourite authors have been collected into single volumes – Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino, William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, for example. I decided that this was cheating. Those thick tomes would never fit on my character’s tiny bookshelf. And in fact, some of the very best books are also very short (regular readers of this blog will be aware of my fondness for the novella as a literary form).

Time is short. I must choose quickly or all will be lost. So here’s my list, in no particular order, apart from the first:

  1. Life a User’s Manual by Georges Perec
  2. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
  3. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  4. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
  5. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
  6. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  7. The Aerodrome by Rex Warner
  8. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

The eight that I rescued…

To be honest, if I’d picked the list on a different day, seven of the titles would almost certainly have been different. It’s my intention, over the coming weeks, to invite some of my fellow readers and writers onto this blog to share with us the eight books that they would take with them into exile and to tell us why.

Look at your bookshelves now, groaning under the weight of your collection (they must be or you wouldn’t be reading this blog). If you had to leave your home and could save only eight of those books, which ones would they be? It’s a difficult task, isn’t it? Nigh on impossible, you might say. Perhaps you’d still be there, long after the call had come to leave, running your eye across those shelves and your finger down the spines, paralysed into inaction, unable to choose…

All text and image © PSR 2013

Has Your Book Already Been Written?

15 Nov

I’d be surprised if I’ve completed more than a thousand words of my current work-in-progress, so far this November. My NaNoWriMoustache, on the other hand, is a wonder to behold. I wish that I could share it with you… As I’ve bemoaned before, if you can’t afford to write full-time, it can take many years to bring a project to its conclusion. And among other potential problems, you may find that events overtake you.

rhino - Copy

NoNa grows a moustache for Movember…

It’s the novelist’s worst nightmare. You work for years on a book only to find that another writer has written something very similar already. Part of the reason that I wrote my war novel was to commemorate a group of young men whom it seemed to me were mentioned infrequently in accounts of that war. I first considered writing something about the subject back in 2002. It remained on the back-burner until 2006 while other projects took precedence. A couple of years into writing it, I discovered that Len Deighton had published a novel back in 1970 with a similar split between England and Germany in its construction. Around the same time, A L Kennedy won the Costa Prize for a novel with a similar context. So much for my forgotten young men… For all that, the book that I wrote is a very different one from either of those novels. Theirs have been published for a start…

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my twin-pronged approach to writing. The idea is that I work on one project until it runs out of steam and then pick up the other, having had time to put distance between myself and the text. I’ve been working on the latter of these projects uninterrupted for the last year or so. Meanwhile, the former project, set during the Cold War and a very loosely related sequel to my war novel, has been gathering dust at the 15,000 word mark (a mere nine days’ work to a NaNoWriMo writer, of course). Now I find that I may have been beaten to the punch again…

There’s a chain of discount book stores in the UK called The Works. These shops are filled with remaindered junk, in amongst which are some excellent but unloved volumes (unless a book has been reviewed by a TV book club or written by a television celebrity, the English are generally uninterested in it). Over the years I’ve found some excellent books there for a pound or two, David Bellos’ masterful biography, Georges Perec: a Life in Words and Jan Morris’ Hav among them. They also sell some rather splendid toys that I buy my children from time to time (see photo). Amid the detritus of copycat vampire and S&M novels, I discovered to my horror, a pile of books with a cover scarily similar to the mock-up for my Cold War novel. I picked one up. I can’t even remember its title now – it was something about London and Moscow, I think. On the face of it, the premise looked scarily similar. Fortunately, it also looked to be an action novel featuring an improbable hero, so not exactly what I have in mind for my work-in-progress. And after all, it had been remaindered…


A robot, a tank and a space alien found lurking in The Works

The other day, I overheard a radio interview with Donna Tartt, talking about the publication of her latest novel, only her third in thirty years. The interviewer mentioned that Stephen King was a fan but thought Tartt should write faster since time is in such short supply (as is life itself, by implication). Tartt rejected this suggestion out of hand. Good heavens. Hasn’t she ever heard of NaNoWriMo? I find myself torn. My inner Tartt says take your time while my inner King is exhorting, “write for all your worth, you never know how long you have left…”. And then, of course, someone else out there might be writing your book (this isn’t a problem for the NaNoWriMo writer who produces an entire novel in half the time it would take a lesser writer to complete a short story). My other work-in-progress is an oddity, though. Consequently, I’m willing to wager that nobody else anywhere in the world is writing a novel the same as that.

All text and images © PSR 2013

November Musings

8 Nov

Over the last 13 months, I’ve managed to write 63,000 words of my current project. ‘Slacker,’ I hear you say, ‘what have you been doing?’ Surely, I should have finished long ago and dashed off a couple more books in the meantime?

I’m going to stop grumbling about NoNaRhiNo® after this post. Probably. I don’t have a problem with people using props to write if they feel they help them. I’m reliably informed that some very good books have come out of the process – none that I’ve read, mind you. I really can’t imagine any of the writers whom I admire undertaking such an exercise. Catch-22, for instance, took Joseph Heller eight years to write and, no doubt, he’d been turning the idea over for several years before that too. There just might be a connection between the quality of the end product and the time put into it (obviously, had Heller not been a tremendously gifted writer, he could have grafted forever and still not have written anything of worth).

If the novel is to be viewed as a sort of paper version of TV, popular entertainment and nothing more, all colourful surfaces with no depth, then perhaps writing 50,000 words in a month might be achievable. But a well-written, complex work couldn’t possibly be generated in such a short time frame unless its author were a genius. I know that I’m not one. I suspect that most of those taking part in NahNoRhyMo aren’t either. Heller was much closer to genius than the vast majority of writers and he couldn’t do it.

My real gripe with the whole concept is this. I’ve dedicated much of my spare time over the past quarter of a century to writing fiction. And yet here comes an initiative which – in its well-meaning way – denigrates the writer’s art. Writing a novel? Easy. Anyone could do it. It’s just another activity to tick off your list.

My last novel was 150,000 words long and took me six years to write. That equates – using the NaNaWryMot method – to 50,000 words every two years, longer by a factor of twenty-four than the recipe for instant success suggests. It’s not for me to say whether my manuscript’s any good or not but I can tell you that I thought long and hard about it and put a great deal of effort into the prose, imagery, characterisation, etc.

The truth of the matter is this. If you’re really serious about writing and have something to say, you’ll do it anyway. If you have to force yourself to write, you should probably find some other outlet for your creative side. I’ve met people who’ve dabbled with writing novels but can’t think of anything about which they want to write. Bizarre. There’s a simple alternative. Fiction writing isn’t actually compulsory. 


The aim for the end of the month
(by courtesy of Wikipedia)

And now to the real business of the month, moustache-growing. I made a late start. In a dozy state, I shaved on Saturday and then again on Monday. I’m going for the Mexican bandit in a Spaghetti Western look this time. Along with my Mo-bros and sisters, I’m making myself look ridiculous to raise awareness of men’s cancers. I shall look no sillier, though, than if I claimed to be able to write a meaningful novel in a month. 

All text © PSR 2013

NaNoWriMo Entry 2013 (No. 2)

2 Nov

Somebody told me about this initiative called NaNoWriMo. So I looked up ‘NaNo’ in the dictionary. Apparently, it doesn’t have a capital letter in the middle of it. I also found out that it means ‘one billionth’. That’s incredibly small, isn’t it? Guessing that the ‘WriMo’ bit of it stood for ‘write more’, I wrote 50,000 words in a few hours then made them really tiny (see below). As you can imagine, writing all of those words in such a short space of time, they were actually garbage. But the beauty of NaNo writing is that it’s so very small no one can see just how bad it is. It’s a great idea. I recommend it to anyone who’s planning on becoming an accomplished writer of fiction. Forget contemplative reflection and careful crafting of your work. Writing isn’t for pleasure, is it? It’s a necessary evil to be got out of the way as quickly as humanly possible. So now you know the secret – write fast, write small. Look out for the pocket edition of my forthcoming book, How to Write a Novel without Really Trying (and Fifty Other Useless Tips). You’ll need an electron microscope to find it, though.

nano book

All text and image  PSR 2013



1 Nov