Saturday, 6 October 2007

Tips on writing a book

Writing historical fiction is a lengthy business admitted Sarah Waters, talking with John Mullan, author of How Novels Work (see my weblog archive for May), at the Sevenoaks Literary Festival last week: her latest novel The Night Watch took her four years.

A friend remarked that four years seemed a very long time: the problem is that we hear of authors that rattle off a book in a couple of months and we think it the norm. But it's often hype. Well, it is possible of course if the story is straight off the top of your head (and you have all day, every day to do it in) but not if the author has to research historical periods that are not familiar.

First there's the background reading: books and novels that are in and around the period the story is set in that will give the author a taste for the time, slang used, social mores etc. Double that reading if the place the story is set in is unfamiliar: the author will want to visit the setting too to get the 'feel' of it.

So, here we go, tip number one: choose to set your novel somewhere nice, or somewhere close, or preferably both. Jane Austen often went with the close and nice option: Bath. You could choose your own backyard (quick and cheap) or an exotic location but bear in mind the latter will add to the budget as well as the time scale (although it might be fun).

Then there's the research to check facts that may be alluded to: dates, names, fashions, music etc. There may be cultural differences, unfamiliar weather, flora etc. And throughout research there will be note taking that needs to accessible – probably put on the computer: so altogether there goes a substantial chunk of time. And after the book is finished and edited you may have to check the facts again because they may have been mangled in the process.

So, tip number two: don't choose to write historical fiction at all – or non fiction for that matter – if you only have a couple of months to spare. Write a book about your dog. Or better still write a book about your expertise growing dahlias: it will appeal to publishers and sell much better than fiction anyway.

John did question Sarah about the risky time shift she chose in The Night Watch: as she pointed out, the author has to decide on structure very early on and can't change mid-stream. And certainly not when the novel is finished, that is, unless you are a very talented, successful and obsessive author who completely rewrites his finished novel in a different tense.

So, tip number three: write your book in chronological order, in the third person, past tense and cross all the T's and dot all the I's. It might be boring but at least you'll be in the majority: no-one will ask you why you put this before that or what happened to whom. Ignore the alternatives John Mullan discusses in his novel: what does he know anyway.

When cross questioned Sarah did admit to a few idiosyncrasies that she feels inclined to include in her novels – like making sure her characters know where the loo is and (obviously a practical woman) that they make use of it. Another was a fondness for bondage: now some might say that's not idiosyncratic, simply a perfectly normal lifestyle choice. Bound to be for some.

So, tip number four: know how to untie knots. That is if you intend to take research to the nth degree and try everything you have your characters do. This is also applicable if you're simply writing about your dog or your dahlias.

That brings me on to tip number five: include something dirty. Sex for starters, it's worked for Sarah and it could work for you. If the book is about your dog my advice is, be careful, discretion is all: if it's dahlias, digging the dirt is de rigueur.

Now don't expect these tips to automatically make you a successful author like Sarah (amazingly, without my help, she's managed to complete four novels with only several years of study behind her and bags of talent) but if you do follow them you may find yourself with a bestseller on your hands. And if you do, you sooo owe me.


Book Note: was it Philip Roth who completely rewrote his finished novel in a different tense? Everyman perhaps? It's driving me mad: please, someone, put me out of my misery.


Anonymous said...

Hi Lucy Ann
I am trying to find a copy of your book A Little Blue Bucket, which I understand is set in Cape Town.NELM is a national museum situated in Grahamstown that collects all creative writing by southern African authors in English. This includes all fiction - poetry, short stories, novels and plays, as well as diaries, journals, travelogues, interviews, autobiographies and letters. We also have a very large children's section. Our geographical area of research includes South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. All critical material in this field, ie. articles, essays, reviews, theses and dissertations and critical anthologies are also collected.

We have a very active research department that deals with 100's of queries a month. We have 9 databases, covering books, critical works, individual plays, short stories, poems, out of print books, pressclippings, awards, and manuscripts.

Could I ask you to seriously consider making a donation of this book to our library. With the Rand exchange rate at present I am severely restricted in my purchases. Many school and university students and a number of overseas researchers use our facilities as we have the most complete collection under one roof of literature written in English by Southern Africans. This is a totally unique collection, but we are getting further and further behind with overseas publications. Your gift would be publicly acknowledged in our institution, and in our international newsletter. Our website is located at and our newsletter is at this site. If you would prefer to send a review copy, our reviews are included in our website newsletter.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I look forward to hearing from you.
Many thanks
Debbie Landman
National English Literary Museum
87 Beaufort Street
6139 South Africa

Lucy said...

Hi Debbie, thanks for your comment. I shall be delighted to send you a copy of my novel, A Little Blue Jacket. Your museum and library sound fascinating, perhaps I'll get up there one day.
All the best, Lucy