The majority of ‘how to’ books and articles on writing tend to tell you two things, and quite firmly at that: write about what you know, and don’t write an autobiography as, unless you’re famous, no one wants to know. That might sound contradictory. After all, what you know comes directly from your experiences, so if no one wants to hear about that, how can you write about what you know?
Moreover, there’s no way H. G. Wells knew about or had experienced time travel or invaders from Mars, but he wrote about those things, and quite successfully too as it happens.
The thing to bear in mind is that ‘what you know’ is not necessarily the same as a story of your life. If it was, I would never have written the books I have, because, quite frankly, to an outsider (even to me at times) my life, like so many other people’s lives, are downright ordinary and often boring and mundane. Not the stuff of novels, you’d think.
Then you’d think wrong. The general trajectory of people’s lives can seem everyday and unexciting, but it’s the tiny nuances that make them interesting – the people you meet, the little events that make up the fabric of your life, the knowledge you absorb, which is the magic fairy dust which adds sparkle and individuality to your writing.
No one has lived your life. No one has had quite the same experiences as you, though many will have had similar. No one has quite the same mind-set as you. We might share ideologies, political allegiances, familial relationships, jobs, being single, being happy, being lonely, being rich or poor; in fact we share these many attributes with millions of people around the globe. But we all view each of these aspects of our lives, indeed the world, in a subtly different way.
It goes without saying that everyone has a mother and father, for instance. The relationship you have with yours is not going to be the same as that I have with mine. There are too many variables for that to happen. Good or bad, that makes each relationship unique, and in turn makes your experience unique. This is the same for all aspects of your life. Far from being mundane or ordinary, your life might not seem it, but it is a rich vein of experience which you can mine to your advantage.
Let’s take characterisation as an example. Characterisation is the key to every good or great or classic novel (of which I’ll go into more detail at a later time). It’s the bedrock on which any story is based. Without good characters (the reader doesn’t have to like them, by the way), characters which they can empathise with, recognise as real, living, breathing people, you might as well try baking a cake without flour.
To give your characters depth, you need to give them thoughts, experiences, a past life which has influenced them, and the way they interact with other characters, verbally or non-verbally, will paint a picture in the reader’s mind as to what makes them tick. It will make them feel real.
Use your individual experiences, your own thoughts, those of people you’ve known, those of people you’ve read about, to give your characters that much needed fully-rounded feel. Bring your unique take to their fictional lives. You don’t have to give them your exact life, or that of your friends (or enemies!), but you can draw on those.
Let me give you an example. When I was a young kid, we saw a bird feeder in someone’s back yard and on that feeder was a chunk of coconut. Well, we’d never even seen a real coconut before so we made our younger brother (we made him do everything) nip over the fence and take it down so we could try it. Actually, it wasn’t as good as we thought it would be. Rather soapy. But we were all aware that technically we’d stolen something, and that was very bad! In my book ‘Max’ I had the main character doing exactly the same, climbing over the fence of a teacher’s wall to get at the coconut. The teacher comes out and beats the kid about the head, putting him in hospital and providing a link crucial to understanding the book. I used the incident from my childhood and yet changed it so that in the end it wasn’t really my life at all.
Novels are like colouring books. Thousands of the same one are printed, but each one will be coloured in differently by its owner. That’s the trick. Take your experiences – what you know – and use them to create something unique to you but yet engaging enough for others to make them want to keep reading.
But beware of slipping into autobiography or that the character you write about is too much you. I will often stop myself and think: ‘Is this the character thinking this, or is it me? Would they think (or talk) like this? If I think it’s more me, I’ll rewrite it. You character has to be independent of you. The writer’s voice should not intrude, as they say. But more on this when I go deeper into characterisation!
As for H. G. Wells writing about time travel, he wasn’t. Okay, so technically he was. But Wells was a socialist. There’s more than a hint of his knowledge and beliefs about the future in the novel if people didn’t wake up to the fact that there were the haves and the have-nots, and that things could get rather bad for the world if we didn’t address contemporary social issues. So he took what he knew – his socialistic views – and he turned it into a story about time travel. The thing is, even non-socialists can read the book and enjoy it, because his beliefs have merely influenced the book not swamped it. Here’s betting the many middle-class characters at the beginning, exhibiting scepticism and indifference to the time traveller’s extraordinary tale were based on people he’d encountered in his real life too.
So your life is unique: allow this to filter into your writing and you will make that unique too.
Go ahead, write about what you know…
The Power of the Story.
This is a true story. There was a man driving home along a country road. On a particularly narrow and winding stretch with blind bends, he suddenly saw a car heading towards him. Being too far on the wrong side of the road the man swerved to avoid the oncoming car. Unfortunately, this diversionary action caused his car to hit a tree. Miraculously, he wasn’t hurt even though his vehicle was a mangled wreck. Totally shaken, yet thoroughly relieved, he started to walk towards the driver of the other car, who had stopped immediately and was rushing over to help.
‘I thought I was a dead man,’ said the driver, clearly affected by his narrow miss. ‘I’m so lucky to be alive!’
At which point the damaged tree toppled over and fell on the man, killing him instantly.
Even with such a short and deliberately simplified story (it really is true, by the way) it is impossible not to get drawn into it, even if that’s at a superficial level. For such a short story this tale has many of the elements that pull people in: for a start, it has a beginning, a middle and an end; it’s a lonely country setting; it has a main character; there’s sudden drama, then tragedy, then irony, and – looking at it another way – a touch of black humour.
I can also guarantee you pictured most, if not the entire, scene in your head: the lonely road, the sudden swerve, the almighty crash, and then imagined the creak and snapping of the wood as the tree slowly fell down, finally that crushing blow with the man disappearing under the tangled canopy of fallen boughs. What’s more, you’ve just relived the entire thing again with me repeating it, this time with even fewer words. It’s impossible not to. It’s as if humans are wired so they’re hyper receptive to stories.
By wanting to become a writer you’re going to be engaged in a most powerful, though often underestimated force – a force capable of manipulating (if only in a temporary way, though often the effects can be long-term indeed) a person’s mind, closing them off to the real world, and even controlling their emotions, making them happy or making them sad, or generating fear and laughter, and all through the use of words.
There’s nothing new about stories. They’ve been with us for thousands of years. Before the advent of the written word (in whatever shape or form that would eventually take), it was oral, humans developing the ability to imagine, and then to relate that imagining to others verbally, who in turn pictured what was being said and being drawn into this shared, visualised, world. But few people even ask why the story is so important to humans, why it has endured to this day in myriad forms, be it books, films, plays, newspapers and so on.
If you’ve got children, or, like two members of my family who are teachers, you’ll know that you only have to say ‘once upon a time…’ and the kids fall quiet, their little eyes widening, mouths open in rapt attention, frozen and ready for the story. Try it, you’ll be surprised if not amazed at how quickly they’re drawn in. Anything that can tame kids like that is a powerful thing!
What’s really interesting about stories are the perennial themes that are thousands of years old and yet are with us today. As the old adage goes, there’s nothing new under the sun – there aren’t even any new stories, just new ways of telling old ones. Good, bad, sex, violence, greed, power, duplicity, love, death – these themes are an integral part of many ancient stories and continue to excite modern audiences as much as they did, say, Vikings sitting around log fires. And there is a reason Shakespeare is still so beloved, not just because of the sheer beauty of the works, but because the characters’ flaws and desires, their aspirations and capability for good and bad, still resonate today. But I’ll save that for another blog!
The story as a powerful force, you say? Not really sure about that.
Trust me, it really is.
As part of my degree, I once went into a church to study the organisational culture there. I attended a morning service as part of this, effectively an outsider looking in, studying how everyone interacted and the various cultural norms that were in place (fascinating in its own right). But one thing which intrigued me was the vicar’s sermon – not that I can remember the details now so far down the line, and actually that’s not important. He started out by telling a story. Sure, I knew it was going to be a story that had some kind of moral at the end and a link to God and the Bible. That’s a given. But even as an impartial observer, I was drawn into the simple story. It was going somewhere and I didn’t know where. When the end came, the vicar cleverly tied it up to the said moral and inevitable link to Jesus’ teachings. Now the story wasn’t special, the link was, when I went back to college to re-examine my visit, not even a great link. But at the time I remember thinking it sounded far more profound than it actually was, and that the vicar himself was a very insightful and clever man. I even felt spiritually moved by it, and I’m not a spiritual man. And that made me wonder why. What exactly was going on?
It was when I studied the presentations of successful modern-day business gurus alongside Malinowski’s works on witchdoctors and shamans that it became clear. It provided a direct link between ancient traditions of storytelling and its relevance to the world of today, and how the power of the story still continues to exert its extraordinary and powerful hold over us.
Now you wouldn’t think a business guru, a vicar and a village shaman would have anything in common. But business gurus, when advocating and making presentations on the next ‘big thing’ which gets everyone in the business world excited, usually begin with a story, which is generally a metaphor for the trials, tribulations and pitfalls of the current setup or issue you’re facing in your business. You’re intrigued, because, firstly, it’s a story, and we’re automatically wired to listen to a story; secondly, they’re taking you on journey and you’re helpless and have to follow, because you need to know where it’s going, where it will end. Then they hit you with the answer to the riddle you’ve been trying to work out, and it just so happens when the speaker tells you the answer, you’re left amazed, because it seems so profound it has to be amazing. But the audience have been psychologically duped.
If you examine the details in the cold light of day there is generally nothing special about what the speaker has told you. But they have two advantages. One is the nature of the story itself; the other is the great advantage of knowing the answer to where the story is headed. No one else in the room knows this, remember. If they’d simply come out at the beginning and told you about their theories or plans without the elaborate dressing, its impact would be far reduced, and it wouldn’t be as amazing. The vicar did exactly the same with his sermon. What Malinowski discovered was that this is exactly the same technique used by the village shamans he studied. These village wise men wrapped what was the ordinary in extraordinary tales to which only they knew the answer and so any revelation would appear wondrous and mystical to the listeners. The ancient use of storytelling gives them all – the vicar, the guru and the shaman – a certain manipulative power over their audiences.
I unashamedly used this technique myself in the many presentations I gave during my career in the charity and public sector, beginning with a story which is a metaphor for the subject you’re trying to cover. People remembered those presentations I gave with stories in them better than those that didn’t have one. I’ve even had people come up to me many years after the event and say they liked the presentation, and then relate the story I told!
That’s the power of story. Use it carefully and use it wisely!
Motivation, Passion and Ability.
We had an elderly relative come to stay with us some time ago. She loves playing the piano, so we brought out my electronic keyboard for her to use. Leaving her alone to enjoy her tinkling, my wife and I soon looked quizzically at each other. Not only did the electronic drumbeat seem to be accompanying a different tune to the one our visitor was playing, but it was impossible to work out what that tune was. It ebbed and flowed, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, the notes coming together in untidy clumps or standing isolated like a kid no one wants to play with, the entire thing not unlike some bizarre kind of freeform jazz.
‘Can you tell what that’s supposed to be?’ I asked my wife.
She shook her head and grinned. ‘But she loves it,’ she said, and we left her to it.
The tune was Greensleeves, by the way.
The thing was, she was playing all the right notes in the right order, of that I’m sure, but with no real sense of timing, no sense of rhythm. And the offbeat drums just made it sound doubly worse.
Which proves you can learn the mechanics, but there has to be something extra for it to work. I sometimes think of words in the same way as musical notation. And they are, after all, words we can all learn and use. Mostly, they’re words we use every day and think so little of. So why, in the right hands, do those same words, subtly arranged, make beautiful music, and in others discordant rubbish? Is it already within you, a natural talent, or can we learn it?
In the end, I think it’s all down to motivation, passion and ability, and whether there’s some additional kind of biological determinism going on, a gene that makes the entire process easier (a natural sense of rhythm in our visitor would have gone a long way), or it’s something that’s encouraged and learnt, or a combination of all these things, it’s an indisputable fact that some people make better writers than others. What you need to be is one of the better ones, obviously.
There is the old adage that there is a book inside everyone just waiting to get out. So why is it most of us don’t write it?
My wife often comes up with a good idea and jokingly says that it would make a good book. I say to her: yes, you’re right, it would, so go ahead and do it, write it, make it real, tell your story. She usually looks at me as if I’d asked her to make a parachute jump, naked, and either shrugs and says ‘I can’t write,’ or she laughs at me and shakes her head like I just don’t get it. Mind you, she does that a lot lately, so maybe I shouldn’t read too much into that last one. But here is a genuinely intelligent woman, well read, whom I know without doubt has the ability to knit together the words, simply never taking it beyond a vague ‘I could if I wanted to, but I don’t know…’
I’ve heard it so many times from so many different people: every now and again, perhaps sparked by an anecdote, a remembrance, that little idea for a book rises up mayfly-like from deep inside the pond of our dreams, takes on a lamentably short life of its own, full of possibilities and potential, and then, instead if taking flight, it sinks down and is, if not entirely drowned, then lost for a long, long while. Why is that? What makes some of us move beyond the idle dream and finally take up the pen (or hit the computer keyboard)? What makes a writer a writer? How do you know you’re a writer? Does simply performing the act of writing make you a writer? Why are range eggs always free?
Okay, enough of the questions. I guess it starts with motivation. People’s motivations for wanting to become a writer are many and varied: I want to be famous; I want to be rich and famous; I want to quit my boring job and do something I love doing instead; I want an easy job; I want my name to liveth forevermore in the annals of great literature; the last book I read was crap, and the author got paid for it, and I know I can write far better crap than that. And so on. But just to prepare you for the journey ahead (and I’m sorry if this will disappoint you) most writers will never be rich and famous. Anyhow, readers rather like the idea of a writer struggling along, scribbling away in some grotty garret, bloodless, starving, striving, pouring out their soul, fretting over the placement of a colon, wasting away and finally getting the recognition they deserve after they’re dead, and if you can die young and tragically all the better.
But here’s assuming you’d like to be alive and enjoy the fruits of your labours, there is one crucial factor which marks you out for success in whatever you do in life and that is motivation. My wife doesn’t have that motivation to write, and that’s why she’ll never write that book inside her: she simply doesn’t want to do it bad enough. You have to want to make it happen. She’s fine with other things in her life, where she has a genuine interest, a regular dynamo in fact, but writing’s a chore for her really. As it is for most people, if we’re honest. Or if not a chore, a fear, like I used to fear the maths lessons with the deputy head at secondary school, where he’d make us all stand up one by one and recite our times-tables in front of the entire class, and I never got beyond the two-times table because of nerves. I prayed to God I’d get to the threes, even promising to become a monk, whatever it took, but He obviously didn’t want another monk and I never reached the fabled three-times table. Now that’s the kind of fear writing evokes in some people.
But for me writing was never a chore or a fear. I just loved writing, even from a young age. I suppose my initial motivation was that my stories were just another set of fantasy worlds I could enter, create, populate, escape the hum-drum, and it was limited by my imagination, which as a youngster was on overdrive. That motivation soon morphed into a passion for writing and the written word. But to say I had a natural talent or ability would be taking it too far, or if it was natural, it took a long while to show itself. I’ve seen my school reports from when I started school at five years old, and there was little indication writing was going to play a big part in my life.
At the age of nine, in school we were ranked according to intelligence in a very physical way – the desks were in rows, the first row occupied by the most able, these being the angels with their glowing robes and shining faces, with the intelligence of the boys (it was a boys-only class back then) gradually diminishing down the rows until we reached the supposed Neanderthals at the very back of the class, sitting in the dark, grunting and picking fleas off each other. I was placed about halfway up this almost arbitrary evolutionary pecking order, aware that I didn’t have the wings to be an angel, and afraid I might end up fighting over bones with some of the roughest kids to ever prowl the streets if I didn’t apply myself.
Academically, I was deemed OK, nothing special – the men from MENSA weren’t about to come knocking on my mother’s door, that’s for sure. According to my last teacher in junior school, I ‘wrote interesting stories’, and that was it, no sign I would actually make a career out of writing. But what drove me was that passion for the written word I talked about, I wanted to learn about punctuation and paragraph construction, the lovely little semi-colon, the darling dash, the allure of alliteration – nerdy traits that could really get me beaten up by the Neanderthals if they ever found out.
Unfortunately, motivation and passion alone won’t get you far without ability. Let me illustrate: you may have seen those reality music TV shows – The X- Factor, or American Idol, or similar – the usual gaggle of wannabes taking their chance to make it big (and rich and famous with it, of course). How excruciating it is to watch some of them screeching away, completely out of tune, declaring this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives, and yet clearly not going to make it; that is, clear to everyone except themselves and their friends and eager parents who must be as tone-deaf as their offspring. Tragically, some of them are not going to make anything except great, if exploitative, telly. That’s passion without ability.
What I’m saying is you need to have more than a desire. The reader doesn’t care about your dreams – they just want a good story well told. The only way you can do that is to make the words sing like a siren, drawing the reader into your world so that they don’t see words at all: they feel real emotion and see visions. Short of slipping something illegal in their drink, you cannot achieve this without understanding how words work, and this is where wide reading and constant practice come in. I studied other writers. Picked apart what they’ve written. I didn’t limit myself to what would become my chosen genre, either. Even after all these years, I can be struck dumb, my jaw hanging open, by a great piece of writing, wishing I’d written that, trying to work out how it was done. And then thinking, ‘oh my God, I’m totally out of my depth here!’ My confidence, caught in the spotlights of real genius, can soon be shot down in flames.
But take heart from the fact that chances are you’re never going to be another Shakespeare (unless of course that really is your surname, in which case you already are, so to speak). Genius is rare. So don’t get hung up on trying to be the next Bard or beat yourself up over it. You can only strive to be as good as you can be. And that can be amazing enough. After all, you don’t want to be a clone of someone else anyway; you want to be recognised for being your unique self. So you may have author heroes – I have mine, and all have influenced my work, from Thomas Hardy to John Steinbeck, Graham Swift to James Herbert and H. G. Wells – but you need to find your own distinctive voice and have confidence in it. If you have a story to tell, have the ability to tell it, you must have faith in yourself. First steps are always faltering. It’s the nature of first steps. But without them we can’t learn to walk, and then to run.
The act of writing does not make you a writer, just as the act of running does not make you an athlete, or singing on the X-Factor auditions make you a professional singer. It also takes more than simply having a good idea for a book to turn you into a writer. But if you write because you are driven to write, and are willing to seriously learn your craft, to dedicate yourself to it, to learn from others, to strive to produce the best you can, to recognise your own faults and try to put them right, then you are on the road to becoming a successful writer.
In the beginning…
I have this memory of me sitting in my car (it was a 1989 Honda Accord Aerodeck, to be specific, and because I really loved that car) in the office car park, and the rain was beating down on the roof. I was shivering, because it was winter and it was cold. I was scribbling away on an A4 writing pad, the crumbs from my limp egg-and-cress sandwich sitting on my lap like tiny snowflakes in spite of my efforts to keep myself and the seats clean. I’m sure people who saw me through the blinds of the office windows, rushing out every lunchtime to grab something to eat then dash back to the car and not emerge until my allotted hour was up, regarded me as a bit of an oddball. But in wintertime, and with nowhere else private to take out my pad and pen (sounds a bit risqué when you say it like that), where else can you find the time to be a writer? For me, my safe places to write were in the car at lunchtime, or in the bath (not at lunchtime, obviously). Time to write was very limited and a constant issue. Work tended to get in the way, and later, having a family really put the squeeze on it.
Of course, you have to understand it’s a form of addiction or, in its extreme, madness. They just haven’t coined a name for it yet. But I know there’s a great deal of the population who suffer from it, and who keep it secret, and when the doctors finally get round to recognising and naming this condition then the wards are going to be full to straining. I think that’s why they refuse to fully acknowledge it. The strain on the NHS budgets would be too much…
I know a lot of people who write, and most of them have only come out and said it after they’ve found out I’m a writer too. Usually, the guilty admission is whispered so no one else can overhear. It’s a strange thing, but writing is one of those things people will not openly admit to, like having a third nipple, or a collection of mint, never-played Barry Manilow albums sitting in a candlelit shrine beneath his ornately-framed photograph. But when they find a likeminded soul, why, the joy on their faces is something to behold. I am not alone after all! There is someone else out there just like me!
And, I have to admit, until I finally started getting money in return for my scribbling, I too kept it very hush-hush, only my very closest friends getting to know, and usually by accident rather than design. Given my paucity of close friends, that meant only two people outside my wife and kids ever knew I wrote novels, for a period of about fifteen years. It took another two years of actually selling my books before I finally admitted I was a writer without feeling totally embarrassed.
Because that’s what I felt, I guess: embarrassed to say so. I come from a gritty working-class background, where people had proper jobs and came home mucky from the pit and sang mucky songs in the communal showers after they’d all played a good, mucky game of rugby. Yeah, you bet I felt embarrassed. I suppose it’s also like someone wanting to be a successful pop singer – sure, it’s OK to dream, but come on, actually realising it? Do you know the odds against you being a success?
Now here’s a fact: I wanted to be a successful pop star. Well, not quite the truth – I wanted to ditch my mundane sales job, set up in a band with my brothers and play bass guitar for a living. (It’s a known fact I can’t sing – but that’s never stopped other successful pop singers). If we got a record deal and became famous all the better. Needless to say, though we soldiered on for a few years, slogging our way round northern spit-and-sawdust Working Men’s Clubs, we got neither. Being in a band, you can’t hide failure either. Everyone knows you’ve eventually had it up to here with trying to make it work, had a big bust-up over who has the worst dance moves, who should take off their damn sunglasses and stop being sulky (it really isn’t cool!) and each one of you is now pursuing individual solo careers, none of which will go anywhere.
Being a writer is similar – and by writer in this instance I mean an unpublished writer, someone starting out (though I still admit my profession with a small degree of reticence) – there’s an almost inbuilt need to hide the fact. Now, if you’re like me, that’s like trying to hide the colour of your eyes, because ever since I could remember, I’ve wanted to write stories. I never even told my mother my ambitions; At the age of 17, I told her I was thinking of joining the Royal Navy, and she looked horrified, then saddened, looking me up and down before all but saying I was gay, because everyone in the navy is gay, she pointed out. Fact. Actually, she said it in far cruder terms, which sort of gives you an impression of the home culture I was working within. You think I’m going to tell her I want to write for a living after that?
What I’m saying, is that it’s OK to admit you’re a writer and might want to make a living out of it. (As it’s also Ok to admit you’ve got a third nipple and a Barry Manilow shrine, but this isn’t really the forum for it). Put in black and white, I write full-time now and effectively get paid for doing so by people buying my work. That’s a bonus. The real kick, after all this time, is people actually reading my novels and liking them! (Can I forget those who hate them, just for now?). It’s every writer’s dream. But they always say be careful what you wish for or you might get it…
Ah, the pain and the pleasure! What I’d like to do through this blog, if possible, is walk you through both, using my own humble experiences as a rough guide, perhaps enable you to realise your own personal dreams of becoming a successful writer – whatever success means to you – taking you through inspiration to publication and through all the strange, fascinating little places between…
So, if there's anyone out there who suffers from the same scribbling condition I have, I'd love to hear from you
See you soon.
(Okay, who’s had my collectors-edition single of Mandy, and not put it back where it belongs, damn it?)