how to write a novel in no easy steps

1: Start writing. An idea is not necessary at this stage.

2: Keep writing. Pay no attention to mundane matters such as plot, character, setting, structure, or story. Just keep writing words until you have around half a million of them.

3: Now take those half a million words and throw. them. away.

4: Stare into the void. Woah. Stare into your computer instead. Rescue an idea you find limping around in the aftermath of the word-apocalypse.  (This idea has survived purely by virtue of its fiendish ambition. Its most impressive quality is its refusal to die, despite having seemingly nothing to live for.)

5: Write until you figure out some kind of structure that can cage this ugly, tenacious bastard of an idea. Fail horribly, shamefully, and repeatedly. The writing will be enriched and nourished by your desperate tears.

6: Completely lose perspective. Employ diversionary tactics.

7: Keep writing the bits you’ve already written. It is important not to give up on the dream of writing something that makes actual sense.

8: Give up. Any ending will do. Who cares.

9: Finish it out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

10: Send it to whichever person in your life you consider to be the most psychologically stable.

11: MOVE ON.


At five ayem, all you can hear is the sound of the river rushing below your window, and the gurgle and spit of the coffee machine. You still have the night, and all its velvet mystery. The day hasn’t yet started; you are there to call down the moon and raise up the sun.

Peaceful. Your neighbours are sleeping. Not one door slams, not one voice is raised. You even feel kindly towards them, at this hour. They’re so sweet, when they’re sleeping. They don’t bother you at all.

You’re someone different at five in the morning. Someone meaningful, purposeful. Because only those who suffer from meaning and purpose force themselves to wake at that hour. Nothing is beyond you then. You can do anything at all. What you do, naturally, is write. It should be no easier or harder than at any other hour, but the muse looks kindly on those who come early to work. She likes to see you there every day, washed and dressed and properly humble.

You learn. It’s a glamourous hour.

life and art

It’s confusing when you’re young and your Whole Life is Ahead of You. When I was young and my Whole Life was Ahead of Me, I didn’t really know what to do with it.  The only thing I’d ever thought seriously about was writing, but that didn’t seem like something I’d even be able to do, let alone make a career of. I didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant, even though I had the academic stuff to pursue any of those careers. I didn’t have much ambition, career-wise, at all.

Even so, I ended up going to university and getting a degree, which didn’t make a lot of difference to my prospects – I still found myself working in jobs where the qualifications required were basic maths and English. (It did give me a chance to go to Japan, though. If you want to work abroad, having a degree can help with getting work visas.) Some years later I went back to university and did a PGCE, which I thought would professionalise me, give me a career and some job security. Then the government cut most of the funding for the courses I teach, withdrew its political goodwill, and pushed colleges into becoming profit-making businesses, which meant that I was only able to get work on temporary contracts, only paid for my teaching hours and given few opportunities for professional development. Or I could work in the private sector, where wages for an hour’s teaching can be as little as £8. Finally, last year, I decided to do an MA in creative writing – not because I thought it would improve my career prospects! I thought I might learn something, though.

So I’ve done the whole education thing. And I think, if I had been smarter from the off, and if I had been braver, I wouldn’t have bothered.

Here’s the thing. Getting degrees didn’t open a lot of doors for me. Employers don’t care that I have a first class degree. It’s not in engineering or maths or a specialised subject, so it’s meaningless – like every other humanities degree. Even a professional, vocational qualification like a PGCE doesn’t get you very far when the only decent teaching jobs are at universities where you are expected to have a PhD just to teach on a sessional English course.

What opened doors for me, gave me opportunities, and made it possible to support myself over the years? Being able to touch type. Secretarial skills are the skills I have that are marketable and usually in demand. And those skills, in my case, are entirely self-taught.

Here’s what I wish I had understood back then: If you’re an artist, be an artist. If you’re a writer, write. Get a job that pays the bills and doesn’t corrode your soul, something you can do without giving your heart. Travel and live cheaply, seek out adventures and experiences, find out what matters to you. Give up on the idea of university as a place of enlightened growth and learning. Universities are businesses now. The idea that an expensive education in the arts or humanities is going to open doors for you is a myth. That’s not how this economy works. It used to be that education was a way out for ordinary, working class people, but it’s not anymore. It’s a trap. It’s a rip off. What might open doors for you is having some kind of practical skill, a good work ethic, and no massive debts to worry about. Be more free. And good luck to you.


how to write stuff and that

I have a confession to make. Actually, it’s kind of embarrassing. I’m making light of it, but it’s serious. I’m addicted to these:

Not just books in general, but books in particular. Books about writing, to be precise.

Last night, I counted. I have 37 books about writing, plus assorted reference books and works of criticism and theory. That’s a lot, right? That’s a crazy amount.

There are books on craft – plot, structure, character, point of view, genre… All these books say the exact same things, over and over until you basically want to kill yourself. Three and five act structure. Get to know your characters. Set the scene. Don’t overdo the exposition… blah blah blah let’s all die.

Then there are the big hitters: Story, by Robert McKee; Syd Field’s Screenwriting. Actually useful if you’re writing a film, although I do suggest getting the hardback edition of Story so that you can use it to beat yourself around the head when you finally watch Adaptation, and realise that some unspeakable genius has already processed the whole thing, turned it inside out, and written a film about it. And got Robert McKee to play himself in it, which is surely the icing on the cake of genius, and a good point at which to start beating yourself around the head.

There are books like Writing Down the Bones, which is perhaps the least helpful but most poetic book about writing ever written; books that polemicise and politicise the act of writing, like Carol Bly’s The Passionate, Accurate Story; and writers’ memoirs, such as Stephen King’s On Writing, which is full of great practical advice and is highly entertaining and readable, too.

The Queen of books about writing has to be The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. This is the book that shames, bullies and goads writers into actually sitting down and working – and laughs in the face of those who think buying/reading books about writing is anything other than procrastination and avoidance of work. I recommend it. It’s worked for me, you know?*

*I’ve totally given them up, honest I have. Well, except that Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook is coming out soon, and I have to see the story fish. But that’s completely different. Completely!

making strange

Reading Alan Garner’s The Stone Book Quartet was an incredible experience. I read it in an afternoon, sitting in the kitchen with the dog asleep at my feet, and rain beating against the window. Not that I was aware of my surroundings for long. The voices in those pages spoke directly to me, called me into their world, and I was drawn completely inside – or rather outside, or elsewhere: this beautiful dark rough nature.

This book is an evocation of feeling, it compels the reader to inhabit the language and be overtaken by it. Nothing happens for the sake of show in Garner’s writing, but each image is organic, profoundly simple, dense with meaning, mysterious, and true. His magic is steeped in physical history, in the landscape, in the intimate connection between humans and the land we live from. The knowledge passed down through generations, which encompasses the true nature of the material, and works with it in precise, sympathetic, patient, intuitive ways. Crafting yourself so you can do the work without fear.

Garner’s craft is fluid, natural, timeless. His craft is to find the seam of magic running deep under everything. His infallible mastery of language is necessary in order to bring these old true stories back from the mists of time.

In 1999, Garner gave a brilliant speech in which he talked about what language is for and how it works:

Unless words are metaphor, they are dead. You will find this wherever you come across a jargon, which is a valid construct stripped of ambiguity in order to communicate matters precisely, simply and beyond misunderstanding. The words are not elegant and have no literary value. They serve, but never dictate.

What we need to follow, then, is the ambiguous, the strange, the nonsensical. There is no urgent need to worry about making sense. What we must do is make strange.

A work of art is a dream. For all its apparent obviousness it does not explain itself and is always ambiguous. A dream never says, “You must”, or, “This is truth”. It presents an image. To grasp its meaning, we must let it shape us as it shaped the writer. Then we also understand the nature of his experience. He has plunged into the healing and redeeming depths of the unconscious, where we are not lost in the isolation of consciousness, but where all are caught in a common rhythm that allows the individual to communicate feelings and strivings to mankind as a whole.

This connection to one another, deep in the heart of this dream, where all is strange and obscure — is where we find the hidden magic of our lives. And that’s what art is for, to serve that connection and to increase its vibrancy and power.

fear of music

Writers doling out writing advice sometimes say angry-sounding things about how writing isn’t therapy, and how if you’ve got problems you should go and see a counsellor rather than inflicting your shortcomings onto readers. I agree with this, but only up to a point.

The part I agree with is to do with good writing. As an ideal, or let’s say as a principle, you shouldn’t ever inflict anything on readers that isn’t well written. So, the sort of writing that I might have done in my secret diary twenty years ago, which started something along the lines of, ‘Oh dear god I am so fucking miserable, I hate myself, why am I such a dick?’ and continued in that manner for about 4000 pages, is not the sort of thing one should ever try to publish. It’s not good writing. It may have been therapeutic to write, but it isn’t pleasant, interesting, fun, revealing, or anything else that makes something worth reading. For the sake of one’s dignity, if nothing else, this sort of writing should remain securely locked away or, preferably, thrown on a fire once it has served its purpose.

But that is so obvious, it almost goes without saying. Does any serious writer really need to be told that their private, unstructured ramblings and outbursts about their personal problems are better not shared with the rest of the world? No, of course not.

That’s one of the problems with advice in general. Sometimes it’s so obvious that it’s completely useless. But this piece of advice is both obvious AND really, really wrong.

Because of course writing is therapy! It’s absolutely a way for people to discover, explore, analyse and maybe even heal the deep, dangerous parts of themselves.

Talk to any writer, ask them why they write. A few may answer that it’s fun, a hobby, a way to pass time. But the vast majority will tell you that they are driven by some unnamed and unnameable force within themselves. They don’t know exactly why they write, but they know that it fulfills a fundamental need; that if they don’t write, they are miserable; that writing keeps them sane; that they have so much to say that needs to be heard; that only when they are writing do they feel like real people.

Writing, for many writers, is a way of managing their unhappiness, their lack, their emptiness. It’s a way of making themselves heard, of being listened to and understood. It’s a way of trying to understand their damage, heal their childhood, rewrite their past or some aspect of themselves. Writers are broken people who use writing as a way of trying to mend themselves.

Now, there is probably an optimum level of fucked-up-ness for a writer to have in order to be successful. Probably just a little bit of childhood trauma is enough to create a person who is driven to write, but balanced enough to bring discipline and habit and commercialism into the mix. The rest of us may find it harder and suffer more in the process of learning how to become good people and good writers.

The more you write, of course, the more you learn about how to write, and the more you learn about that, the deeper your stories can take you. Which is why, every so often, writers find themselves completely paralysed and unable to continue. Writing is an act of faith in oneself. Writing your stories is an act of declaring one’s stories to be worth telling. And for damaged people, to act with self-worth and self-belief is something that can be very frightening. It can block you altogether. It can take time and strength to muster the courage to go on.

To say that writing isn’t therapy, especially to say it in that aggressive ‘how dare you use writing in that way!’ sort of tone, just doesn’t make any sense. It denies the fact that we are driven to write, it denies the aspects of ourselves that we are (consciously or unconsciously) trying to understand by writing. It denies the essence of what a story IS.

Stories are the way we try to know ourselves – as individuals, as societies and cultures, as people in historical and material contexts. Stories are how we create and transmit meaning, values and beliefs. Stories are what make us human. What is more therapeutic than a story? (Don’t you remember how stories saved you, taught you, gave you a way out when you needed one?) And if you don’t think stories are therapeutic, why do you even bother writing? What’s the point in being a writer, if you’re not trying to save a life?

the time it takes

There’s this moment in the writing of a story, when you’ve written and rewritten, revised, edited, taken out all the extra words, and given your characters a few more things to do other than nodding their heads, shaking their heads, smiling and shrugging; there’s this moment where you think you have finished. Yay, you wrote a story! So you give it one more go over, correct your spellings, and send it off into the world.

About a year and a half later, you read your story again, and see all your clumsy sentences and all your mistakes. You realise that there is a way to resolve that nagging plot problem. You suddenly understand why that character does what she does. You see how easy it would be to rewrite that section of prose and make it say exactly what you failed to say the first time around.

Unfortunately, by this point, it’s very likely that you are reading your story in some magazine or book, which you have also encouraged all your friends and family to buy. Cringe-a-rama!

If you’re still holding on to that story – perhaps you couldn’t sell it, or maybe something didn’t feel quite right, and you never tried – you are now the luckiest writing piglet in the world. You get to revise the hell out of it, make it beautiful, and correct all those terrible mistakes you had no idea you were making at the time.

As much as we want to get published NOW and have people reading our stories RIGHT NOW, patience and slowness make stories better. I suspect this goes double or triple for novels, where there are so many more elements to fuck up, and so much more impatience to get the damn thing over and done with.

It’s reassuring to know how much we improve as writers, simply by continuing to turn up and write as often as we can. Even when you feel completely stuck, you are processing all that experience into wisdom, so that one day you can say to yourself, wow that is really a crappy story I wrote. I could write it so much better now.

damn the dark, damn the light

Writers love to talk about writing. More than that, they love to talk about writing with other writers. Most of all, they love to give other writers advice about writing. I have some opinions about that.

First, writers who take other writers seriously are fools. All writers are full of shit, especially when it comes to writing.

Secondly, writers who give advice are usually only doing so as a way to avoid the problem of not taking their own advice.

I don’t give advice about writing, mainly because I think it’s pointless. The only knowledge worth having is that which you’ve gained through your own effort and through the long slow process of writing practice. Nothing else will make a difference to you, no matter how wise or insightful it may be. Therefore, in my opinion, seeking and giving advice is a waste of time.

So my advice is to ignore advice and just do whatever suits you, whatever fits in with your routine, whatever works for you personally. As long as you are developing your writing gift, in whatever way you can, then you’re doing all right.

And… that’s all.

and how does that make you feel?

Of all the books people have raved to me about recently, the only one I really enjoyed was The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. What a great book that is! I like it a lot. A few years ago I wote a story called ‘Fucking Narnia’ that was pretty much based on the same idea, of adults from this world somehow accessing Narnia, and having to deal with it, as adults. My story really didn’t work (shame, because obviously it had a great title), but The Magicians would have blown it out of the water anyway, because it has such a well-realised setting, with proper characters and insane plotlines, which are nonetheless completely plausible within the logic of the world(s). I think the real genius of it was the way Grossman did the Harry Potter/Narnia mash-up thing. It’s the kind of story that could have been really-diculous, but ends up being just perfect.

(That reminds me of something Michel Gondry said about making art. It was something along the lines of, ‘you know you’ve got a good idea when it feels somewhat ridiculous.’ Furnish me with the actual quote, anyone? He said it in the DVD extras for The Science of Sleep, a film with the most beautiful fluffy animation and lovely multi-lingual appeal.)

Two of the other books that have been the subject of rave reviews lately are 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, and A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.

1Q84, as I have written about here, I found extremely bland and, whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was boring, I would say it was flat and completely forgettable. For me, it had none of the impact of Murakami’s earlier work, none of the mysterious other-wordliness (despite being set in an actual Other World), and none of the emotional connection I’d been hoping for.

I finished A Visit from the Goon Squad last night, and was pretty disappointed with that, too. It’s well-written, no doubt about that. It’s very well written, indeed, so you hardly notice it flowing by. But again, it made very little impact on me. I felt that I’d seen it all before. Specifically, it reminded me of A M Homes’ writing, which, to be fair, I’d liked a lot a few years ago, but which now strikes me as a bit too self-consciously ‘literary’.

I mean, what’s wrong with a linear chronology, and one or two characters that you care about? That you feel something for? What is the purpose of writing, if not to connect you to other worlds and other people? For me, if a novel or story doesn’t provide that emotional connection, then I don’t care how clever or well written it is – it has failed in the fundamental task of all literature. One of my favourite writers of all time is Philip K Dick, because all his stories connect you emotionally to the rest of the world – to the universe – to PKD’s own messed-up head, if nothing else. Frightening, disturbing, even funny – but they never leave you feeling flat. Another writer I love is Rikki Ducornet. Her novel Gazelle is one of the most stunning books I have ever read. It made me feel a thousand things, stirred up memories and desires, and connected me to a place inside my own self, where I finally understood something (a particular, personal thing) more deeply than I ever had before.

Of course, this ’emotional connection’ is a subjective experience, and I’m sure I can find hundreds of people who were deeply moved by books that left me feeling nothing. To me, though, it all comes down to the characters. A novel doesn’t have to have a linear plot, but I do think a book has a better chance of connecting with a reader if it has strong characters, precise language, and concerns itself with fundamental conflicts of the human heart. Love, fear, death, betrayal, regret, pain.  Sometimes writers seem to forget this. They get lost in their quest to be brilliant, and end up producing convoluted books that don’t seem anything like storytelling to me.

When I was seventeen, I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles for the first time. I remember I stayed up until three a.m. finishing it, and when it was finished, I cried and held it to my heart. I felt bereft that the story was over. The characters and the conflicts they embodied seemed very real and powerful to me. I wanted to keep reading it forever.

It’s not often that I feel that way about a book these days, but I still long to encounter characters I believe in, who I care about, and who seem real to me. That is more important to me than making some clever statement about the state of politics or post-modern anxieties or the world after 9-11. I want to read books that make me feel something. That’s why, for me, The Magicians is a far better book than 1Q84.

What books have you enjoyed recently? What would you recommend to this jaded reader?

not the daily george

Folks, I am reconsidering this whole blogathon thing. I am really struggling to find writing time at the moment, and I am way way way behind on critting and editing and subbing stories. I think a daily blog is just too ambitious for me right now, so I’ve decided to reel it in a bit.

From now on I’m going to be blogging twice a week, probably on Mondays and Fridays. I want to write blog posts that are interesting and entertaining, rather than ones that are rushed and full of complaints about how little writing time I have. The last thing I would want is to suck all the joy out of blogging! It is a really fun thing to do, and I love hearing from people, and I hope that by posting less frequently, there will be more here that’s worth reading and talking about.

And on that note, it’s back to work on the novel…