How to write a book

One foot in another world: discovering what it is to be a novelist

freya hartas carl has the funk‘I’ve been working on a novel,’ he said, and worlds collided.

I have such conversations all the time, but never in that place. I was freelancing on the magazine where once upon a time I was a full-time sub-editor. It was a day of facts, punctuation, page proofs, libel-watching, house style, hard news and deadlines.

Then one of the desk editors told me he’d started a novel and we jumped universes.

First he told me he’d had a story idea. An idle ‘what if’ moment; an entertaining daydream. Then, purely to keep track, it became necessary to write it down.

One day he discovered a book that seemed made for this situation (not Nail Your Novel; we need to have words about that). Before then, he hadn’t known that author manuals existed. He hadn’t done writing exercises since his journalism training, but now he found himself drawing up character sheets and developing back stories.

Ideas continued to ambush him, raining out of the sky like the pieces from random jigsaws. He saw an outlandish person on the train. Big hat, fur coat and tarantula-tight jeans: exactly what his character would wear. Once transplanted into the manuscript, the character disobeyed the story plan and did something else. It’s now a crime novel, which my colleague didn’t intend, but the characters made him do it.

He’s a journalist. He finds the facts, gets the quotes and rattles out the words. This novel, though, is not playing ball. Although it follows him like a mental entourage, it only speaks and moves when he’s not at the keyboard or can’t grab a pen. Strap-hanging on the train, interviewing an expert. Even in the shower. He declared this with some outrage, as though the characters had snuck in and swiped the curtain. Which is pretty much how he regards the whole surprising business.

Writing has been my habit for so long that I’d forgotten what it was like when it was new. Of course we never stop honing our craft but these days my zone of discovery has shifted to marketing, finding where I fit and what new platform I need to learn. Although these tools and possibilities are fresh and exciting, it’s nice to be reminded how I got here and what it all comes back to.

Tell me: how did you get here?

Thanks for the drawing, Freya Hartas, used with permission

lbf kobo
Squinting to read it? Click the pic to enlarge

NEWS If you’re at the London Book Fair on Wednesday this week, drop by the Kobo stand where I’ll be Writer In Residence! This is a rather astonishing development and I’m still pinching myself, but I’ll write a roundup post afterwards where I can indulge the ‘wow’ moment and hopefully say something useful too. Navigate your way to stand Y505 in the digital zone between 2.30 and 3pm  on Wednesday 17th April (or instruct your nose to find coffee because it’s near the cafe).

20 thoughts on “One foot in another world: discovering what it is to be a novelist

  1. I’ve always made up stuff, even as a very little kid. When I learned how to write, I stated writing then down. I have gone through very long stretches of not writing them down, but I always slide back into the habit.

  2. My husband jokes that I live in my own little world most of the time. My imagination has always been extremely strong. But there’s this one story and theme that I keep coming back to and after I finally had enough of the voices at some point last year, I started to write it down. I can relate to your friends anxiety too. My characters talk to me at the most inopportune moments and as I am slightly obsessive I find not editing and editing and editing and you get the picture, as I go very hard. Thanks for this post made me really think. 🙂

  3. Fantasy role-playing games brought me here. It started when I was a teen playing Dungeons & Dragons. I spent hours assembling adventures with stories behind them. My friends and I started playing before “modules” became popular, so we created our own.

    In college, I briefly flirted with the thought of becoming a fiction writer, but my Creative Writing class sucked all the fun out of that idea. It seems that one can’t learn proper character development by writing genre fiction, but I had no interest in writing literary fiction. At about the same time, I discovered a penchant for non-fiction through my Technical Writing class. I also discovered a love for computer programming, and my career path was set.

    During my time as a software developer, my technical writing skills have come in handy many times. The fun times I had writing game adventures and my dreams of writing fiction faded into my past.

    In the mid-2000’s, I rediscovered gaming. Some of the younger programmers at work introduced me to a few computer-based games I could play by myself. None of those games really excited me though, because they were nothing like the D&D adventures I sorely missed; most were what’s known as “First-person shooters.” In 2010, that changed. I acquired a title by Bethesda Softworks called “Oblivion.” It was a fantasy role-playing game that amazed me with the detail put into the story world and quest lines. I got totally hooked to the point where my wife started worrying about “gaming addiction.”

    By January 2011, we had been publishing our own non-fiction books for about 5 years, so I had my finger on the pulse of the self-publishing world. We even put on an online self-publishing conference with 15 well-known speakers. Let’s just say that I was well aware of the Kindle revolution and that’s when an idea formed. I could make both my wife and myself happy by trading in my gaming time for writing time, and I could write fantasy novels. Before KDP, self-publishing fiction was an exercise in futility, but the evolving ebook market changed all that.

    Two years later, my first book has sold over 2,000 copies and I’m about to release my second. My wife just completed her first fiction novel, and I’m looking forward to collaborating with her one day on a romantic fantasy. I finally got to explore and realize my dreams of being a fiction writer, and I love it.

  4. It was a conscious decision.

    A number of years ago, I took my son out of school (because it wasn’t working for him — in a major way) to home school him. To do this, I had to quit my job, my career, my major creative outlet. Once my son was set up and working and not needing me hanging over his shoulder, I found I had a lot of time on my hands and nothing to do until he needed me for the next “class”. To stay sane, I needed to do something that was “me” and, since I’d often toyed with the idea of writing a mystery novel, I decided to give it a shot and see if I could figure out how to do it.

    Once I started, I entered that alternate universe you’re talking about. I’d heard about it, didn’t believe it, and was amazed when it happened to me!

    With my fifth book poised for release, I’m still happily in that place.

  5. I kind of jumped into it by accident. I was at a friend’s house, and she popped in “Austin Powers: Gold Member”. After maybe fifteen minutes, I felt like I was going to puke if I sat through another scene, so I wandered into her bedroom and tried to figure out what to do with myself (she was engrossed in the movie and hadn’t noticed my leaving, let alone my serious discomfort).

    After a bit of boredom, I ended up grabbing some paper off the floor and started jotting down an idea that had been tumbling around inside my head.

    A few hours later, she came in wondering what had become of me. The movie had ended a while ago, and I hadn’t even noticed that time had passed. I’d been too busy churning out pages.

    1. Ah, a case of creative provocation! I’ve had many an idea because I’ve been frustrated about a novel I’ve read or a film I’ve seen. I wonder if that’s how a lot of people start, by thinking ‘crikey, I could do better than that’! Great story, thanks for sharing it here.

  6. I write poetry and love a challenge. When the NaNoWriMo came around last fall, I found myself actually sitting down and writing daily – not poetry, but words upon words of prose, until I ended up with a significant amount of a memoir drafted as well as a few short story ideas. I was disbelieving anyone would be interested in my personal story until I began applying some techniques I use in writing poetry, and now I believe I have a more interesting angle from which to begin. My first poetry chapbook, “Finding Direction”, is coming out this summer from Finishing Line Press, and I find even within my poetry that characters often end up writing their own stories. For me, it is an easy progression from poetry to prose.
    My challenge is in allotting enough time to keep up with writing after my day job ends and my family life settles for the evening.
    Thanks for asking the question! How do you balance or how did you balance, your day-job with the call to creative writing?

    1. How interesting, to slide in from a parallel art. I imagine that after the discipline of poetry, prose must feel like letting your hair down.
      Good question about finding balance. Once I’d got a story idea, it was with me 24/7. Any possible daydreaming time was spent with the idea. On the magazine we’d sometimes have periods of downtime, which I’d use to make notes on the issues I was thinking about. I didn’t get a lot of time to write during the week, but at weekends I’d spend both days with my manuscript. It was relatively easy to get into because I’d never really let it go. All the thinking time and problem-worrying had done it good because I had plenty of new material to put in.

  7. Hello Roz – Just a quick note to say that I think you have a terrific blog – Lots of useful information here – I’m going to let my writing group know about your site and “Nail your Novel”. Have a great time at the London Book Fair later this week!

    All the best!

    Valerie Francis (fellow novelist/blogger and former journalist)

  8. Hey Roz Sorry I missed you at the London Book Fair, but day returns from Santa Ana, California to London aren’t possible … yet.
    As I told you once before, what sparked my first impulse towards what has become my current WIP novel was reading your My Memories of a Future Life (feel free to embed a link to your book page).
    What followed from that inspirational reading was a fantasy, that became obsessive, of a woman in her mid-forties leading a comfortable life as a successful, well-respected academic who nevertheless feels strongly that she needs some sort of crisis – an upsetting of her applecart in some way – to bring out the best in herself! Not being inclined to engineer such a drastic epiphany in her current life, she dreams of a future life in which she is, again, a reputable university teacher whose life is disrupted when someone inflicts an injustice on her.
    From that fantasy I got the urge to write the future life the woman imagines living later this century, and Twenty Eighty-Four was born.
    Now it is a mewling, puking infant screaming for attention. Oh well, the joys of literary parenthood!

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