How to write a book

Nothing new under the sun? Why originality is always possible

Here’s something to think about. Around 97% of the time you ever spend with your parents will be before you are 18 years old.

Maybe you’ve already heard this statistic, and apparently there’s more than one variation. But I heard it just this week. Dave heard it first, told me.  

We boggled.

Then, after a moment’s marvelling, we thought about it properly. Of course. That period 0-18 is so intensive. It’s even obvious.

But still, we were flabbergasted, and so we told friends, who marvelled also, and so did we, all over again. Then we all talked ourselves through the facts.

This is one of the things art can do. We all live on the same planet, and we tread through the same constants of life, and there’s nothing new under the sun, blah blah, but at the same time, there is. There are inventive people, billions of us, with language and paintings and poems and crazy, curious hearts and minds.

Here are a few of my favourite things in writing that keep my faith in the concept of originality. (Tell me yours in the comments, if you feel so inclined.)

1 Narratives that go backwards.

I’ve loved backwards narratives ever since I read that Peter Ustinov wrote a play that opens with the characters jaded and faded, then they age backwards into bright young things, and the audience is overwhelmed by the great tragedy of time passing. Another example is Sarah Waters with The Night Watch, where the characters are seen at four stages of World War II. And my favourite example is Martin Amis with Time’s Arrow, which is the life of a concentration camp doctor, from death to birth. Reversing the chronology is a devastatingly rich device. The ugliness of the Holocaust is turned around as victims are drawn down out of the clouds, and sent into the world healthy.

2 Novels with peculiar and powerfully metaphorical worlds.

Kevin Brockmeier’s Brief History Of The Dead, where there are two main settings – our world now, and the afterlife, where people stay until no one who knows them is left alive. When all of the Earth’s population is killed except for one woman, everyone disappears from the afterlife except for the people who have met her. It raises so many ideas about memory and the traces we leave on others. Your takeaway, if you have read it, will probably differ, and that’s exactly what a metaphor should do. And it will stay with you from that day on, as part of your thinking.   

3 Personal essays, memoirs and other creative non-fiction.

Whether it’s a big adventure or a humdrum journey, I love a writer who can take me on a personal quest. Jean Hannah Edlestein’s This Really Isn’t About You, about grief and inherited cancer. Alexander Masters’s A Life Discarded, 148 Diaries Found In A Skip. Kate Clanchy’s Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me. A quest can be anything you like. Anything that has meaning can illuminate a new truth for us all.

4 A particular kind of creative non-fiction – idiosyncratic travel writing.

I have shelves of books by writers who’ve taken the road less travelled. Waterlog by Roger Deakin, a swim through the British Isles. Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein, a journey at the sea end of the River Thames. Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital is, perhaps the opposite – a road that is well travelled indeed. He takes an epic walk around one of the UK’s biggest motorways, a place that thousands of people travel every day in an oblivion of speed. Iain Sinclair walks it step by step, finds what is there when you look closely and slowly, feels the vibes of history and the places that were there before and have disappeared under concrete. His sensibility creates a new M25 for us. If you really want to think about things that have been on this planet, under your feet, for a long, long time, read Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. (Keep some chocolate handy for the chapter about utter darkness.)

This is the artistic nature. We are people on a constant journey of discovery. We can say, look at this. It’s been here all along, but if I talk about it in just this way, I can reinvent it. It might become a whole book, or just a poem, or just a line, or even a number.

So go out. Follow your curiosity. There is plenty new under the sun.

Let’s find it.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.


12 thoughts on “Nothing new under the sun? Why originality is always possible

  1. Truly a brilliant post! You got me thinking about many things and how they relate to our writing and other authors’ writing. Sometimes it’s nice to discover something!

  2. I think it’s called a ‘paradigm shift’. I just feel as if a new door has suddenly opened in my mind. Whatever you call it though, it’s a gift that never grows old.

          1. lol – I know that feeling! The days are whizzing past but my productivity isn’t keeping up. Ah well. So long as we manage something, right?
            Btw is there a new book in the offing?

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