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Should you write that book?

 

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If you know someone who is always talking about writing a book, or you’re the one who’s always talking about it, the below set of answers and explanations is for you. The new year is coming. It’s your fucking time. So sit up, shut up, and listen up.

Question: Should I write that book?

Answer: No.

Excuse: Because I might not finish it.

Verdict: Bullshit.

Explanation: Jesus Christ, dude. The idea that you shouldn’t write that book you’ve been thinking about writing because you might not finish it is total bullshit. You ever not started eating a gigantic chicken schnitzel because you thought you might not finish it? No. You have a go at a massive pub schnitzel because you’ve been thinking about it, and you’re hungry, and not finishing really doesn’t have any personal consequences for you. Now, I know there’s a difference – if you start and don’t finish a novel you’ll feel like a failure. People who hear about you giving up might think you’re a failure, too, which would be worse.

But you know what? Fear of failure permeates life. It’s what stops people from going for that promotion, asking that girl out, or taking up parkour. And there’s only one thing you get from abiding fear of failure: disappointment. You didn’t try, so you didn’t fail, but you’re left with the life-long wonder of what might have been. Is disappointment any different to failure? Not by much. So stop being such a fucking pussy and start that schnitzel. I mean book.

Question: Should I write that book?

Answer: No.

Excuse: Because I don’t know how to plot.

Verdict: Bullshit.

Explanation: You don’t need to know how to plot to write a novel. I’m hearing all your past English teachers gasp in horror (even the dead ones). Well shut up, bitches. You really don’t need to be one of those people with thousands of little coloured Post-It notes and exercise books full of chicken scratch to be a writer. You can be a totally authentic writer without a beat-up leather sachel and a chip on your shoulder, too. You can actually just sit down at the computer and wing it. Granted, you might not get very far. You might have to stop constantly and get yourself out of dead ends you’ve written yourself into, and what you end up writing might be a too-long, wandering piece of crap (see below ‘Because what I write might be crap’). But what a great way to learn how to plot for your next novel, or to discover, in fact, that you are one of those writers who flies by the seat of their pants and writes brilliant shit. Fire out of the cannon. See where you land. If it’s right next to the cannon, in a heap, go back to the cannon and try again for fucksake.

Question: Should I write that book?

Answer: No.

Excuse: Because I don’t have time.

Verdict: Bullshit.

Explanation: Lemme ask you something – are you actually dying? If you seriously are going to be dead in three months, then ok. You probably don’t have time. But are you trying to tell me that you don’t have a spare hour a week for the next ten years? Because even if that’s all you could seriously give it, you’d still get a novel done in that time. Don’t give me that ‘I’ve got kids’ crap. JK had kids. Oh! Oh! I’ve got two jobs? No. Not a valid excuse. Stephen King had two jobs when he was writing Carrie. Get up half an hour earlier than you are right now. Write in bed. Buy an ultra-soft keyboard so you can type and not wake your fourteen sleeping babies. Put off cleaning your shower. I don’t care. If you want time, you’ll make time.

Question: Should I write that book?

Answer: No.

Excuse: Because what I write might be crap.

Verdict: Such bullshit.

Explanation: Most first books are crap. My first book was absolute garbage – an assortment of pre-teen drivel that I’m so glad no longer exists (I hope). In fact, my second and third books were probably also crap, but not as bad as the first. And that’s because, with every book I wrote, I learned something from the people who read them. Rather than crying in my room for three weeks because what I’d written turned out to be crap (there was probably a little of that, I’ll admit), I took the criticism and adjusted my process for the next work. Here’s the secret: The only way you can tell you’re any good is by having people read your actual stuff. The ACTUAL STUFF on ACTUAL PAPER. If you do not try, you will not improve. Hoping to try something and magically not be crap at it IS WHAT CHILDREN DO. Grow up, and have a fucking go.

Question: Should I write that book?

Answer: No.

Excuse: Because I probably won’t get published.

Verdict: Bullshiiiiiiiiit.

Explanation: Maybe you’ll get published first time, right off the bat. If this happens, fuck you. You will get no respect from your fellow authors, (especially me). Because most authors have several dozen rejections under their belt. Your inspirational ‘journey to becoming an author’ article in the Herald will be terribly scant if you walk right into that club, Bub.

Maybe (more likely) you’ll submit your novel and then you’ll cower on the ground while every publisher in the country hurls rejection letters at you, until finally you pass out, completely buried in paper and self-loathing, like some fat hoarder the police won’t find until her corpse starts to smell. Maybe, like me, you’ll spend a decade writing books and sending them out and watching as the weeks and months roll by, your heart fluttering as now and then an email pops up with a publisher’s name on it, only to click it open, fingers shaking, and spot that terrible word ‘Unfortunately’ before you see anything else. Maybe you’ll keep a spreadsheet of all these publishers, and one by one you’ll cross them off, until it’s official – not a single publisher in the entire nation thinks your work is good enough for print (even those brand new one-person indie publishers who presumably know nothing about the business and are willing to take a chance on newbies. Nope, they think you’re shithouse, too). Maybe you’ll resentfully wander bookshops looking at the displays, exhausted by the rolling trends – boy wizards, vampires, bondage, vampire bondage, vampire wizards, wizard bondage, teenage girls fighting for their lives in mazes, on virtual battlegrounds, in space. Girls on trains, kicking hornets nests, missing, in love, lost, girls fucking everywhere. Maybe you’ll have to report to all your friends (because they won’t stop asking) that in fact you’ve given up on that book and your only hope is to write another. But you won’t bother confessing that you’re so downtrodden by this defeat that starting another book feels like going back into the ring with Rousey after she’s just put your nose through the back of your skull.

Well, you know what? See above, about being a fucking pussy. If you’re being rejected, it’s because you had something to submit. You wrote a fucking book. If no one likes your book, fuck them. If your friends are smug at your rejection, fuck them, too! Tell them that when their book gets submitted and is being considered for oh wait they haven’t written a book that’s right because they’re creative as shit.

Smile, and nod, and know how good it’s going to be when you write the book that makes it through (or edit the current one until it does). Think about the girls who gave you shit in high school trying to friend you on Facebook now because they saw you in the newspaper talking about your multi-book deal (this has been happening to me a bit lately, and it’s so incredibly awesome. They’re all ‘so proud’). Fuck those girls! Friendship status: DENIED, bitch.

Question: Should I write that book?

Answer: Yes.

Excuse: Nothing.

Verdict: Perfect.

A Novel in a Year – Stage One: Pre-writing

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So I thought it might be fun to do a series of blog posts throughout the year that track my actual activities in writing a novel, so that those who are curious about how I work can get an idea of my ‘process’. I get asked the process question a lot. Here’s the answer. I do not anticipate in any way that this might stop me getting the process question in interviews. But what the hell, huh?

Everybody has their own process. There are writers who smash the first draft out in something like National Novel Writing Month, then spend 11 months fixing it up. I know fantasy writers who spend three or four years off and on putting together dictionary-sized epics, who spend whole parts of the year plotting and drawing maps and writing nothing.

Not so here. I’ve been writing a book a year for a good long while, and they’re all about 90-110,000 words. If you’re curious as to how that actually happens – in terms of word count spread, plotting time, and the intrusion of other employment activities I need to do to survive, I’ll try to paint that for you. I’m going to attempt to tell you what I’m actually DOING throughout the year so you can get an idea of what it takes for me – and how that relates to your own work.

So we’re at Stage One: Pre-writing ideas collection.

This has been going on for a little while now, maybe four or five months. Now don’t get all ‘Well, that’s cheating because it’s not in the year!’ on me – I haven’t actually DONE anything on this novel in that time, and this year I’ll be plotting the actual DOING for you. Thinking is not doing. Doing is doing.

And that’s an important distinction. Plenty of people think about writing books, and never get past this stage.

For four or five months, I’ve basically just been playing around with ideas about this novel in my head. I’ve been keeping an eye out for crimes and perpetrators in true crime books, podcasts and docos that I think I’d like to explore, and I’ve been thinking about my protagonist herself. What sort of person is she? What’s her history? I haven’t written anything down about her, or the crime, or set in stone the structure of the book. I’ve just been thinking daydreaming about it with my mind open to new influences.

Like I said, this stage is common. Ever heard someone say ‘Oh I’ve always wanted to write a book about (blah)’. I hear it all the time. When I ask – ‘So who would be your protagonist?’ Or ‘Where would it be set?’ Or ‘What’s the genre?’ Usually I get nothing back.

Ideas collection for me is kind of like this: whether I’m in the middle of writing a book or not, I have a basket on my arm and a backpack on my back. As I’m wandering around, day to day, I might come across ideas and influences that I like the idea of. I might hear about a particular poison that works well and doesn’t leave a trace at autopsy, for example. While I don’t have a use for the name of that poison, who used it on whom and how you make it, I figure it might be useful to collect that tidbit of information for use one day in a future book. So I put it in the backpack. I’ve got all sorts of weird things in the backpack, some of it decades old. Some of it is ‘how to kill a person’ type stuff. Some of it is totally random bullshit – hairstyles I like, one-liners I heard in movies, stats about serial killers I’ve known and loved.

I might come across another bit of information that I think closer relates to the project I want to work on this year. So for example, for this book, I’m interested in pathological liars, and people who suffer from Munchausens. I was very interested in the Belle Gibson affair when that happened, and I read a book on Casey Anthony early this year that was so great. I’ve decided my killer will be a Munchausens sufferer. So if I see or hear anything about that, I put it in the basket hanging on my arm. The basket is more immediate, directly pressing, and organised than the backpack. I don’t have much room in it, so it’s important that only the best bits and pieces go in there, stuff I’m fairly sure I’ll use. I might actually seek out specific sources for stuff to put in the basket. When the book is written, I dump the basket into the backpack and start a fresh one for the next book.

So I started my basket for the novel I’ll write this year a few months ago, and as I’m looking into it now, there’s a bunch of stuff in there – but not a huge amount. It’s not necessary for me to become a world-leading expert on Munchausens before I can write a character who has it. There are other puzzle pieces in there about the character that I’ve gleaned from my imaginings over the last few months – what her hair looks like, what she sounds like, where she lives.

I like to start writing when I’m sure of a few things. Firstly, who kills who, and why. So in my basket I’ve got a bit of an idea of the victim, and the killer, and of course I know my protagonist pretty well. This year I’m writing a novel about Amy ‘Hooky’ Hooku, who appeared in my novel just released. If I’d been starting with a brand new protagonist, I’d have things in the basket I’d picked up about her. Cuttings and shavings from real or fictional women I like, pasted together to create her. This woman’s hair, that woman’s smile. This woman’s upbringing, and this one’s shitty attitude toward public transport, etc.

At this stage, I don’t really know what the first few scenes of my novel will entail, or what order they’ll be in. That will come in the next stage – First Words. Right now I’m sifting through ideas for those chapters, trying to come into the story at a hugely thrilling point, so I’ll hook my reader nice and early. If I get stuck, I can always draw from my backpack of lifelong collected ideas to see if there might be a good starting situation for a novel in there somewhere.

So right now, my word count is zero. I don’t have a word doc open, blank page blaring, cursor blinking. My list of plot points reads zero. Only one character has a name, and a face, and a history, and that’s because she’s appeared on the page before. I’m hoping to start writing on January 1, just to make things nice and neat. So tune in next time for that!

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