It might sound obvious but the hardest thing about writing any kind of novel is actually “writing” it. Coming up with the idea isn’t as difficult as it might sound, ideas have a way of presenting themselves to the author and then it’s a question of evolution. What’s much more challenging is to comprehend then apply the creative process.
Sound complicated? It helps if you’ve had the benefit of some mentoring in the early stages of your career. I was fortunate enough to have had just that, so I thought I’d share some of my experience with you.
The finished novel that is THE LONG COUNT featuring old school Texas Ranger John Quarrie, didn’t start out as that but a whole other story altogether, one that was based on real events. It was set in Wyoming not Texas and took place ten years later than THE LONG COUNT , in 1977.
I tried to get that book published but to no avail. The narrative, largely because I’d stuck so closely to the real events, didn’t quite have the consistency of drama it needed. What the publishers did like, however, was this old school lawman called John Quarrie. He wasn’t a Texas Ranger then he was a local sheriff. He was 46 years old not 36 and he was far from the finished article. He did, however, fit the mould for the character I’d been looking to create after twenty years in the business.
Prior to Faber & Faber taking THE LONG COUNT, I’d written three hard boiled crime novels featuring a London cop called Vanner. I’d written four big picture thrillers about an undercover FBI agent called Harrison, and I’d also written five other novels under a pseudonym which featured a whole array of characters. Looking back over those twenty years I can see how those who came before have morphed into the John Quarrie of THE LONG COUNT.
Twenty years to create the right character, that’s a hell of a long time I hear you say. Well, you’re right, it is, but that’s been my experience. I doubt it’s like that for everyone. Every novelist’s journey is personal and specific and some find their true voice right from the off. That’s not how it’s been for me. My voice has come about through travel, experience and age. To share that with you would take an eternity, better I try and pass on some of the principles I apply to the actual writing process itself, so you’ll understand a little better how this book came into being.
All right then we’ve established that the hardest part of writing the novel is writing the novel. The plan you start out with is a moveable feast. It’s flexible, subject to change. There has to be a plan, and for me that’s a set of unequivocal guidelines I employ every time a fresh idea sparks into a full blown story.
Not all ideas become a full blown story. I’ve written countless pages down the years only to put them aside. I’ve written countless storylines and put those aside too, in favour of something else that occurred to me as I was working. Ernest Hemingway suggested that all writers need a built in s*** detector, both in terms of the story itself and the manner of the writing. It’s a vital tool and the best writers are their own worst critics.
In terms of the plan, I believe there are four specific maxims that, if applied, allow one’s work to take shape in a way that will ultimately be most satisfying to the reader. I learned these principles from a playwright called WG Stanton. He taught me the art of “re-write” and it’s only in re-writing your work that it ever gets finished. The principles Mr Stanton employed were simple yet profound and one can spot them in other people’s work.
Some years ago I watched a superb TV drama called “The Princes in the Tower”. It was good because it was so well written and I could see specific techniques employed by the writer. As I was watching I realised I could see WG Stanton’s influence and when the credits rolled, I discovered the writer was Tina Pepler, one of Stanton’s most accomplished students.
So, then to those maxims:-
- SHOW ME – DON’T TELL ME
- TELL IT HOW IT IS
- WRITE FAT – RE-WRITE LEAN
Most editors will tell you that the VIEWPOINT in any novel is paramount. There are many interpretations of what this actually means, but for me it’s the fact that, although in a third person drama you will have scenes that don’t involve the main character, the reader should discover what those secondary characters are thinking, not by access to their thoughts, but by what they do and say. This mirrors life and it’s an area (head jumping) where so many would-be writers fall down. There’s a skill in the delivery. The author has to see the scene and understand how to portray it as it might be portrayed in real life. In life we cannot access the mind of anyone else so why should we do it in fiction?
When you read THE LONG COUNT you’ll see that the only person’s thoughts you’re party to are John Quarrie’s. Everyone else is involved only in terms of what they do and say. Adopting this paradigm enables the VIEWPOINT to couple perfectly with the second principle I want to talk about, and that is SHOW ME – DON’T TELL ME.
Every scene has to be dramatized rather than delivered. We don’t want some omnipotent author telling us what’s going on or what somebody’s personality is like, we want the story to unfold before our eyes just as it would on the screen or stage. By dramatizing every moment a certain level of atmosphere is evoked, a sense of reality takes shape because the scenes are being fully developed both in terms of landscape and character. It’s the way I’ve always come at my books and I think it helps to create the sense of “immediacy” that readers say comes across in the stories.
The third principle is TELL IT HOW IT IS. What I mean here is - Don’t embellish when you don’t have to. Use description sparingly and try to avoid adjectives altogether. Show the reader that your character is angry or hurt or upset by their reaction and manner, rather than tacking on “he said, angrily” (for example) to a line of speech. Simple but effective, it makes for a story that lives and breathes and it demonstrates to the reader that the writer really knows what they’re doing. Keeping the prose clean and sharp is a skill one keeps honing over a lifetime of work, but there is nothing more satisfying than instinctively applying the principle. It means you have to work much harder as an author of course, but the result is a far more satisfying read.
Finally we come to WRITE FAT - RE-WRITE LEAN: the last great principle and every bit as important as the others. When you write the first draft you can write as much as you want. When it comes to the second, third, fourth; the myriad drafts that follow, a scalpel is the tool that’s needed.
Elmore Leonard the great American crime writer, used to tell students not to bother writing the bits the reader will skip. What he meant was that every paragraph and sentence, every word has to matter. If something is not vital to the plot in terms of storyline, atmosphere, etc, it should not be there. When I wrote THE LONG COUNT one of my favourite passages was a piece where Quarrie was at the burned out asylum. It sat there and sat there and I liked it more and more every time I read it. It remained where it was until the final draft when I realised it really wasn’t relevant at all. Pleasing as it might be to my sensibilities, I knew my editor would tell me to cut it so I might as well save him the bother.
A simple summation of my personal creative process which I thought I’d impart rather than tell you about the agonies and ecstasies all writers invariably go though. Something a little more tangible to accompany the review, I hope it’s enlightening, even useful perhaps to those of you who have literary aspirations of your own.
THE LONG COUNT, by JM Gulvin, is published in May by Faber & Faber (£12.99)
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