In life you meet many people who say they have a novel that they want to write, but how many ever even start, let alone finish? A tiny percentage I would guess. I know someone who has been pretty much retired for 20 years, was a journalist who still dabbles in writing, has no children, plenty of time and yet still has never quite started. I suspect she is not alone. I know a successful career mum who told me that it is her dearest remaining ambition – she recently came back from a one-week residential writing course (not cheap) to prepare her for the ascent – her feedback, “It’s much harder than I realised.” Indeed.
Now I don’t want to put anyone off, quite the contrary, but perhaps explain through what I learned writing and publishing The Unseen Path, about which many people have been very kind. I had some luck along the way, mainly in my friends here, a window of time in my busy life, a wife willing to put up with what is a selfish pursuit for 6 months, but most of all I had the seed of a story I just had to get out of my head before it drove me mad, and the arrogance perhaps to think I had a story worth telling and a message worth conveying to anyone who might be interested. Perhaps, if you are interested in having a go, you can find my experiences (and mistakes) helpful so that you meet with success.
So you think you want to right a novel?
Are you having a laugh? No. really. The odds against writing something of the size of a novel are tiny, the odds against finding a publisher even smaller, the odds of finding a literary agent and a publisher who will pay you are vanishingly small (especially if like me you are a heterosexual, obscure, white Christian provincial Englishman with no contacts in the publishing industry). I was most certainly pushing water up hill.
It’s hard, gruelling, be prepared for time to pass, months, years, constant refusals and knock backs. Virtually no one’s interested in an ‘in process’ author because they are ten a penny and the publishing industry is utterly cynical about authors unless they are ‘special’ in some way. It no more cares about literature and launching new talent than Kraft did about the integrity of Cadbury’s chocolate. It’s all about money, books are just the product, authors disposable commodities without the shelf life of the average boy brand. Yep, it’s all about the money and unless your name is a major author or celebrity brand, they are unlikely to be interested in giving you the time of day.
Crushing isn’t it? Yep, but the game is changing. The publishing industry is dying, bookshops are being destroyed by the likes of Amazon who gouge the margins (60% of cover price is standard) and EReaders disintermediate publishers and traditional retailers even more. Some authors make a living purely by publishing and selling via Amazon, that’s it. Likewise, modern IT, digitised printing presses etc have slashed production costs and economic print run sizes so that now new authors, if they are willing to put up some stake money, can have a book published at professional levels of quality (even higher), even marketed to the trade.
So there is hope and perhaps the growing fragmentation of the industry will lead to a renewal of energy and innovation opening the door wide to new authors and stories.
Some Basic Things about Publishing Novels
There are guides to getting a novel published, how it all works, publishers and all the various parties in the chain who will want to take a cut of the revenue available if you sell a single copy. Buy one and read it before going too far with writing your novel. Know what you are getting into – it’s worth the money.
- If you want a major publisher to buy your novel, you will need a literary agent because the publishing houses have outsourced finding new authors and books to literary agents. Getting a literary agent is very difficult – they have thousands of authors wanting them to sign them up. They want to make money too and are ruthless in selecting what they think they can sell to a publishing house. Think a wholesaler selling your product to a shop – that’s pretty much it.
- The publishing industry is very risk averse and really only interested in publishing safe bets or at least things that conform to genre conventions. Anything truly original will find life tough. Furthermore, 90% of literary agents are women and are strong PC feminists. Middle class middle aged white bloke from the provinces, probably voted Leave? Forget it.
- One of the things that disappointed me when researching the best way forward for The Unseen Path was the tyranny of genre and book length. Novels are getting shorter because they cost less to print (90,000 words maximum, 80,000 or less is better). Forget the Lord of the Rings etc – would never get published now. Genre’s even tighter: if your book doesn’t conform to what a thriller is because all the others are like that, no one will know what to do with it or which shelf to put it on. It’s that shallow. It’s why most modern books all seem like the others, a bit like Hollywood churning out the same old tired rubbish time after time, no originality, just fast food fiction – they are written to a formula to conform to shallow dictates. It’s one reason why I think the publishing industry is circling the plughole, although not the only one.
If you are happy to play by the rules above, good luck to you. You might be lucky and have a chance, but if you are stubborn, indeed sufficiently self-confident as this ‘author’ and think your novel rather original and different, the sort of thing you want to read yourself, you are stacking the odds against yourself even higher.
Why and What Do you Want to Write About?
You know. The story must be burning within you or at least germinating. If you need to think something up, you aren’t ready IMHO. I had been carrying the opening lines in my head for 25 years, I wanted to see if could do it, I was bored with modern formulaic novels, especially thrillers and thought I could do better, and I wanted to write a story I would enjoy reading time after time. Additionally, I wanted to write an entertaining story that was but the wrapper on some observations about controversial issues, indulging some eccentric interests, and to prompt the reader to think without feeling preached to.
A word pf warming. Writing fiction is self-revelation. Family and friends who read it may well look at you differently afterwards, may be silently disapproving even. It’s uncomfortable.
Motivation and Self Discipline
I started by telling a couple of anecdotes as to how people with the ability and desire to write a novel never quite do. A thousand things get in the way – family, work, hobbies etc – and it’s fundamentally a lonely obsession. Many successful authors are very self-disciplined – Terry Pratchett would write 1,000 words a day, come rain come shine. It was his job and he had talent. That said, to my mind his later novels came to feel formulaic and the sparkling anarchic wit was lost. They felt written by a real talent in a rut. Can you find time to write even 500 words a day on a regular pattern? That structure can help carry you along, but if you fall out of it for even a few days it can be hard to get going again because getting started – the terror of the blank page – can difficult. Writing is about getting and sustaining flow.
There’s another way of course, the manic, all consuming, even obsessive need to write that monster of a story out of your head because it’s driving you crazy. It will take you over for the duration, other things get secondary focus – they will still get done, but part of your mind will always be working on the book. That’s how it was for me. I would review the previous few days’ output first thing every morning from 6 am, write every spare moment of each day, and then rework before going to bed. Some days I would write 1,000 words, usually more, a few times over 3,000, in a day. But that’s me, driven, a perfectionist and I-know-better-than-everyone pain-in-the-backside. It took me less than 5 months to write the 180,000 words of The Unseen Path, and while it contained huge number of typos because of the speed of composition, other than for one passage added later, what was published was 99.5% the first draft.
Planning or Letting it Write Itself?
Most authors construct their novels, putting together a skeleton plot, then threading in individual passages like a builder building a house to a plan. For me, the trouble is that they often seem built-to-order, and not grown organically, but we are all different.
The Unseen Path wrote itself. One of the most perceptive reviews I read said that it felt that the author was just writing down what the various characters told him they were doing. That’s pretty much how it happened. The characters, even the scenery, were so vivid in my mind that they flowed out without me having to work hard at thinking about the story. I observed their voices, their thought, their mannerisms, their reactions as events happened to and around them. Only once did I get near to being stuck and that was near the end when one of the main characters was going to do the opposite of what he did in the end. That was the only time I had to exert authorial will and override him. If I hadn’t the story would probably have hit 250,000 words and become a monster. I’m glad I did because I think it reads better.
I never had a plot set out, rather lots of scraps of paper with ideas, and it sort of assembled itself in my head subconsciously each night and day. I didn’t see the ending until 90% of the way through, which explains why it seems to have kept fresh and readers guessing until the last page.
Which route you choose will depend on your personality and circumstance. The right way is what works best for you, no one else.
The Story and its Shape
The ‘trade’ (hoho, how pretentious) will use technical language to make something simple seem complex, using words like ‘plot’, ‘narrative’ etc. Ignore it all. A novel is a story, with a beginning, middle and end, but you have some choices to make at the beginning and this is critical because they must suit you, your strengths and weaknesses. Will it have one lead character or several/many The more there are, the harder it is. Will it be written from the perspective of the lead character/s or from that of an outside narrator, or both? Will it have one central plot line or multiple strands of them all weaving in and out (much harder)? Being awkward, I chose a lot of lead characters, a blend of character perspective and external narrative, and had plenty of plot lines, some of which were planted for future sequels, not The Unseen Path, and others were disposable because I wanted the reader to think that no lead character was ever safe. Yes, I was insanely ambitious for a new writer and some days it felt like my head would burst from the pressure of all the characters and story lines fighting one another to get on the blank page in front of me.
Plot versus Character
A novel has both, correct? Yes, but which has primacy? A mystery-thriller will tend to emphasise plot over character: plot is a tyrant that demands discipline, streamlining, pace, but the trouble is the characters too often seem cardboard cut outs, not real people, just plot devices. I would say this is the curse of modern thrillers, crime stories, SF, fantasy etc. They are shallow and dull, and all too predictable.
Primacy of character on the other hand can lead to excess verbiage, waffling and endless boring introspection by self-absorbed characters to whom nothing interesting seems to happen (think Booker fiction, novels by the cognoscenti) and which are neither enjoyable, disciplined nor interesting to most potential readers who aren’t pretentious arses writing for the Guardian.
You need balance but start with character and manage them. Don’t force the plot, lead the character, carrot, not stick. The trick is to make the characters seem real, even sympathetic, the ‘baddies’ too. ‘Baddies’ by the way don’t think they are baddies. Once the reader understands why a character does what they do, they will begin to care about them or at least understand them. You rieed to do this for the ‘baddies’ too – a literary consultant employed to critique the book hated the fact that the jihadis were convinced they were justified, and that the ‘goodies’ had their flaws, but how shallow is that?
Plot is a guide rope, an Ariadne’s Thread to the conclusion which may wander a bit, even a lot, not a chain or a cage to deliver characters to a destination because they will probably be dead to lack of interest by the time they get there.
Mistakes to Avoid
This is by no means an exhaustive list, just ones that occur to me.
- Don’t think you need to know the ending or the bits between the start and the end, before you start.
- Write about something that really interests you.
- Ignore the genre rules unless you are writing for money, i,e, manufacturing a product purely for sale.
- Get a long way through before showing it to anybody, ideally finish the first draft. I showed the early chapters to my wife quite early on – she thought it too violent and gritty. I’m glad I ignored her!
- Don’t let anyone tell you what to write or how to write it – it emerges from the darkest depths of your personality, not theirs.
- Be self-critical, read and reread your drafts as you go along. You will improve your writing as you learn. Don’t forget, with modern word processing programmes, you can edit/tweak until you are happy. When you think you are finished, print it off and put it away in a drawer, forget about it and do all the other things you should have done while writing it. At least 6 months later, reread it cold, you will be surprised what you will see and want to change. Then persuade a literate friend or two to read it and give you constructive feedback.
- Don’t send it to a literary editors who advertise the services of literary critics or published authors to comment on your book. I did. It’s expensive and the reviewer turned out to be an obscure novelist who was a German female politically correct academic. She hated the very premise of The Unseen Path, wanted it cut in half and came up with a string of criticisms which suggested she barely had even read it. She added little real value other than to make me annoyed, although she did concede that I wrote convincingly about emotion. Such editors will tell you to fit your story to a formula, undermine your fragile self-belief, and polish their own ego.
Some Final Thoughts
If you are going to do write a novel, give it 100% and find out what works for you. Write something you would love to read, that suits you and lets your personality shine through. Don’t let others change it too much, polish it yes but not wholesale surgery. It’s your baby. Worry about publishing later. Get advice if you need it – plenty of puffins know how to write well, if differently, from one another. Don’t rush, take the time you need to read it through time after time, as you write and afterwards. The more you write the more you will find your style.
The first lines are important, it some ways they need to be the most striking to grab the reader in the bookshop who has just opened the cover to see if they might be interested in buying it. I deliberately wrote the first passage in a very fast tempo and then began to slow it down for that reason. From that poin, don’t conform to the writing conventions unless they help you to write – they can be stifling. The story and character are the most important thing of all – a novel is about people at the end of the day.
If you get stuck, go for a walk, take a two or day off from it, then read it all through again, and only then start writing again. You can lose the flow in the act of writing and the more you worry about it, the harder it gets.
© JD de Pavilly
JD De Pavilly’s The Unseen Path is published by Troubador and available from Troubador, Amazon and most Bookshops. Available on Kindle and other EReader formats
I wrote The Unseen Path because I felt it needed writing in a world where published fiction is controlled by the Left who are suppressing alternative world views and killing intelligent entertaining fiction for normal people in the process. I chose hardback as it is sturdier and I wanted it to be handed from one person to another, a kind of quality samizdat fiction circulating among normal people.
We’ve done well selling online but there are still a couple of hundred copies left. Book shops are hopeless and won’t risk a new author like me, especially one using a pseudonym. Christmas is coming so please consider buying it for presents and if you have not bought it yet please consider doing to. The Kindle version will stop being available early next year. Reviews are important (Amazon, GoodReads and Troubador) so please find 5 minutes to post reviews, likewise word of mouth recommendations to friends and family…