Author: Marinus Mans

Home / Author: Marinus Mans

I can’t remember exactly when I got the idea to write an English novel, but it only became a realistic prospect when I retired in 2014. I had asked my bookworm friends how to go about it, and their advice was to just sit down and write. I had trouble doing both because of my muscular dystrophy. So, during a short break in the seaside town of Hermanus (Western Cape) in August 2015 I wrote the first paragraph of my soon to be published novel: ‘The Alienation Gene’. I think it was called ‘Live to Tell The Tale’ back then. After that my countless first draughts penned over many years were all atrocious. In my previous blog post, I mentioned that friends were kind enough to help me get my manuscript to at least an acceptable level before I sent it to a professional editor. I had no idea where to begin and didn’t even know who the most prominent publishers in South Africa were. I don’t even know who most of them are now. Who cares?

I must admit that I struggled to get the basics right, but I blame my appalling command of the English language on my own laziness during my second language high school and tertiary education. I did have quite an ambitious, complicated plot on my hands with many plot holes, twists and turns that I just couldn’t solve easily. The editor I chose in 2019 had to first assess my manuscript and then copy-edit it. I also asked another editor to do a final copy-edit recently and they provided some more wisdom from another angle.

In this blog post I’ll summarize the most important lessons I’ve learnt so far. Contrary to popular belief editors don’t just fix your work and then that’s all there is to it. They’re like coaches or senseis that identify your weaknesses, guide you towards improving your craft and help you to knock your manuscript into shape. Whataaa! You also have to keep sharpening your blade to make sure you don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over again, but here’s the thing: even the best writers make stupid errors because they write what they think should be written on the page. That’s why editors still exist and probably why artificial intelligence won’t take over their jobs anytime soon. Editors identify your writing flaws (and delusions) and give you the opportunity to improve. The hardest part is to cut those “brilliant pieces of prose” you’d read over and over again while thinking you’re a genius. Kill your darlings? Who came up with that again? Faulkner? Quiller-Couch? I don’t know, but I’m sure bestselling authors whom we put on pedestals had come up with a few stinkers early on in their careers. No doubt, behind every author’s work there was an editor who squinted at some point, chuckled and thought: what in the actual fuck are they trying to convey here?        

Outlining and planning

After I read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’ I thought I could write just like him without any proper outline or planning. Of course, I was wrong. There are many different plot structures you can use, but essentially the most successful ones follow the same old recipe. You can find complete lectures on this subject on Youtube. Google is your friend.

Heading, entry and exit points

The Alienation Gene jumps around in time a lot, and when I started out I had no idea where to begin or where to exit my chapters. When I changed my plot and planned the novel’s structure more thoroughly I was forced to think about who my characters were, and also their motives and desires. When I focused more on my headings and accentuated the time and place more accurately these problems took care of themselves. I realised you’re not abandoning artistic freedom if you have a little structure in your writing. On the contrary, if you follow all the rules of creative writing, you’ll have all the freedom you need.   

Tenses, spelling and grammar

The late Mrs Erasmus, my strict and terrifying standard five English teacher, tried her level best to hammer in all those rules of the Queen’s English, but alas, it still are a problems for I. Maybe one day this mystic boer in beton will know where to put that damned comma. To be honest, I’m not an avid reader either. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good book now and then, but I mostly read articles about the economy, financial news reports and investment books, and I’m still trying to read more broadly and attentively. Maybe one day I’ll get there!

More show, less tell

I’ll wrestle with this one until my last day on earth. It’s an important skill you’ll need to learn if you want to write fiction, and for me it was the hardest one to get even remotely right. Have you ever read a novel written prior to the movie and video era? You couldn’t really get into it, could you? It’s mostly the telling of a story with some description and archaic dialogue, but one struggles to visualize what’s going on.

Modern fiction writing has a large component of internality. The words you use should create a landscape that you’re connected with and the reader must be immersed in the thoughts, experiences and actions of the point of view character. A good writer should be able to engage all the reader’s senses by using rich language and emotion in a very visceral way. Strong verbs and dialogue are crucial. Certain filter words must be avoided and if you use fancy words too often, or place words in the wrong context, you can either overdo it or it’s going to be too flowery and your novel’s fluidity will suffer. You can easily be guilty of ambiguity or overwriting. So, not only do you have to find a balance between showing and telling, but you also have to balance the way in which you apply the showing part, otherwise it all comes across as contrived. You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t! The good news is there are lots of bloggers on the internet that give pointers and guidance to help you advance in your writing journey, but the only way to get it right is to practice, practice, practice…and fail…and then do it all over again. Editors are not going to tiptoe around your mistakes. They tune you straight!       

The Alienation Gene deals with a lot of visceral experiences of pain and other sensations, so the editor who assisted me quickly realised that I needed to improve my “deeper” writing. I spent a lot of time learning the ‘third person deep point of view’ method. To my way of thinking it’s like a bazooka you can use to blow all your one-dimensional scribblings off the page. You can even zoom in and out of your writing like a video camera.         

The best example is the fight scenes that I just couldn’t get right. It was absurdly lame when I first started out, but when I focused on quick, visceral fights that packed a punch it just worked better.

Exposition

What is exposition? It’s the backstory and other information you want the readers to know while there’s action going on. It’s almost like trying to court a woman. If you go about the wrong way, you’re dead in the water. My exposition was like my love life: either non-existent or artificially wedged in awkward places and hindering my flow. I also made the rookie mistake of premature verbal ejaculation and large info dumps at the end. I settled on the ‘less is more’ approach and worked hard on my dialogue, but I realised you have to balance exposition with the withholding of information and try not to leave the readers in the dark. If you blindside them too much, they won’t forgive you. Once again balance is key. There are many methods you can read about on the internet. It’s still a real challenge for me, but I’m learning…    

Characterisation

When I began writing I used my own characteristics and the relationships and people I knew as templates for my characters. I soon realised that until the characters you create can stand on their own two feet, they’ll be flat and one-dimensional. Not only will people know you’re writing about them, but these second-rate characters will be tweaked copies of real people. How awful. So, I had to do a lot of work on my characterisation and had to breathe life into my characters by giving them their own strong opinions, life goals, flaws, specific characteristics and recognisable humour etc. There must be conflict between different characters to make it interesting and they should have their own desires and personality quirks. In real life we get to know people by either their actions, or what they themselves or other people say about them, but in a novel you can also use your point of view characters’ own thoughts to help readers get to know your characters. You have to build them like lego and make a list of things you can do to strengthen your characters. If you build them, they will live in your head for years.  

Clichés, one liners and overused idiomatic expressions

I’ve watched too many movies and I’m a sucker for clichés, one liners and overused expressions, however they don’t work if you want to write an authentic novel. Smoke ‘em out, shoot ‘em and bury ‘em. I know I’ll have to for the rest of my life.

Well, that’s all folks. I hope this was useful. I’m close to publishing The Alienation Gene but we need to get the printing format and cover design right, and then maybe another final proofread just for the sake of completeness. So, watch this space!     

Share it far and wide!

I’ve been living with Limb-Girdle Muscular Dystrophy R2(2B) for longer than I can remember, but today I don’t want to talk about the slow loss of my mobility over decades, or even how I struggled to determine what specific disease I had when I was a young man. It’s also not about how I managed to be successful in my career as the progression continued, and not how I came to accept most of the cards I’ve been dealt with. With the help of my family, friends, previous employer, and my employees I stood a fighting chance. My story would take too long to narrate today, so let me rather tell you how I created the main character in the manuscript I’ve been working on for the past six years. His name is Alexander de Swardt and he wasn’t so lucky in having the support structure I had. In a strange twist of fate, his LGMD was cured completely with unapproved gene replacement technology when he was younger. He could run and walk again after this miracle. Just imagine how he would have felt. Then a decade or so later his good fortune unexpectedly reversed and the decline in his mobility was even faster than the first time around. All of this happened while he had to navigate a science fiction/horror setting with a speculative political and historical background. A rather unearthly trip…

But you’re not expecting me to give too much of the story away, are you? So, back to my own life. After I was medically boarded in 2014 I decided that I had to create this novel. To keep me busy? Cheap therapy? Who knows? The problem was I had no idea how. I’m Afrikaans and although I love my first language I knew from the start I was going to create and write this novel in my second language: L’anglais. I love reading a good book now and then, but I’ve never been an avid reader or even interested in creative writing. I mostly wrote weird essays in high school inspired by a band called Marillion. Fish’s Marillion. In the nineties, my English teachers were mostly confused and unimpressed by my abstract stories and poems.

Many years later, I became a legal professional. I wrote legal opinions, drafted contracts and affidavits entangled in overburdened legalese and archaic formal wording, but in 2009 I broke some of my old molds and dabbled in music reviews online for an old friend from varsity days, Johan Vos. Purely for the fun of it. My day job became too hectic, and I could only pick it up again when I retired. From 2015 to 2020 I wrote reviews and conducted interviews for a website named Watkykjy (my friend Gifford Peché’s blog) and that may have improved my Afrikaans (albeit more slang induced) writing ability. I’ve always had an affinity for poetic and meaningful lyrics when I listened to music, but taking on something more substantial was never going to be an effortless roll in the park. In October 2015 I traveled to Hermanus in the Western Cape to take a break and cure my cabin fever. With all the rainy weather that time of the year I started to type. Something. Anything. And so began the journey of a thousand words. 85000, more or less.

It took me longer than expected. I enjoyed the music scene, invested passively in the stock market and got into the habit of not overstressing my muscles, and kept my good spirits as high as possible. I never rushed the writing process and it was a productive way of dealing with a lot of repressed emotions, so it had to come naturally or not at all. I thought about the characters and plot constantly in the background and made notes on my phone. I researched my characters, the plot and back story, and also the rabbit holes I wanted to delve into. I had no deadlines. Bad idea! Because of my disability, I couldn’t sit and type at a desk for hours on end. During my working life, I worked too damn hard, for way too long every day, and I had to climb mountain after mountain full of nerve-racking obstacles in the workplace. I overburdened my upper body muscles so much that I began to develop anxiety and breathing issues. When I stopped working completely it improved with leaps and bounds, but I still had to be careful with my muscles. One or two hours a day sitting upright and typing away was all I could commit to in 2016. I asked Johan Vos, a sub-editor for a local newspaper back then, to give his impressions on my first draft. He pointed me in the right direction but I knew I needed someone in the field of publishing to give me more guidance. Through Gifford Peché I met Samantha Miller in April 2016. She’s a researcher and lecturer in the field of publishing at the University of Pretoria and provided more industry-specific insight and assistance. She also introduced me to Henk Breytenbach in 2018. He’s a published South African author with titles like Moordlys, Kodenaam Icarus en Kroonwild under his belt.  We became friends and they read and commented on my second draft. Their valuable input convinced me that I could write something I can sell, even if it was only to a handful of people. Samantha told me about a Facebook group called The Dragon Writers where independent authors share their ideas and assist each other. After a year of just reading their posts now and then, I took the plunge and approached one of the professional editors and award-winning authors on the group Nerine Dorman (The Firebird, Sing down the Stars). She takes on a small number of clients and eventually assessed my manuscript. She taught me how to write fiction for the commercial market and also did a copy-edit of my manuscript. She’s been an online mentor and with her guidance, I learned skills I never would have imagined back in 2015. I mostly do things at my own slower pace, but it is empowering when someone with proven writing AND editorial experience believes in your work.

Typing on my old laptop is always a challenge, but I adapted my writing position so that it rests on my stomach while I’m lying on my bed. I rest my head on a wedge pillow. It’s not ideal, but I can write a little bit longer than before.

Recently, I approached a few local publishers and overseas literary agents, but no deals were flung on my table yet. Haha! Nothing prepares you for rejection like having LGMD. I viewed this project as more of a learning curve anyway, and I always had in mind that I would self-publish. I think I like the control it gives me over my projects. The overall expenses of editor’s fees, graphic design, and formatting I regard as school fees anyway. The marketing part is just something I will have to learn more about. During the past few weeks, I’ve been discussing with Gerda Brown from the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation of South Africa (MDFSA) and other members of the LGMD community how we could go about raising money for research and potential treatment of LGMD, now but also in the future. It became clear to me that an obvious route is to self-publish my novel (when it’s ready for the market) and then to donate the first three months of proceeds to any such efforts. That would be the cherry on the cake for Alexander de Swardt and his journey wouldn’t it? I’ll continue to tinker with this website and get an e-mail list up and running again, but I also arranged for one more copy edit with UK-based author, artist, and editor Cat Hellison to make sure there are no mistakes that slipped through. So there’s more work to be done before this project of mine can see the light of day.

Keep on rolling!

(The above sketch of me is a Rynier Prins original: https://linktr.ee/rynierprins)

Follow me:

Share it far and wide!