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.
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…
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!