A Shining Example On How Not To Write A Novel?

Stephen King’s On Writing is often quoted as being the essential book for would be authors to read before setting out on their virgin manuscript. It’s good fun too, with the first half comprising a very amusing biography before the second half tells you all the dos and don’ts of writing a book. Did it help me write my first novel? Well, yes, I found it very reassuring, not least because SK is straightforward, unflappable and the master of common sense. But on one area, I definitely had to say, ‘come on Stephen, you’re joking, right?’ Why? Because SK thinks plot is something you should develop as you go along.

At a conservative estimate, King has sold over 300 million books, and what the hell do I know, but come on – writing a book without a clear plotline is a bit like setting off in a car with a full tank of petrol and seeing where you end up. It may work out, but more than likely you’re going to end up at the equivalent of the Overlook Hotel. In winter. Without a toothbrush.

There are a lot of ‘how to write a novel’ guides out there (The Guardian published an extensive supplement recently on how to write the first draft of a novel in 30 days which I reckon would have taken 29 days to get your head around) and there are endless courses where you part with your money to discover you haven’t got what it takes (but thanks for coming, anyway).

But isn’t writing a book predominantly a logical process? In AMOLAD’s case, I started with the blurb – 120 words. All I had to do then was stretch it to 80,000 words. Before I started writing the book I roughly planned what happened to each of the key characters and working from that I gridded up a rough chapter guide.

The route was mapped out – I knew pretty much where Z was before I embarked from A; all I had to do then was write it, and from that blueprint the characters and action took on lives of their own. I also stuck at it – 1500- 1800 words a day, Monday to Friday, mornings only. They soon add up, particularly when you don’t have to stop to think ‘where’s this going next?’

Or look at it another way. Writing a book is like cooking a meal. You have a recipe, you assemble the ingredients, you do the preparation. Then you cook it. Name a famous chef who doesn’t operate that way? If Stephen King ever invites you to dinner discreetly enquire whether he’s cooking before you accept?

So, Mr King, forgive me, but my advice to any would-be author – and I’m not charging for this – is to get your finger out, get a plan, get organised and get on with it. And we all know what happened to Jack Torrance in The Shining after he lost the plot.

This blog originally appeared on the Huffington Post UK


All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy 


Judging a book by its cover

We hear you – Nicholls has it covered

Apparently, the cover of David Nicholls’ ‘One Day’ went through fifty incarnations before they settled on the final treatment.  Of course, once launched there was no getting away from the block orange silhouetted faces, the black asymmetrical title typeface and the concise tagline which seemed to peer out from every book shop and airport display in the world. Classic design.

Not what you’d call a wizard design…

Coming up with a cover for your own book is not an altogether different task. The aims are the same as for Nicholls’ publishers (even if it won’t need to be translated into fifty languages): grab attention, convey the story, create instant empathy and scream ‘buy me’.  What you may be missing is the resource, budget and expertise Nicholls had at his disposal.

No matter.  Remember many book covers have had more thrown at them than Nicholls’and still came out looking awful.  J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy anyone?

The cover for A Matter of Life and Death went through the same process as both Nicholls’ and Rowling’s latest efforts – well, through three or four incarnations, rather than fifty, but the objectives were the same.

Authors are not designers: Repeat.

First, the author’s idea: a library shot edited to depict a ‘jolly’ funeral.  Nope. Time to get the professionals in.  Immediately, we were leaving library shots behind – the refuge of the lazy – and aiming a little higher in our cover aspirations.  The addition of a tagline – ‘Everybody should be famous for fifteen minutes. After they die’ – lent confidence to the hope we were getting the message across.

Writing’s on the wall for this treatment?

Next, a Banksy type treatment, referencing one of the characters in the book.  No – too misleading.

Then left-field abstracts – a pint of milk , referencing the song ‘Ernie’ in the book.  Forget that – too obtuse.

No milk today, thanks.

Back to the literal and an illustrative treatment of a skeleton in a coffin that urged a second look.  Yes, we can build on that.  But nothing too gothic.  So, change the colours to fluorescents for modernity and add a jaunty flourish by giving the skeleton a party hat and an iPad  – all that’s left after the ‘celebration of life’ has concluded.
Does it work? Time will tell but remember, appearances are rarely misleading….

Getting back to basics

Drop the gothic, splash the dayglo, add a hat and an iPad – print!