Saturday, August 13, 2011

Is your life so interesting you should write a novel?

Thanks to the accessibility of the internet, I recently read a novel that I enjoyed, found the writer's website, emailed him to tell him how much I'd liked it, and a couple of weeks later spent a nice afternoon in a Cafe Nero in London chatting to him about all sorts of things. I'm guessing that not all writers are as friendly towards random people. The guy already vaguely knew of me, due to the fact that the historical setting of his book was something I've written about in the past also, though, being a stuffy academic, my books are always non-fiction. Writing in academic style is something which you partly pick up as you go along, being improved if you do a PhD and have a good supervisor. The first time I submitted an academic paper, back in 1995, the reviewer, who was a very prickly old man, said something like "The content is fine but it needs to be edited by someone who can write English." He had a reputation for being a bit of a bitch, but I'm sure that if I was to read some of my earlier stuff, I'd cringe at it.

One of the questions that my novelist friend asked me was "Have you ever considered writing a novel yourself?" I lied and said I hadn't.

During 1990 and 1991 I wrote a novel, using my mother's type-writer. I don't remember very much about it, except that it was set in Blackpool and involved a group of teenage friends who felt superior to everyone else around them. It descended into violence and tragedy at the end. I had only ever been to Blackpool twice and had no experience of violence, so having finished it, I had the vague feeling that it was awful, and I put all the pages in a green folder, relegated it to a box in the attic and have never looked at it since.

On and off, I've attempted to write novels or short stories since then, with varying degrees of failure. My most fruitful attempt, still ongoing, is 40,000 words - and is set in the early 1990s, loosely based on a summer I spent in London when I worked for a down-market gay magazine.

If I had a penny for the number of times I'd heard someone say "My life is so interesting, I should write a book about it," I'd have about 37p. I freely admit that my life is not interesting at all (and is getting less interesting the older I get), and that one summer was the peak of excitement in the life of a person who has never taken any risks, normally tried to do the right thing, and at the age of 20, opted for quiet domesticity in a small, respectable town in northern England.

The story is narrated by the rather mean-spirited best friend of the main character. He is not an "unreliable author" (which recently seems to have been a fashionable device) but he is a spiteful author and is often critical of the main character. Unlike earlier attempts, it is based on events and people who I have experience of, and that probably makes it more authentic. It is also fun writing about that period before the internet and mobile phones. However, I am unlikely to try to get it published because I don't have a very good writing style for fiction. When I read it back it sounds like it's written by Enid Blyton. I read a lot of Enid Blyton between the ages of 6 and 13, and her moralising, simplistic style has become indelibly imprinted upon me. Even when I am writing a sex scene, it comes across as Enid Blyton. This was also a problem when I worked on the gay magazine and was asked to write erotic stories. All of the characters in them spoke like they were in The Famous Five. Worse still, I am hopeless at providing descriptions. My novel is all about plot, character development and things happening. I rarely bother to take the time to describe what a room looks like, or put in stuff about what someone is thinking as they're walking down the street. When I write dialogue, it ends up looking more like a play. The characters seem to stop what they're doing and only use their mouths. Proper novellists manage to let us know what characters are doing as they're speaking, and the really good ones are clever in that their actions or objects that they're holding are somehow symbolic of their emotions at that time. It's all too clever for me.

Even if I was able to resolve the problems with my writing, I don't think I'd be able to publish it anyway - the subject matter is so personal that I would never be able to show up at work every again.


Anonymous said...

I'm sure everyone has a novel inside them. I'm also sure that, in most cases, that's precisely where it should stay.

However, I'm pretty sure you could write something that would stack up well against anything that's out there. And if Ivy Compton-Burnett can write almost totally in dialogue, so can you.

Having said that, incidental detail can sometimes make a novel, but it depends how it's done. The sparser, the better, in my opinion. Have you ever read anything by Irene Handl? Her "The Sioux" and "The Gold-Tipped Pfitzer" are excellent examples of ornately descriptive yet succinct incidental detail. I could see you being a cross between Ms Handl and Ms Compton-Burnett. You could even adopt Ivy Handl as your nom-de-plume!

Flaming Nora said...

I agree with anonymous, above. PLEASE WRITE IT.

Nixon said...

Sounds ace! I'd buy it. BYJ: The Novel. Issued to every slightly camp boy to read at school (instead of doing PE!)

Lubin said...

Thanks for all the encouragement - and nice to see some familiar names posting here!