Author Neil McCallum writes about finally penning that book inside you
Could there ever be a better time to start on that book you’ve always known is there, somewhere inside you? I’ve been writing for over 30 years, had half a dozen novels published in India, the UK, and Italy and have penned goodness knows how many articles for journals around the world. Thankfully, I’ve never had to make a living from writing, or I’d have starved a long time ago. But I have always hugely enjoyed it. There are few pleasures greater than getting a manuscript accepted or finally holding your book in your hands.
So, if you’re about to embark upon your lockdown literary masterpiece, here are a few tips I have found helpful and lessons I have learnt, usually the hard way.
Sounds obvious but it’s surprisingly hard to get going. You may well feel uncertain, self-conscious and probably even a little bit of a fraud, just as you would if you walked into a gym, never having exercised before.
To stick with the gym analogy, treat the first few thousand words like a warm-up. Just bash the stuff out. Never mind the quality, enjoy watching your words appear. Sentences form. Paragraphs take shape. As with most things, writing gets easier with practice. But even when you’ve been writing for a while, some days are going to be better than others. One well-known and highly prolific author sits down every day at 9am to produce a set amount of viable text. Some days he’s done by mid-morning. Others, it might take him all day and involve dashing off page after page destined for deletion before he finally produces his quota of useable material.
Don’t be too hard on yourself at the start...
It’s very tempting to write a page or two, or even just a couple of paragraphs, then go back over them, editing and polishing. Don’t. It’s not only a waste of time, but it’s also undermining and stultifying. I try not to even correct typos and punctuation until I’ve got several thousand words down. It’s hard to do, but it really does help.
...but do be disciplined.
Many writers find there is a specific time of day, or a particular place to work, which suits them best. Find yours. Ideally, try to have a period every day put aside for writing and a target for the number of words you will produce. When my children were young, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice time with them for my writing, so I used to get up around 4am and get a good couple of hours in. These days, mid-morning seems to work best. But just don’t wait for inspiration. As someone once said, it only comes at your desk.
Be strict with yourself about your cellphone (switched off or on silent, preferably in another room). Social media alerts and emails are even more of a threat if they are popping up on the very device you’re writing on. Try as I might, I cannot resist glancing at any new message. For me there is really only one answer: To disable the Internet connection on the laptop whilst writing. The world can get along without you being in touch for an hour or two. Your story can’t.
Let your characters find their voices...
One of the greatest joys of writing fiction is when your creations develop their own, distinct voices. I have no idea why it is, but in every book I’ve written there are characters who seem to just say their lines and my job ceases to be composing and becomes simply transcribing for them. In my first novel, there is a doctor whose sole purpose was to examine and describe the injuries sustained by the heroine. Once he’d scratched his chin, yawned massively and started talking, I couldn’t shut him up. He more or less forced his way into the story, progressively becoming key to the plot as he was just so real and so eloquent. Conversely, other characters intended to be major players just never really get going and you realise, one way or another, they’re going to have to go.
By the way, don’t worry if you find killing off irritating characters strangely satisfying! That’s another plus of writing fiction. There is real skill and pleasure in crafting a good bit of righteous violence. Writing gives you a whole other world where you are the sole arbiter of life and death. You can be a paragon of charm and courtesy in your daily life, but a veritable Genghis Khan among your characters. I refuse to believe I’m alone in occasionally including a character based on someone I find deeply annoying simply so I can do something really horrible to them on Page 212.
...but make each one earn their keep
P.G. Wodehouse used to say you should regard every character you introduce as though you have to pay their wages: Do you really need to take on another person? Couldn’t someone already on the payroll deliver that line or act out that scene? I find it a good principle to apply. And the ones based on annoying acquaintances? Worth every penny!
Have a plan
Every author differs in how detailed or rigorous their planning will be. A few just start with an opening sentence and let the story go wherever it will, confident in their ability to bring all the strands together in some sort of conclusion. Others will outline every step and structure of every chapter. You will find your own approach, but, as a general principle, it is better to start with too much planning than too little. For my most recent story, I followed the structure recommended in an excellent book called Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. Whilst this is about screenwriting, I find the way index cards are used immensely helpful and intend to use this again in my next story.
Presumably, as a result of the economics of printing and distribution, the publisher’s preferred length for a novel seems to be 100,000 words or 330 pages. I aim to write around 120,000 on the first draft so there is plenty to cut into.
That I should find dumping pages of material I’ve spent hours creating so satisfying makes no sense whatsoever, but I do. Hence my overwriting by 20 per cent. I plan from the start to have a good 60 pages to get rid of. This may be indulgently excessive description, clever but needless dialogue or, as in my third book, an entire subplot. Nothing is ever wasted. That subplot may well become a story on its own one day. And those characters based on annoying people? You’ve had your fun, now, unless their fate really adds to the plot, let it go.
Always leave yourself scope for a sequel
You never know… Many successful writers have rued the day they killed off one of the main protagonists. Look at Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes.
The odds are stacked against you getting published. Even if you do, you are very unlikely to make much money. So write for the sheer pleasure of it.
Good luck, and if you get published, let me know and I’ll buy a copy of your book!
Neil McCallum writes as Dawood Ali McCallum and his previous books are The Lords of Alijah, Taz, Io Moriro Domani, The Peacock in the Chicken Run and The Final Charge. His new novel, Mrs A’s Indian Gentlemen is published by Hachette India and is out now.