On various platforms, such as Facebook writer's support groups, I occasionally see posts from people who dream of writing a full length piece of fiction but seem to be having trouble getting started. Here are some of the more common cries and my own very subjective ideas and suggestions offered in the spirit of writerly cameraderie..
I want to write a novel but when I try nothing happens!
Anyone who has written a lot is likely to look askance at this cry for help. It can seem a bit like someone saying that they want to play the guitar but can't quite bring themselves to pick one up and start practicing. It probably stems from the idea that writing is something that everyone can do, which in itself stems from the idea that writing is just 'putting your thoughts down':
I think therefore I am a writer.
Now there is the possibility that you are going to shape up into a good writer - hell maybe even a great writer, a bit further down the road. But for now your problem is that you want to write a novel and you're struggling to write a single sentence.
My advice for anyone in this situation is - stop trying to write a novel and just write something - anything. A novel is a very substantial undertaking and to write a good one will take a range of skills which you have not yet mastered. This would be like climbing Mount Everest, or at least a substantial mountain, as your very first climbing challenge.
A diary is a really good place to start because you always know what to write about - your day - and it will get you used to expressing yourself with the written word. What is more you will be writing about a subject on which you are the world's number one expert, which is always a good start. I have written a diary since I was fifteen and although I don't think anybody will be publishing it soon, I regard the writing in those diaries as being a significant part of my 'ten thousand hours of practice'. If you don't want to write a diary maybe go for a short story. This will seem less daunting and might stop you from being blocked by the scale of the challenge.
Another possible misconception about writers and how they work is that they sometimes sit down with nothing particular in their head. They fire up the laptop and then, miraculously, as their fingers begin to move acorss the keyboard - a story starts to come pouring out of them.
Now I have to be careful here because actually there really are some writers who work like that. Certainly you often hear writers talk about books that seemed to write themselves and a mysterious source, sometimes referred to as 'the muse', providing the story in detail in real time, with no requirements for planning. The dramatist John Osborne worked a bit like this with some of his plays - he would say that he laid them like an egg. He also did very little rewriting. However I am certain he never sat down to write something new without a single idea in his head.
That said I have experienced a version of 'the muse' myself when I wrote The Peppered Moth. While writing the book I became extremely inspired and felt like I was riding a wave - but this did not mean that I did not have to plan out what was going to be happening in the coming chapters in considerable detail, and of course, as most writers do, I did a lot of rewriting.
If you are one of those rare writers who does not need to plan and is visited by a mysterious muse, then clearly you are not going to be one of these writers crying for help in a Facebook group. But if you are not please don't be disappointed when you find your fingers moving over the keyboard and no thoughts coming except maybe 'shall I put the kettle on?" The muse is fickle and cannot be summonsed at will. Most of us have to work hard at writing.
Some writers will talk about 'writers block' - the inability to come up with a new story or proceed with one that they have already started. I have experienced a block of sorts but at a very young age. I think I was about nine or ten when I remember first thinking 'I want to be a writer - let's have a go at writing a real proper grown up novel."
I managed to get started with a few rather cliched sentences and then I really hit a wall - I had nothing. The reason? I just did not have the life experiences or knowledge to flesh out the characters and come up with a compelling and plausible narrative. In fact another great piece of advice for anyone who is having trouble getting started on a novel is - get out there and live a little. And if living a little is impractical or difficult for you - then read. Read like crazy. Read everything. Reading is like loading up the imagination. Everything gets fed into that amazing brain we all have - the single most incredible object in the universe. It all gets sent down into the subconscious and stirred up and seasoned until it is squirted out as a completely original, and hopefully delicious, literary soup.
So feed the imagination, live, think, plan. If you really are a writer-in-waiting then ideas for your novel will start to pop into your head. And by the way the least likely place that you'll be when this happens is sitting in front of a computer.
I want to write a novel but it is going to include friends/family and I am worried that they are going to be offended by the way I portray them.
It is a rare novelist who does not draw on real people to give depth to the characters they portray in their fiction, depite the usual legal disclaimer that kicks off pretty much all novels.
A good rule is of course to use a made up name and to change a few details about a person - such as hair colour, profession etc. A wonderful piece advice given by the author Hanif Kureshi at the Port Elliot Literary Festival a few years ago was that if you are including a not altogether sympathetic portrait of someone you know into a novel then make sure you portray them as being "attractive to the opposite sex." He said that people will put up with any amount of negative portrayal if you do this, and he admitted to doing it in a written portrayal of his own father in The Buddha of Suburbia. Great advice which I followed in my own novel The Peppered Moth. The novel describes the grotesque ordeal suffered by Michael Peel (a character based on my father) when he undergoes a mysterious metamorphosis. It is, in many respects, downright impudent in its portrayal of my old dad. But I included a brief scene in which an attractive woman admits to finding him 'a bit tasty'.
He has never uttered a single word of complaint.
But this point about offending people you know is tied up with another commonly expressed fear which I am going to deal with next.
I want to write a novel but I am worried about what my friends and family are going to think of it.
Would-be novelists have this idea that on the day they finish their book everyone they know is going to be begging for a sneak preview so that they can at last plunge into this great and entertaining work of fiction that you have conjured up over months and months of intense effort.
In fact first time novelists are often horrified to discover that friends and family are reluctant to read their book at all. This is sometimes believed to be because of a fear that they will be expected to praise the book to the heavens, and there may be an element of this - but actually it is probably even more prosaic. The truth is that most people have little time and, those who do read for pleasure are pretty much always very selective about what they read. Reading a book that you are being forced to read is not a pleasure - it is work - and if it is a full length novel that is a lot of work. What is more, as a first time novelist, there is every chance that your work might not only be not in their favoured genre, it may not actually be well written at all - and therefore reading it will be a veritable ordeal. And that does not even cover the many people who read very little in the way of fiction and those who read none at all. Asking them to read your book is like asking someone who doesn't eat seafood to join you in downing a dozen oysters.
The people who read your first draft of your novel need to be selected carefully. You need people who enjoy reading literature, and ideally enjoy the genre you are writing in. It took me a while but I have found a circle of people who are not only readers of literary fiction but are themselves writers - which means that they are also interested in the process of writing and understand that there is such a thing as constructive criticism.
The only adendum I would add is that people will read your book - or at least attempt to - if you tell them that they feature in it, which takes you back to my previous point.. Also the more the book is autobiographical the more likely are you going to find willing readers amongst your friends and family - particularly if they make a personal appearance.
And if it is a straight all out autobiography then you can expect your immediate family and close friends to read it - if they are readers.
I want to write a novel but the subject is controversial.
There is no easy answer to this one because of course there are lots of reasons why a novel can be controversial, and nowadays the range of untouchable subjects has broadened considerably. Some people see this as a good thing, because less feelings are hurt, others see it as the death of free speech.
Controversy has always been a double edged sword. A great many works of fiction that have been either critical or commercially succesful have had some form of controversy attached to them - most obviously Lady Chatterlie's Lover by DH Lawrence which found itself the subject of a famous trial for obscenity and ended up changing the law and ushering in what became known as the permissive society. Sales of the book went through the roof.
There is a distinct difference between controversy that wins you free PR in the form of newspaper inches and controversy that frightens publishers off altogether. My novel The Peppered Moth was deemed 'untouchable' by two literary agents because it deals with the subject of race in a comical way. They did not find the book offensive but were frightened that someone else might claim it was offensive just on the grounds of its subject matter, rather than its actual content. They did not want to risk drawing any criticism on themselves. I decided that their attitude was likely to be shared by publishers so I did not submit the book for publication at all. Race is such a thorny issue and almost any controversy related to it is absolute poison. I chose to publish it myself because I know that the book is very much a book about acceptance and tolerance, and I knew that I was the best person to get that across in selling it directly to the public.
So although this is a time when there is a lot of fear and a lot of informal, behind-the-scenes censorship, this is also a time when you have the freedom to publish anything you want. In fact it is extremely easy to produce a very professional printed paperback or hard back book entirely on your own and of course many thousands of people are doing just that. The real challenge then becomes drawing attention to the book and making it stand out from everyone elses!
You can purchase The Peppered Moth in the U.S. here:
And in the UK here: