What writers don't talk about
I’m not suggesting your own life as raw material is a bad thing - what else do you make your novel out of? For a story to work there has to be an emotional reality, and so often at the heart of a great book there is a yearning for something lost or not achieved, and it might indeed be that very feeling that has driven you to write.
Yet, if asked why they chose that story, the writers in my group would often deny it was actually about them and insist they were simply using characters from a familiar context. Or there were philosophical or political themes that interested them, so they used a world they had experienced as a framework. I would say in these cases the lived, personal reality becomes a sub-conscious restraint, preventing the author confronting the conflict or need that is at the heart of the book.
Novel writing often begins quite late in life, when you have the time and opportunity to look back and make something that is defiantly your own (is it any wonder that so many first novels end with the main character sitting down to write a book?).
It’s a revaluation, a chance to make sense of your life, a process that might begin with thought: ‘what if’. Now ‘what if’ is not a bad way to start a story, if we can only cut it free from our own history.
Story and character are inextricably linked - the character needs the story to reveal his or her strengths and weakness, the story needs to be structured so the reader is propelled through the book and doesn’t feel let down at the end. Real life, however, doesn’t come in story form; story is something we make up, and it can’t be shackled to ‘what really happened’ if we want it to work. Your own life may be messy and unresolved, but that’s no excuse for imposing that state on your character.
I used a phrase above - emotional reality. Without wanting to define it any further, I see this as some sort of essence that accomplished authors can extract from their own lives and inject into the fictional tales they create. It means you can be in a totally alien landscape and time yet understand what is going on.
It can be as subtle as empathising with the manufactured beings of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or the post-apocalyptic father and son of McCarthy’s The Road, or as crass as feeling you’re Bruce Willis with a sub-machine gun in your hand defending your territory.
At best you are also questioning just what it means to be that character and you become aware of the difference between how the character sees himself and how others see him. What we share with these characters are what novels are all about: maintaining our sense of self under great pressure, fear, hope, love, trust, deception and self-deception, betrayal and self-betrayal - in fact, what it is to be human.
These are also, I believe, just as much the basis of comedy as they are of drama and apply to mainstream commercial fiction as much as they do to literature.
If there is one thing I’ve learnt over the last five years it is that writing is hard; much, much harder than I first realised when I sat down to write a novel. It requires the self-awareness to understand your own needs and contradictions, to really know why and what you want to write, and, at the same time, to take those insights, step away from them, then rebuild them into the form of fiction.
Some are born story tellers for whom this is completely natural, for others it can be a painful process.
I vowed never again to write about a writer, but it’s difficult to avoid: once you start writing, writing is the stuff of your life and, sadly, staring out of the window, checking your email, making another coffee and ordering new ink cartridges are poor sources of literary inspiration. Writers are often told to ‘write about what you know’ but perhaps a better instruction would be ‘write about what you want to know’.
So I come back to the question I started with - what are our books about? Having an initial idea and seeing where it goes rarely works. Having a rich and detailed setting, drawn from your own experience is not enough. Dealing with ‘important issues’ is not enough. Transcribing your own life is not enough. It’s creating a character and a journey for that character that reveals the desires and frustrations, the conflicts and resolution that makes a story.
And this is why I left my writing group. It was the realisation that I, and most of the writers I was with had not really worked out the story they wanted to tell.
None of us were bad, but none of us were quite good enough.
The novel is a demanding, conservative and massively competitive form. Over the last five years we’ve all been encouraged to write, to improve our writing and then get published - and if we don’t get published, well, self-publish and cut out the evil world of agents and publishers! Well, I for one am taking a break from it all. There are many other forms of writing, are many other creative things to do.
Roland Denning’s novel, The Beach Beneath The Pavement, about a world where no one believes in anything, conspiracy theory, drugs, the lost dreams of the Sixties and Seventies is available in new 2011 austerity edition exclusively on Kindle, and in the original quaint paperback edition. There’s a story in it too. Somewhere.