The hilarity continues

Warning: May con­tain self-indul­gent mater­i­al on the cre­at­ive pro­cess. For anor­aks only.

This week I passed the 70, 000-word mark on my new nov­el, Proper Job. It’s funny how people will widen their eyes when I men­tion that fig­ure. To a non-nov­el­ist, it prob­ably sounds like ‘a bil­lion pounds’ does to me: a large, brain-stretch­ing num­ber that can’t be prop­erly ima­gined. It’s just ‘a lot of money’. So I’ve writ­ten ‘a lot of words’ so far.

70,000 words is about 20,000 short of aver­age nov­el length (I would guess). Stephen King reg­u­larly passes through the 100, 000 bar­ri­er, but Terry Pratchett often limbos his nov­el beneath it. Some nov­el­ists call time at around 50, 000 words. 40, 000? Well, that’s novella ter­rit­ory.

When I was a kid of fif­teen or so, I read a great deal of Stephen King. (I still think he is a great writer, with won­der­ful com­mand of tone and sus­pense; but it’s dif­fi­cult to read him nowadays.) In the pre­face to one of his books, he said a few words about the craft of writ­ing. I was sur­prised to read that King did not plan the nov­el before he wrote it. If you’ve read his extraordin­ary The Stand, then get this: he star­ted that 200, 000-word suck­er with a blank sheet of paper in his type­writer and a note on his pin­board read­ing ‘Randall Flagg is a dark man’. His mag­num opus unrav­elled from there. This fif­teen-year-old Cornish kid, me, thought, ‘Oh, so that’s how you write fic­tion’. I then pro­ceeded to write a nov­el myself.

It was unspeak­ably awful. Really bad. Each sen­tence strain­ing under lit­er­ary pre­ten­sion and finally snap­ping because it lacked the strength of char­ac­ter­isa­tion and lit­er­ary drive. But my habit was set. I write without a plan.

When I start a nov­el, I have a little some­thing in mind. It’s like a dim star on the hori­zon; some­thing to walk towards. Deep down, the know­ledge that I have about story struc­ture — keep ‘em turn­ing the pages, make ‘em empath­ise with the char­ac­ters, remem­ber this is enter­tain­ment — bubbles away and sug­gests the ghosts of future nar­rat­ives, but they can switch abruptly, like a river diver­ted at source. What I want, at all times, is to be in the place of the read­er. I need to feel what it’s like to read the nov­el first time, and I can only do this while I’m writ­ing it.

Last night, I wondered what star draws me through the cur­rent book. Proper Job is the story of a ice-cream seller who needs to make money over his last sum­mer before uni­ver­sity. At root, the nov­el is about a char­ac­ter who copes — just about — with life but is con­stantly reminded of how bizarre it is. Everybody else seems to know what’s going on while he does not. It’s no stretch to call this auto­bi­o­graph­ic­al. Since I was very young, my par­ents observed that I had a ‘warped sense of humour’ (i.e. quite dif­fer­ent from theirs) and that I lacked ‘com­mon sense’. Selling ice-cream involved a num­ber of skills I simply didn’t pos­sess at the time: at 17, I could barely drive; had a dodgy sense of dir­ec­tion; didn’t really have enough life exper­i­ence to deal with sarky cus­tom­ers; and found it dif­fi­cult to engage with a job that, obvi­ously, was not going to be my life’s work. Goodness no. I was destined for great­er things (don’t you know) and I read philo­sophy (as well as Stephen King) on rainy days in the van, and edited manu­scripts in the gaps between serving cus­tom­ers.

That’s my star for this nov­el: a point of view. It’s a com­edy because how else can that world­view be writ­ten? The nar­rat­ive, of course, and the char­ac­ters, are essen­tial ele­ments of the book, but I’ve put them on like clothes dur­ing the course of writ­ing; the skel­et­on under­neath has been that slightly naive, dis­con­nec­ted ‘Is this life? Crikey’ feel­ing.

The first draft is nearly fin­ished, and then I’ll give it up to an edit­or by the begin­ning of June. My reas­on­ing behind this is simple. Déjà Vu was rejec­ted by vir­tu­ally every pub­lish­er in the UK (I sent it to all of them) in its uned­ited form; once edited, with the help of Aliya Whiteley, people have only good things to say about it. Well, some people don’t, but most do. Once that’s done, my next job will be start on the sequel to Déjà Vu, pro­vi­sion­ally entitled Saboteur.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

3 thoughts on “The hilarity continues”

  1. I pre­dict that nov­els will become short­er, and chapters will evolve into one or two page sec­tions.

    Flick and Click…

    The speed of the inform­a­tion age.

  2. Stephen King also admits in his excel­lent book, On Writing, that he wrote The Stand on a LOT of drugs…a bit of an unfair play­ing field, non?

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