One of Stephen King’s classic novels, The Stand, took me about six months to read. It’s a tale about post-apocalyptic America, where the survivors of a devastating plague form two antagonistic groups for a final battle between good and evil. The book is staggeringly long. Really, really long. Length is, I would guess, one of those things first-time authors find most daunting about writing a novel. In his preface to second — uncut — edition, King replied to fans who asked him how he could write such long novels. ‘One word at a time, man,’ he wrote. ‘The Great Wall of China was built one brick at a time and you can see that fucker from the moon.’
Though I’m past the point where I’m daunted by the blank pages ahead of me, I admit to feeling relief when I pass a particular word count. The fact is that, if you’ve managed to write half a book, there’s a good chance that your choice of characterisation, situation and theme have worked out. I write without a synopsis, so I never really know whether the story is going to ‘work’. On the other hand, because I make it up as I go along, I’m closer in my perspective to that of a reader; like the reader, I’m experiencing the story for the first time, and it makes decisions about pacing, toning, and overall story arc more straightforward. I’m not forced to write duff set-up scenes. I write the scenes I think will be fun and, in the second draft, I cut the ones I don’t need.
This morning, I passed the 50,000 word mark on my new science fiction novel, a sequel to Déjà Vu. According to my excellent novel-management software Copywright, I began the manuscript on November 3rd, 2005. I’ve spent 290 hours writing it. All just numbers, of course. Is there something special about the figure 50,000?
For those of you more used to page counts than word counts, 50,000 words is, roughly, just over half the length of the average novel (as a rule of thumb, Terry Pratchett regularly comes in under 100,000 words, Stephen King regularly over). I can now regard the half-written novel as reasonably successful. Though I do not yet have an ending, I’m well into the second of three acts, and the narrative has its own energy — in other words, the characters are driving the story through their own motivations. This is something that a creative writing teacher will tell you explicitly: character-driven stories are generally more effective than plot driven stories. Where the finale of a story is considered by the reader to be the inexorable conclusion given the prerequisites of character and situation at the start of the novel, you know you’ve got a tight story. Whether or not it’s a good story…that’s another matter, and will depend on readers’ individual reactions to characters.
What else goes through a novelist’s mind at this stage? Somewhat surprisingly, I’m thinking a lot about the title. I write ‘surprisingly’ because, in one sense, the title is tiny proportion of the overall work that a writer has to plough through per book. But the title is also bound up with something crucial about the novel: its identity. It will become the name of the project, and if it’s a good name, it can even be inspiring. The genre of my current project is ‘thriller’ (sub-grenre: technothriller) — though I consider it to be science fiction (I’ll hold these thoughts about genre for another post).
Here are some of the titles I’ve come up with: The Magic Bullet, Keystone, Black Box, Game Over, Femme Fatale (God, that one’s awful), The Rosetta Division, Freefall, Firebrand, Thin Air, The War of the Ghosts, Meridian, Guardian Angel, Contact Lost, The [insert word here] Trace, Final Transmission, Afterimage, Flashback, Thin Air, Black Box, Wake Vortex, and Memoriam.
Of these, my current favourite is ‘Flashback’. Not only does it have a hint of time travel about it, it also foreshadows the narrative structure of the book, and it’s nicely dramatic. It’s also the name of a brilliant old Commodore Amiga game that I spent hours playing with my mate Edward. As a point of little interest, I named a character in Déjà Vu Jobanique, following our teenage mispronunciation of Jobanque, a character who was the boss of time agent Falcon in the excellent Falcon gamebook series (note to lawyers: I only took the name! Everything else I made up.)
A good title can help motivate you when times are hard (i.e. when a scene is just plain shit, or you’re ill (as I am now)) and give you an overall feeling of what the book may look like. Having a sense of its final form can help with decisions about chapter length, pace, and tone.
One final, crucial thing is the jacket blurb. The word ‘blurb’ is used to refer to different things: sometimes snippets of review that grace the cover of your book, sometimes the hooky summary on the back (or inner flap) that entices you to buy the book. In this instance, I’m referring to the summary on the back. Terry Pratchett, no less, has claimed that he writes a jacket blurb before he begins the manuscript. This might seem a little narcissistic, but it’s a another good way of entering the world of your book. One sad fact is that, unlike Mr Pratchett, if you can’t come up with a good blurb for your book, the chances of getting your complete manuscript to an agent or publisher will drop. They don’t read manuscripts routinely; they need to be hooked.
Well, I’ve had a stab at the jacket blurb for ‘Flashback’. It does not even begin to describe the story, and needs better ‘topping’ and ‘tailing’, but it’s a start. Just posting it on this blog has forced a little rewrite, and this can only be a good thing.
A fifty-year-old mystery is about to be solved.
September, 1947: Converted Lancaster bomber ‘Stardust’ reports a successful trans-Andean flight from Buenos Aires to Santiago, and signals its intention to land. Four minutes prior to touchdown, it sends the letter sequence ‘S-T-E-N-D-E-C’. Queried by puzzled ground controllers, the young ex-RAF operator aboard the Stardust rapidly keys ‘STENDEC, STENDEC’. Then silence. The Stardust vanishes along with all passengers and crew.
October, 2003: German Air flight A628 impacts vertically with the Bavarian National Forest. The only clue to its fate is the co-pilot’s final transmission, spoken against the roar of failing engines: ‘Stendec.’
Within hours, air safety investigators have been dispatched to the crash site. Investigator-in-charge Hrafn Óskarson has more questions than answers. Who erased the flight data recorders? What is the true identity of passenger Saskia Dorfer, whose documents have proved fake? Who torched her Berlin apartment? Why did Saskia’s English friend Nina Shaw refuse to board the flight?
The mystery of German Air flight A628 will be solved by a startling conspiracy that reaches twenty years into our future — and fifty years into our past, to the final moments of the Avro-Lancastrian ‘Stardust’.
So there we go. Now all I have to do is work out what the bloody mystery is. It had better be good.
PS: There really was a Avro-Lancastrian called ‘Stardust’ that crashed in the Andes in 1947. You can read all about it here.
Current progress on ‘Flashback’
52,939 / 110,000