The End of the Beginning

Odd feeling; starting a novel, that is. You don’t know if it will actually turn out to be a novel. There is an equal likelihood the story will splutter and die like a suddenly beached fish. At the moment, I have some ideas that refuse to tessellate. I hope my gentle readers won’t be offended if I don’t go into them in too much detail. Suffice it to say that I’m reading some excellent oral histories of women anarchists in 1870s Russia. An intriguing architectural folly known as the Amber Room will feature. Much of my research, at present, involves listening to the Enemy at the Gates soundtrack (crikey, doesn’t it sound like the music from Schindler’s List?) and sketching young Georgian revolutionary poets.

When I was writing my last novel (which is now in the hands of my agent), I kept a running word count on the blog. I don’t think I’ll do this again. Not because it isn’t fun to share progress, but because a word count is essentially meaningless. Flashback – that last novel – clocked in at about 120,000 words in first draft. The version I sent off to Mr Jarrold was…let me check…73,000. On the face of it, the novel lost almost 50,000 words. But it lost even more than that, because many of the words that remain are brand-spanking new ones. So a word count isn’t all that indicative.

What’s the point of this blog? To record and expand upon some of the issues that confronts the writer. Alas, 90% of these issues concern dealing with the publishing industry. For example, the publisher that had expressed an interest in putting out the second edition of Deja Vu got cold feet. Deja Vu will remain out of print until I can set it free with a new publisher or (which seems more likely at this point) use a service like Lulu to self-publish it. If the latter comes to pass, I’ll have somewhere to point people when they ask for a copy.

I was talking about the point of this blog. I wanted to make clear that I’ll keep away from the ups and downs of the publication process in the next few weeks. I’ll try to focus on the writing process itself. For a long time, I’ve wanted to present real-time window onto my word processing application, where readers can see the words appear as I lay them down. Corrections, additions and deletions would appear too. When the book is finished, I’d figure out a way of rushing through the footage like a time-lapse photo, and the novel would grow before your very eyes. But I haven’t figured out a way to do that. Maybe I’ll try again for my next novel.

Finally, a word on the writing life itself. The year has been busy so far. This summer, we relocated from Exeter to Canterbury, and I’m still catching up on freelance work. And now I find myself running psychology seminars totalling six hours of teaching per week. I’ve got some great students and the job, frankly, is much more fun than writing. Which is to say that it’s much more fun than writing for the pointless hell of it. Art for art’s sake is well and good, but I’m not writing novels just so I can put them in a drawer and show my grand children. I’m writing in order to be read. Plenty of editors are getting back to my agent saying how much they like my stuff, but don’t have space on a given list, don’t have the money to market it, and so on. (Oops. I said I’d try to avoid writing about these tribulations.) My point is that, if I’m going back to university teaching, loving it, getting paid actual money, it might be a good idea to do it full time and forget about the writing.

Big talk, I know. And, don’t worry, I am about to start another novel. I still believe in writing and I believe in books. But the next time someone tells me to ‘Keep going! You’re almost there!’ with two thumbs up and a grin, I might detonate. It’s my thirty-first birthday next week, and it’ll be almost fifteen years since the publication of my first short story. I’ve ‘kept going’ for fifteen years. In the mean time, I’ve picked up a degree or two, but never really thought very hard about my academic career because I was confident that, one day, I’d be a full time writer. I guess there comes a point when scraping together enough for the rent gets to be less fun, even if it does allow me to write ‘full time’.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

14 thoughts on “The End of the Beginning”

  1. Word count IS meaningless. You’re right. All it tells you is that, yes, you are actually writing — as opposed to? Watching TV?

    It says nothing about the state of the story, whether it is good, or even whether the story is even that much better developed for having 10K more or less words.

    More and more, I see prose as a process of rendering the story in its current state of development. It will always only be a reflection of the dev state of the story at that particular time.

    I think that’s why a lot of my writing has evolved towards a treatment style. I like to write the basic actions and dialogue for a scene, along with some simple direction “Guy goes here at which point…”

    Saves a lot of time and hassle to save any serious attempts at fancy prose for last.

  2. You’re right, Eric. I’m trying to work out the first draft (perhaps without actually writing any words) in my head before I start. I’ve done a full treatment before and it did seem to kill the process for me somewhat. I guess that must mean that exploring the story is an important part of the writing process.

  3. I try to keep it fresh by thinking up new, better angles and improvements on ways of doing things.

    Think of it as improvised revising.

    You’re a Mac guy right? Using Scrivener?

    The Win equivalent SuperNotecard has had a huge impact on my development process.

  4. Yep, I did a first draft of my novel on there, plus a screenplay. Though this time around I feel like being impish and writing the thing on a typewriter… 🙂

  5. I predict you will actually wind up writing a best-selling non-fiction title somehow connected to your mad psychology skillz. And that will in turn give you the platform to get some modestly successful fiction published – and indeed, get Deja Vu reissued to a mass audience (or mass marketing campaign at least).

  6. Funny you should say that, Chris – I *do* have a folder marked ‘crazy psychology skillz’. Watch this space!

  7. Hi Ian
    For something close to “a real-time window on your word-processing application”, which incidentally also gives you access to a “back-catalogue” of all the various stages of your document’s development, you could try Google docs (

    You can use it to “share” documents with others, either as “viewers”, or, for the truly interactive writing experience, as “collaborators”.

  8. You’re right, Ed. It’s not quite what I’m looking for, but the versioning would get me half way there. I wonder if I can do something in Applescript with the versions it produces, and stitch them all together at a later stage…

  9. That’s a very poignant post, as you quietly wave goodbye to one dream.

    On the other hand, apart from a lucky few it’s almost impossible to make a good living as a writer, the odds are so stacked against you. And you can still write if you go back to academia – the two things aren’t mutually exclusive and you might actually end up getting twice the pleasure out of life.

    Besides, I’m not sure that it is a good thing being a full-time writer. You are more likely to be a well-rounded individual if you have a job that interacts with the real world, and therefore a better writer.

    And just like sex, as Mick Jagger once said, it’s great, but you don’t want to do it ALL the time.

  10. Thanks for your comment, Pundy. I’m not interested in a rounded life! (OK, I am 🙂 Right now I want to write books, and I recall the six-year gestation of my first book (a painful half-hour per day) with a shudder…

  11. Hello Ian! Great post!

    I never realised you were only a year old than me – the doctorate and beard made me think you were older!

    I think if anybody ever examined the sheer impossiblities of ‘making it’ as a writer, they’d never bother writing anything in the first place. One agent I spoke to said 1 in 500 of their submissions ever makes it into print.

    How depressing is that!!!

    But think of people like Mary Wesley, who only got her first book published in her seventies, or something. Or Ian Fleming, who decided to be a writer and sat down to hammer Casino Royale out at 500 words a day. He was in his forties? Fifties? He’d had a heart attack, anyway.

    I think the only sure way to make a living wage as a writer is to do what I do and write marketing copy day to day (and hold off on the adventures until you’re home from work.)

    But we must keep plugging away!

  12. Hi Roland – thanks for your comments. Hope things are going well for you in America. I guess I do make some money from writing, but not the fiction stuff, and I’m starting to think that my energies might be better utilised elsewhere. Anyway, we’ll see what happens…


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