Douglas Burcham writes another (maybe last) post in his “Writing and Reading for Pleasure” series.
On 1st June 2020 I celebrated being a writer for ten years. Writing is not a short-term activity. The first three years – a million words of draft modern fantasy fiction and then five years of not enjoying editing and improving these towards a final copy. But also, enjoyably, more new draft fiction words, then enjoyment again from writing some non-fiction and short stories.
In my innocence of things to come I drafted but did not complete a TIPM post as usual in December 2019. This reflected how the writing year had been a different one than I predicted twelve months before. I have brought forward some of that post into this one making it rather long – two posts in one. This post is probably my last on writing fiction especially because I have banged on too much about the subject for too long on TIPM.
Along with many other people, I did not notice late in 2019 the reports of a new virus in Wuhan China which would have the potential to ruin countries, cause undue misery and end lives worldwide so catastrophically in 2020.
In the last 18 months I have produced a non-fiction book on buildings, started another in January 2020 on climate change, and since March 2020 I have transferred my efforts to an as it happens experience of history being made by the Coronavirus. The latter until a vaccine arrives or it gets me with underlying conditions, whichever comes soonest. You know from previous posts that after learning by doing in self-publishing in 2013 a small short storybook – Ywnwab – I decided the publishing process was too much like work. I was supposed to be semi-retired. I therefore carried on writing and reading for pleasure.
I reflect now I probably decided against going on the publishing road in 2010. This was after reading the publishing section in the 2006 edition of the Helen Corner and Lee Weatherly’s Teach Yourself book on writing a blockbuster in late 2010 and listening to my first book editor Gary Smailes of Bubblecow.
I understand lockdown has produced a surge in new writing and publishers have been overwhelmed. I have given over the years in my TIPM articles a view from my own experiences of the writing process. Here, I now reflect on these views after ten years.
2.0 My writing experiences since 2010 and in 2020
a) Some thoughts for new writers
In my attempts to put pen to paper, or more accurately keyboard strokes on to my PC, I have no regrets. I have thoroughly enjoyed myself and kept my mind active. I have also met lots of new people and remain in contact with many of them. To find enjoyment is a great recommendation on why you should write. After writing for some time, I decided to entertain myself and not waste time bothering about trying to work out how to do this for others. Amazon book reviews show you can never please everyone.
My main advice to new fiction writers is unchanged. Make a start, learn by doing not reading at first how to and have a target like a dripping tap by writing 750 to 1250 new words a day. Feel completely free to write how you feel rather than like many editors want, because you may find they try to turn your book into their book. I have regrets about the loss of initial freshness of my writing because too early on I attempted to learn how to write from others. I continue to laugh at many editors as pedestal mentors with their show not tell mantras. Often when authors publish, they are slated by their readers – an acid test for them.
At the start, I did find a couple of good editors who set me on the right path and a helpful April fool web post about not using “was” and “that.” This I found subsequently was slated by a pedestal writer. Once one has written 50,000 plus words, then read Stephen King’s book On Writing and John Braine’s How to Write a Novel. I have more than 30 books on how to write but one does not need much more these two. In writing non-fiction the main challenge as I have found out during the last two years is either having far too much or too little material. In fiction it is easy to make the story up. In non-fiction this is not recommended because readers are seeking more accuracy than in fiction.
Perhaps the most important piece of basic advice is housekeeping. You must backup what you write as you go along, whether in a separate computer file or non-eco friendly hard print off. If your writing efforts – like Jeffrey Archer – are still on handwritten pages then scan them or take photos of them. Try to give your precious back-ups to others away from your home for safe-keeping. If you have ambitions to publish you can never do so if you have lost your wonderful writing. This is something many famous authors can testify to. Version control is another key issue. It is hard work but necessary. I can recall writing some stories which I cannot now find on my computers and I am annoyed because they were good and I cannot recall the details!
Get some electronic help beyond word processing software. It took me some years before I did. The original simple cheap version of the Autocrit computer program and also Style Writer helped me self-edit which is a necessary but tedious process. Much software is expensive including Autocrit and in complexity a distraction to writing, so not helpful. My blind writing colleague Calvin minutely examined my early writing for grammar and enough of his comments have stuck for me to score well enough on the ease of reading analysis in Style Writer. Having written too many business reports for work, it is hardly surprising my basic free version of Grammarly notes the mood of my writing as “formal!” For the future many say artificial intelligence will write better and more politically correct books. Maybe the latter, but certainly not the former.
Since I started writing. the shark-infested waters of publishing now include far more vitriol and upset people sensitive to what authors have either written or say when in the public gaze. Early on, a wise person asked me if I really wanted to be a famous writer subject to this attention. There are also the perils of copyright and character associations and other no-win no fee lawyer action. I have tried to be careful when writing not to give gratuitous hurt but suspect I may well have innocently strayed into areas where I find the logic and arguments hard to follow. So writing for pleasure is a less stressful way out. Current examples involve J. K. Rowling who has done much to get children reading and Russell Blake, having another prior life, forced out by a business colleague after a dispute.
In structuring your story, Lee Child’s ability to hook the reader in early in his books by a scene or answered question is recommended as essential. Kate Atkinson did this in the first pages of Life after Life and of course the opening paragraphs of Jaws with the woman walking into the sea are unforgettable examples.
A local writing group can be helpful in meeting other writers, as is a writing buddy who is also struggling to write at the same stage of the writing experience. A risk with both is the social and administrative side can become an end in itself and a distraction. Looking back, I spent far too much time reading and responding with comments to web-based advice sites with much of the advice being repeated (See this sample list). A weekly version of Daily Writing Tips has proved the most durable. The danger is one spends too much time reading how to write and not enough actually writing.
I have kept far too many newspaper cuttings and obituaries containing facts and ideas for expected use in my writing. Unfortunately, I have used few of these, so the task has not been a great success. The mice in my garage like them as a snug home! Referencing is a key issue. I found most of my stories in dreams provided I could get them described early in the day before they faded away. Also, there are thoughts after waking each morning before I get up and while walking alone. Reading my shoddy handwriting is a problem because many great ideas have been lost for want of being able to read what I put down illegibly and also in not enough detail for future use.
I have never had writer’s block, because when I have started to slow down, I have started a new story. Then, often many weeks later, when returning to an original story, I improved it and charged forward again.
b) Cover design
Despite not publishing much, one aspect is of particular interest to me. Marketing is to me the most difficult area in successful publishing and selling is my weakest skill. My self-publishing service provider for Ywnwab, York Publishing Services (who I can recommend), said to me: “Nobody buys your book if they do not know it exists!
There is a much recommended need in marketing your book to get expensive professional cover design. My view instead is to go into Waterstones each week and look at the ever-changing trends and look at what stands out. To me the house designs of the original Penguin books and consistency of house style are a good start like the Jack Reacher books.
A recent BBC4 programme traced the various cover designs, nearly ten, for George Orwell’s book 1984. To me the original simple Penguin cover is the best. However, the earliest picture I can find below is for the 1970 edition. The programme also explained how the much admired cover for Clockwork Orange came about by accident through production deadlines. The blank face and single eye do draw one in.
In flicking through my hardcover books ready to go off to Oxfam for recycling, I notice most with colourful dust jackets removed are single colour with title and author details on the spine. I have found two exceptions. Once past the hand sanitisers, if I saw these on Waterstones books for sale table by their front door, without dust covers with no text, I might well pick each up for a look inside. But of course, then putting them aside for quarantine.
My personal taste has been for covers in red, yellow and black because to me they stick out and attract my eyes. In previous posts I have mentioned such covers..
Earlier in the year two more similar covers stood out for me.
The authors’ names on the books were instantly recognisable, but for two of the above four books I would not be persuaded to read. Perhaps Greta’s book should only be published as an e-book to cut CO2? I muse that a plain book cover in red or yellow with a text saying: A BOOK BY .. [AUTHORS NAME] would be sufficient to attract my attention. This is despite others having spent an enormous amount of money on book cover design which fails to stand out from others who have done similar designs to the then current trend.
c) Recent writing activity
In 2019 I enjoyed writing a non-fiction book about the now demolished National Institute of Medical Research (NMR) building on the Ridgeway in Mill Hill London. This was the subject of my last TIPM post in June 2019. As a result, I started writing a book about climate change in January and I suppose the only good thing to come from the Coronavirus pandemic is it has enabled me to stop writing that book. In the NIMR book it involved hard graft in researching information and extensive contacting of people. I am still digging for more information and looking for some more pictures of construction of the building shell from 1938 to 1940.
In my initial research for the climate change book, I found an opposite problem with an overload of material. I found others had made a similar start early in 2019 and, like them, I also found two vitriolic extreme camps even more so than Brexit. Coming from a household of five, when I was a child, it was a struggle for my parents to put enough food on the table. I am by nature not a waster or driven to excess. Chipping ice from the inside of one’s bedroom in winter means my central heating can be down a degree on the average my system reports for my neighbours. However, I do not want to return there if the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow in winter and the nuclear and gas power stations are closed down.
In my own modern fantasy fiction, many of my characters are under threat for various things, but surprisingly not from a virus infection. Writing fantasy fiction and reading the same in J. G. Ballard books becomes less attractive when, as with the Coronavirus day-to-day, history being made is for real.
My older brothers tell me about my father early in WW2, having returned with poor health from France in WW1, being in despair while updating a map of the Nazis advancing across Europe to just across the English Channel. As part of the VE Day recollections last month, Michael Parkinson recounted a similar event in his childhood home. Given the spread of the virus, I now appreciate the mental stress of the situation more.
The day to day uncertainty has to be recorded as it happens in order to show the realities rather than coming back later. This approach is recommended in an article on writing history and is quite hard but worthwhile. I am no diary writer like Tony Benn or Field Marshall Lord Alan Brooke. A recent dose of bad news, now delivered to my door, states: bald men suffer more badly with the Coronavirus, perhaps because I’m a bald man, it’s the last thing I want to read. I also read that book shops are likely to be allowed to reopen in ten days time (this has now happened). Some sellers have said each book browsed by potential purchasers will have to be quarantined. Really? (Waterstones are!) Like with climate change, I am overloaded with information each day, which I am collecting and ready to prepare a book in March 2021.
I started this post in January 2020 and wrote innocent of the gathering storm. This last year has been the year when my fiction writing train, which started in June 2010, has been derailed. Not a surprise given many of my peers have experienced similar troubles when other issues in their lives pushed writing out of the way, but writing has now taken priority again. I have in my life been involved in various activities for periods of between one and five years and then been pleased to move on to new activities.
I do not want to stop writing but I seem to have reached a plateau where completion of some of my draft fiction books is proving difficult. Also, the flow of ideas – which have previously been there – are not anymore in sufficient quantity. Another issue is that my level of expectation from my efforts has increased as I have perhaps become a better writer or more critical reader. Also, I may be bogged down in what I have already written and may need, as previously noted, to make a new start in another area or just confine myself to new short stories. See also Writer’s burn out later in this article.
Part of the problem is ageing and ill-health in the 2020 lovely English euphemism of “having underlying conditions.” I recall an old Lord Sugar saying (but cannot find his exact words) about many people make things happen, others watch these people making things happen and a third group of people do not realise anything is happening. I fear moving slowly from the first to third category. Another part of the problem is applying the economic law of utility where oversupply of similar experiences produces boredom.
Making things happen is now much harder especially when travel or physical effort is required and all too soon rest is required. One’s own administration activities in life cannot be avoided, although they can be simplified and reduced. My wish for writing and reading to remain a high doing priority is perhaps wishful thinking.
A recent quote in my daily dose of bad news stated: “The best guide is to always do less than you think you can.” Having spent the whole of my life equalling or exceeding what I think I can do, including writing this, has come hard but is necessary as part of living with ageing and ill-health. So if you are not yet in this situation, then get on and write before you are!
I have always watched and followed sport and events for pleasure and been interested in history and biographies of people who lived from 1900. Film documentaries on people, buildings, aircraft, outer space and science give me great pleasure and it never ceases to amaze me where all the old film comes from. Also, the history of popular music stars who have lived parallel lives to me where fortunes in their lives have climbed and fallen. I often sit in wonder at just how these crystal clear colourful images get to me through the air to my TV or phone and wires to my computer..
Russell Blake started writing a year after me. He has over the years in his blog provided me with lots of sound writing advice. He has been far more successful than me with his action-packed books. He is one of those rare authors who it seems has made a good living from writing. He wrote recently:
In June, 2011, I released my first novel, Fatal Exchange. Now, eight years later, with sixty-something novels out, it’s hard for me to believe how quickly the time flies. After eight years of turning out roughly 8-9 novels a year, about April of 2019 I hit a kind of wall. Moving to a new place, dealing with personal issues, working with several new investments, designing homes, travelling … After sixty-something novels, it seems the universe is telling me it’s okay to take a break.
During the last ten years, I have sidelined various necessary activities for the joy of writing, but eventually they catch up as they have for Russell Blake! Getting a writing / life-balance is not easy when there is pressure to empty one’s head of the next great story or chapter. Since I started writing this he has revealed a former life. See his web site.
I read today with real concern in a web post of “Writer’s burnout, not to be confused with writer’s block, is real and insidious. It drains the joy out of writing and plunges you into an existential crisis. With writer’s burnout, you can write but you just don’t want to.”
At Christmas I usually try to contact about a dozen new writers who I have met during the last ten years while I have been writing. Of the ten, two have managed to write and publish nearly a new book a year, so well done to them. The rest have written and published far less.
In January, I resolved for 2020 a reboot of my fiction writing activity … but then life changed because of the Coronavirus.
In December, I read about Jeffrey Archer trimming 8000 words from his 1979 novel Kane and Abel and it will be re-released. He argues he is a much better writer now. This seems a huge opportunity for writers to revise previous work and reissue them perhaps with different endings or reworking of plots. Two of my draft books have alternative endings for fun!
I now reflect that all three of my non-fiction draft books require different writing skills. My NIMR book in the past, the Coronavirus book in the present, and climate change in the future.
3.0 Reading for Pleasure 2019 and 2020
2019 was not a good year for reading. I have had trouble with my eyes so this has reduced my volume of reading. I read some new fiction but little remains in my mind. I have a pile of books on my bedside table with bookmarks marking 10 to 40% progress.
I reread for the third time the first Jack Reacher book – The Killing Floor and also Trip Wire and, although recalling the punchlines, much of the text still seemed fresh and enjoyable. That cannot be said for Blue Moon, the last Jack Reacher book in November 2019, which was shorter than usual and the story petered out as if Lee Child ran out of time before the publisher’s deadline. (or has writer’s burn out as above) Therefore, the announcement that he is passing Jack Reacher to his brother Andrew Grant did not come as a surprise. The treadmill of a book a year appears even too much for Lee Child. All good things come to an end. I noted a comment in a review for an Andrew Grant book which does not bode well. – When this reader finishes a Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child, he can’t wait for the next one. Not the same case with author Andrew Grant.
2020 started well. The Body by Bill Bryson, as the first cover image above and the dust jacket below, being enjoyable with lots of his usual throwaway comic lines.
The book does not have a great Amazon review, but 30% through I am learning lots about how my body works, or should or used to work! Another small book with not so good reviews is Novascene by James Lovelock of Gaia fame written with a co-author as he crept up to 100 last July. Although stated not to be science fiction, it read like it was and I found it highly enjoyable. He also worked at the NIMR for some time.
A couple of years ago, when reading new Lee Child books and also Robert Galbraith, I found that I wished in some ways I had not read the books because the punchlines were horrific and not in the enjoyable reading for pleasure category. Watching TV programmes recently about psychopaths, such as Joanne Christine Dennehy, also fall into the same category. One cannot unlearn or unread books or unsee films. Recent TV programmes about horrific events in WW2 are warnings from the past. BBC TV did programmes on houses in Liverpool, Newcastle and now Bristol. The history of the many occupiers and owners is stranger than fiction. I read some medical biographies which also read better than thrillers with the uncertainty of treating sick people.
Since Coronavirus arrived, I expected to be reading more, but somehow I lack concentration. Perhaps this is because of a background worry over the situation. I note others are saying the same.
After watching an excellent BBC documentary on the book and film Kestrel for a Knave, I am re-reading the book after many years. The story of Barry Hines the author of the book is interesting. In an afterward in the book he quotes a question he was asked in a school – “did the book happen by accident!” Given all his hard work, it certainly did not. Given the book’s portrayal of life in a mine-working town, it has the status to me of factual fiction. My fiction is different as pure fantasy.
An older brother belonged to the Companion Book Club in the 1950s and I liked their simple house style with these books now instantly recognisable on charity shop book shelves as people turn them out. Recently I tripped over a web reference to Richard Pape’s book Boldness be my Friend which I last read 60+ years ago in my brother’s Companion Book Club version. So I purchased a used copy on Amazon. The book puts current life in perspective.
RAF bomber navigator shot down on return from Berlin, survived (just) in foul conditions in POW camps, escaped three times, changed identity, brutally interrogated by Gestapo several times. Then to cap it all, he suffered severe burns in a motorcycle accident after getting back to the UK when training to get back flying again. In June 1965, he returned his Military Medal to the Queen in protest at The Beatles having been awarded the MBE. A difficult man! (See The Independent obituary online).
4.0 Publishing year 2019
Using doxdirect to print up a few draft review copies of my book on the NIMR last summer and a few draft copies of my fiction books in 2018, it illustrated that my dream of a few years ago to progress from a MS Word document to a printed book without middlemen or women is now achievable, at least in A4 and A5 sizes. One tells them what you want and they do it, mistakes and all. This to me is better than what is often normal in publishing of – “we are not keen on what you want and wish you to do it differently!” That is even if one even gets consulted about your book.
I am also trying to sort and send many books to charity shops. My impression was that before Coronavirus charity shops did not appear to be making much from sales of used books, with prices at an all time low. I note the National Trust stated recycled books were a material income producer during 2019. What the post-Coronavirus future is I do not know, other than grim. I chuckled when I saw a statistic that 75% of clothing is never worn each year. It is probably higher in our household, meaning a sort and clear-out to the tip or charity shops is needed. Probably over 90% of some 4,500 to 5,000 books are unread in our house. I recall Gary Smailes said: even if started, few books are read beyond 50 pages. As I have not joined those on Zoom I will not know what people think of the contents of my bookshelf or receive horrible comments about them or my untidy study.
Unfortunately, I trod on my Kindle and broke the screen. I have not replaced it nor read an e-book now for a few years. Even the removal of VAT will not change this. Maybe hard copy books are holding their own in the marketplace and, if so, this is good news.
I have Mick Rooney to thank for alerting me to various publishing scams way back in 2010. They have not gone away, so do take care. Though I would be happy for someone else to take over the finalisation and publication of my draft books, there is still a risk of me being taken in. I hope by writing posts on TIPM I have helped a few new writers on their fiction writing journey.
The first naked book cover picture earlier in this post is for The Body, while the second is a book with the opening line –
The moment I heard how McAra died I should have walked away, I can see that now …
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, a long read time ago, this may be my last TIPM post. Unless I report progress early next year on the experience of putting together history as it happens in my description of my interaction with the Coronavirus pandemic. In a strange way, and not being disrespectful to those who have died, been mentally affected, or been ruined by the virus, it is almost a fiction or factual thriller. Unlike a thriller, I am annoyed I am not able to turn to the last page and see the end. Certainly, I would like to wake up and find it has all been a dream.
May I wish you all, despite the affects of Coronavirus, good writing, reading and if you must publish for 2020 and the new decade, I hope you keep well and safe.
Douglas Burcham started writing on 1 June 2010 and self-published under the Allrighters’ name a storybook ‘Ywnwab!’ in September 2013. A million words of draft writing reached satisfactory completion in January 2014 split between 900,000 words of fiction and 100,000 words of non-fiction. The latter being about writing and memories of buildings, trains, boats and planes. Since then after a slow and aimless start to 2017 better progress continued to be made into 2019 in converting draft writing into final manuscript proof printed up copies by Doxdirect ready for potential publishing. These as short and long storybooks under the Allrighters’ name. He has written at least another half million words since 2014. He contributed a regular post to TIPM up to June 2016 and has carried on at intervals since. After writing his first non-fiction book in 2019 he is writing an “as it happens” book on the Coronavirus pandemic. He updated his website www.allrighters.co.uk at the start of 2020.