Friday, 3 May 2013

How Not to Write the World's Greatest Book

I finally met the lovely Kate Scott at a book launch this week, and we had a fascinating conversation about writing that will probably yield several blog posts (thanks Kate, the cheque's in the post). I do a lot of my best thinking in conversation, and while we were chatting, I talked about my last book Die Laughing and the high hopes I'd had for it. Readers with very long memories may remember my excited post about it being THE ONE (you know, like in The Matrix).

After the failure of my Undiscovered Voices winner Back from the Dead to reach publication, I was determined not to make the same mistake with my next novel. Die Laughing would be my magnum opus, the breakthrough novel that would be so good that it would be impossible for publishers not to accept it. I would build a complex and innovative world, layer it with challenging themes and guide my characters to a shocking climax. I took inspiration from other groundbreaking works of fiction, in particular the iconic HBO TV series The Wire. To pitch that series, creator David Simon wrote a letter to HBO exhorting them to take up this opportunity to change television. There was a particular passage that stuck in my mind:
If we do this right – and we will – the critical response will be that HBO has turned its gaze to a standard of television fare: the cop show. And the cop show can never be the same.
And what do you know? He was absolutely right. I took this sentence and tweaked it to fit my own needs – as a mission statement for Die Laughing:
If I do this right – and I will – the middle-grade novel can never be the same again.
Looking back at this now, it seems kind of ridiculous, but at the time I really believed it. It isn't that I've since developed a problem with ambition, because nothing of significant artistic worth ever got made without the creator having ambition. The problem was how much pressure this mission statement put on me when it came to actually writing the book. No idea was good enough, no sentence well-enough constructed. I laboured over a never-ending first draft, becoming ever more anxious about how many times I had to move the deadline with my agent. By aiming so high, I took perfection to a crippling new level.

The irony, of course, is that the book didn't get published, didn't change the world and the middle-grade novel is doing rather well on its own, thank you. For all my high ideals, what I mostly succeeded at was making myself miserable! Once I finally settled to writing the book I'm on at the moment, I made a choice to do things a different way. I wouldn't say that writing it has been exactly easy, but nothing could be as hard as Die Laughing.

So right now, I'm approaching the end of the first draft of a book that will never win the Carnegie Medal for children's literature. Frankly, it's a rather silly romp, although I have smuggled in some real-life issues and a bit of emotional depth. But it should prove to be a gripping and enjoyable read, which is as much of a mission statement as I want to contemplate at present. I'm also reminded that for every successful masterwork like The Wire there are many more artistic failures like the Matrix sequels, where the creators took on too big an ambition, and then crashed and burned in the process.

But never say never – there may be another magnum opus in my future. For now though, I'm happy writing non-life-changing books about slapstick heroes and cool robots.



  1. Ah Nick , your blog posts always make me chuckle - this one made me spurt my tea! One day, pal of mine, one day it will happen x

  2. And Kathy's response made me spurt mine. Mopping up all round.

    You're right, of course. Aiming for perfection too early sends your creativity straight into a small room with a firmly locked door. You have to convince it you're only asking it to footle around and have fun, and then it will come out to play.

  3. A gripping, enoyable, silly romp sounds perfect! Why aim for anything else? x

  4. There's a lot of spurting going on around here. Just goes to show you can't write with an eye on winning a prize. It's the story!