How to fail at writing a novel (pt.1)

How to fail at writing

I meet a lot of people who are impressed that I wrote a novel. They’re even more impressed when they learn that it was picked up by a traditional publisher.  Writing a novel seems like an unreachable goal for a lot of people, a fantasy that will never come to fruition no matter how hard they try.

And lots of people try.  My artistic social circle is filled with people who have started to write a novel and given up.  From my first days at university back in 2003 to this blustery, wet March of 2015, I keep meeting people who have never achieved what they set out to do: write a novel.

I’m hardly an expert on the subject.  ‘Half Discovered Wings‘ was published in 2009, and it took me six years to write it, get it into a publishable state, then find a publisher.  In the six years since I’ve written several finished manuscripts and attempted to find literary agents for two of those, with no luck (I like to blame the economic crash, but that excuse is losing its validity with every new pre-election Budget).  But as a reader and an increasingly successful ghostwriter, I know what can work if the stars are aligned, and what will not.

Here begins a short series of posts about how to fail at writing your novel.

1. Don’t know your genre

I had great fun reading the long-awaited seventh novel from literary great Kazuo Ishiguro.  Not because ‘The Buried Giant’ was a good novel, but because I was fascinated by the catastrophe of it.  It was a staid exercise in watching the author trying to claw out of quicksand he knowingly walked into.

Kazuo Ishiguro - The Buried Giant

‘The Buried Giant’ was ten years in the making and its release was hailed as the literary event of the year.  People expected great things from the author of ‘An Artist of the Floating World’ and ‘The Remains of the Day’.  As a writer of moving literary fiction, Ishiguro should have known better, but for some reason he decided to venture into the genre of high fantasy.  Without knowing a thing about how to write a fantasy novel.

Personally I was amazed at how a writer as talented as Ishiguro could create a world populated by monsters, dragons and sorcery whilst hardly showing us any monsters, dragons or sorcery Incredible fantasy and sci-fi author Ursula le Guin slammed Ishiguro for being vague in a scathing blog post, and she’s right.

Bearing in mind Ishiguro’s bizarre insistence that his fantasy novel was not a fantasy novel, I was two thirds of the way through the book and still wondering whether it was a clever literary device in which the characters believed in the paranormal but the world was actually as described in our history books.  Nope.  A knight attempts to slay a dragon in the final act, and the dragon is indubitably real within the fictional reality of the book.

So why did I spent 200 pages or so wondering whether this really was a fantasy book?

Ishiguro knew nothing about the trade of writing a fantasy novel.  One can’t write a literary novel and just throw in a witch or two and hope to be taken seriously.  World-building is a serious, concerted effort on the part of the writer to construct something tangible and believable within its own context bubble.  Successful fantasy trailblazers such as Tolkien and le Guin were successful because they created living, breathing worlds with complex politics, ecosystems, economies and landscapes.  I could write a whole other post about the importance of world-building, but that would be going off topic.

So why did Ishiguro, this master of the word, fail so miserably?  He probably read a lot of fantasy, but the wrong kind of fantasyToo many writers saw The Lord of the Rings in cinemas and thought, “Hey, that’s cool and it’s successful, I’ll write something like that”, unaware that Tolkien was a master but also a blight on fantasy fiction that writers are still struggling to recover from.  “Fantasy” is too often synonymous with “Middle-Earth” and it’s taking the Herculean efforts of the likes of China Mieville to reinvent the popular assumptions about fantasy literature.  Ishiguro took the standard fantasy tropes, such as knights, dragons and ogres, and shoehorned them into his rather touching piece about the nature of human memory, more as a plot device than anything substantial.

If you want to succeed in writing in any genre, read a lot of books in that genreOnly then will you know why your particular genre is important and how to be original with it.  If you don’t know which parts of the map have been drawn, then how will you know in which direction the uncharted territory lies?  Originality should be the goal of any writer (as far as that is possible).  I can’t help feeling that Ishiguro thought that he knew fantasy, but has probably never read a book by Mieville or Jeff Vandermeer or M. John Harrison.

For any genre, follow a few simple tips:

  1. Read lots of book in your chosen genre and learn what makes them work
  2. If you’ve read your idea somewhere before, come up with a new idea
  3. Read authors from each sub-genre.  There is no such thing as “fantasy”, there is really “high fantasy”, “slipstream”, “steampunk”, “magic realism”, “weird fiction”…
  4. For your genre, think about its themes and style.  Learn the rules before you break them
  5. Don’t read only your chosen genre – diversify your talents in style and vocabulary

Keep reading, keep writing, never surrender!

—db

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