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What Type of Fiction I Write

Part two of a three part series on how, what, and why I write fiction.
(Jump to: Part One | Part Three)

Before I thought about writing, I was an avid reader. From a young age I devoured books, both fiction and non-fiction. Like many people of my generation, my childhood was spent reading stories by Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and C.S. Lewis. However, unlike many others, I also liked to read Greek mythology. In our house we had an old set of encyclopaedias which contained adaptations of Homer’s Odyssey. I read them word-for-word, fascinated with the tales of adventure.

As I grew up my tastes changed, and in my teenage years I gravitated towards horror and the supernatural, which was fashionable at the time. I used to borrow these books from my local library, much to the concern of one of the librarians, who wasn’t keen on my taste for this genre at such a tender age. I read lots of books that had accompanying films: Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist. My favourite author of the time was probably Stephen King.

The Horror Years

I started writing in earnest in 1994. I had plenty of free time, and after a run of Stephen King novels (including his epic, The Stand), I felt inspired to try writing myself, just to see if I could do it, and what it felt like to write for pleasure. To my surprise, the words came easily, although whether or not they were any good is another matter.

The first novel I wrote was Augustus O’Kane, a story about a haunted computer. It was around 41,000 words in length, landing in that grey area between full-length novel and novella. I enjoyed the experience of writing and felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment when I completed the project.

Cult was my second attempt at a novel, a tale about a religious cult that carried out human sacrifices in a forest. This was a full-length novel, and once again I found the process of writing easy and enjoyable. I wrote this in 1994, straight after I had finished Augustus O’Kane.

My third novel was Raise the Dead, a story about a trainee priest who discovers his old friend from school is trying to raise the dead from their graves. I wrote this in 1996, with much less time on my hands because I was newly married. The only way I could get through the first draft was by writing late at night or early in the morning when the house was quiet.

The Thriller

Around this time, I was broadening the scope of my taste in books, and had moved away from horror onto thrillers, reading novels by Jeffrey Archer, Wilbur Smith, Michael Crichton and others. It seemed logical at the time that I should try my hand at writing one.

My fourth novel was Deadly Obsession, a tale about a rich man who would stop at nothing to collect archaeological treasures. I wrote this in 1997 and tried a different approach. Instead of just letting the story develop as I wrote, I plotted out each scene in advance, until I had the full plot. This resulted in me having to go back and complete the daunting task of filling out each scene in detail, a plodding and mechanical process that I didn’t enjoy.

Short Stories

I didn’t write for a long time, mainly because I was focused on setting up a consulting business, commuting up and down the country, trying to find new work, etc.

Eventually, the urge to write returned, and I began penning short stories. My wife also enjoys writing, and the two of us would come up with an idea for a story, which we then wrote over the course of a week. When they were finished, we would do a swap and read each other’s work.

Due to my busy lifestyle and also the advent of the Internet, I didn’t spend as much time reading novels, although I had started to read more classics by authors such as Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, Evelyn Waugh, and Leo Tolstoy. (Anna Karenina nearly killed me, but I finished it.)

The stories I wrote during this time seemed more authentic than anything I’d written before, probably because I wasn’t inspired by a particular author or genre. They are contemporary, full of nostalgia with a strong sense of place.

Fifth Novel

I am currently writing my fifth novel, provisionally titled A Different Path. It’s the story of a man in his twenties, single, lacking in confidence and stuck in a rut, who finds his life changes when he meets a well-dressed stranger.

Once again, it’s contemporary, with elements of nostalgia, love, and that same strong sense of place that I enjoy getting across in my writing. I’m reading more novels now, but I haven’t allowed myself to be influenced by other writers or genres.

What works for me

Over the years I have been writing, I have found I produce my best work when I try to be myself and just let the words happen instead of trying to emulate other authors or write for specific genres because they seem to be going through a boom.

Some authors have found great success in following the market and anticipating its trends, and there’s nothing wrong with that approach if it makes the individual writer happy.

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How I Write Fiction

Part one of a three part series on how, what, and why I write fiction.
(Jump to: Part Two | Part Three)

My first published story was called The Lion Tamer, hence the photo above. I wrote it when I was at primary school, aged ten or eleven, and it ended up being printed in one of the local newspapers. That was a proud moment for me.

I’ve been writing on and off ever since.

My approach

There seem to be two camps of writers: those who research and plot everything out in minute detail before they begin writing, and those who have an idea summed up in one or two sentences which they then drop onto one or more characters.

I’ve tried both approaches over the years, but now sit in the latter camp. If I plot out the whole story, I have little motivation to write it because I know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end. On the other hand, if I have an idea and throw a couple of characters together, I can watch them and the plot develop. I want to carry on writing because I want to know what happens next.

The mechanics

When I’m working through a first draft, I write every day unless there is an unshakeable excuse not to. I set myself a target of seven hundred words, which usually equates to one scene, and try to write it as well as possible.

After that first cut of a scene, I will read it back straight away and fine tune the prose, simplifying and rephrasing things that feel clumsy or unwieldy. Depending on how much writing time I have left in my day, I might do this again, and will usually end each day with a clean piece of writing.

The next day, I repeat the process, writing then polishing another scene. This daily practice continues until I reach the end of the story.

Feedback

At some point, I will ask trusted people to give me feedback. My wife is usually the first person to read what I’ve written. I might do this when I’ve finished the very first chapter, or the first three chapters, or the first part. While I wait for feedback I press on with the writing so I still make my daily number of words.

Depending on the feedback itself and who it’s from, I will then make a decision to either continue, or take a step back and make big changes before proceeding.

My experience in the technology business has conditioned me into getting a ‘Minimum Viable Product’ in front of the end-user as soon as possible. Seeking feedback early allows me to either validate I am going in the right direction, or correct my course before I waste a lot of time and effort.

Do what works

There is no right or wrong approach that can be applied to everyone, but I do believe there is a right approach for a given individual, at a given time.

I do what’s right for me, and as long as it seems to work, I’ll keep doing it.

Photo by Sneha on Unsplash.

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Feelings of Nostalgia During Lockdown

Searching this phrase turns up some interesting results on Google. I’m not the only one feeling nostalgic at the moment. Lockdown is having a big effect on people, creating mental space for reflection, and for many, nostalgia is proving to be an effective coping mechanism as we try to process the daily death tolls.

I’ve always enjoyed the experience of nostalgia. That bittersweet feeling of happy memories mixed with a sense of time lost forever. When the UK went into lockdown at the end of March, it didn’t take me long to start losing myself in daydreams about the past.

It all started when I had to write a few simple Java programs to help me understand a technical issue I was having at work. I haven’t been a programmer for many years, and writing code again felt very therapeutic. It reminded me of my younger self, my first computer, my first job, the old Apricot Xen I used at the office back then, and of course the freedom I enjoyed from earning my own money.

Lots of memories from that time started coming back to me, probably because my mind had room to wander instead of worrying whether the Central Line was running, or whether my train would leave Euston on time come Thursday afternoon.

Lockdown has been easing for a few weeks now in the UK, but my feelings of nostalgia haven’t.

Some of my memories have been so powerful I wanted to record them, so I started writing a semi-autobiographical story. A scene I wrote recently was a simple recollection of my weekly trips out to a local branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the friends I went with. I was surprised at how much detail I could recall when I thought about it. I could remember snippets of conversation, songs on the car stereo, my friends singing along to evocative tunes from my youth.

A day after writing the scene I was driving to my first riding lesson in nearly ten weeks when my iPhone decided to shuffle play The Boy With The Thorn in His Side by The Smiths. So many emotions hit me at once. I burst into tears.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It can make us happy, but at the same time make us sad. That’s what makes it so special. It’s not just the act of reminiscing, it’s a feeling, an experience in itself. Definitely something worth bottling.