Why I Write Fiction

Aberaeron beach, Wales.

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

So far in this series I’ve considered how I write and what I write. While both posts required a bit of thinking to pull together, this final instalment was the hardest.

When George Mallory was asked why he climbed Mount Everest in the first of three British expeditions in the early 1920s, he responded with the now legendary quote:

Because it’s there.

I prefer the updated quote by Larry Ellison, the billionaire founder of Oracle:

“Why do we do these things? George Mallory said the reason he wanted to climb Everest was because it’s there.’ I don’t think so. I think Mallory was wrong. It’s not because it’s there. It’s because we’re there, and we wonder if we can do it.”

This is the main reason why I write. When I read a great novel, I’m inspired. I see the mountain the author had to climb in order to complete it. I wonder if I could do it.

Some other reasons

I don’t think it’s possible to come up with a complete list of reasons for anything. The deeper you dig, the bigger the hole, the more you’ll uncover. Therefore, what follows is a list of four more reasons that came to me when I asked myself why I write. I’ve tried to put them in order of importance.

Leaving a legacy – I never tried to have a child of my own, and sometimes feel sad that I will not leave anything behind when I die, apart from a house, a little money, and some belongings, most of which will end up on eBay, in a charity shop, or buried in landfill. People who have children are to an extent able to ‘live on’ through their offspring and leave a lasting legacy. That’s something I will never be able to do, so perhaps by writing I am trying to fill that fundamental gap in my life.

Exploring how I feel about something or someone – One of my friends used to accuse me of thinking and analysing too much. He was probably right. However, inside me there is a strong desire to ruminate over how I feel. I enjoy exploring my emotions. As humans, most of us feel them, and most can relate to the emotions of others.

Reliving the past – I recently turned fifty, and have more than half a lifetime of memories stored in my brain. As far as I know, I still have many years to look forward to, but I do like to reflect on the past and remember some of the good (and bad) things that have happened. Some of these may seem insignificant, but they are defining for me, and I try to get that across in my writing by allowing my characters to have the same experiences.

Rewriting my life – Who wouldn’t want to go back and live their life differently? I’m not a bad person, but I’ve certainly made mistakes in my life, even if they are only small ones. Maybe I regret buying something extravagant or saying something stupid when I was in a bad mood. Perhaps I wish I hadn’t written a life-changing letter, or then again, maybe I wish I had. What would have happened if I hadn’t given up with something when I did? How would my life be now if I could rectify just one little mistake? I like to explore these possibilities through my fiction.

Write for whatever reason

Some people write for money, others write to get famous. Everybody is different. I don’t believe there is a right or wrong approach.

Whatever makes a writer tick, that’s the reason they should be writing.

What Type of Fiction I Write

Pylons in a rape field near Croston, West Lancashire.

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.

How I Write Fiction

Photo by Sneha on Unsplash.

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

Before diving into the details of how I write, I thought it would be a good idea to share a bit about my writing background and what I have done to-date.

Writing ‘CV’

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 wish I still had a copy.

The next piece of fiction I remember writing was the answer paper for my ‘O’ level exam in Modern World History. I was sixteen. I got a ‘U’ for my efforts, which I thought was unfair. It wasn’t historically accurate, but I do think it showed great imagination.

I then took a break of eight years, and read a lot. Nineteen-ninety-four must have been a good year for me creatively. I started writing again and penned a short novel/novella in the first half of that year, then went on to write a full-length novel in the second half.

Over the following four years I wrote two more full length novels, and lots of book reviews for computer industry magazines. Then I took a long break of about ten years where I concentrated on other things.

After that hiatus, I came back and went through a phase of writing short stories for a couple of years, and produced a few that I am still really pleased with. I will occasionally open them and think about that time in my life.

For the next six years, I wrote academically, and focused on completing an Open University degree course, which was something I had always wanted to do. I had no headspace for reading or writing fiction at all during this period.

Three years later, I am writing my fifth novel, and feel more productive and creative than ever. I won’t try to predict the future and prophesy what happens next. That would be foolish. Besides, one of my characters is already doing plenty of that.

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.

The Importance of a Morning Routine

I’ve been getting up early for as long as I can remember. Sometimes it makes things tricky if my wife wants to go to the theatre or put a film on after 8pm (I’m guaranteed to start falling asleep), but the upside is I get to catch some great sunrises.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve also been one of those creatures of habit. I tend to do the same things when I get up, in the same order. Literally. I can’t imagine tackling my early mornings any other way, but I’m sure there are many people who get up and have no choice other than to react to what’s happening around them. Military personnel for example, or parents with children.

My morning routine is as follows (omitting one or two things we all do):

  • Brush teeth.
  • Go downstairs.
  • Ignore the cats yelling for breakfast.
  • Add milk to oats ready for making porridge.
  • Let the chicken out.
  • Sweep the kitchen floor, brushing up spilled cat litter and other overnight detritus.
  • Put a pot of coffee on the hob.
  • Acknowledge the cats and feed them.
  • Empty the dishwasher.
  • Pour the coffee and sit at the table.
  • Write a morning page.
  • Read while finishing my first cup of coffee.
  • Meditate for ten minutes.
  • Cook the porridge that has been soaking.
  • Feed the chicken a portion of the porridge with some chopped fruit.
  • Eat breakfast while reading or watching a series episode on Netflix or Apple TV.
  • Drink a litre of water that has been chilling overnight in the fridge.
  • Make another coffee.
  • Shower and get dressed.
  • Start work.

One of my favourite parts of the morning is sweeping the kitchen floor. There’s something zen-like about it as a ritual, and even the cats seem to recognise this. They fall silent and watch every stroke of the brush with fascination as it passes over the floor making that gentle ‘fffffing’ sound.

The absolute favourite part of my morning ritual has to be that initial sip from the first cup of coffee.

I realise I’m lucky to be able to have a routine like this. Every morning I’m thankful for the quiet (once the cats have started eating) that gives me the opportunity to gather my thoughts and start booting myself up for the day.

A regular morning routine is a practice I strongly recommend.

Computer Industry Book Reviews

Back in the 1990s, I wrote regular book reviews for computer industry magazines. It was a great little gig and I enjoyed reading the books and seeing my writing in print. I also got to keep the books after reviewing them, and ended up with a large collection. I’m sure I still have some of them.

One of my many book reviews from Computer Weekly, c. 1995.

My review of The Skin of Culture above mentions “the growth of new media such as E-mail and videoconferencing”. We are now living and working in a world where both technologies are so ubiquitous they are taken for granted.

Another of my book reviews from Computer Weekly, c. 1995.

In the review of Rewired above, I mention approaching the next millenium. It feels quite strange to realise we are now two decades into that millenium, and that I wrote those words over twenty years ago.

There were lots of different industry magazines like this, including Computer Weekly, Computing, Microscope, and several others. Some, like Computer Weekly, have now gone digital only.

Many of them no longer exist at all.

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.

Hay-on-Wye, 2019.

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.

Morning Pages

A couple of years ago I read a book called Gravitas, by Caroline Goyder. I read mostly on the Virgin train travelling from Wigan to Glasgow on a Monday morning. I was always happy when I could get a seat to myself and spread out, relax without worrying the person next to me would want to squeeze past to visit the loo. (I always book aisle seats.)

Early morning, Kensington High Street, London.

One concept that really stood out in the book was something called Morning Pages. As soon as I read about it, I closed the Kindle App, launched Notes and started writing my very first Morning Page.

It’s very simple. You write for five minutes, anything that comes into your head. Then stop.

Julia Cameron first came up with the idea of Morning Pages. Lots of other people have written about it since. Tim Ferriss has written about it, and calls it Journalling. About the practice, he says “What I needed was a daily and meditative practice of production, like the tea ceremony.”

I enjoyed the process, and eventually tried again, but this time I did it in the evening – making it an Evening Page, as it were. Then my enthusiasm waned and a month went by before I did another. I continued in this similar sporadic fashion until I had five in total, spanning about eighteen months. After that I didn’t do any for another year.

Recently, I started again, but this time wanted to do it in a more planned way as part of my morning routine, which is already pretty ingrained. Every morning, one of the first things I now do is spend five minutes writing a Morning Page.

What to write about

It doesn’t matter what you write about, as long as you write something, continuously for five minutes. I just start writing about whatever is on my mind the instant I open my note-taking app. Some days it will be a frustration hanging around from the previous day, other days it will be a hope for the day to come.

For example, my first Morning Page after the long break was about an impending meeting that appeared in my work calendar. It looked vague and sinister and my mind immediately began conjuring up negative thoughts that had to be exorcised. Of course, the meeting was nothing to worry about in the end.

Has it helped me?

I haven’t been practicing with Morning Pages for long, but already I can see some benefits. My mind feels lighter, and my focus clearer. It’s a sort of purging experience, getting your thoughts out first thing in the morning. A kind of morning ablution.

Since I started I have felt much more productive, and more able to concentrate on what I want/need to get done that day. I procrastinate less, achieve more, and actually feel more content and satisfied.

Morning Pages are so easy to do, and take up so little time, so just get started and try it. It’s worth getting up five minutes earlier so you can fit it into your day.

How it Really Feels to Shave Your Head

Spoiler: it’s amazing!

Back in March, just before the UK announced it was going into lockdown, I buzzed all the hair off my head. Two months later, I’m still sporting the buzzed/shaved/bald look, and loving it. Here, I’m going to address some of the doubts other guys may have when they are thinking of embarking on the same journey.

Since March 2020, I’ve looked something like this. In this picture my hair is just under 1mm.

First of all, let me set out where I was before I decided to buzz. My hair was definitely receding. I had a great barber who was doing a brave job of concealing it, but looking back it was pretty obvious that I was losing my hair. It wasn’t horrendous, but it was receding at the temples, and I had that vast expanse of forehead that was barely being hidden under a French crop.

It’s very distressing to go through the hair loss process. It knocks your confidence in so many ways. Trying different things to conceal or reverse it just compounds the problem.

The Big Buzz – An Immediate Improvement

When I first buzzed my hair I could immediately see an improvement in the way I looked. My wife took a few days to get used to ‘the new me’, but I felt better almost straight away. Words that kept coming to mind were ‘neat’, ‘tidy’, and ‘smart’.

I like to keep myself fit, and I was delighted to notice that somehow having no hair on my head also seemed to make me look more toned and muscular. I have no idea how that can be, other than perhaps making my head seem smaller.

Out of interest I started doing some Google searches so I could read about the experiences others guys have had. There are some great articles around with descriptions that mirror my own first-hand experience. I felt the same tremendous sense of relief that the worry was over for me. I had found a look I was happy with. My hair loss no longer mattered.

Mirror, Mirror …

For a few days, every time I walked past a mirror I would get a bit of a shock if I forgot about my hair, but after a proper look I always preferred the new me.

I started spending more time in front of the mirror, moisturising and taking a bit more care of my skin. I’m not sure whether it was the enhanced beauty regime or the simple fact that a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, but I started visibly looking younger.

Instead of frowning into the mirror and seeing nothing but a receding, thinning hairline, I was now seeing a good-looking man. My eyes were wider and less tired, my jaw was strong, and my cheekbones were chiselled. My thin, wispy hair had been preventing me from seeing all these positives for years.

Venturing Out

My first trip out was to my local supermarket to buy essentials during the COVID-19 crisis. It was early days and we weren’t yet in full lockdown, but everyone was starting to get nervous so the shop was pretty quiet which suited me while I took my first tentative steps.

One of the first people I saw was a woman who worked at the supermarket. What I’m about to describe probably happened because I was studying her closely to try to read what she made of my new look, but while stacking baskets in the shop she actually struck up a short conversation with me, and I got the distinct impression she approved of what she saw. The reality of course is that she had never seen me before, and this was just her response to a guy who seemed to be checking her out!

Two days later, the same thing happened a couple more times with women in a different supermarket. All of this gave me an extra confidence boost on top of what I’d already enjoyed after the big buzz.

Now, before you write me off as an egotistical w***er, know this: I’m useless at flirting, have never been a player, and most of the time wouldn’t have a clue if a woman was attracted to me unless she wrote it on a Post-It and stuck it to my chest.

With Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain

As a guy with thinning, receding hair I hated the weather. After spending time carefully arranging my hair, I would step out of the door and a puff of wind would destroy my efforts in a second.

So far we’ve had an amazing spring in the UK and I’ve yet to feel rain on my bald head, but the first time I encountered wind without hair was a wonderful experience. Instead of that horrible whipping, flapping sensation, I had the lovely feeling of the air whooshing over my scalp, and didn’t have to worry about my hair being messed up.

This sounds like such a trivial thing but believe me the sense of relief was amazing.

Phantom Bangs

I’ve heard about people who have lost limbs experiencing phantom pains or itches, but I never knew people could also feel phantom hair falling out of place.

Prior to buzzing, because my hair was receding and thinning at the front I would often run my fingers through it to make sure it was in place on my forehead, and providing some even coverage. For a couple of weeks after buzzing, I kept doing this move even though there was no longer any hair to fiddle with.

Every time I did it I would catch myself and smile. No need to do that any more. My ‘hair’ was now perfectly in place. All the time. Forever.

Shaving – The Final Frontier

After initially letting it grow out to a ‘number two’ (6mm), I bought myself some new Remington hair clippers and trimmed my hair gradually shorter. First I went back down to ‘number one’ (3mm), then I dropped to 2mm, then 1.5mm, then 1mm, which was the limit of the clippers, but also my favourite length. After a few weeks, I decided to go all the way and shave skin-close with a safety razor just to see how it looked.

I liked the result, but wasn’t convinced the extra effort and discomfort was worth it. I nicked myself with the razor while shaving and the whole thing took way too much time. I swore to stick with 1mm from then on.

About three weeks later, I found my old beard trimmer/shaver and decided to try shaving my head using the foil on that. The experience was much more comfortable and I got a really good finish, but it still took a lot of time. Two weeks later, when I tried again it was perhaps a bit quicker, but I suffered some mild irritation afterwards.

To Shave or Buzz, That is the Question

Getting a super-smooth finish isn’t really high on my list of priorities, and I actually prefer the feel of my head the day after shaving skin-close. It feels great for another three or four days until it grows back to about 2mm, at which point I want to buzz it off again.

Looking at it from that perspective, shaving is beneficial because I don’t need to do it as often. However, the extra time it takes and the discomfort involved means it’s not a clear hands-down win for shaving.

One thing is for sure: I will never go back to the old self-conscious me that was trying to hide his hair loss, terrified to go out in the wind. There is absolutely no question of that.

I’ll end by saying I wish I’d buzzed seven years ago when I first started noticing my thinning hair. Battling on for so long was a losing game and I wasn’t fooling anyone but myself.

This is the first time I’ve written such a personal post, and I feel a bit exposed putting it out there. However, if this helps just one other guy make a tough decision, I’ll be a happy man.

Getting Back on Path

Man does not live by photography alone.

To-date, apart from the odd wobble, this blog has been mostly about photography. There’s nothing wrong with having a dedicated blog, and everyone says you should focus and specialise, but I can’t help feel that practice is limiting.

Maybe my own life is reaching one of those turning points. I still love making pictures but it feels a little less important to me than it did say a year ago. Now I’m writing again, and I don’t know where that will lead. Essays, short stories, maybe even another novel?

From now on, I’m going to be taking this blog back to its roots when I ‘restarted’ it in 2015. Here’s something I wrote when I was originally defining what this blog is about.