How Not to Write A Book


When I was asked by the orgsanisers what I would talk to you about today, I rather facetiously offered to say a few words about How Not to Write A Book. This was because I’ve been struggling with a new novel. I say struggling, but I don’t mean struggling in a negative way; I don’t have writers’ block, for example, and I’m not starving in a garret, scribbling by candlelight. At least not yet anyway. I struggle with my writing because, for me, that’s part of the job – wrestling with words until you finally have them arm-locked, pinned down and counted out by the referee. It’s a sort of Glaswegian take on the creative process, and I make no excuses for it, being Glasgow born and having the further misfortune of being brought up there, too.


For much of my daily writing life the story that I’m struggling with is a journalistic one - scripts for radio, written for the ear, and concerned with factual things. The real world, if you like. The journalist’s struggle is with accuracy and objectivity, with moulding the facts into a story that’s often no more than just the facts ma’am, but which still somehow has to connect emotionally with readers and listeners, to add usefully to the larger national conversation.


And then, for a few hours a week, I’m lucky enough to have some time to do something quite different. to make stuff up.


Now, when you tell people that you make stuff up, they invariably think what a wonderful life that must be, sitting at home in front of a computer, typing away, using your imagination, being creative.


It all sounds so easy, and certainly some writers do find it easy, and they’re the one’s who give talks entitled How To Write A Book, or they teach creative writing courses, or make squillions of dollars penning seven-part best sellers that are turned into high grossing Hollywood movies. If you detect a note of envy here, I’m sorry to say you’re not wrong.


Writing is bloody hard work. Who’s that laughing at the back there? My wife, who has the most taxing, emotionally draining job you can imagine and which regularly by the end of the day sees her shipwrecked on the shores of a gently lapping gin and tonic, scoffs at this. Yes, scoffs! How hard can it be, she asks, sitting there all day making stuff up?


Okay, I can see I’m not going to get any sympathy from you lot either. But believe me, most writers struggle. Virginia Woolf considered some days to be good if she produced a hundred words, and Oscar Wilde famously described his day as spending the morning putting in a comma, and the afternoon taking it out.


One of the great things for any writer, by the way is to be able to talk at events like this and drop all the big names in, implying that one has some kind of association with them.


My old mate, Jack Kerouac, set the benchmark for aspiring writers by rattling off On the Road in three days. Admittedly, he was helped in his task by a concoction of chemical stimulants. Such stimulants are not at all recommended for middle aged scribblers who spend too much time sitting down, and not enough out and about pumping stuff, iron or whatever it is your supposed to pump to ensure a long, healthy and productive life.


So, what is the struggling, drug-free writer to do? Well the answer of course is to keep struggling. That’s what real writers do, fight to the death as they mould recalcitrant, lumpy thoughts into beautifully shaped narratives. Or if they’re not from Glasgow, delicately working with the fine literary grain like Michelangelo’s of the word processor.


For me the struggle of writing is what it’s all about. Maybe I’ve got some kind of weird masochistic tendency, or maybe its because I believe I’m going to win in the end, but it’s a struggle that by and large I enjoy. The kind of struggle that can leave you exhausted but glowing with the knowledge that you’ve achieved something. I’m sure we all know what that feels like.


But sometimes I don’t enjoy the struggle, and sometimes It feels like I’m not achieving much. And that’s where Merril found me with her question about what I might talk to you about today. Because when you’re really struggling you of course find all kinds of distractions; you decide that you just absolutely have to trim those bushes in the garden, wash the dog, or spend the afternoon making cumquat marmalade.


Around the time I was thinking of what to say to you today, I had started a minor diversion from the job at hand with a series of Tweets, called of course, How Not To Write A Book; these included ‘Curl up with someone else’s”, a well known diversionary tactic amongst writers. Also, avoid deadlines. Serial procrastinator and author of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, said he loved deadlines. He particularly liked "the whooshing sound they make as they fly by".


Another twitter tip was “If you wear glasses, don’t, and if you don’t, do”. This one works on the basis that a raging headache is a legitimate excuse to give up writing and have a good lie down instead.


But by far the most insidious distraction, I’ve found, because it has some kind of spurious legitimacy, is to spend endless hours on research. This is something most fiction writers do, because as fun as it sounds to just make things up, the sad truth is most of us can’t. Novels don’t have to be historical, or science fictional, or be set in particular city or culture in order to require research. Just about every novel you can think of connects to real life in any one of thousands of ways, and any part of that real life it connects to has to be accurately and faithfully portrayed. The talking fish in Gunter Grass’s The Flounder only works against the meticulously detailed history of the Baltic region in which it’s set, and even the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez depends on reality to set it off, to ground it as it were, in such a way that we can read even the strangest events as real in a relative sense.


My biggest distraction at the moment is trying to come to terms with the modern history of Poland, and of a small part of Poland in particular, the area in the South known as Silesia. The book I’m not writing is the story of three generations of a Polish-Australian family. Family is my theme, if you like, and I’m particularly interested in dysfunctional families, the dynamics of that. And I’m also interested in how major trauma and disruption in the life of one person – the brutality of the Nazi invasion of Poland in this case – can ripple down through the generations to effect others in the family chain.


It’s a tricky story to write, shifting around in time and place, and of course, the journalist in me wants to make sure the history is fully researched and accurate, if only to avoid being pilloried by incensed Poles because I’ve described the Silesian Parliament building wrongly, or misunderstood the complex web of inter-relationships between Poles, Jews and ethnic Germans in pre-war Katowice.


So yes, I visited Katowice, a run down industrial city that I think of as the Glasgow of Central Europe. I felt quite at home there. I walked the streets, taking photographs, picking out the houses that my imaginary characters lived in. I also spent a fortune on the most obscure books of Polish history and I’m now something of an expert on the social life of the Second Republic. I can spend hours trawling the internet trying to confirm whether the Polish in the southern sector were issued with Mk 3 Mausers, or how the legal system worked, or education, or whether pork or lamb was the traditional meat that accompanied the ubiquitous cabbage and dumplings. It’s endless amusement, and you can tell yourself that it’s important, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to more or better words on the page. Or more truthful words, or more realistic writing.


I once had the good fortune to interview the English writer, Jim Crace. Like me, he started out as a journalist, though unlike me, he’s long ago been able to give up his day job. Anyway, the interesting thing about Jim – my old mate Jim as I call him – is that he doesn’t do any research at all. Having spent so much time dealing with facts as a journalist, he decided when he took up writing fiction that he’d have nothing more to do with research. He really does make it all up. And when he writes describing a species of ant that inhabits the inside of diesel engines in parts of South America, he gets letters from people asking for more information.


The fact of the matter is that in our complicated world, the truths we’re told are often fictions, and fiction often speaks truth.


I want to talk a bit now about my first novel, Turtle, which features a talking turtle. Not just any old talking turtle, but a Scottish turtle, one that speaks with a Glasgow accent.


Turtle is about a young boy, Donald, and his crazy clairvoyant mother, Trixie, who believes he’s cursed to die on his eighteenth birthday. It’s about the madness that flows from that, and how Donald escapes it. It’s also about dysfunction in families; what happens when we fail to relate; what happens when there’s not enough love to go round; what happens to reality – and to our perceptions of the world – when we grow up within a seriously damaged family setting; what happens to belief in all of this. And to truth.


So let's talk about belief, truth and imagination. No wait, come back!


Turtle was published under the genre of literary fiction. If I was to categorise it myself, I would say it sits firmly within the tradition of Scottish Miserabilism – distinct from English Miserabilism, which is otherwise and properly known as whingeing. Scottish Miserabilism is where the free and unfettered imagination of the writer comes up hard against the harsh restraints of reality – you know, the metaphorical lumpy porridge, the cold draught up the kilt etc. It’s a form of magic realism, where the magic is to be understood as like the kind that comes in a box – with an instruction book and wee bits of string; Scottish miserabilism is a one-bar electric fire in a rented room in the middle of a Glasgow winter. You don’t so much read it as huddle around it.


Interestingly enough, Turtle was reviewed in the Otago Daily Times under the heading, ‘books for teenagers’. The woman who reviewed it couldn’t pan it highly enough. Why would teenagers, she wondered, be interested in the goings on of some middle-aged loser? Why indeed, if you believe that a novel for grown-ups is really a book for adolescents.


The thing about belief is this (and I’m getting profound now, I promise); no matter how much you think you know, there’s always something you don’t know: Our current understanding of the universe may one day be proved wrong, physicists and their theories regarded the way we now regard the alchemists and necromancers of ages past.


No matter what faith you belong to, you can’t honestly deny the faiths of others. You can’t say my faith is better than yours. Or truer. It’s a nonsensical statement; an honest belief in the flying spaghetti monster demands just as much faith as belief in any other kind of god.


And no matter what you think is True – and we’re back here, inevitably, to Truth with a capital T – you’re in big trouble if you don’t sometimes doubt it; if you can’t question it honestly. Truth is best left to those like Gandhi who understand it properly.


And that – to get to the point - is why I like fiction. Fiction is all about the imagination: It doesn’t have to be about belief, though it can be, but its relationship to Truth should, I think, be like our ordinary, everyday, relationship to Truth – muddled, obscured, cloudy and ill-formed, grasping for something just out of reach. Good fiction creeps around the truth if there’s one handy to creep around, revealing tantalising glimpses that we the reader recognise about ourselves and the world we share, but don’t necessarily fully understand.


I’m not saying that fiction shouldn’t tackle the big questions. But it’s the search that’s important, the imagination that take us on a journey of discovery, even if – as so often in life – we end up somewhere totally unexpected. If it’s good fiction, we’ll be happy to be there, even if we find we haven’t got the bus fare home.


Anyway, that’s it from me for now. I also wanted to tell you an important truth about turtles in Scotland, but I got a bit distracted. So I’ll leave that to your imaginations.