Monday, 30 August 2010

How long does it take to write a book?

My experience suggests for non-fiction the easy stage is the writing and the time-consuming stages are before and after. I've published eight non-fiction books in the last decade. Some have sold better than others but the investment into each one follows a similar pattern for me.

I have two shelves full of notebooks. There are nearly forty A4 wire-bound notebooks in which I keep all the written detritus of my working life; from telephone messages to notes of meetings through to scribblings and drawing about new ideas. When I do get an idea for a book if I go back through my notebooks I usually find that something was stirring long before I recognised it.

I generate long lists of ideas for books, papers, stories, scripts and poems. These are unstructured and often without context or anything that may guide their development. When an idea grabs hold of me more firmly I (a) start a box file in which I can collect any tangible papers etc and (b) I use Evernote as an online storage and organisation facility.

There are eleven box files in my office which have been gestating ideas for business books and novels for over three years, some as long as seven years. Their time has not yet come. When I do get focused on one idea then I will spend many months consciously researching it. This is true for both non-fiction and fiction. The novel I have recently completed writing took me six years to research; I swore never to write historical fiction because of the research required but the story kept nagging me.  Because of this long gestation time I try to keep a number of projects on the go.

For all my writing there seems to be a moment when the need to get the words down becomes so intense I have to get on with it. I think this is when the angle of the idea and the specific audience and reader comes to mind. When I know who I am writing for the task is clear. The decision to get started is usually quick and I commit to taking on the project.

After the years spent researching and mulling over ideas and themes, the writing comes as a playful relief. Getting two thirds of a draft on the computer is relatively straightforward and I have to be disciplined to reach the end. There are a fair few incomplete projects languishing on my computer... When on the go I aim to write  a minimum 1000 words a day as I know then I will complete the first draft within three months. Some days I hover at 250 words and on others the enthusiasm pushes me to 3,000. My bottom line is I write something every single day - even if it means turning on my laptop and writing one sentence only.

A draft is easy to write. I know for every month I spend on the first draft to plan for around three months to edit it. I've come to terms with the fact that editing is as much of the creative process as the first draft. Figuring when to stop editing is another matter and the more people who get involved, then the more editing needs to be done.

Second Editions
I'm at the stage with some of my books that they are coming round for the 2nd edition. After the delight or horror in discovering what I wrote ten years ago, editing has proven difficult. In some cases my thoughts have moved so far in ten years that I can't see how to update a work other than to ditch it and start again.  So I am working on how to do this.

Any thoughts on coping with editing for new editions will be appreciated.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Gibson's Zero History is, for me, unreadable

Photo from 

Waterstones kindly sent me a review copy of a new book due to be launched in September 2010.William Gibson is a well known author with books regularly on bestseller lists. He is also known as someone who influences academia, science, technology and the wider world around him.

I can count on one hand the number of books I can recall ever having to stop reading. If we discount the accidental purchase of a paranormal romance and a novel masquerading as a porn pamphlet then this review book is the first put-down for at least a decade for me.

I am finding the book too difficult to read for limited reward. Not a page goes by and I am fumbling for the dictionary or rereading sections. The first twenty pages have 15 - 36 commas per page, producing tortuous clause-filled sentences which are difficult to follow. The first twenty pages are filled with adjectives and adverbs, sometimes three per noun and verb. When I reached two sentences with no verb I gave up.  In comparison, James Joyce's Ulysses is an easy read.

My conclusions so far:

  • maybe this is an experimental genre which is going right over my head
  • possibly I am so entrenched in commercial and easy to read fiction that this is wasted on me
  • the agent, editor and publisher were too afraid to tell him it is unreadable
  • other reviewers have significantly more persistence than myself

The wonderful aspect of authorship and readership is there is room for all forms and functions of fiction. In this instance, however, William Gibson's Zero History is not for me.

Friday, 27 August 2010

List of weasel words I am trying to avoid in my writing

In 1981 while reading for an undergraduate degree in Linguistics at the Witwatersrand University in South Africa, I began a love affair with English quantifiers. The reason for finding words like some, many and more fascinating was because I was interested in how computers might understand them. How do you write a computer program so something sensible happens when you ask it to "Pass some biscuits" or "Move a few samples to the left side of the table"? That was 1981 and before the PC was invented so we thought about things like that then. (If you are interested, the answer involves an obscure logic and philosophical approach called Possible Worlds Logic.)

I am past the lustful stage of my affair with quantifiers and have definitely reached comfortable indifference. That was until I did some searches on my latest novel script. I think I now use quantifiers because I am too lazy to find a better word / description. I've set the MS Word dictionary not to accept words from my weasel list as a mechanism to make me take notice when I am using them.

The following are on my list of Weasel Words I am doing my best to avoid:


If you can spot which of the words in the list above are not quantifiers then make a note in the comment section of this post!

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Booklist for MA Creative Writing Oxford Brookes Narrative Module

The primary texts for the MA Creative Writing Narrative module that I am about to start includes a number of reassuring classics as well as a few novels which I am sure will surprise me.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Joe Dunthorne, Submarine
James Joyce, Dubliners
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies
Ernest Hemingway, For whom the Bell Tolls
John Irving, The World According to Garp
Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
JD Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
Gary Shteyngart, Absurdistan

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Choosing a pen-name

After two years of prevarication and numerous hours of hilarity in testing potential pen names, I've decided to stick with my own name for my foray into fiction.

The analytical person in me made a list of the pros and cons which ended up fairly evenly balanced. I was persuaded by my heart which felt that a pen name would be dishonest. I've always been critical of the 'anonymous' bloggers whose hiding of their selves meant they behaved in ways they might not if their identity was known.

Why is my name a problem for me? Over the last decade I have published a number of healthcare business related books and run a successful training and consultancy company. The Internet is awash with references to my name which take you to aspects of my business related self. My long term web strategy has been successful in keeping my name at the top of the Google search page. How will my loyal business followers react when they discover I am writing fiction? Will they still employ me when they have read that sex scene in the novel?

It took me a while but I've eventually come to the conclusion that how my readers and clients react is their responsibility and not mine. I am only one person and I am looking forward to integrating my business life, writing life and home life into one Sarah Fraser.

In case I change my mind I am open to ideas for names. Feel free to leave your idea/s in the comments below!