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Part One

OK. So you've decided to write a novel. That's good! It doesn't matter why you've decided to write a novel. It could be for any reason. It really doesn't matter.

Well, let's say that you've read a Melvyn Bragg novel, and you thought to yourself, hey, I could do better than that.

Or maybe you read a Julie Burchill novel and you thought to yourself, hey, Melvyn Bragg could do better than that!

Or maybe you read a novel by Tolstoy, and you thought to yourself, hey, I could write a novel as good as that while Julie and Melvyn are struggling to and from Broadcasting House for Start the Week.

Maybe you saw a profile of Julian Barnes's sitting-room in Ideal Homes and Writers and you thought - Hey! I'd like to have cushions like Julian Barnes's...!

Yes, there are millions of different reasons why people get drawn into this wonderful world, which we call churning out a novel.

The exact reason why you are drawn to fiction doesn't matter. What matters is that you have decided to become a novelist. Congratulations! Join the club! There are only 5 million of us! And there are no club rules, except one - whatever you do, don't get interviewed by Lynn Barber!

No, just joking, Lynn. However, before you get that first novel on the bookshelves, you have to make some decisions. Here's one for a start. Do you like your own name? Do you want to see your book appear under your own name? Or have you always hated your own name? If so, can you think of a good name for the novel to appear under? Something like H.E.Bates or Catherine Cookson? No, that would look like plagiarism. Let's say E.H.Bates or Katharine Cookson. Above all, don't be afraid to experiment with names. After all, when you come to write your novel, you're going to have to make up plausible names for everyone in it and you might as well start practising now!

Another big, basic decision, do you want there to be people in your novel? No, there don't have to be people in a novel. They can be almost entirely eliminated. "Robinson Crusoe" has only two, for example, neither of them particularly interesting. "Wind in the Willows" has only animals and hardly any people at all. I once read a book set in Canada in which the only character was a dog trying to cross from one ocean to the other. And a lot of science fiction doesn't have people, only robots with names like Zufluog. So you see, it can be done. After all, a lot of Jeffrey Archer's novels don't have people in, only androids called Graham and Mr Turnbull. No, just joking, Jeff.

If you do decide whether to have people in your novel, and most people tend to, you will have to make up your mind sooner or later whether you want them to be nice or nasty people. This is quite important, as otherwise critics may have difficulty in classifying the end result. A novel without nice people, for instance, is usually called gritty realism, or school of Amis (Kingsley or Martin). A novel where there are nice people to begin with but they all get killed is called the new Ruth Rendell. A novel with no nasty people is usually one published by Mills and Boon - well, there may be some nasty people in it, to start with, but they all turn out to be nice eventually, especially that hospital doctor with the great dark eyes and softly threatening eyebrows...

A clever idea that many novelists like to use is to have a mixture - some nice and some nasty people. A bit like real life, in a way. But your troubles are not over yet! If you have a mixture of nice and nasty people, now you have to decide whether you want the nice ones or the nasty ones to win! If the nice ones win, your novel will be called uplifting, upbeat, hopeful or even comic. If the nasties win, it is more likely to be called moral, grimly realist, modern urban or even (with luck) comic.

Incidentally, it is quite normal in a modern novel for some of the characters to make love to some of the others during the course of the story and also for one of them to kill one or two others. In fact, it is unusual for them not to. (Unlike real life here, where you never meet anyone who gets killed and hardly ever meet anyone who makes love. Certainly not you!) So if you get to the end of your novel and find that you have left all your characters still alive and chaste, I'm afraid you'll have to go through again changing everything, and this can be awkward if, say, a character who was alive at the end suddenly gets killed off halfway through, especially if you forget to remove him from the end...

 

 

Part Two

Yesterday I started to tell you how to write your first novel, stressing the importance of having people in your novel, and how some of them should be nice and some should be nasty. That sort of thing.

Now you have to decide which characters in your novel should be based on which people you know in real life. This is where we begin to run into trouble. A lot of novelists maintain that their characters are not based on real people. They even go so far as to say at the beginning of the novel that any resemblance between characters in their book and people they know in real life is an incredible coincidence.

Well, what a load of poppycock! All fiction is extrapolated from experience. To put it in English, a novelist can only write about what he knows. That disclaimer is put at the front of the novel not by the novelist but by the publisher's lawyer. The novelist probably didn't even know it was going in. But the publisher knows that occasionally real people get to see themselves portrayed in novels and don't like it, and sue. So they put this little disclaimer in the front, rather like those notices you see in restaurants or car parks saying that the management takes no responsibility for anything left anywhere on the premises...

Now, that disclaimer wouldn't be put there if things weren't sometimes nicked from the car park or from the restaurant's coat rack, would it? Similarly, you wouldn't get that disclaimer in novels if novelists never based their characters on real life people.

The fact of the matter is that if you don't base your characters on people you've met, they will probably be rather feeble. Remember the shining honesty of the French novelist Raymond Queneau, who once wrote at the start of a novel: "All the personages in this story are based on real people; any resemblance to fictitious characters is completely accidental".

And remember that in other respects novelists pride themselves on getting things true to life. If they describe the 1970s or 1960s, they don't say: "All decades in this novel are imaginary and not based on any real decade". If they describe London, they don't pretend it's somewhere else. No, they are proud of getting it right. If, like Peter Ackroyd you set your story in London today and in London in the sixteenth century....

That's another thing. If you can't make up your mind whether you want to set your novel today or in the seventeenth century, why not do both? Peter Ackroyd has always got away with it. I'm sure you could too.

Oh, by the way, we haven't mentioned giving names to your characters. The safest thing to do is normally to use English village names. Almost any village name would make a good name for a character. There's a village near us called Upton Scudamore. Must be an American lawyer. Another one called Kington Langley. Sub-librarian. I knew a man once who fell in love with a signpost on the Fosseway to two places called Dorn and Borsford, and dreamt of writing a novel about a girl called Dawn Botsford. He never did, actually. But he did write a book about English place names. Under the pseudonym of Compton Pauncefoot, as I remember.

(What you mustn't do is use the real name of the real person you have based your character on. That is going a bit far... )

Another thing you have to decide is which character is going to be the narrator. There doesn't have to be a narrator. But if not, you have to establish this early on. Occasionally people play tricks with the narrator's identity. Agatha Christie wrote a thriller in which the murderer was the man telling the story, but you never discovered that till the end. Good, that. And Daphne du Maurier wrote a novel in which one of the three siblings featured in the story told the narrative, but you never found out which, because the story-teller always said "We" instead of the usual "I". Very clever.

Well, here we are, ready to start writing the novel, and already it seems rather difficult doesn't it? Didn't have any idea it was going to be so tricky, did you? Doesn't sound a lot of fun, does it?

Well, it's not! And that's why we say - if you're thinking of writing a first novel, for goodness sake think twice. There are far too many novels around as it is, and we don't want any more.


(This leaflet - "Writing a Novel ? - Forget It!" - is an Arts Council publication, issued by their Campaign For Fewer Novels, with support from the Booksellers' Association. Write to them for extra copies. )

The Independent Tuesday May 17 & Wednesday May 18 1994