There is an article in the on-line version of The Week – as far as I can tell undated – written by a novelist called Robert Twigger called “Nine Follies to Avoid When Writing Your First Novel. This caught my eye, and I’d like to comment on them and grade myself, on how well I followed Mr. Twigger’s advice in writing my first novel (not that I had ever heard of Mr. Twigger when I wrote Fishing in Foreign Seas.)
1 The folly of the unattractive narrator. Mr. Twigger says that the reader should like the voice of the narrator. The reader will assume that the author is the narrator, but s/he doesn’t know the author, so s/he should like the voice of the author. In Fishing in Foreign Seas, the narrator is the adult daughter, Elena, of the principle characters, Jamie and Caterina; Elena is a best-selling author, and I think she tells the story in an un-biased, interesting way. Mr. Twigger says about the narrator’s voice, “Be likeable, be fascinating, be evil if you like – but don’t be deeply unattractive.” I think he’s right.
2. The folly of ‘plot’ first. Mr. Twigger says that when one starts with a plot first, events tend to be contrived and therefore less credible. He suggests that you leave plot or structure to the last. When I started writing Fishing in Foreign Seas, I had no idea what was going to happen, and I just let the novel ‘flow’. But my subsequent novels have had more of a planned structure: generally, what’s going to happen, who the characters are, and what the ‘message’ is. I don’t see how you can get to where you’re going if you don’t have a plan.
3. The folly of facts before relationships. Twigger says that the world is about relationships, not facts. I think he’s right. Fishing in Foreign Seas is about relationships: some important, some less so; some are productive, some are destructive.
4. The folly of not being heartfelt. Mr. Twigger says that the characters have to care about what happens. He says, “You can’t write about the weather and the state of the nation if your main character has a hang up about sex. Sex is his thing, his heartfelt concern, so get that out in the open. Even a clever scene well done will feel thin and containing too much information if it is not heartfelt, if the character doesn’t care that much.” I agree, and I think that the characters in Fishing in Foreign Seas care quite a lot about what happens.
5. The folly of not leaving things out. The point is that many writers feel that they have to research something about which they have neither knowledge nor interest just to complete the story. I think this is a fair point. While it is not autobiographical, Fishing in Foreign Seas contains events with which I’m quite familiar. But my forthcoming fourth novel is set in Afghanistan and Iran. I’ve been to neither country. But I have a keen interest in both countries, so that doing the necessary extensive research was a pleasure.
6. The folly of excessive detail. This is a frequent concern for any writer. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I try to include just enough detail to make the situation or the scene credible. Probably in Fishing in Foreign Seas, I’ve included too much detail, but I think I’ve become more skilled at including only enough essential detail to hold the reader’s attention.
7. The folly of mistaking linked events for real plot. Twigger says,”The situation you put the characters in – the world, if you like – must exert sufficient pressure on them to give you something to write about.” I think this is a very good point. The characters in Fishing in Foreign Seas are under quite a bit of pressure. He also says (somewhat sarcastically), “One damn thing after another, tied up neatly, is usually called ‘the plot’.
8. The folly of proposals. He says, “It’s tempting to try to get a deal before you do the hard work but it’s the writing equivalent of a 110 per cent mortgage. You’ll have to write a cracking proposal as well as the first few chapters and it will take as long as the book to do this. You will have to do the book anyway, you will have to solve the problems some time – so why not now?” I agree. I’ve never tried to sell a book before I’ve finished it. Before I’ve finished it, how do I know what I’m selling?
9. The folly of not having an agent. Mr. Twigger says, “In Naples a lowly thug stands with his hand over a post box – you pay him to remove his hand so you can post your letter. Many writers feel the same way about agents. Don’t. Getting your novel accepted is a process of serially convincing people. The first person is an agent. They don’t have to be famous. In fact a young gun going all out beats an old lag who thinks life’s a drag anytime. But you need to have convinced one person after your mother that your work deserves a readership of millions.” OK. I agree, but I haven’t had any luck with agents. I’ve had a lot of sales and marketing training so it’s not that I don’t know how to sell. I’ve written to sixty-some agents in the UK and the US on four occasions. I’ve followed their suggested formats. I think what I send them looks pretty tempting. But no luck.