EP22: Ben Aaronovitch and the Great Bollocking…
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In this episode you will discover…
When an outline is not an outline
Top procrastination tips that will help your productivity
Why sniffing a camel will help your research
And how many drafts is too many
- Scrivener – Software for Writing
- Bestseller Experiment’s Vault of Gold. Sign up to get your free Writer’s ebook
- Question Mark: Have a question you want answered on the show? Click here.
EPISODE TRANSCRIPT (HIGHLIGHTS)
Ben Aaronovitch is the author of the bestselling Peter Grant series that started with Rivers Of London in 2011 (published as Midnight Riot in the U.S.). Each instalment in the series pre-orders magnificently, and it’s since spun-off into comics, there’s talk of a TV series, and the audiobooks read by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith are highly recommended. We had already recorded a brief interview with Ben at GollanczFest in 2016, but we were delighted to get him for the full hour for a conversation full of fireworks. We started by discussing Ben’s first breakthrough, writing the Doctor Who series Remembrance Of The Daleks when he was just 23…
How did the Doctor Who gig come about?
In those days script editors were quite important in the way television was structured. You must always send your script to a person — if you send it ‘To whom it may concern’ it just ends up in a rubbish bin somewhere — and I picked out a script editor, I sent a sample script in, and a very nice lady called Caroline Alton said, ‘What do you like doing?’ and I said Crime and Science Fiction, she said write a sample script of Rockliffe’s Babies and a script for Doctor Who and I will pass them on to the relevant script editors. Had Rockliffe’s Babies gone for another series I would have been writing for that as well, and history would have been different.
Were you a Doctor Who fan beforehand?
The word ‘fan’ is a very difficult one. Back then, I thought a fan was someone who watched the programme on a regular basis. I had no conception of what the word ‘fan’ meant, especially a Doctor Who fan. Back then it meant a completely different thing. I liked science fiction, but I wasn’t a fan fan. I said yes, because I really didn’t know what a fan was when they asked me that. So, now they say I was a fan writer, which I find hilarious.
If you were a fan, would it have been too much pressure?
I don’t know. I was young, and I was stupid, and naive, and when you’re young, stupid and naive you don’t know what pressure is, because you have no idea what it is you’re actually doing.
You just charge in and say ‘Yes, I shall write this thing, and it shall be the best thing ever!’ Which is a good thing.
I recommend that attitude for all starting writers. It’s like that bit in Blackadder when George says ‘I’m ready to go at the Hun,’ and General Melchet says, ‘Yes, if nothing else, the total inability to face facts will get us through.’ For writing, that’s good advice.
Did you have a bigger career plan at that point?
(Ben laughs uproariously) There’s no career plan! You don’t have a career plan. It’s like when they say to look for an agent you should check the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. No!
You apply to every single agent in the book. Send it to every single bloody publisher in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, and then look some other ones up on the internet and send it to them as well.
There is no careful plan, because what you are relying on is somebody has to really like the book, and everyone’s different, so there’s no point carefully researching what they usually like, just send it to them on the off-chance that one of them will like it. They don’t like that. because it means they get a huge reading pile. Colour me not-very-impressed. I don’t care. That’s not my problem. Your reading pile is not my problem. Hire some interns, work your way through them.
With Doctor Who, you wrote the novelisation of the series. How did that come about?
I just ended up being sucked into the process. In those days, WH Allen, as was, automatically offered you the chance to write the novelisation, and if you didn’t want to do it Uncle Terrence (Dicks, creator of the Daleks) was always available to do a knock-off. Of course, we — our generation — went Yes! A chance to get paid to learn how to write prose. Apart from a script, it was the longest bit of prose I had ever written in my entire life. Again, it was that thing of ‘I’ll write the best novelisation ever, because I don’t know any better!’ I had my copy of (William Gibson’s) Neuromancer in one hand…
Was that your guide?
No, it was (William Gibson’s) Count Zero. It was the first book where the style was important. It was the transition from reading cool spaceships to actually realising style of language makes a difference. People always say that William Gibson was about the shades and coats. No.
The thing about William Gibson was the way he used language to describe the technology, and the way he used technological metaphors, and applied them to real life.
People weren’t doing that in science fiction. Cyberpunk wasn’t about cool women in dark shades on rainy streets — although that was cool, I’m perfectly down with that — it was about the way you used language to describe technology and society and things like that. For me it was, anyway. Your mileage may vary. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I just did it.
You were talking about the way they used language; were you looking at it at a granular level? Stuff like sentence structure?
No, I never look at things like that at a granular level. I’m not a granular writer. The whole worship of the sentence is a very Guardian literary thing. It’s the sort of thing that’s discussed on the Open University. It’s to disguise the fact that what’s mostly considered literature is terrible. It’s got lovely sentences, but it’s mostly crap, in the same way that most science fiction is really good ideas with bad writing. That’s why, when a book comes along that does both people go, ‘OH MY GOD! IT’S SO BRILLIANT!’ (Hilary Mantel’s) Wolf Hall, right? Good substance and written in a literary style.
What made you switch from writing Doctor Who to writing novels?
My career went Thonk! I woke up one morning and found out that I didn’t have a career. Television, and the media generally, is like a bus: you get on the bus, and once you’re on the bus, you move around inside the bus. If you fall off the bus you’re left sitting on the tarmac while the bloody thing is receding into the distance. It takes you a tremendous amount of effort to get back on the bus. It literally took me twenty years to get back on the bus. Strangely, the route that I took… I spent fifteen years, running like crazy, trying to get back on the bus, writing scripts. I was broke and working for Waterstones. I liked working for Waterstones, but you don’t get rich working for Waterstones, and if you lived in central London like I do, you can’t even break even. I was looking at bankruptcy. I had been there about a year, and I was shelving books, and I ran the science fiction and the crime sections, and I noticed I was putting people on the shelves that I’d never heard of before. They had actually been commissioned and published in the year that I had been working for Waterstones. I thought, well, if it’s that easy to get published…? Again, invincible ignorance, okay? Compared to television, where it’s almost impossible to get commissioned unless you are sleeping with a producer or something — and even then it’s quite hard — compared to that, it is easier to get published. There’s more outlets, more people to send your work to, there’s more people who can make a go decision. There’s only three people who can actually make a go decision in British television. If none of those three people like you, and they’re surrounded by layers of people who just get in the way.
But in books, there’s lots and lots of publishers, and you can also publish yourself now, which is nice.
I thought, I’ll write a book. I looked up and there was the crime, and there was the science fiction. I like both of them equally, and I couldn’t figure out which one I wanted to write, so I wrote one that does both, and saved time. I sat down, and rummaged through my brain for the various ideas that had been floating around, because I had twenty years of accumulated good ideas that had not been used on anything, or had been put into abortive script ideas, or had gone down into the development spiral of death. I had quite a few ideas to pick from, and I chose the one that, at the time, was called Magic Cops. It was called Magic Cops up to about five minutes before publication. I mulled that in my head, and suddenly Peter Grant walked into my head and I wrote the first two pages and I looked at it and thought, this is gonna sell. I just knew it would sell. I didn’t know it would become a bestseller, but I knew sooner or later someone would buy it.
One of the advantages of being an experienced writer is you know when you have got something hot. You can feel it, objectively.
The difference between and that and something I had been writing six months earlier, I could just feel it. Ooh, that works, it’s tasty.
It was just a question of writing it and getting up really early in the morning and writing it and trying to keep body and soul together until I got paid.
What was it specifically that gave you that feeling?
It was the voice. The Peter Grant books are written — much to the annoyance of quite a large number of pedants — in the vernacular. You’d be amazed the number of complaints, ‘Oh, why does he say “me and”…?’ Because he’s written in the vernacular.
I’m thinking of getting a t-shirt made with the definition of the word ‘vernacular’ written on the front and then on the back it would have, ‘What I write books in.’
There was something about his voice. It was just that line, ‘I find it helpful to quote the wisdom of my father, who once told me, ‘Who knows why the fuck anything happens?’’ There’s something about the tone of his voice that’s good. This is a guy that people are going to warm to, and people will like him and essentially, unless you’re writing for the Guardian, or the Telegraph, a character that people like is quite important.
Can you see yourself writing Peter Grant for the foreseeable future?
This is the only question that I always get asked whenever I do a session, and so I have a stock answer for this now. I will stop writing it if a) it becomes boring for me, and b) people stop reading it, in which case there isn’t any point, or c) if I can afford a yacht. And I don’t mean a little eight metre ketch, I mean an Abramovich, James Bond villain, yacht with two helicopter landing pads and one of those control rooms that look like you can launch a rocket from it. At that point, I’ve been informed, I’ll probably have to keep writing because buying the actual yacht is the cheapest thing about having a yacht. Running the yacht costs about the same as the price of the yacht every year, as a rule of thumb. The answer is, I probably won’t ever stop writing these, until I’m dead. And, unlike people like Ian Rankin and Colin Dexter, I made sure my detective is younger than I am, so I’m not going to have that problem where he reaches mandatory retirement age and I have to have to write that tricky novel where he retires and then somehow comes back to the police force. I’ll be dead before that happens. Forward planning!
Do you write every day?
Yes I do.
What’s your word count every day?
What’s an example of bad?
Really bad is no words whatsoever.
That’s not writing every day!
It is writing every day, trust me! You can sit down at the bloody thing and come up with about five words. It counts as no words. Anything under two hundred I don’t really count as getting any work done.
Are they good words?
There’s three basic types of writers in my experience, and this is a spectrum, so there are people in-between. There are people that write and revise, and generally I’ve noticed that people who’ve trained as journalists are like this, and I hate them. They do 3-4000 words a day and then they cut it down, and revise it and improve the text.
Then there are people like me who are worrying about the ‘and’. Hmm… that ‘and’… not sure about that ‘and’. That makes us very slow, but we don’t have to do so much revision, because we’re happy with the sentence. If we’ve written it down, then we’re probably happy with the sentence as it is, and we don’t revise. There’s less wastage.
And then there’s people who write fast and well, and we just hate them. All other writers hate them and we ostracise them at conferences.
Sarah Pinborough was telling us about the importance of thinking time. Is thinking time important to you?
And how are you on procrastination?
I’m excellent. I like to think of myself as one of England’s finest procrastinators. Very few people can waste time quite as well as I can. I can waste time in ways that even the cast of Shameless would have difficulty with.
What are your top tips for procrastination?
There’s obviously Twitter, which is a good source of procrastination. And I ration myself. I only log on every so often, but I still find myself wasting time. Youtube… The internet, generally, is a huge source of procrastination. Then there’s reading research books. Then there’s going and looking at locations. Then there’s working on another project that’s just occurred to you that’s got nothing to do with the actual project that you’re supposed to be doing at the time. That’s my favourite. And then there’s watching TV, because you need to input stuff into your brain.
Looking at locations isn’t procrastination, is it? Surely that inspires you?
Yes. You have to go to locations. Research is very important. It makes writing easier. The more research I do, the more going to locations etc, the more easier it is to write, because the words are there, I don’t have to make shit up.
The more stuff that’s real the easier it is to write. That’s kind of my motto.
What is procrastination? What is research? I’m a very, very, very slow writer. I don’t know anyone as slow as me. I think 500 words a day is fast-paced. My other writer friends just laugh at me. And point. When we have writer get-togethers, they just laugh and point. It’s embarrassing.
You need to actually smell the places. This is important. Google Earth will only get you so far, reading about it only gets you so far. You actually have to go and sniff the place. I can’t explain it better than that. You have to get what it smells like, what it tastes like, and these are things you can’t get from visual media. No matter how many documentaries you watch about Morocco, you can’t explain what that sand smells like, what a bazaar smells like, what the souk smells like. What does camel shit smell like? I don’t know. I’ve never been near a camel. I would go down to London Zoo and smell a camel, because that’s very important. I say that, because I actually did that. I asked if I could go. I didn’t stick my nose in its fur, you don’t actually have to stand at all close to a camel to get a good whiff. They’re very fragrant beasts. A distance is fine, you just have to be downwind of them, really. I went to look at elephants. I can’t remember why I had to look at elephants, but I wanted to see how it moved. When you look at an elephant on a video, you think that’s a big beast… When you stand next to one, and realise that all it had to do is lean slightly to the left and you’re dead… it’s a completely different experience. To it, I am nothing. I’m like a mouse. Then you get a better idea of what an elephant really is… and what they smell like. That’s true of tube trains, and busses, and people, and locations, and rivers, and all the other things that make up a good book.
And you’ve got to meet a lot of people. This is always a big problem for writers, who are usually introverts, but you have to make yourself go out and meet a wide range of people, and the wider range of people you meet and get to know, the easier it is to write a wider range of people.
It’s one of the issues in writing these days, is diversity in writing without stereotypes, and the easiest way to avoid stereotypes is to get to know a large number of people, and then you won’t write stereotypes, because you won’t be relying on “received wisdom”, you’ll be relying on your own experience, which is always much broader.
You don’t have to have a lot of depth, but you need to have a lot of width.
Any favourite moments of research? Anything that’s made you rethink a story?
The nicest surprise came from someone at a signing. A lady came up to me and said, ‘My old man was a copper for forty years, and he said he worked with every single one of the coppers in the book.’ Everyone from Stephanopoulos, to Peter, to Seawoll… he’d worked with every one of those in his time at the Met. And that was very pleasing, because you worry that when you make up a character like Stephanopoulos or Seawoll that maybe I’m going over the top with this, but that was comforting.
People will describe some police procedure, or you’ll be reading the Blackstones Manual For Police — there are all these books for teaching you how to be a policeman — and you’ll find the most wonderful acronyms. I have enormous fun with the acronyms, and the SAD CHALETS and things like that…
(ed: SAD CHALETS is the acronym used to train first responders in the British Police… they also use CHALET and METHANE)
Survey the scene.
Assess the situation and the risk implications.
Disseminate information to the correct groups in the correct sequence.
Casualties: Number, type, and condition.
Hazards: Types, severity, impacts, and status.
Access: Management control points, safe routes in, and reception centres.
Location: Specific grid reference or prominent feature of the event.
Emergency Services: What support is required?
Type: Nature and type of crisis incident.
Start Logging: Start collating information from the beginning of the event.
… they give you ideas. They give you forms and explain how the forms work. Thing like the word ‘action’ and the fact that it’s used as a verb: to action, I action, you action… I had a lot of fun with that. All these things are very, very useful.
You watch something like Happy Valley and you realise that it’s a very realistic police show, and you watch something like Silent Witness and you go, ‘HA-HA-HA-HA! THAT’S SUCH CRAP!’ On every level. But with something like Happy Valley or Scott and Bailey you recognise real police work. They make a lot of effort to make it as realistic as possible, which is hard on TV, because TV’s not a very good medium for realism. Policing is all about systems, and systems are boring on TV. That’s why scientists are very rarely on TV unless they’re cackling.
What do you do when you’re writing a book, and you suddenly get another idea? Do you tend to follow it, or do you stick to the plot?
I don’t write like that. I very rarely know what the plot is at the start of a book. I usually have a vague idea of what’s going to happen. Because I trained as a scriptwriter, I have a scriptwriter’s attitude: I’m a four act person. I usually know where the first turning point, second turning point, third turning point is, and I have a rough idea of what they are, and I usually know what the big thing at the end is going to be. What I don’t know is how I’m going to get to those points.
What usually happens is I start writing and the characters start going off in all sorts of directions, and I’m going, ‘No! Get back in the plot you bastards!’
Things like characters who I didn’t think were going to be characters suddenly turn up. Half the bloody characters that people love now and go, ‘Ooh, why can’t we have more of this one?’ are characters that were just there to do things like open the door, or they were literally the equivalent of those characters in Shakespeare who walk in and go, ‘The King is dead!’ If you imagine Hamlet, where Rozencrantz and Guildenstern won’t leave the stage, that’s basically my life as a writer. They get on the stage in the middle of Hamlet and go, ‘Y’know, we like it here, we like Denmark, we’re going to hang about for a bit.’ Because of that, and because my characters frequently refuse to do what I tell them anyway, I‘m basically just on it for the ride.
You could argue that some of these characters are diversions, aren’t they? Is this because you’re having so much fun with them that they become something else?
I’m not sure ‘fun’ is the right word to use. For me, yeah, that’s part of the fun of the book. Most people don’t read my books for the plot, I think they like the characters, and they like the fun things, and they like the humour. If the plot makes sense at the end that’s like a bonus. I like the plot to make sense, I think the plot makes sense, but sometimes I get to the end and I think… Okay, that kind of made sense to me, I wonder if is makes sense to anyone else?
Plotting is very important. There are two components to a book, right? There’s the storytelling aspect, and there’s the actual prose that you use to tell the story, and the truth of the matter is the storytelling aspect is the most important aspect, for your purposes, for bestselling.
If you’re telling a good story, the prose can be crap. For commercial fiction, story is more important than prose. That’s the separation between literary fiction, where you have really brilliant prose, and no story whatsoever. I would worry about the story, and worry about the prose second, if you’re really cynically trying to get a bestseller.
At this point in the interview, Mr. Stay drops the bombshell that his and Mr. Desvaux’s book is fifty-thousand words long… and he makes the mistake of calling it an ‘outline’. To say that Mr. Aaronovitch’s reaction is apoplectic would be an understatement…
Your outline is fifty-thousand words long?! Let me stop you there, right. This is your problem. I wouldn’t write a five-hundred word outline, for fuck’s sake… fifty-thousand words? That’s not an outline, that’s a form of self-flagellation. Oh, God! You should be able to get the plot points of your novel onto one page of A4. If you couldn’t, writing fifty-thousand words isn’t going to disguise the fact. One page of A4 as a beat sheet should do it. One page. And then you should start writing the novel, because you guys are procrastinating. You wanna know what procrastination is? A fifty-thousand word outline. Unless your novel is two hundred and fifty thousand words long, you are doing something wrong.
What’s happened is we’ve started working on the outline, playing with the characters, and we are basically writing the novel…
To quote Yoda, ‘Write, or do not write. There is no fucking outline.’ You’re doing this wrong. Forget the bloody outline. The outline is an illusion. You don’t know where you’re going. You’ve spent fifty-five thousand words on an outline. That is not someone who knows where they’re going. That is someone who is waffling to cover up the fact that they don’t know where they’re going Fifty-five thousand words? Fuck’s sake. That’s a novella! I just got paid money for that. I would consider fifty-five thousand words a really good six months’ work. Bloody hell. I’ve got friends who would have written a novel by now, and I’m not talking about a short novel. James Swallow would have written a bestselling thriller, and he would have it out by now, and he writes outlines, but not fifty-five thousand word outlines. God’s sake, you want my advice? You are wasting time.
Sit down, start page one, start writing the book. Worry about the end of the book when you get there. When you’ve got the words under your belt that’s when you worry about the end of the book.
You are getting this all wrong. I’m not biased, but fifty-five thousand words…? That’s just appalling. That’s just depressing. You guys have got too much time on your hands. You need to get a hobby. Or a full-time job other than the full-time job that you’ve got. Jesus Christ. Look, George RR Martin, that’s about four books of outlines! He would have written the Winds Of Winter by now. It’s a psychological thing. The outline is you not wanting to start the novel. You guys need to sit down, start writing chapter one. Trust me on this. You will thank me in about a week’s time. Come back to me when you’ve written chapter two.
When you’ve written the first twenty-thousand words, you will know you’ll finish it. That is the point where most people agree that once you’ve got about the first ten- to twenty-thousand words then you’re pretty certain you’re actually going to finish the novel. Before that it’s just, ‘I’ve got a novel in me.’
It doesn’t matter how much good stuff is in the outline, it’s not in the novel yet. What you’re doing is trying to avoid doing the difficult bit, and the difficult bit is ‘page one’, opening line. That’s the bit that separates ‘I’ve got a novel in me,’ from ‘I am a writer.’ That is the crucial thing. You have to get that first chapter done, because you’re just pissing about now.
We then asked Ben our question of the week, which was about the possible harm of writing too many drafts…
Drafts? I feel sorry for this question of the week, because I’m entirely the wrong author to ask that. If you ask my editors that question, they’ll got ‘Drafts? Ben does drafts?’ I don’t do drafts. I just about finish it in time for my editor not to send the lynch mob round. And then he sends corrections. There are no second drafts with me. By the time I’ve finished ninety-six thousand words — which is about what one of my novels is, a nice short novel, and it still takes me the best part of two years to write — I’m so tired of the bloody thing, I never want to see it again. I’m not going to go back and re-write it. Except when someone from outside has demanded it, because the spelling’s all messed-up.
Is that why you’re a five-hundred word a day man?
No, I think it’s because I’m incredibly lazy. I think the causal relationship is the other way round. I’m a five-hundred word a day man, and that is why I hate rewriting. I’m not a draft person, some people are draft people. The answer is ‘yes’. If you find yourself doing a fourth draft, you’ve done too many drafts.
Really? Four is too many?
I would say two, but some people like to redraft. You can redraft, and redraft, but I would submit it. For your first book… There’s a difference between that first book you’re selling, and what you’re doing when you’re an established author. For a first book, yeah, four or five drafts. Whatever it takes to get it right. Don’t go too mad. If you’ve done more than four drafts, you have to ask, ‘Am I putting off submission?’ You nearly always want to go back and chop at least two thousand words out of the first three chapters because it drags. Make sure you’ve got no spelling mistakes. Someone has to read those first three chapters and not think to themselves, ‘Oh my God, my life is over, I want to kill myself out of boredom.’
You’ve got to remember that some poor sod has to read this when it arrives at an office. I don’t need to tell you this, right? And they’re not doing it full of glee. They’re not thinking to themselves, ‘Yay, another manuscript!’ They’re thinking, ‘Oh, God, this pile of manuscripts that I’ve got to read on the tube back to whatever Godforsaken suburb that they live in.’
And on a Kindle, probably, these days. A PDF on a Kindle, that’s not even well-formatted. And you had better fucking entertain them in the first two chapters is all I’m going to say, because they’re going to go, ‘Urgh.’ Make sure those first two chapters — at least — are nice and crisp if nothing else. If someone told me, even my fast writing friends, that they were on draft five I would be a bit dubious. Now, once you’re a professional writer, that’s a slightly different thing. One; you’re more experienced, so you draft as many times as you feel is necessary, which in my case is none, because I’m going to hand it over to an editor, who’s going to come up with notes. I don’t see why I should do their job. What the hell are they getting paid for, y’know? Gillian (Redfearn, Gollancz editor); she’s a lovely woman, she gets paid money to edit my work, I don’t see why I have to edit it. Anyway, I think it’s presumptuous of me to judge what Gillian might want changed. And sometimes you’re very close to the work. I actually pay a friend, on a chapter-by-chapter basis, to edit my work. It’s very useful because my grammar is crap, my spelling is terrible, so it’s useful to have someone who can spell and do grammar… where the commas go. I’m getting better, but I’m always having a problem with commas. It’s not so much that they put them in the right place, it’s knowing that they’re going to do it stops me from doing that thing where you write a sentence and then go… Does the comma go there…? Or does the comma go there…? Instead of doing that, I just go, ‘Oh, Andrew will fix it.’ Actually, Andrew doesn’t need to fix it as often as he needed to six books ago. It’s like working with a safety net, it’s just very useful. And so, therefore, my books are edited as they go along. By me, as well. I go back and I change things. I lose about twenty percent of the prose that I write. I keep track of it. Of my ninety-six thousand words, I lose about twenty-thousands words. Not in big chunks, though. That’s the difference; a write and revise person will write a hundred and twenty thousand words and cut out forty-thousand words to make a ninety-six word novel. I will cut out sentences. I will do a bit at the individual sentence level, and then when I add it all up it comes to about twenty-thousand words.
You have to know Who am I? What is my style? And you adapt your writing technique to the style that you have. In the same way that you have to find your own voice, you have to find your own writing rhythm.
Some people like to get up in the mornings, some people write at night, some people write in cafes, some people are obsessives, some people write on only one computer facing east… whatever. There is no right way of doing it. Whatever works. Whatever gets the thing done, but… and this is the important thing in your bloody fifty-five thousand word bloody outline… done is the word, okay? A fifty-five thousand word outline is not done!
Chapter one… ooh, now we’re doing chapter two… That’s done!
Outline is just pissing about.
Fifty-thousand words is Scrivener’s way of telling you, you should be getting on with the bloody novel.
You don’t even know what the characters are like until you’ve done the serious writing. The outline won’t tell you. The outline is the easy bit.
By definition, all that lovely prose you’re writing in your outline, that’s the low-hanging fruit. That’s not what’s going to slow you up. That’s not what’s going to keep you awake. That’s not what’s going to have you banging your head gently on the table in front of your computer. It’s really stupid things, like you’re gonna go, ‘How do I get them from this location to that location? What’s the fricking transition?’ I’m so bored, I can’t just go dot-dot-dot.
Can I just give you a word of advice on that one? It’s from a Somerset Maugham story. I recite this, it’s my little mantra. In one of the stories it goes, ‘They went back to the hotel and then next morning…’ and I can’t remember what they did the next morning, but my point being is you don’t have to go back to the hotel, detail what they eat. Have them wake up and go out. You can do that in one sentence. And that’s something you can’t do it film. You can’t do it in radio, you can’t do it in comics, but you can do it in prose.
You can have a seamless thing like that and annihilate time with an ‘and’, with a conjunction. That’s very, very, very, very useful thing to be able to do.
A lot of your time you’ll be trying to get from one scene to another, and actually, all you need to do is, ‘And then they went to that place.’ That, believe it or not, is what takes all the time. It’s things like that. Whether the character’s a paranoid schizophrenic with mother issues, right? That’s not what takes time when you’re writing. Transitions is what takes time. Finding new ways of describing people takes time. Thinking, how do you convey that sensation when you look up at a house and it looks like it’s going to fall on your face, without saying that? And then going, ‘He looked up at the house, and he had a terrible sensation it was going to fall on his face.’ Working your way through that is what’s going to take your time, and you guys are putting it off because you know that. So get on with bloody chapter one! I will be amazed if half the stuff in your outline makes it into novel. You’re not going to make your deadline. You’re just not.
I’m going to follow you now, and I’m going to Tweet you, ‘Have you started chapter one yet? Have you started chapter one yet? Have you started chapter one yet? Have you started chapter one yet?’ I can do a bot, y’know? I can do that automatically at intervals until you bloody start.
And then, when you’ve done that, I’ll just change to ‘chapter two’. Reset the bot. Seriously, this is the only way you’re going to get a book out. I understand the impulse, even though I deplore the motive. You have to get the book written. This is a hard thing, and you are going to have revise it if you want a bestseller. I can tell; you guys are revisers. Get that done. You should be able to write this novel between the two of you in less than three months. How long is it going to be? You don’t want it to be too long.
Between 80-90,000 words.
If you hadn’t bothered with the outline, you’d almost be finished by now. Either write the novel, or don’t write the novel. There is no fucking outline. Outlines are for producers and television folk.
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