The thought I might be capable of writing a novel first struck me a week or so into my retirement some seven years ago. Having usefully spent the past thirty-five years writing 1500-word articles for magazines on food and drink, I figured I was already half-way to mastering the techniques needed for a 100,000-word novel.
A plot had been running around my head for years, or at least the beginning and the end and the over-confidence of old age convinced me the guts of the book would reveal itself once I started writing. I was wrong, of course.
An author friend of mine, John Wilcox, who successfully wrote 17 historical novels during his long retirement advised me to stick with the familiar – write about that which I already knew. I had been a magazine publisher for almost half a century and knew the business inside out. I could even weave a host of real events into my story.
Six months on and 40,000 words later and it dawned on me the story had become too autobiographical and, fascinating though my life had been, for me at least, it was unlikely to hold much interest for a wider audience.
My good friend and former colleague Glynn Christian, TV chef and writer, sat for a week and talked me through every word I had written. It was a harsh few days. He kindly, but firmly, suggested my writing technique was too journalistic. It was clear, I needed a completely fresh set of skills if I was to make it as a writer.
So back to school it was. Online courses abound, particularly on YouTube – I studied character building, dialogue writing, showing not telling, plot structure and most important of all, how to suck readers into your story and persuade them to stick with it.
Before the pandemic, I gobbled up literary festivals, particularly those offering group teach-ins. One close to me in Mere in Wiltshire sticks in my mind; a group of maybe a dozen or so aspiring authors working with a proper published writer to put us through our paces. We were instructed to write a plot intro, short characterisations and cliff-hanger moments to build tension, which were then read out and dissected by the author and the group. A tough learning experience but so good.
I listened to Sebastian Faulks speak at the Chalke Valley History Festival about writing wartime novels based in mainland Europe and how he approaches creating the atmosphere of the period to engage readers. I immediately re-read three of his works, marking passages where he succeeded in adding background authenticity bringing a story to life.
Faulks also touched on emotional writing. I subsequently re-read his novel Where My Heart Used to Beat and spent days de-structuring his technique for layering the emotions experienced by two former lovers who, through quirks of circumstance, were destined never to be together. Apologies for the spoiler, but Faulks unwittingly taught me that emotion, written well, must never be mawkish.
A further year’s writing and I had produced a 70,000-word novel, involving a mystical Orobouros bracelet, three murders, five main characters and two distinct plot lines running their separate courses until the final quarter.
Mindful of my experience at the Mere Literary Festival and how objective criticism revealed what I could not see in my own writing, I invested £500 in a professional appraisal through Jericho Writers, one of several online resources for budding authors.
I received a 3000-word critique within a couple of weeks which opened so well.
‘The first thing to say is that I think you have structured this quite cleverly, especially the way you round the plot up at the end – the significance of the title, of course, playing out here. And you have also, I think, come up with quite an interesting conundrum with your central question about the justification of murder.’
In the wake of this promising opening, the remaining pages were an unhappy collection of pride-puncturing critiques although I was able to draw one crumb of comfort on being told: ‘your writing style is to be commended.’
In the same way I had earlier noted the writing techniques used by Sebastian Faulks in his books, I wrote down the relevant points from this critique and list them below.
- Scenes, characters, and plot developments must be relevant, not just to the story as a theme.
- Anything that doesn’t matter should not be there.
- Narrative tension is crucial – don’t use dialogue scenes to explain
- Think up ways to dramatise inner motivation, rather than simply talk about it.
- You must work harder to make us care about Robin and Jane and what happens to them– you’re playing with your reader’s emotions and allegiances, and character identification is a big part of that.
This last point remained front of mind as I re-wrote the draft to create the emotional investment needed in both my main characters. I cut out all irrelevance to the storyline but added more characters and scenes giving greater depth to the narrative and moving the plot along at a faster pace, I kept my beguiling but eminently believable finish.
Two professional edits later and I was finally as happy as any first-time author could ever be that my 100,000-word novel was fit for publication.
But that, of course, is whole different story.
(c) Bob Farrand
The Snake that Bites its Tail by Bob Farrand is available on order from most book shops and online through Amazon. The author’s proceeds are all donated to the Junior Diabetes Research Foundation.
About The Snake that Bites its Tail:
In 1965, nineteen-year-old Robin Farnham believes he ran over an old man but on stopping his car, finds no body, merely a gold bracelet of a snake biting its tail.
In 1981, sixteen-year-old Jane Foster is sexually abused by her adoptive father and attacks him before fleeing to London where she consults Dr Peter Lakmaker, a psychiatrist.
In 2021, now retired, Farnham is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and prescribed a drug on clinical trial. He attempts suicide but awakes in hospital to be told he is suspected of murder. Protected from the police by Dr Lakmaker, Robin is encouraged to write about his life to monitor the new drug’s effectiveness.
Over a period of half a century, Robin and Jane’s lives are interrelated although it is not until the year 2000, they finally meet. Robin’s quest for the truth behind his involvement in not one, but three murders and Jane’s tormented search for her birth parents and the close family relationship denied her as a child are muddied by the strangely prophetic Oroborous bracelet Robin wears and the appearance of the vengeance seeking Krait.
Separating fact from fiction has rarely presented more of a challenge, for the characters in the story or the reader.
Order your copy online here.