Writing fiction is just elaborate lying

You might have heard this before: writing a work of fiction is simply constructing an elaborate lie. Usually meant as a denigration, as in, why waste your time lying, when you could be writing non-fiction? You know, the truth? Not lies? In this view, fiction is a pointless game, and those who practise it are shallow and vapid, unlike the serious purveyors of non-fiction, who are engaged with the real world and its real problems.

This is wrong on so many levels. In the first place, on a purely technical standpoint, the primary intention of the liar is to deceive, but the reader of a work of fiction knows very well that what she is reading is a creation, and not a representation of actual events. In fact, many works that are nominally non-fiction are constructed to deceive. A liar doesn’t start off by telling you he is lying; therefore only non-fiction can be a lie!

Secondly, written fiction, like all art, tries to tell us a deeper truth about the world and ourselves. If it is well done, if the artist succeeds, we will recognise that deeper truth, conveyed to us by means of artifice. This, again, is the opposite of lying, where the aim is to convey a deep falsehood by means of superficial verisimilitude. The techniques might appear similar; both writer and liar will carefully observe reality so as to convey a plausible narrative; but then, to the untrained eye, the techniques of the surgeon and the butcher might appear similar. As with the writer and the liar, however, the surgeon is aiming for a very different outcome than that of the butcher.

And finally, the writer of what is nominally non-fiction is still engaged in a process of artifice; she does not aim to produce an emotionless recounting of facts as if she were a robot (and even if she did, there would still be the matter of choosing which facts to recount!). Most non-fiction writing is designed to be read (in the sense of needing to compete for the attention of readers) and therefore strives to entertain and sometimes to persuade, and these goals are at least somewhat antithetical to pure objective truth.

Our love of stories is perhaps one of the defining characteristics of our species. Every culture ever known since the dawn of time has told its stories. There seems to be some structure of the brain where if we are given a series of events, we naturally try to construct a narrative that ties the events together and explains them– even if the events are entirely random. This instinct to create structure out of chaos may be the legacy of a successful evolutionary strategy, and thus entirely practical– if our ancestors created a fanciful story about a natural phenomenon that enabled them to correctly predict when that phenomenon would occur, then they would be more likely to survive. And perhaps the compelling story made it easier for an unlettered culture to remember it and pass it on to future generations.

We no longer need to create myths and legends to pass on our knowledge, and so the anti-fiction brigade would have you believe that fiction’s time has passed. But our culture is more than just scientific facts. Our thirst for stories remains undimmed. The stories which resonate with us are passed on by word of mouth until millions share the myths of Hogwarts, the Discworld, and Westeros. And that is no bad thing.


There have been some pretty big changes in the last six months of my life: I moved house and started a new job, both of which have impacted on my writing. Moving house is an incredibly time-consuming exercise, not only in terms of the move itself, but also because of all the work that needs to be done on the new house to make it the way you want it. I think I’ve spent so much time assembling Ikea furniture that I could now do it blindfolded.

The new job has had an arguably greater impact though, as I did a lot of my writing while commuting on the train in my last role. The new job necessitated driving to work, so no free writing time, and it’s been quite a consuming six months which have simply flown by.

Nevertheless I have started writing my next book, working title Heart of Clay, and I’ve managed to get Aeropolis (known as Airship City in its second incarnation) in front of a number of agents, most of whom have been complimentary, although none felt it quite right for them. An agent in New York wants to see my second book, which I think means she felt Aeropolis was almost, but not quite, there, and that I might get there on the next one! So that’s encouraging. Unfortunately the editor who had requested the rewrite got back to me in December to say the book was much better, but that in the meantime she had bought a couple of similar titles (it seems I’ve written a steampunk novel) and so she had no room for Aeropolis. Frustrating. Although she encouraged me to submit to agents and even gave me two recommendations, so that was also encouraging.

I had already submitted to one of the agents, who subsequently came back with the dreaded “it’s good but I didn’t love it”, and I really should get it submitted to the other agent. It’s a tough thing, rejection. I remember reading all the advice about not taking rejection personally and about keeping your head down and your confidence up, but the thing is that it’s one thing to know what you should be doing and another to actually experience the emotions, and I do find the self-doubt starting to creep in. There’s a stronger resistance to making the next submission after every rejection, an unconscious attempt to protect oneself from the pain. But it’s a resistance that needs to be overcome. You only need one “yes” at the end of that very long chain of “no’s”. If you don’t get past them all, you won’t get to the “yes”. So it’s time to plough on!

Discovering the story

So this writing thing is a pretty steep learning curve. I used to think that I planned my stories out in great detail before writing them, because an early experiment in just letting things unfold naturally led to me having to abandon a large chunk of my novel. I decided then that I needed to sort out plot before writing anything in future, so that when it came to the actual writing, I could just concentrate on character and description and dialogue without worrying about where things were headed…

And to be fair, I think that I partially achieved my goal. But the thing is that as you actually write out your carefully planned plot, things start to change. You realise that character has an impact on plot, because your hero suddenly refuses to do something that you had planned for her. And you also realise that perhaps you didn’t think the plot through as carefully as you might have, because you were anxious to get going with the writing, and here you are with a gaping big plot hole. And then, worst of all, you suddenly get a new idea, see something that just makes so much sense, that feels so right and lifts your story up a whole level.

What’s so awful about that, you ask? Because it messes up your carefully planned outline, makes you rewrite before you’ve even finished the first draft, throws out your fantasy about writing being an orderly and planned process of thinking things up and then writing them down in an efficient fashion.

I suppose it must be possible to spend so much time planning, and to do so in sufficient detail, that you do see everything before writing a word, and so all of your planning is the process of discovering the story, at the stage when changes are simple and easy to make. But it’s more likely that for most people, there must remain some element of discovery during the actual writing process, and so where you end up on the planning/discovery continuum probably depends on your patience for rewrites. M Night Shyamalan reportedly did not discover the key to his script for The Sixth Sense - the main character himself being a ghost - until the fifth draft. If you can’t handle doing a rewrite for the nth time, you’ll put more effort into the planning stage next time.

And of course with experience the writer becomes, like a chess grandmaster, able to spot problems and dead ends and to unconsciously close them off before they even arise, whether at the planning or the writing stage. It’s the old thing about writing being a journey. When you start out on a journey you take wrong turnings, you fall down a lot, but all those mistakes teach you to spot the right turning, avoid the pitfalls, and so your progress becomes much faster. This is why most first novels are never published. To think of them as a waste of time and effort, however, is a mistake. The failed first novel paved the way for the second and third and all the rest, in fact was the training ground, the boot camp, that made the writer. And it’s never about just one book, just as the journey is never completed at the first mile marker. To be a writer you have to be able to use your talent to tell many different stories. You are not your work, even though it’s sometimes hard to see that when all you’ve written is the work in progress of your first novel. If it works, fantastic. If it has too many flaws to overcome, leave it, move on to the next story. If the story is compelling enough you can return to it in time and re-tell it with the benefit of your new skills and experience. But you’ll probably find a hundred new stories that you’re itching to tell, and that’s what being a writer is: having more ideas than you’ll ever have the time to tell.

Rewriting Is Not So Easy

THE STORY SO FAR: Based on some positive feedback on Aeropolis from an editor, I decided to rewrite it to make it less middle grade and more young adult. Since the feedback was along the lines of “the protagonist comes across as too young in his reactions etc” I thought it would be a simple matter to go through the manuscript, rewriting Joseph’s thoughts and actions to make him more mature. So I worked out how his attitude to various characters would change, and started working through it. At first things went well, but as I got further into the plot, I began to feel more and more that the new Joseph would simply not do the things he was supposed to do in service of the plot. By the time I got about halfway it was obvious that it just wasn’t working anymore.

I started making some small tweaks to the plot, doing a basic outline in Word and trying to move things in a more character-driven direction. But the more I tried to do this, the more it seemed to me that my plot was a hastily cobbled-together series of somewhat random events, which kind of worked when Joseph was a fairly passive child-like character just reacting to things that happened to him. But now that I was trying to make the plot more character-driven, this passive reaction dynamic just got in the way. I managed to force the re-outline to a certain point, but beyond that I had no more ideas.

So I decided to take a break from Aeropolis for a while, using the time to read about plots and plotting. Very helpful in this regard was Kidlit, and I also took courage from Chuck Wendig’s frank account of his journey in writing his debut Blackbirds. I’d been reading David Hewson’s Writing: A User Manual, and I also picked up Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. I also expanded my research into Howard Hughes, German history, and Zeppelins. (I even spent some time sketching Aeropolis, working out its actual dimensions, volume of lift gas etc, and even creating Aeropolis using Google Sketchup!)

The result of all this was something akin to brain overload: I went back to the outline, ideas buzzing in my head, and started on an increasingly rapid round of changes, each one more radical than the last. After a while I felt that things were spinning out of control: it seemed, by the end of this process, that I needed to pitch the entire thing in the bin, and start again from scratch. A dispiriting thought, when you started the process thinking you had a completed novel that simply required some rewriting.

But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Most writers do not sell their first novels. The learning curve on the first one is so steep that many see it as some form of boot camp, a training ground that gets them up to the required standard for the subsequent novels. I realised that a writing career cannot be based on a single book, that writing is a journey and not a destination, and that all the work I put into Aeropolis would only be wasted if I carried on flogging a dead horse; giving it up might seem like a waste but in reality I would carry all that I had learned into the next project.

Once I came to terms with actually moving on from Aeropolis, and even got some good ideas for my next book, a strange thing happened. An insight came to me, a fairly small shift in emphasis, just bringing a certain character into the story much earlier, and changing his relationship to Joseph, and things suddenly seemed to fall into place. The plot started to work, to flow, with a believable character arc for Joseph to follow, and subsequent events fitting in nicely. Best of all there was now inbuilt tension between Joseph and the other main characters, something I had been striving to create, but which had been feeling false and forced. It all works very well now, at least in outline.

So now I have an outline of what I believe will be a much better story. It will still be a substantial rewrite, but at least some of the scenes from earlier drafts can still be included if they are slightly modified. I need to crack on and get it written so that I can see if finally I can fulfil that flash of inspiration from all those years ago.


Rewriting Aeropolis Some More

I was lucky enough to be invited to submit Aeropolis to a publisher who doesn’t normally accept submissions from un-agented writers, and my initial partial submission resulted in a request for the entire manuscript! This all happened really quickly, and if that wasn’t enough, I heard from their editor in December.

Unfortunately it wasn’t an acceptance. But it was the most positive feedback that you can imagine, short of actual acceptance. The editor said some very nice things about my writing (I just love it when people do that!) and is prepared to look at anything I write in the future, including a rewrite of Aeropolis, because…

Well, here we get to the less positive bit. She felt that Aeropolis as it stands is not a true young adult (YA) novel, because of the way I had written the lead character Joseph: he comes across as much younger. (Interestingly one of my beta readers now says she missed the part where I give his age, and simply assumed throughout that he was much younger than a teenager!) This is not in itself problematic, except that this particular publisher only does YA, not middle grade.

So I have the choice of trying to find a middle-grade publisher, or rewriting to take advantage of the incredibly valuable opportunity that an “open door” with an editor represents. Since the manuscript is out there already, being considered (I hope!) by various agents, in some sense I am already trying to find another publisher. So how can it harm me to hedge my bets and start the rewrite? It will be a good experience in any event, responding to editorial feedback, and an exercise in technical skill.

So I thought when I started the process. But now that I am actually into the nuts and bolts of the rewriting process, I’m having a lot of fun doing it as well! There is something pleasing about going back to a scene and looking at it from a new angle, trying something different, exercising the awesome authorial power to go for something radically different.

Of course there will be difficult points, hard choices, struggles to make it work. But I’m really happy just to be writing again!

How I Write part II

In the first instalment I covered how I actually generate the text that makes up a book, by bashing it out on my iPhone. But of course there is much more to writing than just putting words into a document. I’m not one of those writers who can just start typing with no idea of how things are going to turn out: I need to outline the plot in a fair amount of detail, using index cards (one card per scene, usually), so that when I am writing, I can just concentrate on the description and the dialogue and so on, without also needing to generate the plot on the fly as well.

Obviously I don’t stick to the index cards slavishly: sometimes things turn out differently from the plan, as I realise that a character would behave in a different way, or if something isn’t working. But it’s what I need to get started. I went through the first couple of drafts of Aeropolis with just index cards and the individual iPhone documents, pasting them all into a big Word document when I wanted to revise, or give them to my beta readers (at that stage, it was only my wife). This was a huge pain, and it was then that I heard about Scrivener, through a writer friend.

Scrivener is writing software that was developed from the ground up (by a writer) to be a fantastic writing tool, and it succeeds in this task admirably. It’s an incredibly comprehensive offering, with tools that are useful for a wide range of writing, from journalism to academic articles, to screenplays, and of course, novels. The brilliant thing about Scrivener from my perspective is that it uses a system of individual documents, one per scene usually, that you can split, merge, drag around to put into a different order, et cetera, and then compile into a single complete document at the press of a button. In one of its views, you can even represent the individual documents as index cards!

So it was fairly straightforward, conceptually, for me to transfer all of my individual iPhone documents into Scrivener, and once this was done I was even able to synchronise Scrivener with the Elements folder in Dropbox, so that any writing or editing which I did on the iPhone was updated to my Scrivener project whenever I did a sync. Fantastic!

I was greatly aided in this endeavour by David Hewson’s Writing a Novel with Scrivener. David is the author of the popular Nic Costa thrillers, set in Rome, but his informative blog posts on his writing techniques have fascinated and informed me in equal measure. And this book is just wonderful, setting out in great detail how he uses Scrivener to produce his awesome output, with plenty of invaluable tips and tricks.

Scrivener makes revisions a lot easier, because you can easily see the flow of plot in the novel. You can even track things like point of view, so that you can compile a single point of view into one document, to check that it makes sense on a standalone basis. Structural problems become easier to see and to solve.

I use both paper and Kindle to revise, and Scrivener can output a very serviceable Kindle file, or a Word document. You can choose at the compile stage how the document should flow together, with page breaks and chapter headings (auto numbered if you desire), and of course you can recompile with different settings within seconds if something isn’t quite right.

I’ve heard it said that whenever two writers get together the conversation almost invariably turns, sooner or later, to a discussion of how great Scrivener is. I can well believe it.


Aeropolis finally finished

Well, I finally got Aeropolis finished and sent off to the competition. In January I will know if I made the long list. In the meantime, I’ve sent Aeropolis off to a number of agents and even a publisher who expressed interest via Twitter! Social networking is amazing...

I went to hear Sir Terry Pratchett talk about his latest novel and writing in general at the Theatre Royal on Tuesday night. It was an inspiring and enjoyable experience, and the love and respect of the audience was palpable. Long may he continue to delight us all.

Rewriting Aeropolis

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks doing what I hope will be a final rewrite for Aeropolis. I know that all writing is rewriting, that writing is when we make the stuff but rewriting is when we make it good... but still. Every page of the printout is covered with revisions. I often think “How did I not see that?” I’m very glad I followed David Hewson’s advice to print it all out and read it through. As he says, there’s something about seeing it in a different format -- paper instead of on-screen -- that helps you to pick up problems.

My aim is to get finished in time to submit Aeropolis to a contest. I’m not certain that contests are a good idea, but even if I don’t actually submit it, the deadline is serving as a useful spur to get the darn thing finished. Once it’s done, I’ll decide what to do with it!

How I Write

I’ve always wanted to write. I was one of those kids who loved to read. I remember when I first learned to read, I would go to the school library at first break, take out a book, read it in the break, and then go back at second break to get another book. I read everything I could lay my hands on. So I naturally wanted to be one of those amazing people who wrote the books that I loved. But for a long time I didn’t think I could do it.

Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I was waiting for someone or something to come along and say, “Now you can be a writer.” Or I was waiting for inspiration to strike. Or for the time to do it.

I dabbled with writing at times, writing a short story, or a screenplay. But there was always this sense of uncertainty. It’s almost as if I wanted a guarantee of success before I put in what I imagined to be the enormous effort required to write a book. I was scared by all the stories of rejection after rejection. I was too focused on the external result.

But finally, late last year, I decided that if I was ever going to write something, I just needed to do it. There was never going to be a perfect time, I was never going to have the luxury of the perfect writing space, with lots of free time in which to do it. Now is all I have, but it’s enough.

I decided to write every day, and to use the one, consistent chunk of free time that I had every day, my morning commute on the train. I have to spend more than an hour commuting each way, every day, time which I usually spend reading, but I realised it would be great to use it for writing too.

The only question was how. I thought of using my little netbook, and even experimented with it a bit, but its short battery life and tiny keys were frustrating. Also, typing on a keyboard held in your lap is really uncomfortable. Your wrists are bent too much. And there aren’t any tables on my train.

Balancing the computer on a bag on my knees worked better, but it still wasn’t great. I also didn’t like the attention I felt that someone working on a laptop got from the other commuters.

So I decided to try to write on my iPhone. I’ve had an account with the amazing Dropbox service for some time now. Dropbox lets you back up your files online, and also share them across computers and devices like iPhones, keeping everything synchronised automatically. I knew there were some apps that use Dropbox to save their files - I needed an easy way to get my stuff off the iPhone, and I’m also paranoid about backup.

I tried a few apps before settling on Elements. It uses a special subfolder of your Dropbox account, and you can create subfolders and text files very easily. So I started to write Aeropolis. I already had an outline on index cards, so I simply started with card one, created a new document, and wrote.

I’ve had my iPhone for many years now; in fact my current iPhone 4 is my second one, I had one of the original, first-gen iPhones first. So I’m very used to the soft keyboard. It does take a couple of days to get used to, but once you are used to it, it’s pretty nice. Obviously I cannot type on it nearly as fast as I could with a “proper” keyboard, but holding the iPhone in my hands on the train is a comfortable thing to do, and I’m not copy-typing anyway; I’m thinking up what to write as I do it, so if it takes slightly longer to actually type, it’s not a big problem.

I listen to music on the iPhone as I write, to block out anyone who is talking on the train. Some days I can write to anything but other days I prefer classical or electronic music with no lyrics.

I wrote Aeropolis in a number of small documents, usually starting a new document when I started on a new index card from my outlining. There were a number of reasons for this: I didn’t want to have to scroll down to the bottom of a long document each morning to start writing, and I was also concerned about backup. When you are editing a document, Elements constantly saves the document up to your Dropbox. But while travelling on the train, there are long periods, in tunnels, when there is no connectivity, and I worry about Elements losing some of what I have written, or (nightmare scenario) overwriting the entire document with a blank one when connectivity is restored. So by breaking the writing up into lots of little documents, I would be limiting the damage.

(I’ve never actually lost an entire document. But I did once lose a few paragraphs when I started a new document, and connectivity was lost before I had written anything.)

So that’s how most of Aeropolis was written, or at least the first two drafts. It worked well for me at the writing stage. But it was a pain to copy and paste those individual docs into a single Word document, and revising is also difficult with such a long doc. Fortunately, by this time I had heard of the amazing Scrivener! More on that in the next part.