Diary of an author – wait a bit, want it now?

So now I’m told that, in the new world of agile authoring, I must produce three books a year. Or more, if possible.

It’s possible, but is it beneficial?

Author Jonathan Kaye completed his debut novel, After the Affair, in three years. He laboured over it, perfected it. I’ve not read it yet, but I probably will. There’s something appealing about a guy willing to put in so much effort, to make his novel the very best it can be.

I know, I know, there are authors out there who seem to churn out novels as if they were some mass-produced commodity. And I’m not saying they’re bad books. They’re probably very good. But could they have been better, given a little more time and love?

I can’t imagine JRR knocking out the final draft of Lord of the Rings in four months, and still enjoying an avid readership over sixty years later. Can you?

I’m willing to bet that Rohinton Mistry’s novels take a bit longer than four months apiece as well.

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So, has the artful business of novel-writing also fallen foul of the ‘must have it now‘ social-media generation?

It takes me around twelve months to finish the first and second drafts of a novel. Am I too slow? I guess I’ll make less money than the three-times-a-yearers, but then again I’m not in this exclusively for the money. Sure, it helps, but for me it’s more about the craft itself than the remuneration.

So what do you think? Are you happy to purchase a novel dashed off in a few months, or are you likely to be more discerning?

Speed, or quality? Which wins?

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Diary of an author – in soundbites

Morse has his opera. Banks has a wider repertoire of taste: everything from Miles Davis to classical, to the Grateful Dead. Is music important in a novel? As a musician myself (I’m a drummer – hey, no drummer jokes, OK? 🙂 ), I was a little surprised recently when I realised that music isn’t strongly represented in the DCI Brendan Moran novels. I thought about this for a while and came to the conclusion that music and musicians, especially contemporary music/musicians, are rarely portrayed with any degree of accuracy in modern crime fiction, be it TV drama or literature. And I think that’s why – at least so far – I’ve been cautious about introducing musical elements into the storyline. OK, so I know what makes musicians tick, but it just seems to me that when, as an author or scriptwriter, you try to capture some kind of musical zeitgeist, it all goes horribly wrong.

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Case in point. I remember watching an episode of a TV crime series (which I shall charitably keep anon.) in which a group of old sixties musicians were getting back together (or ‘trying to get it together, man’) for a reunion tour. It was horrendous, ghastly and stereotypical. Every cliche in the book (‘scuse the pun) was trotted out. The musicians all spoke in quasi-stoned pseudo-hippy language that, frankly, made me shake my head in disbelief. The writer clearly didn’t know much about contemporary music, especially the minutiae of how a band functions in everyday life. The episode quickly degenerated into a wildly exaggerated and unbelievable pastiche. The wigs were hilarious, though.

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I’m thinking about this as I write. Music is a soundscape for our current situation in life, isn’t it? Time and place is recalled, often with great intensity, by the opening bars of a favourite song, or a faintly-discerned chorus left behind in the slipstream of a passing car. I can’t listen to certain pieces of music because they’re just too evocative, too nostalgic. And that might have a bearing on my reluctance to apply a little musical colour to my novels. One person’s happy memory may recall another’s lowest point. And whichever way the reader reacts, the musical intrusion could end up being just that – an intrusion. As authors we want the reader to be glued to both character and plot, with no distractions.

Hm. So, perhaps I could invent a favourite musician for my main character? But why stop there? I could invent a whole string of violin concertos, or a completely fictitious top 20 chart. Without Kanye West. But then that wouldn’t ring true with the reader, either.

I think the answer is to aim down the middle. Maybe keep your characters’ tastes fairly general. I have a friend for whom the sixties seemed to have passed by without a note of music being played or heard. He’s simply not into music at all. You can mention Woodstock or the Beatles and he’ll be with you, but deviate from the big names and he’s immediately lost. Gentle Giant? New Riders of the Purple Sage? Atomic Rooster? Forget it.

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Yep, aim down the middle, I reckon. Keep the novel’s musical backdrop unobtrusive but gently atmospheric. That’s the way forward.

In other words, no sharps or flats – just a good stereo balance.

 

Today’s little known musical fact: There’s no chorus in REM’s Losing My Religion.

So you do want a drummer joke:

Q. How can you tell when a drummer’s at the door?

A. He doesn’t know when to come in.

(I don’t get it)

 

 

The first three novels in the popular DCI Brendan Moran series are available in one volume, The Irish Detective, via the Amazon and Kobo bookstores

Characters – more important than plot?

I find myself returning to favourite books I’ve read – sometimes often – and which I therefore know very well. It’s not that I want to relive the story necessarily, although that might be part of it. No, the main reason is that I want to spend time with the characters. I want to renew old acquaintances, to enjoy their company once again. IMG_5417I want to row serenely down the Thames with J and Harris and George in that timeless classic, Three Men in a Boat. I want to laugh at the old jokes and situations, follow Harris around the Hampton Court maze as he leads a gaggle of bewildered day-trippers round and round, always ending up at the centre. I want to hitch a ride with Paxton and O’Neill in their flimsy WWI aeroplane in Derek Robinson’s brilliant air drama, War Story. I enjoy meeting up from time to time with my friend Gustad Noble, as he performs his early morning kusti in the Khodadad building’s compound; Gustad is one of my favourites – he’s absolutely real to me. So all credit and much kudos to the brilliant Rohinton Mistry for introducing me to Gustad, even though time and considerable distance (plus the fact that Gustad never really existed) will always separate me from the Noble family.

This last novel, Such a Long Journey, is for me a definitive work of characterisation. I feel such empathy with Gustad and his many difficulties. With each turn of the page I experience more of the heat and tense atmosphere of this fictional but true-to-life nineteen-seventies India, as it struggles to survive under the crushing weight of Indira Gandhi’s turbulent rule. I love Gustad for his indomitable spirit. He doesn’t get everything right – indeed much of the time he gets it very wrong. But that’s life, isn’t it? I love his flaws, not just his better side. He’s a good guy to spend time with.

So when I’m writing, I try to be mindful of this. Good characters are complex, contrary, sometime unpredictable, always fascinating. Even the minor roles should be memorable. My protagonist, DCI Brendan Moran, is a very interesting guy. His background is unusual and nothing in his life is particularly straightforward. Moran’s colleagues also struggle with various burdens and difficulties – but it’s how they deal with these which makes for an absorbing and page-turning read. Like Gustad Noble, I may not always get it right, but that’s what I’m aiming for when I’m putting a novel together.

Well-drawn characters are a mirror to our own souls. In their daily struggles we see possible versions of ourselves, and thereby find answers to the problems and difficulties each of us face in an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world.

 

The first three novels in the popular DCI Brendan Moran series are available in one volume, The Irish Detective, via the Amazon and Kobo bookstores