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But have we had any fun?

But have we had any fun?

Benjamin Jowett was a Victorian professor of Greek, a theologian and a college reformer. Photos of him have a somewhat stern and whiskery air, but he is responsible for one of my favourite quotes ever:

We have sought truth, and sometimes perhaps have found it. But have we had any fun?

I love that. As writers, we’re not all that interested in truth, so perhaps we can rephrase: We have sought a decent story, and sometimes perhaps have told one. But have we had any fun?

That quote is in my head because it occurred to me this week that perhaps my best books are also the ones I most enjoyed writing. It’s certainly true that the ones I most laboured over ended up proficient enough, but less joyous in the reading.

For example:

  • My first ever book, The Money Makers, had less craft in it, less knowledge of writing technique, than anything else I’ve done. But it was powered by a great concept and burned with a kind of pleasure. That pleasure does, I swear, transmit itself in the reading. You end up just plain liking the book and, as a result, you’re inclined to forgive its lack of sophistication.
  • My non-fiction history book, This Little Britain, was a passion project for me. I had to write it at extreme pace (big advance, short deadline) and the book somehow benefitted from the resultant lack of reflection. I had to dig in, write fast and enjoy the ride. A longer writing time would have delivered a smoother read, but a more engaging one? Maybe not.
  • Of the Fiona Griffiths novels, the one I probably enjoyed the most was The Deepest Grave. That book is plain bananas: it’s a police procedural about a hunt for relics of King Arthur. The novel ends up with a swordfight in a cave. There’s no writing manual on earth which says you can write a realistic modern-set police procedural about such things, but I did, and I loved it, and my delight in the subject matter echoes through the book. Of all my FG novels, that’s probably the one that has most resonated with readers.

Overall, I think it is true that a joyous writing experience leads to a better reading experience.

That’s nice to know in one way. Most writers could make more money in other jobs – or indeed, use those other jobs to fund their writing time – so it definitely matters that writing is fun.

But …

Life ain’t always easy and writing isn’t always pleasurable. What happens if you are finding the writing a slog? The joyous writing = good writing rule is a comfort if you’re having fun. But doesn’t that also mean that painful writing = bad writing? In which case, the rule seems to double your troubles.

I think maybe it does.

I do strongly believe that you should write mostly for the fun of it. If you’re not actually under contract to a publisher, then why write if you hate it? Of course, in any book, there’ll be tough patches that you just have to push through, but that’s the same as any challenging hobby. Overcoming those challenges is part of the joy.

But some books have the joy/challenge balance wrong. The joy’s never quite enough, the challenges rather too constant.

So what to do? As usual, I don’t really know the answer, but my personal cocktail of solutions includes the following:

  • KBO. This was a core part of Winston Churchill’s philosophy on life. If women were around, he expressed it as “KBO”. If they weren’t, he said it plainly: Keep Bu**ering On. (I’m only putting in some coy little asterisks there, by the way, because I reckon this email will end up in your spam folder if I don’t. I’m sure you could handle a pair of missing Gs.) In the end, an ability just to push through the tough patches is the single most important quality of any writer.
  • If possible, take a break. And the breakier the break, the better. A sharp change of routine – a holiday, a love affair – is going to work better than “everything the same, but no writing”.
  • Related to the above: if you have a life problem to deal with, then deal with it. I know that’s easier said than done, but it is often the shortest and best way.
  • Figure out if there’s a technical flaw somewhere. A big one this, especially for less experienced writers. So often enough, you start a project with enthusiasm. At about the 30,000 word mark, that enthusiasm starts to dissipate. Then you write more text, but it just seems pointless. You don’t like what you’ve written. You give up. And often, often, often it’s because of an identifiable and fixable technical fault. So it could be something you’re doing wrong in terms of points of view. Or your sense of place. Or your plotting. Or almost anything. Those things will make your writing seem bad (because in this one specific way, it is bad). Then, since you don’t know what the issue is or how to fix it, you just give up. That’s where better skills help massively – and a JW manuscript assessment or a writing course will most likely sort you out.
  • Cut. Oh my goodness, this is so simple and so powerful. If you are telling a good story in 120,000 words that you could express equally well in 90,000 words – and it’s very, very common to see such things – then you have attached a huge drag anchor to your narrative. It can never leap free because you are burdening the reader with 30,000 purposeless words. Cut, my friend. Cut more than you think you can cut. Take joy in cutting. You will feel your manuscript lift and surge forward in the water. It’ll love you for the surgery. Be ambitious.
  • The dagger in the table. And sometimes, simply enough, a narrative starts to drag because it’s a bit draggy. The set-up is great. The ending you have in mind is fantastic. But the bit in-between? It’s all a bit ho-hum. So kill someone. Or have a bank robbery. Or have someone get abducted or buried underground. Offer a mid-story incident that shatters the shape of the story that the reader was expecting. Write a novel with two climaxes. Plunge the dagger into the table and watch it quiver.
  • Ask yourself: have a nailed the basic concept for this novel? If you don’t have a stellar concept, your novel will never be stellar. If your concept – your elevator pitch – just isn’t all that strong, the novel will essentially be unsaleable no matter how many nice little plot turns you have in chapter 22, and no matter how quirky you make Aunt Maisie. And if you have embarked on a novel with too little zizz, then add it. You don’t have to scrap what you’ve written and start again. You just have to find the ingredient – a ghost, a murder, a secret letter, a splash of magic, a something – that gives life to all the rest.

That’s it from me. This is now the second day of a school strike. We had seven kids in the house yesterday – my four plus three others – and five today. School returns tomorrow. School and quietness …

Til soon.


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  1. This really resonates. In 2020/21, I wrote a first draft of my novel. It wasn’t good. Plot holes, a cast of thousands, random threads of story that went off in all directions, etc etc.
    Then I took the plunge and decided to plot a new and improved version. What followed (I’ll keep this brief) were seven or eight versions of that story, each one coming at the idea from a different angle. Each version sounded like ‘a great idea’ at the time. Some only made it as far as an outline, a few got to 40-50k words. And each new version was a vast improvement on the original draft (less plot holes etc) but each and every one left me … well, unenthused.
    There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however, and I don’t think it’s an onrushing train. In January, I opened up the original draft (can’t remember why) and started reading through it. For all its many faults, I liked that damn book and enjoyed writing it. So, I set myself the task of fixing the faults. Characters (many) have been tossed out or merged, plot lines have been tightened and simplified, and wayward scenes abandoned. I guess, to your point, maybe all those other version have helped me to progress enough as writer that I can deal with the technical flaws and write the book I’d intended in the first place. Whatever happens, there is a joy in the writing now that hasn’t been there for a long while.