The breakout novel and writerly obsession

I used to obsess about writing the breakout novel. ‘When I write The Breakout,’ I used to think, ‘then I’ll stop drinking instant coffee and start drinking real coffee.’ I was living in the future, and obsessing about the idea of what my legacy as a writer would be.

Which is ironic, because my favourite poem has long been Ozymandias by Percy Shelley. ‘I met a traveller from an antique land, who said Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert…’ The poem conveys the fleeting nature of human power, fame and achievement. ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.’ Too right. (I used to recite the poem to my daughter Liberty when she was a colicy six-week old, to try and pacify her. Probably just made it worse.)

So imagine my delight to find these colossal disembodied fingers at the Amman Citadel this morning. Along with one sorry-looking elbow, they are all that remains of a thirteen metre high statue of (probably) Hercules. I am so grateful to Shannon O’Donnell for her permission to reproduce her wonderful pictures here.

photo by Shannon O'Donnell
photo by Shannon O’Donnell

Beside the fingers of Hercules stands the Jordan Archaeological Museum. It’s full of treasures. For me the highlight was seeing the mindmeldingly ancient Ain Ghazal statues, the oldest statues ever made (circa 7000 – 10000 BCE). Some have one head, some have two. The significance of the two-headed ones is not known. I just love their expressions.

photo by Shannon O'Donnell
photo by Shannon O’Donnell

As I walked back down Citadel Hill, I remembered STACKS, a David Harper art installation, and perhaps a literary equivalent to the fingers of Hercules. Stacks is a homage to trees and to the environment, but it also reminds me that ‘of the making of many books there is no end’. The grass grows around the bookshelves, as it does around the fingers of Hercules.


Let’s live and love and write while we still can. And if the ‘breakout novel’ never comes, that’s okay! Hercules and Ozymandias can testify that breakout isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be anyway.

John Finnemore’s Three Little Pigs

john finnemore

Hooray! I’ve found a transcript of John Finnemore’s brilliant Three Little Pigs skit.

I’ve written before about the Rule of Three in storytelling, and Finnemore’s skit is a hilarious sidelong look at that rule.

So many good lines, but I really love this one:

REPORTER: Aren’t you afraid the apparent stability of the bricks makes them all the more at risk from a narrative twist?

THIRD PIG: …No. Are you afraid of that with your house?

7 tips for starting a writing session


I received a question this morning via the blog:

I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your thoughts prior to writing. I have had a difficult time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out. I truly do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or tips? Many thanks!

Great question. Starting off a writing session is not easy. Here are some thoughts off the top of my head.

1. Write until you write
If you are only losing the first 10 to 15 minutes, you’re doing well! The first lines (or even pages) you write in any one session will probably end up being deleted anyway, so don’t spend too much time trying to hone them! Just see those first words as a fluency exercise. Write until you write. Persevere and the good stuff will come. Many people (not just writers) find ‘morning pages’ a good discipline – writing a three page stream of consciousness every morning to process thoughts. Sites like 750 words can help you with this.

2. Gravity Boots
Dan Brown hangs upside-down from time to time. “Hanging upside down seems to help me solve plot challenges by shifting my entire perspective.” I’ve never tried gravity boots, but I do find that the weeks when I do some physical exercise tend to be better writing weeks.

3. Freedom
If, like me, procrastination is your enemy, invest in a little app called Freedom. It blocks your computer’s internet access entirely for the length of time you specify, forcing you to focus on the task at hand.

4. Coffee
I would never have completed NaNoWriMo in November without a mug or two of the beautiful bean. I drink instant coffee, but I have promised myself that when I write my breakthrough novel I’m graduating to the real thing.

5. Prayer
Not for everyone, of course, but if prayer forms part of your belief system, this is a good time for it. In fact, I probably should have put this above gravity boots. You talk about ‘centering yourself’. Different people will do this in different ways. I try to see the work of writing as a sacrament, not a burden. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human publishers masters.” (Colossians 3:23)

6. Don’t take yourself too seriously
“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” (Margaret Atwood) Be playful. Use words like imbroglio, flugelbinder and ratatouille. Let frogs rain from the sky. Don’t put pressure on yourself by imagining that everything needs to be perfect. And start sentences with And. Who’s going to stop you?

7. Rhetoric is your friend
I very much enjoyed The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth. It is a jolly (but incredibly useful) tour of the various rhetorical devices at the writer’s disposal. “In an age unhealthily obsessed with substance” he writes, “this is a book on the importance of pure style.” Hehe. Felicitous rhetoric releases endomorphins, of course, which (combined with caffeine) produce a pleasurable and focussed writing session.

Use these tips and before you know it you’ll have racked up four thousand words in three hours and wonder where the time went. Either that or you’ll be hanging upside-down, trying to remember how to extract yourself from those gravity boots.

Bon courage!

8 Terrible Reasons to be a Writer

Great blog post from James Cary over at Sitcom Geek, detailing 8 terrible reasons to be a writer. You want to make money, it sounds fun, you want to be famous, you want to meet famous people, you’re pretty sure you have a good idea for a movie or novel that would be successful, people have told you you’re funny, you have things to say, you write because you have to (also a bad reason, says James, but also the best!)

NaNoWriMo Day 28: Inspiration from TS Eliot

TS Eliot
TS Eliot, thinking about NaNoWriMo by the looks of it

Yesterday was terrible – a day of distraction, procrastination and plot problems.

Today was much better. 2544 good words in the bag, and some really enjoyable scenes. One scene made me cry – I know, I know, I’m overtired!

One of today’s highlights was an unexpected motivational email from a friend, quoting this wonderful poem by TS Eliot about the act of ‘trying to learn to use words’. Great inspiration for the final push towards a possible NaNoWriMo win.

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years —
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Sublime, isn’t it? And that last line ‘For us, there is only the trying’ – that’s going to be my #NaNoWriMo motto!

Current wordcount in this ill-advised Raid on the Inarticulate: 46,202!


NaNoWriMo Day Fourteen: why am I doing this?

My eyes are dry and bloodshot. Getting up at 3am every morning for a month is taking its toll. My wordcount is 26,059, which is about where I should be with half of the month gone and half remaining. But it’s taking longer than before. Instead of finishing my words by breakfast time, they hang over me all day. Writing white on white has gone out of the window, and the inner editor is back with a vengeance, mocking every sentence in its sardonic drawl. Whose idea was NaNoWriMo anyway?

NaNoWriMo Day Eight: focus mode

On target so far with NaNoWriMo
On target so far with NaNoWriMo

Yesterday I wrote about the pros and cons of writing white on white.

Today I have good news and bad news.

The good

There is a piece of word processing software which has most of the pros of white-on-white and none of the cons. iA Writer has a focus mode which dims all the words you have previously written, apart from the sentence you are currently working on. I would very much like to use this software for doing first drafts.

The bad

iA Writer is only available for Macs, iPads and other Apple gizmos. There are no plans to release a PC version. So I can’t use it.

In other news

My alarm failed to go off at 3am this morning (I must have disabled it last night by accident). However, my NaNoWriMo guilt instinct woke me at 3.20 and I was able to rack up 1,500 words by breakfast time. All in all, today was a very good writing day: 2,250 words. I wrote a lovely scene involving a potato cannon, which I suspect will survive more or less intact in the final version of the novel. That brings my NaNoWriMo wordcount to 13,800 – more than a quarter of the way there. Hooray, hooray, this is going better than I thought.

The weekend will be a challenge. I don’t write on Sundays, so the pressure is on to stack up a good pile of words on Saturday (tomorrow). I’d better double check that my alarm is set.

NaNoWriMo Day Seven: the minimalist dream of a white font on a white background

white font on white background

Joanne Harris once tweeted this #writetip: Change your font colour to white if you want to write more fluidly.

Brilliant tip, albeit with a few disadvantages!

On the one hand

  • You can get a lot of words written, because you’re not constantly going back to edit.
  • It’s very restful on the old mince pies because you can turn the screen brightness all the way down and can let your eyes go out of focus. If you can touchtype you can even close your eyes – so long as you’re not in danger of falling asleep!
  • A perfectly white page is very zen.

On the other hand

  • There are still potential distractions. The worst are the squiggly red and green lines produced by the background spelling and grammar check (turn them off). There’s also the toolbar across the top of the screen (hide it by using Full Screen Document View).
  • A totally blank screen is a tad boring – a waste of perfectly good pixels.
  • There is something reassuring about seeing the words you are writing. Not just reassuring, but beautiful as well. Words look good. Autumnal. Flugelbinder. Trapeze. Black on white has its uses.

On the other hand

  • You can get a lot of words written.

NaNoWriMo status update: I’m hanging in there – just – at 11,592 words.

NaNoWriMo Day Five – collateral damage

salt in timbuktu

Another early morning, another 2,149 notches on the NaNoblock. I didn’t wake up at first when the alarm went off at 3am, but my wife shook me awake. ‘I’ve been awake for hours,’ she said, ‘and I’d just got back to sleep when your phone went off.’

Novel Writing Collateral Damage (NaNoCoDa?) is a very real phenomenon.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say.

And I really am.

ZoFaDuBre – Zombie Face During Breakfast – is proving another problematic aspect of November. The urban dictionary defines book hangover as When you’ve finished a book and you suddenly return to the real world, but the real world feels incomplete or surreal because you’re still living in the world of the book.

If it’s true of reading, it’s even truer of writing. After four hours in Salafist-occupied Timbuktu every morning, it is difficult to concentrate at breakfast.

‘Is there salt in the porridge?’ asks my wife.

Salt. Hmm. Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, and silver from the country of the white men, but the treasures of wisdom are found in Timbuktu…

‘Did you add salt?’

If a blind man’s salt falls among stones, goes the Fulani proverb, he will lick everything he picks up.

‘Hello? Porridge?’

The Sufi saint Sidi Ahmed ben Amar was in debt to a local merchant, to the tune of three camel-loads of salt. One night in the year 1456 he began to pray earnestly that God would help him repay the debt, and as he prayed, slabs of salt began to fall from the sky. They fell so hard and fast throughout the night that they made a crater in the ground outside his house. You can see that crater in Timbuktu to this very day – the Crater of Takaboundou.

Bertie Wooster’s inimitable manservant Jeeves had an eye-poppingly effective hangover cure made from Worcester sauce, tabasco and raw egg. I wonder what he would whip up for the NaNoWriMo-induced book hangover.

NaNoWriMo Day Four

6004 words down, 43,996 to go. I’m a bit behind where I should be, but that’s because I’m taking Sundays off. Hoping to catch up during the week!

The early morning writing session is working well for me. I get up at 3am, have a cup of coffee with Benoit (our night guard) and then start work. This morning I had finished my 2000 words by 7am, just in time for breakfast with the family. It sounds unbearably smug, but I do love the stillness and silence of the early morning, interrupted only by the call to prayer from our local mosque at 5am. And since my new novel is set in Timbuktu, even the prayer call does not jolt me out of the zone. I’m thinking I may carry on the early-morning-writing thing even after NaNoWriMo is finished.

Don’t hold me to that.

The idea of doing most of the day’s writing before breakfast came from this book: daily Rituals: How Artists Work It’s a collection of anecdotes about famous artists (writers, musicians, painters) and their muses. Surprising how often caffeine and early mornings are mentioned!