(Writing a Novel Harnessing the Power of) Naivety
Chris Walklett is an educator, historian, ELT teacher/teacher trainer and author of the Teaching Tracks series of books, highlighting the possibilities afforded by songs in the classroom. During lockdown, he wrote his first novel Trip ’89, under the nom de plume of Chris Foster Tolley. Loosely autobiographical, it looks at; life, love, politics, adventure, music & friendship through the lens of the late 1980s. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The ELT world is not hugely overendowed with published novelists. This is perhaps somewhat surprising given how many talented writers there are in the industry. This is not to say however that there haven’t been any successes – JJ Wilson’s Damnifocados made Oprah’s top ten books list and more recently ELT legend Ken Wilson released his debut novel, a PG Wodehouse-esque tale entitled The Duke’s Portrait. Perhaps the logical conclusion to take from all this is that the key to being a successful ELT coursebook writer, turned novelist, is to bear that surname. As a non-Wilson then I might struggle, although I suppose, there’s always the option of adopting a Wilson-based nom-de-plume. Hmm, I’ll have to think about that one.
I can’t do that…
Writing a novel is one of those things that I was sure I would never be able to do. Looking at things somewhat more objectively though I’m the kind of person, in theory at least, that is capable of writing a novel – being a literature graduate and an enthusiastic reader, even if most of my reading seems to take in the bath or on the pan. In addition, as a coursebook writer, I am used to the slog i.e., the editing and the constant re-writes that producing a novel might well entail. In addition, I am someone who likes a challenge. And yet, I’d long thought that I’d never have the ‘big idea’ and other factors that I was convinced were necessary in order to start and complete a novel. And yet here I am writing this. So, what happened? What follows is to explain.
…or can I?
Thinking back, it occurs to me that two things happened that changed all this. Firstly, the C word, which of course changed many people’s worlds – mine very much included. I can’t in all honesty say the pandemic and the resultant lockdown meant I was bored – there are always things to do, but what I had to do changed in nature. Conferences (of the face-to-face variety at least) were suddenly a thing of the past, as was face-to-face examining, with all ‘tours’ being called off. This meant that spring and summer, which for me used to be dominated by travel, were now travel free, leaving a little more thinking time than I’d previously been used to.
Secondly, due perhaps to an excess of free time, I’d offered to beta-read two friends’ manuscripts. Doing so made me think two things, the first – wow they are much cleverer than me – wasn’t very helpful, but the second was more so, giving me as it did, the faintest suggestion that despite what I’d always told myself, writing a novel might actually be something that I was capable of.
The power (and illusion) of endorphins
One morning while all this was going on, I went for a run. I am getting much too old to run properly nowadays, but one productive thing that does occasionally happen when I go on these walk-like runs is that I get flooded with ideas. So flooded was I one morning that I would’ve needed to have taken my phone with me to record the various ideas I’d had. But running with a phone on me is not something that I’ve got in the habit of doing, meaning that by the time I got back and found something to scribble ideas down on, there was only one I could recall. This idea ran along the following lines – in a post-pandemic, dystopian future, society had broken down with people living in animal-like tribes. For some reason I’d decided that this should be set in Southend. Nah, I thought when I’d come down from the post-running endorphin overdose, that’s a silly idea. And besides what exactly did I know about post-pandemic dystopia? At this present moment in time at least!
And so, if the subject of the breakdown of post-pandemic society was not for me, what exactly could I write about? Write about what you know, is what they say, isn’t it. Thus, I went searching back into my memory banks – had I done something that was worth writing about? Perhaps I could write about, a place and some interesting events then include some real-life characters, then try and embellish it. Piece of cake! As well as being an ELT person, I am very into music and youth culture and also an historian who’s passionate about politics. So, I found a metaphorical pot, put all this in, heated it up and started stirring and before too long something, later to be called Trip ’89, emerged in at least a semi-formed state. But deciding on what the story should be about was really just the beginning of the story!
What about that trip?
I came to the decision to write about a time, many moons ago when I bought a camper and went off on a trip and ended up spending months on end living in it – having an adventure or two on route. It occurred to me that I could loosely rely on events from that experience to write a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age type story written in first-person narrative. I was actually 22 at the time, which although perhaps a tad old for that type of tale still kind of fitted. Bit by bit ideas emerged and I ended up thinking, why not write about the whole year? By doing this, and by changing aspects of the main character so it was no longer me, but a character like me, I was able to free things up somewhat and not be restricted by the idea of having to tell the whole truth and nothing but!
The trip in question took place in 1989, which although now a third of a century ago is still well known for being quite some year – not just for me but also for the world generally, and particularly perhaps in the UK and Europe. Thus, the idea emerged of contrasting the goings on and changes of the times with the inner concerns of the narrator during this period.
The two things that I could never do!
As regards my belief that I would never be able to write a novel there were two things in particular that I’d convinced myself that I wouldn’t be able to do –making the word limit and having the ‘big idea’. With regards to the first, word limits for novels are generally agreed to be somewhere between 70,000 and 120,000. All previous writing I’d done such as academic papers, articles, short stories and even my three-hundred-page tome of a course book had contained far fewer than that – perhaps this amount was even more than I’d written and released put together. The second was in relation to the ‘big idea’, if not my silly dystopian novel idea set in Southend, what could I think up that hadn’t already been done?
A bit of a character
Characters are of course an extremely important part of your tale. It occurred to me not unnaturally that if I wrote something loosely based on my experiences then shouldn’t I also then base at least some of the characters on people I’d known. Changes to names could be subtle – a Rick could become Nick, a Donna, a Danni, that kind of thing. A little way into writing the novel however, I found that I began to call the real people I’d known in the past by their new names. On reflection this as clearly a good thing – for it was at that point at which they become creations not representations, they now had their own identities and were thus free from the restrictions of the real.
Spoiler alert – I surprised myself somewhat ending up with eighty characters in the novel some based on those from my past and others not. Of those, I gave almost fifty speaking parts. No mean feat, I reckon.
The power of naivety
You know the way it is when you first do something – looking back you realise that it was all passion and naivety that got you through. This means that these two things are clearly essential ingredients when getting stuck into a project. We have to ask ourselves whether we would we end up doing all the things we did if we knew what was to come. And so, full of passion and even more importantly the X-factor of naivety, I made a start on a project which completely unbeknown to naïve little me would end up taking the best part of two years. Who in their right mind would want to spend so long writing a semi-autobiographical novel knowing in advance how long it would take?
What to do, and in what order?
What to do and in what order, is something that you have to sort out with any task you commence. This was especially true for me with regards to writing a novel as I had literally no idea where to start – to be honest there’s not a whole load of advice out there so you’re feeling your way, making it up as you go along. Thinking back, I recall writing isolated bits first – incidents that had happened to me which I felt were funny, unusual, shocking, or of the time. When comforted by those around me that these were interesting, I ramped things up until it resembled a kind of academic version of a beaver building a dam maybe.
Next, I felt a framework needed to be given to the work and that writing a prologue and possibly an epilogue too, could be important steps in doing that. The epilogue ultimately turned into the novel’s ending, but the prologue developed and ended up serving two purposes. The first was introducing readers to the times (or I suppose in the case of older readers who were there, refamiliarizing them), it was also a way of introducing the main character to the reader, who by this time had acquired the rather unusual name of Cea (pronounced like the letter C)
Perhaps like in life generally, writing involves having to navigate certain moral dilemmas. As I was early twenties at the time I was writing about, hence theoretically as The Tams put it, young, foolish and happy, there was likely to be a certain amount of X rated (currently known as Cert 18) stuff. The question then was how much of this to include. I pretty soon realised that once again the trick was to divorce myself from the character. The character needs to be free to do more or less what they want, albeit to gain favour with the reader they presumably have to have some kind of moral compass, and also as the writer you have to be comfortable with the ‘monster’ you have created.
Of course, 1989 is not 2022 and, as L.P Hartley said in The Go-Between, “the past is a foreign country they do things differently there” – meaning that the past needs to be understood as it was, and the tale needs to be authentic to the year in which it is set. However, the novel still has to be read in the Twenty-Twenties (and hopefully beyond) meaning that getting this right might be more complicated than it at first appeared.
In the end I reconciled all this and started to revel in it, even being proud of my butchering of one of Ian Dury’s famous songs, producing a shockingly un-British boastful tag line for the novel of ‘sex and drugs…and campervans…Trip ’89 is very good indeed’. Looking back, I realised there was a reasonable amount of the first, quite a thorough exploration (both real and theoretical) of the second, and simply lashings of the, rather less contentious, third.
Whadda ya know, that there ‘Interweb’ is quite handy after all!
It wasn’t long before what could (very loosely) be called ‘research’ was needed. It was easy to locate a 1989 calendar on the net and I started plotting things on it that’d happened that year whilst also inserting things the character had or might’ve done, thus putting together a kind of road map for the direction being travelled in. Given the theme of this novel this was likely to both real and metaphorical.
The internet is a pretty useful tool that’s for sure, but it can suck you in. Whilst trying to immerse myself in 1989 I found myself, like Alice before me, pulled down into the rabbit hole – I started finding the craziest things; pictures of people I knew, pictures of my campervan at festivals and then, later on, video footage of me too. All extremely odd – although I guess if you were there, then you were there, but it did make me realise how long ago a third of a century really was. However, I needed to keep soaking up the past as I wanted the reader to feel that this was something written at the time or shortly afterwards, not something written over three decades later. For, as I always tell my history students, avoid looking at historical events with “all-knowing, Twenty-First Century eyes” (Walklett)
The internet also offered the chance to find people from the past. Friends Reunited would have been handy but that’s now long gone – I must admit to being surprised that someone hadn’t created something similar for all the Baby Boomers, Generation Xers and even the Millennials out there reminiscing about their pasts, especially given how bored everyone was during lockdown. Facebook was the most useful as well as, to be honest, the only social media site I even (semi) understand. Some of my old friends and acquaintances were there, occasionally with pictures from their past, and even more intriguingly, comments about their past. I’m not sure if I used any of the results of my cyber-stalking for anything more than inspiration though, but as part and parcel of the process of getting stuck into and soaking it all up, it was, I believe, invaluable.
Soaking it all up (the times, culture, politics & music, that is)
I remember reading recently about a guy that dresses himself, decorates his house, and generally lives his life, as if it were the nineteen nineties. I realised, as far as writing a novel at least is concerned, soaking yourself in the times, culture and music of the time was the way to go. As I ended up writing for inclusion in the novel: “for people of my age, music was like oxygen – it simply allowed us to breathe. It was all around us – the soundtrack to every day of our lives. It made us who we were, and, we believed, it had the power to make us who we wanted to be” (Foster Tolley). The most important and practical of these immersion techniques was to listen to the music of the period, and also, given that acid house raves were huge then, watching videos of raving from this time too.
There was such a diverse amount of music to soak yourself in at this point in history, it was simply incomparable. Not the mainstream, that was very poor, dominated as it was by Jive Bunny (if you don’t know, don’t I implore you, look it up on YouTube) and Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s Hit Factory – which in the novel the narrator Cea christens the ‘(S)Hit Factory’ (Foster Tolley). There was so much going on in music aside from the most mainstream of mainstream at that time, indeed there were masses of great LPs released that year, Kate Bush – The Sensual World, Soul II Soul – Club Classics Volume 1, Tears for Fears – Sowing the Seeds of Love, De La Soul – Three Feet High and Rising, The Cure – Disintegration, The Pixies – Doolittle, The Blue Nile – Hats and 808 State’s - 90, to name but a few.
These were Indeed, diverse times, but what topped the charts was rarely what the kids actually listened to, for that was mostly hip hop and rave music. Hip hop was so diverse at this point in history; Public Enemy on the US east coast, NWA on the west, whilst acts like Del La Soul provided a counter measure to the more misogynistic end of the genre. Then there was the plethora of house of various different types from countries like the UK, Belgium and Spain and from US cities like Chicago and Detroit and also a bringing together of these two genres, which hardly surprisingly was portmanteaued as hip house. I wanted to ensure that the music of the time soaked thorough the novel – with characters listening to and sometimes singing along to or talking about these tracks on their car stereos or playing them at parties or dancing to them in clubs and at festivals or raves.
Similarly, I also emersed myself in the politics of the time. How could one not! Politically in the UK the eighties had been a harrowing time which I christened “the them and us decade” (Walklett) as the decade neared its conclusion, change was imminent and the politics and events of the time including Hillsborough & the Poll Tax in Britain, Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall in the outside world are concerns or interests for the characters. The question in my novel was whether I could link the events and change to the goings on in the protagonist’s life as well as the lives of other characters within the novel. And, if so, how?
A time and a place
Virginia Woolf needed a room of her own, Kerouac spurred on by Benzedrine had his head down and wrote for nights on end, and Roald Dahl had his shed with a blanket to keep his knees warm. You might need none, some or all of these, but regardless, what you will need to do is to find out works for you. For most it will be some place where you won’t be disturbed. Then you have to consider whether you work better (or worse) with music playing (and if so what type) or prefer silence, or even, as was the case with my late father, with the TV blaring in the background. Different strokes for different folks and all that.
Once you have found your ideal environment, if you’re anything like me you will need to find a time to do it and have some kind of schedule as well as some sense of urgency, but I realise that perhaps more in this area than any other, everyone is different. And even when you find the where and when, it might well still end up taking you years!
The final, final, final draft (fingers crossed)
Once you have managed to exceed the notional minimum of seventy thousand words, things will go the opposite direction and you will realise you’ve written too much and this, as well as feedback from early readers of your work, will start the first in the, seemingly innumerable, stages of redrafting.
Ernest Hemingway famous asserted that “the first draft of everything is shit”, and if you haven’t already found that out, if you ever write a draft of a novel, you will and soon. Draft upon redraft will follow until you will start to question the actual meaning of the word ‘final’ or whether the concept of a final draft is an urban myth some kind.
At this stage, patience and a little bit of philosophical thinking are required, you will have to redefine the meaning of a process being at its end – be aware that, as always, naivety will help. However, there is no doubt than editing and revising will drive you round the bend, you might for example come to the conclusion that the number of different ways of saying something, is actually incalculable.
Emotions, extremes…and the finish line.
At a certain stage of readiness, you will start to consider getting others to read your manuscript – ‘beta readers’ as they are known in the trade. It might be an idea to embrace the thoughts of Scott Pack, author of Tips from a Publisher. Scott puts forward the idea that your beta reader should not be anyone that you are sleeping with, or indeed anyone you’ve ever slept with. The inference being their opinions are unlikely to be moderate and thus that they will suggest that your work is either genius or utter shite, when in reality it’s highly unlikely to be either of these.
If you’re anything like me incidentally, you will move between these two extremist positions yourself when thinking about your novel, one minute thinking it’s a sure-fire bestseller, the next wondering why you have wasted so much of your life on such a futile venture. But to paraphrase the character of Surge from Trip ’89 paraphrasing the racist, but still pretty philosophical, Rudyard Kipling, we should treat both these imposters similarly, as clearly neither is the full truth.
One day when you’re least expecting it, a sense of relief, satisfaction and pride will come over you upon the realisation that your work is complete…or as good as. Unless you send it to a professional like Mr Pack for a structural edit, that is, which may well end up leading you in an entirely new direction, possibly even a rewrite which will seriously test your sanity as well as your wallet. However, eventually one way or another, the end will descend upon you which means it’s time for a lie-down, you deserve it, rest up – and prepare, prepare for the real work which is about to begin!
Closing thoughts (and after-thoughts)
A close friend, who is a keen and talented writer, recently said that hearing my exploits, trials and tribulations in writing this novel had, more than anything else, put them off ever writing anything. Indeed, they would be in good company, for Roald Dahl said, “a person is a fool to become a writer” before adding in order to clarify, “his only compensation is absolute freedom, he has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.” I would like to offer these thoughts to my friend in lieu of an explanation.
As was the case with my close friend, it is highly likely that this article might have had a negative effect on you, the reader – effectively talking you out of it – but this is the last thing I would’ve wanted. I actually wouldn’t change anything that’s happened for anything and thinking back I struggle to think what I would’ve done more worthwhile with my spare time, especially during the darker months of lockdown and the pandemic, there being after all only so many times Netflix series you can watch or how many walks you can go on.
I would like to thank you for reading this, but I was also like urge you to forget everything that you’ve read. It would be best if you wipe your memory clean and in doing so fill yourself with passion for your project and like I did experience the magic of naivety.
Throughout this somewhat rambling narrative, I’ve attempted to explain what I went through when writing my first novel. Yes, that’s right, first – as in so addictive has it become that I’m working on another. In case you’re wondering in relation to this one, there have been no firm offers to date. Even if, as some have suggested is the most likely scenario, no one takes it on, I will not be considering this a failure as really, at the end of the day, it’s someone’s opinion. An opinion that will often be taken bearing in mind financial considerations which, in the current climate, may lead to all novels that aren’t tales written by celebrities or unputdownables with the twistiest of twisty endings receiving a big fat ‘no’ from both publishers and agents alike.
I guess when all’s done and dusted there’s always self-publishing. Maybe it’s time to find out about how all that works. I’ll keep you posted…
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