Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Week 1, Day 6.
You know the obvious way to write a novel is to make a rough plan of how you want the story to go, then start with the first sentence: ‘Tim Clare caught the ninja star mid-flight an inch from his jugular and flung it back at the furious chef.’ Then you keep putting one sentence after the other until you reach the last one: ‘“No thanks,” he said, lighting his cigarette off a charred table leg as in the distance the lobster restaurant burned, “I’ve had all I can eat.”’ THE END.
And some novels have been written like that. Get written like that. It’s not wrong. You won’t ever finish a novel and then this red light comes on and a klaxon blares and you discover you’ve been disqualified for using an illegal technique. Unless you keep Neil Gaiman handcuffed to a radiator in your basement and force him to write it for you. That is, very much, illegal. So I discovered.
But there are more and less effective strategies. There are ones with significant costs, ones that maybe make your life harder than it needs to be. Ones with less chance of success than others. That’s the point where we can start having a conversation. Because going ‘oh there’s no wrong way to write’ sounds egalitarian but it’s just dodging the question.
If I was bleeding out from a gunshot wound and I asked you ‘please, what’s the way to the nearest A&E’ and you went ‘look, the main thing is don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong, whatever way you want to get there, that’s up to you’, that’s not helpful. I don’t feel liberated by your evenhanded willingness to countenance multiple points of view. Just give me your opinion and trust that I’m not so gormlessly in awe that I can apply critical judgement.
It’s not hard, is it? Like if we were at a café and I asked you what sandwiches you’d recommend you wouldn’t go ‘ooh, well you’ll get a lot of advice saying cheese this and avocado on rye that but the main thing is you need to remember this is your sandwich and you’ve just got to enjoy it how you want’. I’m not stupid. We’re not reopening the canon of holy scripture here I won’t build my whole life around your answer I’m just asking for a data point.
What it means is it’s often hard to pin down authors on anything because they’d rather drop the smoke bomb of equivocal chunter and vanish than risk sounding disagreeable. Well. I think that’s silly. And unhelpful. I don’t mind being wrong, as long as I’m clear about what I’m wrong about. If that makes sense.
So sometimes, throughout this course, I’m going to say things like ‘don’t do this’ or ‘you should always do it this way’ or ‘this is wrong’ and blunt statements like that. I trust that you’re intelligent enough that you can see I’m just one man and you won’t let my conclusions completely bypass your critical thinking. I’m learning all the time, you’re learning, hopefully, but if I preface every assertion with qualifiers and subclauses we’ll be here all day. It’s just less faff to state stuff as absolutes. Ok?
So what if, because we’re mavericks, because we’re absolutely out of control like hog wild maniacs, we come at novel writing from completely the wrong angle. What if, instead of coming up with ideas, or characters or settings, we start with the title? Or, dare I say it, multiple titles.
Now you know how novel titles work, sometimes they’re just a single word: Disgrace, sometimes they’re ‘The Something’, The Road, The Honours, The DaVinci Code, The Dispossessed, sometimes they’re a fragment of a poem, quotation or lyric: Of Mice and Men, Last Argument of Kings, Things Fall Apart. There’s that other format that’s become popular again recently: The Something Something of Someone – you know, The 36 Miraculous Pigeons of Trevor Snodgrass. That’s not a real one, I made it up. A title might use alliteration. Often the title gives a clue to genre: commercial Fantasy tends to have the words king, blade, mage, blood, throne, sword, war or dragon somewhere in it.
You really don’t have to know anything about what the novels in your list might be about. Just make them up. And you needn’t slavishly parody existing tropes. Go wild. Create some that sound like modernist poetry. Slam words together. Boogle 99. What might that be about? Oliver’s Dog. An Existentialist Draws A Bath. The Mental Health Questionnaire. Just have a go. Please do create some bad ones. A range of tones is good.
But no need to make them all jokey either. The danger when I do this exercise in workshops is people get the urge to lean into quips because when you read out they’re what get the response. But I encourage you to explore all sorts of ways of generating a title. This is a completely risk assessed zero g dojo where you can experiment with all sorts of styles to see what effects you can create. So the more variety you go for, the greater the benefits to your voice.
Right. Ten minutes, as many imaginary novel titles as you can. Ready?
And that’s it. We’re done.
You did super great. I’m proud of you. I just want you to park these for now. By all means have a flick back through them, a cheeky peruse. One or two might strike you as particularly effective. Some might be obviously derivative, or very exaggerated parody titles. That’s cool too. I think parody and satire can be really effective ways of exploring voices or easing yourself into writing with the excuse that you can always say well look, I wasn’t being serious. This is obviously just a joke.
If you need to do that, that’s fine. Later in the course, there definitely will be some bits, some exercises where tonally I’m asking you to go to some more earnest and vulnerable places, but to be clear, I’m not saying that the only good, legitimate writing is handwringing and emotive. Jokes and silliness are awesome too and as soon as you exclude particular styles from your idea of what’s proper, you’re hamstringing yourself and discarding valuable tools you might need later on.
Right. You’ve done so well. Go treat yourself to a lovely cup of tea. I’m ridiculously proud of you, and I’ll catch you again tomorrow.