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A Novel Journey

September 10, 2013

Lego-Book-and-Pencil-1This month’s post comes from my good friend and business partner, the soon-to-be-famous author Mark Winkler. Very few things in life that are truly worthwhile or defining, come easily. Self-belief, perseverance and determination are usually the key attributes that help “talent” get across the lines. Mark generously shares his writing journey for us.

How to Write a Novel in a Hundred Days

Before I sat down at my laptop on 31 December 2010 and started writing what would eventually become my first novel, the longest thing I’d had published was probably an Old Mutual print ad I’d written a decade or so earlier.

(That was when we still wrote long-copy ads, and believed that people read them.)

Everyone has a novel in them, it’s said.

It’s true, of course: we all have a story we’d like to tell – but the difficulty lies in getting it out. Not even if your name is Hemingway or Rowling are you going to sit at the keyboard and simply channel your inner wombat, fingers flying over the keys as perfectly coherent and strikingly original prose appears on the screen.

There are a number of reasons for this.

The first is that you aren’t a writer because you want to be, you write because you can’t help yourself. This is also the strongest indication of ability, because of course you’ll need a bit of that. Having MS Word on your computer (even with spell-check enabled) does not a writer make, any more than having Photoshop or MS Paint makes a designer or an art director.

There’s the planning. You wouldn’t start building a house by digging random foundations and slapping up walls in the blind belief that something worthwhile will result. You plan it first. So once you’ve had an idea, plan it from start to finish, right down to how each chapter will work. This will be your framework, and it’s also a great test of your idea – you’ll know soon enough if it is a novel-length story, or if it should just be a post-card to Aunt Mary.

Planning also helps when you’re at your lowest – and trust me, there are a lot of lows on the way. I don’t think I would have finished a first draft of the manuscript if I hadn’t done a few Argus Cycle Tours and Two Oceans Half-marathons. I detested running Oceans, all three times, but I knew the route. And knowing the route meant that no matter how miserable I was, simply putting one foot in front of the other would get me to the end sooner or later. (In my case, it was later, every time.) Once you have the route of your story mapped out, it’s so much easier to get to the end.

Then there’s discipline. Advertising is so much more than a daytime job, and my biggest challenge was to find the time to write. So there were coffee shops after work. Airport lounges. Guilty lunch hours spent in empty restaurants. Lapsed gym contracts. Cobwebs on my bicycle. And weekends spent ignoring the family.

Many serious writers try for 1,000 words a day. It’s not that much – around four A4 pages – but it can be pretty daunting after a long day’s work. Do your 1,000 words a day for a hundred days on the trot, and you’ll have 100,000 words down. Even better, do it for seventy days and spend a month rewriting.

That’s when the fun bit ends, more or less. Because then you have to find a publisher. In South Africa, the bigger publishers receive about 1,500 unsolicited fiction manuscripts every year. The mid-sized players receive around 500. On average, between one and two percent will be accepted for publication.

After eighteen rejections (which took nine months to accumulate), I was considering the slippery and expensive slope of self-publishing when I got a phone call from one of the publishing houses. The publisher had been nosing around the “slush-pile” (which is apparently a mound of rejected manuscripts that gather dust on a rickety table in a dark office) when she happened to pick up mine. It had some merit, she thought, but a third of it would have to be binned, and the last quarter of what remained rewritten. Would I be interested in revising?

Of course I would. I’d spent years and years dealing with change requests on ads for everything from cars to tampons – why would I want to get all precious now? Three rewrites later, the manuscript went off to the editor – and then the really hard work began.

Editing, according to Margaret Atwood, is like being thrown face-first into a thresher (I don’t know why she underplays the experience so much).

Once your editor has dragged you kicking and screaming through your very own blood, sweat and tears, you’ll be lucky to be left with sixty or seventy percent of your work. Do hope that it’s more than 50,000 words – anything less is regarded as a “novella”. And remember to thank your editor afterwards. It’s not an easy for them either, and the end product will be infinitely better than the original.

What does all of this have to do with advertising? Nothing, and quite a lot.

Nothing, because you can make a decent living in the ad industry while enjoying what you do, while you’re going to struggle to pay the bills with your writing.

You can write an ad and see it in the media within a month or so, where it took from December 2010 until May 2013 for my book to see the inside of a book store.

Best of all, you don’t have to convince friends and family that the characters in your radio spot aren’t based on them.

And it’s got quite a lot to do with advertising, because nothing quite sharpens your copywriting and editing craft like the very personal effort that goes into writing something that, first and foremost, you’ve written for yourself.

Mark Winkler is a Creative Director at M&C Saatchi Abel. His first novel, An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Absolutely Everything, was published in May.

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