Author Spotlight - Pierre Hollins
WRITING A NOVEL CAN SEEM LIKE A FORM OF MENTAL ILLNESS
I’m not sure who will be reading this, so I don’t know who to pitch it to. But if you’re an unpublished novelist then my advice is to keep going. Don’t compare yourself to others; don’t be downhearted by other people’s achievements, don’t allow yourself to be ground down by rejection. This journey you’re on is solely between you and the page. Allow yourself to be inspired by other people’s success; and remember, there isn’t a finite number of published authors. The list is growing all the time, and the factors that will contribute to your potential success are persistence, luck, and talent; plus an endless capacity to produce copious re-writes.
The main reason most unpublished novels remain unpublished is down to the author. It’s all too easy to blame the publishing business and other external factors. We all have extenuating circumstances that could prevent us from reaching our goal. But if you think your writing life is difficult, please… take a time-out from your own problems, and reflect on the situation that journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby found himself in, back in 1997. You might know this story, but it’s worth a revisit.
After a massive stroke that precipitated a 20-day coma, this poor man ‘woke up’ to an almost total paralysis. Yet he was driven to write a book about his condition, but could only achieve this by a process called partner assisted scanning. His movement had been (quite literally) limited to the blink of an eye, and in order to communicate, his transcriber would speak aloud the letters of a frequency ordered alphabet and wait for him to blink at the correct letter. Each word of his manuscript took about two minutes to write. He died two days after the resulting book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was published. Officially, he died of pneumonia; but I’m certain he died from complete exhaustion, plus the relief of finally seeing his work in print.
Now, god forbid anyone else should have this kind of luck. But can any of us really complain about the difficulty of getting their novel written? Sure, the hard-core cynics will argue that Bauby’s condition was in some way an advantage. Before his tragedy, he’d been the editor-in-chief of the French Elle magazine, giving him great contacts in the publishing industry; plus he had this breath-taking backstory: he wrote an entire book with his eyelid! It’s a PR person’s dream.
We love a triumph-over-adversity story; an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation story. But most budding authors don’t have this kind of autobiographical gold to work with. Most of us just have a narrative idea that has somehow infected our thoughts; an idea that won’t let go, like a type of illness. Even if we can put it aside for a time, even if we take a necessary break to gain a sense of objectivity, the idea will return like a virus – and that’s when you know: you won’t be cured until it’s down on paper in the best possible form. The only thing you can do is give in to it, organise your time, and get it done.
A couple of years ago when I was sweating over a particularly lengthy re-write, a close friend accused me of being obsessed. Somehow the effort I was putting into this unpublished manuscript made him angry. In the end, I took the criticism as a compliment, because how else are you going to get the work done?
If you’ve been bitten by a story-virus, the only lasting cure is to get the idea down in hard copy. And no matter how difficult you find the writing and the editing, this is the fun part. There’s all manner of drudgery to follow in terms of selling and marketing the damn thing.
I have a film-director friend who classifies the post post-production of his films, the marketing, publicity and media circus, as paying tax. In order to continue his dream job, he has to pay this drudge tax. Same with being an author: embrace the word-fun while it lasts.
My first novel was published in August last year, and I don’t think I was happy so much as relieved. I finally felt absolved of the need to re-write or edit, because I now had a definitive paperback version in my hands. (Although saying that, there was an unexpected post-publishing malaise, as I wondered if the book could have been written differently to make it easier to market; but I endeavoured to be rational and began making notes for the sequel.)
If you’re still reading this, I’d like to leave you with a final piece of advice.
Ok… it’s not really advice, but it might help if you’ve caught the writing disease. It’s something I heard during a lecture on story structure by the writing guru Robert McKee. I’m paraphrasing, but at one point he said something like, writing a novel is the most difficult thing you will ever do, but everything else is more difficult.
It’s like a Zen puzzle. I mull it over from time to time, and it gives me a curious brand of courage because it’s utterly correct. Finishing your manuscript will be the hardest work you ever do - because you won’t stop re-writing it until it’s perfect. You won’t be cured until it’s been wrestled it into a publishable form. And yet every other work-thing you attempt will be more difficult, because every other work-thing is a distraction to finishing your manuscript.
Sometimes there’s no choice but to accept the obsession, to get it done; to look forward to the thrill of holding a copy in your hands. The confidence you gain from the effort will set you up for the next one.
THE KARMA FARMERS (a dark, cinematic adventure of love, murder and quantum theory) is published by Unbound, and available from Amazon as an e-book or paperback.