We were on holiday when it happened.
I discovered I was a novelist. Here’s how it went down.
“You know,” my wife said, “the difference between us is that you’re a writer who does marketing for a living and I’m a marketeer who does writing for a living”.
If visual clichés appeal to you, then imagine a great, big, shining light bulb bursting into cordless life above my head.
If religiose language floats your boat (or ark) then let’s say I had an epiphany.
Either way, it seized me by the shoulders, gave me a good shake and shouted, “write something!” very loudly in my right ear.
When we got home, I sat on the sofa, grabbed a notebook and pencil and started writing what was to become my first novel.
Two hours later, I had covered around 30 pages in a frantic outpouring of a story whose origins I hardly knew.
I had to stop because my hand had cramped into a claw and the pencil was on fire.
At this point I switched to writing on my Mac. This was tedious as I had to begin by typing up the thousands of words I’d written longhand.
The hero of my story is Gabriel Wolfe. I conceived him as an all-action type.
Ex-SAS, skilled in martial arts, a gifted linguist and also possessed of arcane Oriental arts including yinshen fangshi, "the Way of Stealth”.
(I made up yinshen fangshi. Think Derren Brown meets Bruce Lee.)
But heroes must have flaws. That’s fiction 101.
So I afflicted Gabriel with PTSD.
He’s not an alcoholic, which is a decent standby. But his mental health problems give him nightmares, flashbacks and an occasionally unhealthy appetite for risk.
Then, we needed a villain.
Enter Sir Toby Maitland.
I didn’t want to write overtly topical thrillers so I decided that this blond-haired billionaire would want to become the British leader without bothering to secure a popular mandate.
A racist, he would have plans to pull up the drawbridge to further immigration. Who knew?
I didn’t really have a plan for the story. Instead I relied on two things. One, memories of the 1938 Errol Flynn film, The Adventures of Robin Hood. Two, my ability to rush onwards without stopping to think.
The latter ability has resulted dozens of times in my turning up in large cities without the faintest idea of the location for my meeting. But for a writer it has great benefits.
I don’t stop to judge as I write. That process is called editing and it comes later.
One of my favourite quotes about writing (and specifically about writing novels) comes from the wonderful Anne Lamott. She said, “Write shitty first drafts”.
I don’t think she means do that on purpose. Rather, that you shouldn’t worry whether or not your first draft is shitty, because that’s not the draft you’ll publish.
Like athletes, writers are perpetually anxious that what they’re doing isn’t good enough.
But instead of training harder, a great many of us either give up or continually delete what we’ve just done. In that sense we never have a personal best. Only, perhaps, a personal worst.
I followed Lamott’s advice. I ploughed on, not looking back, not often even looking up.
It meant that the first draft was full not only of egregiously bad ideas but also the most outlandish typos. But.
It also meant that a month after I had plunked myself down on that sofa, I had a first draft of roughly 100,000 words.
Then the hard work began.
I spent another month carving away at the text. Some characters were weak, others over-strong. Some scenes were in the wrong place, some didn’t belong at all.
I moved on to more delicate surgery at some point. I checked whether my descriptions of people were sufficiently interesting. That my colours were better than merely “blue”, “green” or “brown”.
I also rewrote the ending a handful of times, striving for something as dramatic as Robin Hood’s final confrontation (in shadow) with the Sheriff of Nottingham on the steps of his castle.
Was I pleased with the final result? Yes. Am I still? Well, it’s not bad for a first novel, but in the seven I have written since, I have developed and honed my craft over another 850,000 words.
And what of copywriting?
I think, for years, I had been guilty of a convert’s zeal for all things Plain English. It’s not a bad start for a piece of copy, but it can be incredibly restrictive.
If you’re writing instructions to airline passengers for leaving a plane in an emergency, speaking in the first person as if the plane were a cute little “Jimbo Jet” is a no-no.
But suppose you’re promoting a conference on neuroscience to people with brains the size of planets? And you want a poster for the eve-of-conference, punk rock-themed cocktail party?
I think a headline reading GABBA GABBA HEY! might be just the job.
Copywriters are still writers. That means when we are writing copy we should at the very least consider dipping our bucket into the horizonless lake of 'English' rather than the shallow village pond of 'Plain English'.
Then there is storytelling.
Much in vogue just now among branding agencies, it doesn’t have a great deal to do with the origins myths of lipsticks or apple juice.
But as a primal source of pleasure that we humans are powerless to resist, it is both enjoyable to write and enjoyable to listen to.
That makes it a very powerful weapon in our battle for eyeballs and sales.
How about description? A copywriter who describes a product as 'exciting', 'innovative' or 'unmissable' hasn’t even begun to do their job properly.
The question is HOW is it any of those things?
To understand what it feels like to fire an assault rifle I flew to Canada and booked time on a gun range. (OK, it was part of a family holiday.)
I have smelled that distinctive aroma of a firefight, composed of equal parts burnt propellant (gunpowder) and hot brass.
I have felt the recoil of a .44 Magnum.
I have seen the hole a twelve-gauge shotgun slug makes.
I have heard the report of a Soviet battle rifle.
And I have tasted gun oil on my fingers.
I have done my research, in other words. And it adds verisimilitude to my novels. With detailed knowledge, we have no need of superlatives, clichés or vague adjectives.
In their place we have concrete nouns and verbs.
As an example, the Smith & Wesson Model 629 revolver that fired the .44 Magnum rounds didn’t 'kick like a mule'.
I suspect very few people nowadays, unless they work on a hardscrabble farm in the Midwest, have ever been kicked by a mule. Or even seen one.
So what the words 'kick like a mule' conjure up isn’t a physical experience, but merely a memory of reading them in another book.
I realised that I had become too reliant on formulae in my copywriting. It was effective, yes, but I began to wonder, could it be better?
And I decided the answer was, yes, it could.
With one major proviso.
That’s right. We’re back to square one.
Try anything. Try everything! Use exclamation marks. Use dialogue instead of flat testimonials. Describe the sensory experience of using your product.
But measure what happens.
The article over, the author pushed back from his desk and rolled his neck to ease out the kinks.
He stood, wincing at the pins and needles in his right leg. Then, like a dog, he lifted his head and sniffed the air. Someone was making coffee.
“Is there any for me?” he called out.