By BRUCE DENNILL
The Cape Raider by Justin Fox is a sweeping historical adventure, the tale of a broken hero who has to find himself despite the trauma of war, a domineering father and the death of his mother during the Blitz. He must adapt to a new country, a new navy and new love, and finally he must come face to face with the Nazi raider in a fight to the death in the icy seas off the southernmost tip of Africa.
How do you know when an idea is worthy of developing into a book? With songs or other shorter formats, you can get to a point of knowing if something will work relatively soon, but getting several thousand words into a manuscript and then deciding it’s a waste of time is far more frustrating.
I try not to start writing until I have a fairly good feeling about where the narrative is going. There is a lot of pondering, plotting and research before any writing takes place. Early in my career, I abandoned quite a number of books, which sit in drawers gathering dust and will never see the light of day. I can’t face the disappointment of that anymore, so I make sure early on that all the pieces are in place before I begin writing.
When you do decide that a theme or story is worth exploring, how do you go about unpacking that?
I’ll start with a basic plotline and figure out what I want my characters to achieve and how. Then comes a fairly detailed structure, deciding how the narrative will unfold in each chapter.
Research: how much do you do, and how detailed is it?
Given that most of my writing at the moment is historical fiction, the research needs to be detailed. For The Cape Raider, I spent time in the British National Archives at Kew and the British Library in London – both of them treasure troves of war material, especially ships’ logbooks. Back in South Africa, I made use of the University of Cape Town library, the Simon’s Town Museum archive, the archives of the Simon’s Town Naval History Museum and those of Snoekie Shellhole, attached to the Simon’s Town Museum, especially their meticulously recorded personal accounts of those who served at sea during World War II. I also enlisted the help of Rear Admiral Chris Bennett (retired), who gave invaluable advice and was the ideal fact checker. The research for this novel took nearly three years.
How much planning do you do before beginning in earnest? Do you have to know where you’re going to end up before you start?
Yes. There are some authors who wing it and let the characters take them in whatever direction they choose. They often head down dead-end paths and have to delete whole chapters. I can’t work like that and it would mortify me to follow a long narrative journey that has to be cut. So there is careful planning and I generally know exactly what will happen at the end of the novel so that all the writing is going in the right sort of direction.
If the hundreds of memes about writing are to be believed, sitting down and actually putting words on a page is perhaps the toughest part of the job. What are the distractions you battle with the most when trying to work?
I do find writing incredibly hard and am prone to getting distracted. The most obvious cop-out is to click through to social media pages, email or news feeds. Long coffee breaks, music, the television … they’re all useful tools to prevent the work getting done.
What’s the weirdest or craziest way you’ve found to avoid meeting a deadline?
It’s not particularly weird or crazy, but my best avoidance mechanism is to go surfing or windsurfing. Perhaps unfortunately, my writing desk overlooks a great surf spot in Cape Town called Off-the-Wall. A mere glance up from my laptop can tell me what the waves are doing and it’s a short hop, skip and a jump to be out there riding waves and putting the writing off for a few more hours.
Daily goals: what, for you, is an acceptable daily target, in terms of word count or the quality of what you complete, be it a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter?
I have a target of 1,000 words a day when I’m in novel-writing mode. If I get on a roll, there are days when I can produce 3,000 words or more, but those are rare occasions. The idea is that I’m not allowed to leave my desk until 1,000 words are in the bag. Most of this is about discipline. If I waited for inspiration or for ‘the mood to take me’, nothing would get written.
What have you found are the best ways to get this done?
I try to be seated at my desk, ready to write, by 9am each morning. The idea is to put in three or four hours of concerted effort until lunch and to not get distracted by social media, phone calls and the rest. Usually, by lunch time, I’m fairly burnt out and the afternoon is often dedicated to editing or further research.
If writing books is not your full-time job, how does completing a project fit in with your other duties?
The other half of my career – the paying half – is travel journalism. COVID-19 has put that on a backburner of late, but generally I try to balance the two. The idea is to carve out large chunks of time for each one, so that it’s not too distracting. In other words, I might do a week-long trip, then spend a week producing articles and media posts, and editing the photographs. Then I’ll spend a few weeks dedicated exclusively to book writing.
Marketing new books – print or digital: what fresh ideas do you think could be introduced to the process to make new work more accessible and appealing to both new and established readers?
Traditional marketing budgets, even among the big, established publishing houses, have been much reduced. To a large extent, it’s up to authors to promote their own work. Facebook and Twitter are obvious tools, and having an author website is essential, with a regular blog or web letter. Instagram can also be useful, especially if you have images that can be used to promote your book. Author readings or book launches can be hosted on Zoom, or webinars, and Instagram has Stories, Reels, IGTV and Live, which can all be used creatively for promotion purposes. The more adventurous author might even stick a tentative toe into the Tiktok pond.