By BRUCE DENNILL
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.
There are surprisingly few things about having worked as a journalist that help with writing fiction, but one of them is the ability to spot a good story. Ideas for new books can come from anywhere – from a chat around a braai fire, to a newspaper article. It’s a physical, visceral feeling that I used to get when I worked as a reporter and I’ve relayed it through one of my characters, a former journalist, in Ghosts Of The Past. I get a tingle in my fingers, for real, when I come across an idea for a story and that’s enough to get me started.
I read a book on the history of Namibia a few years ago when researching one of my earlier novels, An Empty Coast and there was a one-line mention of a 24-year-old Australian guy, Edward Lionel Presgrave, who fought in the Anglo-Boer War but stayed in Africa instead of returning home at the end of the conflict. A few years later, he joined the Nama people of South West Africa (now Namibia) in their war against their German colonial masters. The Germans put a bounty on Presgrave’s head, lured him into a trap and executed him. Here was one sentence about war, adventure, a struggle for freedom, and a tragedy. As soon as I read that, I got the tingle.
When you do decide that a theme or story is worth exploring, how do you go about unpacking that, 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?
I don’t do any planning. I start with a premise and make it up as I go along. I never, ever know the ending of a book when I start – where’s the fun in that? It’s a bit of a wild ride writing this way, and there are times, typically around the middle and just before the end, when I despair that it’s all rubbish and I won’t have enough words or inspiration to go on. My wife stays well clear of me at these times. I simply have to trust my process, that I will have enough to finish and that it is hopefully worth it.
The same goes for the theme, as well as the story. I usually don’t know what a book is really about until I’m near the end. Then, when I do my first read-through and edit of my very rough first draft, I can tweak the story, characters and descriptions to better reflect what I’m trying to say. Ghosts Of The Past is about love and war and the triumphs and failures in both; I wanted to work out why someone like the real Edward Presgrave, personified by the fictitious Cyril Blake in my novel, would sign on for another war just a few years after surviving the Anglo Boer War. From what I’ve read, many Australians went into battle in South Africa full of patriotic fervour, determined to protect the British Empire, but ended the war disillusioned, having found they probably had more in common with their enemy, ordinary farming folk, than their British commanders. Presgrave and Blake then sign on for a noble but doomed fight against a harsh colonial regime. Several characters experience the true horrors of war and the ups and downs of love in this book and I wanted to explore why people fight and if war can ever truly be justified.
Research: how much do you do, and how detailed is it? And how much of it is internet-based, given that fact-checking may not be a priority on many websites?
Normally I do very little research before starting a book – I just make stuff up as I write and then do my research retrospectively, checking facts if I still need them after my first edit. As Ghosts Of The Past is based on a true story I had to do my research up front; in fact, someone had already done it for me. Around the time I first read about Edward Presgrave, another Australian, Professor Peter Curson from Sydney’s Macquarie University, had also read of this little-known Aussie hero and done his own research in to Presgrave’s life and death. Peter wrote and published a book about Presgrave, which I found on the internet. I contacted Peter, had lunch with him in Sydney and he suggested I write a novel based on his book. I said: “Thank you, Peter, that’s exactly what I hoped you’d say.”
This is a good case of something I often tell aspiring writers, that the real benefit of the internet is stalking people. You waste plenty of time looking for facts on the internet and subsequently find out it’s all rubbish. I find the best way to research is to use the internet to track down an expert in a particular field and then contact them in person with a list of questions.
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?
Life. It is easy to find distractions and you can kid yourself that some of them, such as research or getting on social media to help promote your books, are worthwhile or productive, or conducive to creativity. They aren’t. They’re all a waste of time when compared to sitting down and writing. It’s not always easy to launch straight into a day’s writing, but for me it’s a bit like getting up and going for a run when I have a hangover. It’s the last thing I want to do, but when I’ve started, and when it’s done, I feel good. I was asked by a school student recently what advice I had for someone suffering writer’s block. I said: “Get off your butt – or rather sit on it – and work.”
What’s the weirdest or craziest way you’ve found to avoid meeting a deadline?
I’m actually pretty good at meeting deadlines, but I had a hectic time delivering my 18th novel, due out in 2020, to my Australian publishers. I was in the Kruger Park, staying at Talamati, a lovely camp with no internet connection, and I was still inputting my last changes to my manuscript the afternoon of the day before the book was due at my publishers. With my wife driving our 4×4 and me sitting in the back, with the manuscript strewn across the seat and my computer on my lap, I was frantically typing in last-minute corrections as she drove us on a bumpy road past elephant, giraffe and buffalo to Kruger’s Orpen gate, where there was phone and internet signal. I managed to email the finish the work, email the manuscript to Australia and get back to Talamati just as the sun set and the gate closed.
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?
My daily quota – not target – is four-and-a-bit pages, roughly 1700 words. I need to trust that the quality is OK, but it’s hard to tell when I’m writing. Some days I feel like I’m on fire and every word is pure gold; on other days I feel like I am slaving away simply to reach my quota and that it’s all rubbish. Often, when I read back my first draft, I find that the work I thought was good was useless, and vice versa. Trust the process, I continually remind myself.
What have you found are the best ways to meet your quota?
It sounds corny, but a routine is very important. I like to do something to empty my mind first thing in the morning. I go on a game drive – we live in a house on the edge of the Kruger Park; or go for a run on the treadmill – we can’t run because of the presence of leopard, hyena and the occasional lion; or I sweep the stoep. After that, I find I work best mid-morning, with the promise of a swim and/or a beer afterwards. The carrot and stick approach works best – if the words aren’t flowing, I stay chained to my desk all day if I have to, in order to get the quota done.
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?
South Africa is an exciting market for me, and it’s growing. My readership is becoming more diverse and better representative of the country as a whole. For my part, I’m making my characters more diverse, not because of tokenism or political correctness, but because my network of friends and readers is becoming bigger and more culturally varied.
Price, however, is still a sticking point, with books in Africa more expensive than in most of the developed world. I think it’s time for authors, publishers and booksellers to put our collective heads together and work out how we can maybe give a little, in order to get more books into the hands of more readers in Africa. It’ll be a good investment for all of us.