Writing: “How do I write fiction about things I haven’t experienced?”

Too many would-be writers allow themselves to be held back by ‘rules’ like ‘Write about what you know’.

If authors would only write about things they’ve experienced, there would be no science fiction; authors would only write from the perspective of characters of their own gender, race, and age or younger; there would be no books from the perspectives of rabbits (like Watership Down) or other animals; all books would be set in the same location the authors have lived in; all novels would feature contemporary times; et cetera.

I’m a white male in his late forties, married with two young children, and write suspense fiction about and/or from the perspectives of:

  • a Dutch white female freelance assassin, specialised in disguising homicide and close quarters combat
  • a Dutch white male blind jazz musician, strategist, and martial artist,
  • a Jamaican black male Rastarian session musician who grows cannabis,
  • an American white female DEA agent with a drinking problem,
  • an American black male DEA agent living in the Netherlands
  • a Colombian male DEA undercover agent,
  • a Dutch white male biker,
  • a Chinese blind man in his late seventies,
  • a Dutch female lesbian sculptor,
  • a Chinese deaf-mute enforcer for a triad,
  • a Japanese male Yakuza posing as a club owner and martial arts instructor,
  • a Japanese male undercover agent for the DEA,
  • a Canadian female professor of music,
  • a French party girl caught in a stifling marriage,
  • a Dutch legless biker running a bar,
  • a Dutch nomadic pickpocket caught in a web of lies,

And that is not all of my characters, just the major ones.

While I do write a lot of stuff from personal experience, I write about shooting guns while being fired at (I handled a variety of handguns at a shooting range, but I’ve only been shot at by Nerf guns); sustaining gunshot wounds and fleeing from the law; being blind and playing saxophone in a full jazz club; dying from drowning in my car at the hands of an assassin; dying from being stabbed in the throat and suffocating on my own blood; being a woman and having sex with a man; detonating a bomb in a parking lot across the water; being interrogated while spreadeagled naked on a bed and tied to the bedposts; being force-fed whisky while held motionless in a vacuum bed; et cetera.

I could go on, but it’s clear that most writers have to write about stuff they haven’t experienced in person. That’s why it’s called fiction. Writers imagine stories and make them as close to the truth as possible, and readers immerse themselves in stories that gives them experiences they could never have, on worlds that may or may not exist.

There’s a necessity on the part of the reader called ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’, where the reader will believe what the writer tells them, as long as the writer fills the story with the verisimilitude necessary to keep believing. The reader has never flown a dragon, but when the writer writes about the main character flying a dragon, the reader imagines themselves astride the broad neck, inhaling the dragon’s sooty exhalations, feeling the smooth scales under their buttocks, the wind rushing through their hair, and the exuberance of flying unprotected miles above the earth through cold clouds that leave a sheen of water pearls on their leather jacket.

But it’s a tough job getting readers to keep their disbelief suspended. One wrong word, one author intrusion, one mistake, and the whole illusion comes crashing down and the book gets tossed in the waste bin. That’s why good writers treated with such high regard for their ability to enthral with mere words.

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WRITING: Where do you get your story ideas?

I was asked on Quora: “What is your personal method for finding short stories ideas?” and this was my response:

I tend to combine past experiences and certain idiosyncrasies, and blend them into a story. To give you an example, this is my unpublished story Bonebag:
BONEBAG by Martyn V. Halm
Talons digging deep in her bony shoulder jerked Ange from pleasant dreams into cold dark reality. Muted green numerals floated in the dark bedroom to inform her that it was a quarter past two in the morning. Angrily she reached up, pried the fingers from her shoulder and turned to face her lover.
“Christ, Carla! It’s two in the morning, what the…”
A skittering sound in the kitchen made her swallow the rest of her tirade. Ange sat up and listened. The neon sign of the bar downstairs sprang on, blue light washing over the bedroom walls and the pale blob of Carla’s face, her dark eyes wide with fear.
Soft paws skittered along the length of the kitchen floor, followed by big paws that scrabbled for a hold. Ange could hear the claws gouge the linoleum floor as the cat wheeled around in pursuit of some ignorant rodent that had entered their apartment by mistake.
“That’s Felicia,” Carla whispered in a high strangled voice. “Your cat got something…”
Ange cocked her head. “Not yet. But she will in a minute. Now, can we go back to sleep? I have to be up at—”
“No, Ange.” Carla’s warm damp hand fell on her thigh and she could smell the sour smell of sleep on her breath. “Please, you got to do something.”
“Go to sleep.” Ange slipped back under the warm eiderdown, pulled the covers over her head as she turned on her side.
On the other side of the wall steel clanked against steel. Felicia’s food bowls. Apparently the pursuit had progressed into the bathroom.
“Ange!” Carla tugged her shoulder. “You know what she did last time!”
A couple of weeks back Felicia killed a mouse, opened the tiny rodent from throat to anus, and deposited the mutilated corpse on the floor in front of the bed, in obeisance to her mistress. Carla, who usually slept in, had the misfortune to get out of bed early. Still half asleep she put her foot in the gored mouse, her toes squishing into the juicy carcass. Yelling the whole apartment building awake, Carla had hopped on one leg to the bathroom and vomited all over the toilet seat while she removed the rodent’s entrails from between her toes.
“Just look where you put your big feet tomorrow,” Ange mumbled chagrined and turned on her side again. “And try to project your vomit into the bowl this time.”
“You know I can’t help it!” Carla took a deep shuddering breath. “Dead animals upset me.”
Upset was a mild term for the phobic revulsion Carla exhibited when confronted with a flattened hedgehog or a fish floating belly‑up. Her irrational hysterics spoiled walks along the beach and trips through the countryside. It put a damper on a pleasant walk in the woods when you had to hold your lover’s hair out of her face while she puked another meal behind a tree.
And still…
What bothered Ange was the suspicion that Carla’s abhorrence was mixed with fascination. Why else would her eyes scan the asphalt for roadkill? Or make Carla stand transfixed at the sight of gulls hacking an unfortunate crawfish to pieces? A slaughtered mouse in the house would keep her up till dawn.
And Ange with her.
“What the fuck do you want?” Ange turned around to face Carla. “You want me to help Felicia kill the stupid bugger? Is that what you want?”
“Just end its suffering.”
Ange whipped the eiderdown away. “I’ll make it suffer all right.”
The bedroom window was partially open and she was freezing her scrawny butt off, the cold waking her up completely. The neon sign flashed again, outlining her body in an almost pornographic blue nimbus reflected in the mirror in the corner of the room.
Where her parents found the audacity to call her Angelique was beyond her, for her appearance was anything but angelic. Her slanted green eyes narrowed as she viewed her reflection. Her thin frame with the pointed breasts, pelvic bones jutting out from her hips like handlebars, limbs strangely angular and bird‑like. She looked like she belonged in an enchanted forest, a malevolent pixie leading unwary travellers astray.
No wonder her nickname at school had been Bonebag.
The sign winked out again and Ange shivered as her feet touched the cold linoleum. She hurried across the kitchen floor and entered the bathroom.
After she closed the door behind her to keep the mouse in, she pulled the switch cord and shielded her eyes. The fluorescent strip light over the bathroom mirror flickered twice, then burned steadily, humming like an angry mosquito.
Felicia hunkered by the cabinet under the washbasin, her tail swishing from side to side. The cat didn’t even glance up at the light, her yellow eyes glued to the tiny creature hiding under the cabinet.
With her foot, Ange shoved the cat aside, but Felicia skirted behind her heels and took up guard at a different angle as Ange grabbed the sides of the cabinet and lifted it of the floor.
The mouse—startled by the rude disappearance of its shelter—spurted away, a small brown shape streaking across the floor for the back of the toilet bowl.
Felicia pounced and looked confused.
Ange noticed the trembling mouse behind the mop. Small fella, this time. An inch and a half at most, its tail three times the length of its body. Ange grinned, took the handle of the mop and shook it. She could see why Felicia liked this game so much.
The mouse didn’t like the game at all and fled into the shower stall. The rodent realised its mistake too late, for there was nothing to hide behind in the pristine cubicle. And the holes in the drain were too small to pass through, even for a tiny mouse like this one.
The petrified mouse cowered in a corner, while Felicia stalked it at leisure, her furry belly low to the ground, clearly savouring the moment. The mouse stared in the cat’s menacing yellow eyes, captivated like a rabbit in the bright light of a poacher. With her furry chin lowered to the tiled floor, Felicia stretched forth a tentative paw and nudged the mouse as if trying to spurn it into action. The mouse scurried back into the corner, reared up on its haunches and froze. Even the whiskers and the nose stopped moving. Its beady eyes, shiny with fear, glazed over. The mouse wasn’t petrified anymore. In mortal fear, its little rodent heart couldn’t handle the stress and stopped pumping.
Scared to death.
Felicia tilted her furry head. Surprised by the unexpected demise of her prey, the cat sat up and eyed the motionless rodent warily, her quivering ears twisting back and forth. With blinding swiftness, the cat lashed out. Her stiff paw whacked the mouse like a golf club and made the stiff rodent skid the entire length of the shower stall, until its diminutive corpse came to rest upended against the wall. Felicia uncoiled and pounced, coming in for the unnecessary slaughter.
Ange held the cat back by the scruff of her neck and picked up the stiffening mouse by its long tail to study the tiny creature. Its eyes—small black nodules bulging from the springy grey‑brown fur—were dull and lifeless. A tiny circle of blood had formed around the left nostril. Its slightly parted jaws revealed small yellow incisors. The tiny front paws were raised to its tiny chest like a dog begging for a morsel.
Ange opened the bathroom window to throw the corpse into the dark gardens three stories down. Felicia jumped on the toilet seat, her yellow eyes riveted on the dead mouse. Ange grabbed her cat by the neck and they both looked at the tiny dead creature swinging in the cold November air.
“Ange?”
She didn’t drop the mouse, but pulled back her arm and closed the window.
“Ange?”
Ange opened the bathroom door, noted the soft yellow light of the reading lamp over the bed shining into the dark hallway. The bedroom looked warm and cozy and here she was standing cold and naked in the freezing bathroom. All because of that stupid bitch and her necrophobia.
“What is it?” she yelled back.
“Is it… dead?”
Ange looked at the tiny corpse dangling from her fingertips. “You can say that.”
“Don’t forget to wash your hands, okay?”
Jesus H. Christ. Why had she ever shacked up with the stupid cow? She could have been lying in her warm bed. Felicia could have enjoyed her kill. Holding the mouse aloft in her right hand, Ange turned on the tap with her left and looked at her face in the bathroom mirror. The corners of her mouth, her most distinctive feminine feature, were turned down. She touched her full lips, so out of place in her narrow face. Stroked the sensitive skin, the tiny corpse in her other hand momentarily forgotten.
Felicia meowed and swatted the air under the swinging mouse.
Ange had a mind to take the mouse back into the bedroom and ask Carla to check if the tiny rodent had really kicked the bucket. An impish glitter filled the green eyes looking back at her from the mirror and her wide mouth curled into a wicked grin.
She took the fragile corpse between her fingers, felt the bones under her fingers. A little bonebag. Ange opened her mouth and placed the mouse inside, facing out. Tilted forward on her tongue, the tiny paws and the small furry head stuck out over the lower hedge of her white teeth. It looked like the mouse lived in her head and her mouth was its balcony. Staring into the eyes of her reflection, Ange closed her mouth gently to keep the little corpse in position. To keep the inside of her lips from touching the mouse, she had to pout lasciviously. Ange turned off the tap, switched off the light and left the bathroom. Her step was light as she padded to the pool of light in the bedroom.
Felicia followed closely, rubbed her furry body against her moving legs.
Carla sat in the middle of the bed, hugging Ange’s pillow against her breasts. Her dark eyes searched her face.
Ange stopped at the foot of the bed and kneeled on the eiderdown, pinning Carla’s legs under the covers. With a seductive smile around her pouting lips, she came slowly forward over the bed, supporting herself on her hands, trapping her lover under the eiderdown.
“Did you throw it out of the window? I heard—”
Ange shook her head slowly, her eyes fixed on Carla’s.
“No?” Carla looked worried. “You didn’t throw it in the trashcan, did you? I can’t…”
Ange leant forward and opened her mouth, arched her tongue under the small paws and moved the mouse up and down behind her teeth.
Carla blinked and focused on the dead mouse wobbling in her lover’s mouth. Her huge dark eyes widened in horror and she backed away until her back was against the wall. Ange closed her mouth, rocked back on her heels, pointed at her throat and swallowed thickly.
Carla’s eyes filled with revulsion and she broke away, threw herself off the bed. She bounced hard with her elbows on the carpet as she tumbled in a heap on the ground. Loud retching noises came from her mouth as she grabbed the door frame to support herself as she stumbled off to the bathroom.
Ange rose from the bed, opened the bedroom window and spat the tiny rodent corpse into darkness. The dead mouse dropped three stories and landed with an audible thud on the sidewalk. She hawked up a gob of saliva and spat into the blue neon night.
Wiping her mouth, Ange climbed back into the warm bed. She thumped the pillow back into shape, turned off the light and listened to Carla vomiting in the bathroom, then smiled to herself and pulled the warm eiderdown over her head.
Copyright: Martyn V. Halm. All Rights Reserved.

Now, I came up with the idea for this story because three things about this story are real experiences:

  • My mother has extreme necrophobia, like Carla in the story. Her revulsion to dead animals borders on hysteria and used to make me extremely angry at her when she would scream like she’d broken her hip when it was just the cat bringing home a dead bird.
  • I once got out of bed and stepped into an opened carcass of a mouse, lovingly laid out by my cat. I wasn’t revolted, like Carla, because I recognised that the cat gave me a gift. I was her master, so she gave me an offering. I praised my cat and pretended to eat the mouse, then – when she wasn’t looking – I tossed the carcass out the bedroom window for scavengers in the gardens to enjoy. And I recall thinking how my mother would’ve been in hysterics if she had stepped in a dead mouse.
  • And I was woken by the sounds of my cat stalking a mouse in the bathroom, where the events happened like in the story – I lifted the bathroom cabinet and the mouse fled into the shower stall, from where it couldn’t escape. It sat back on its haunches watching as my cat stalked into the shower stall, and then the mouse just died. My cat had the same response as Felicia – she was surprised and disappointed, then wanted to bat the mouse through the bathroom, but I intervened and picked up the mouse, studying it briefly before tossing it out the bathroom window.
Ange is modelled on one of my ex-girlfriends, who looked like a beautiful pixie. I hope she doesn’t mind that I turned her into a lesbian with a wickedly horrible sense of humour.
Everything else is pure imagination.
So, tell me, where do you get your story ideas?

WRITING: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I came to writing really late, which is weird because the signs were there for a long time – my father wrote non-fiction about nature and gardening (for several decades he wrote a weekly 3/4 page in the weekend supplement of a national newspaper on the appreciation of nature) and he used to work as an editor for a children’s publisher in the Netherlands (Ploegsma), so we had all the Ploegsma books. I was an avid and voracious reader, and a convincing storyteller, but my parents were abusive and neglectful of my talents and those of my three brothers, so we were not inspired and motivated to do something with them.

It was only after I got new friends who were impressed by my storytelling capacities that someone mentioned that I ‘should write a book’. I wasn’t susceptible to that suggestion at the time – I didn’t actually liked to write, I liked to read. And there was always something impressively magical about the fiction I read that I couldn’t see myself doing the same thing.
Then I took a job working security and had a lot of long night shifts. Night shifts where I imagined I would read books and study languages, but I had the germ of an idea, so I started to write it down. After a few months I started to enjoy the writing more and more and though that I could actually see myself finishing the novel. That was in 1992.

WRITING: “If Only I Could Find The Time…”

One of the most annoying statements people make when they hear I’m a writer, is that they’ll shake their heads and say, “I’d love to write a novel, if only I could find the time.”

To most writers, this is a seriously demeaning statement, because most of us have 24 hours in a day, juggling our work, private life, responsibilities and social activities, and yet we authors are able to find our time to write.

I’ve written several novels and short stories and I’ve had people asking me, where do you find the time to write? And I tell them, wherever I can:

  • I worked night shifts as a security officer, filling the bulk of my shifts with writing.
  • I rarely watch live television, but I pre-program my television to record what I want to see, so that I can fast-forward through commercial blocks (a two-hour movie on television contains some 30-40 minutes of commercials!).
  • I write on an iPad with a bluetooth keyboard that I take everywhere, so I can write in waiting rooms and playgrounds (where my children are running around).
  • I turn my manuscripts into e-books that I can edit on my e-reader while I’m waiting in queues at the supermarket or during rides in public transport.
  • I get up an hour before the rest of the family wakes up, so I can cram in some writing before breakfast.

And I don’t mess around when I’m writing:

  • I write in drafts so that I finish a draft before I start editing. Writing and editing require different mindsets – I used to edit while I wrote, but I don’t do that anymore, because my inner editor will stifle my creative mind. And if you spend time editing on a scene that you’ll cut anyone is wasted time.
  • I don’t worry about beginnings, endings, chapter length, opening sentences, character names, or if the right words don’t come to mind (I write the closest word and add a @, so I can find the word again when I’m editing). Most of that stuff will be decided on in the editing process. My first rough draft is not to be read by anyone but myself.
  • Formatting, like smart quotes, bold, italics, chapter names, et cetera, is decided in the late editing stage, when the story is shaping into a manuscript.

The most important thing is that rough draft. Get that story out of your mind and onto a paper or screen, so you can look at what was in your head. Two hours movies often have several hours of deleted scenes that never made the movie. A sixty minute album of music will require a week of studio time. A novel you can read in eight hours was created in twelve months from a manuscript that might take twenty-four hours to read.

When you get better at filming, you will become more efficient. You won’t need to shoot eight hours of film to produce a two-hour movie. You won’t need weeks to produce sixty minutes of music. And you won’t need to re-write your draft six times to produce a polished manuscript. With practice, you become more efficient.

Don’t fritter your time away – do something constructive and write that draft. You can thank me later.


PREVIEW: First chapter of GHOSTING

The beta version of GHOSTING, the fourth novel in the Amsterdam Assassin Series, is ready. The novel can be pre-ordered for delivery December 1st (just click the cover below the sample). Below, you can find the first chapter – I welcome feedback, so don’t hesitate to comment on this post:

JAMAICA

Running flat-out gained Daniel Catadupa some distance on his pursuers as he ran down the dusty Negril forest road towards the coast. Just his rotten luck the car had broken down along West End Road. Still, Cain’s dive shop was not far. He might be able to make it on foot if only he could take a short break. The only living soul between West End and the coast was Mama Benga—an old witch living in a ramshackle old shed where she let her goats roam free. He burst from the forest at breakneck speed and ran around the house.
No place to hide, except…
Daniel dropped on the hard-packed dirt. Without glancing backward, he flattened himself on his belly and crawled feet first under the cracked wooden porch. Pushing refuse out of his way with his feet, he crawled backward into the darkness, the smell of rotting vegetation trying to invade his nose.
While he tried to get his breathing under control, the running footsteps came closer, slip-sliding around the corner, and the three men came to a skidding stop. Daniel stopped crawling. He was still under the porch, not in the deep darkness under the house proper. Hopefully none of them figured out where he was.
“Rass!” the leader exclaimed. “Bone, go deah, Reggie, go deah.”
The men sped off in different directions, but the leader stayed where he was. Lying motionless under the porch, Daniel looked at the mud-splattered tip of the gleaming ebony cane next to the gnarled feet, the soles thick with callouses from decades of walking barefoot.
He shivered.
Barefoot Duke didn’t carry the cane to support himself, he could run as fast as men half his age. No, that black cane was a symbol of his authority, and most people feared Duke’s cane more than the machetes of his henchmen. With Sista Someday’s right hand man after him, Daniel knew he’d fucked up royally.
Overhead the wooden boards creaked and an old voice spoke, “Duke, is that you?”
“It is I, womahn. Go back inna dem house.”
“Who you be looking for?” The old woman coughed, hawked up phlegm and spat on the floor. “And what him done now?”
“No business of you, womahn. Go inna tha house now.”
Wetness moistened his cheek and Daniel glanced up at a glistening string of phlegm leaking through the warped floorboards. He gagged, but remained motionless.
The gnarled feet came closer and the cane rapped the floorboards. “You deaf, womahn? Inna tha house. Now.”
“You no catch him, Duke.” He could hear the sarcasm in her voice. “Him run like the devil be chasing.”
“You see him then,” Duke said. “Which way him run?”
“You think I help you catch dem poor boy?” The old woman spat again, the gob of phlegm hitting the dirt between Duke’s bare feet. “You play at mystic mahn all you wants, I know you when you was a raggamuffin boy scrounching for scraps.”
“Betta shut dem big mouth, old womahn.”
“You betta respect elders, raggamuffin boy. You think you scary with your scowl?”
Duke’s feet moved closer and the floorboards sagged as he stepped onto the porch. “I respect elders, not scummy old scabs with potty mouths.”
“I no invite you on my porch, ragamu—” A sharp crack was followed by a heavy thump right overhead and Duke whispered, “Told you, old womahn.”
Daniel turned on his back, staring up through a crack in the floorboards. He could see the wrinkled greyish skin of Mama Benga’s arm. Above it floated the scowling face of Duke. His pinprick eyes seemed to look straight at Daniel and his face was contorted in rage. Mama Benga moaned and Daniel watched in mute horror as Duke lifted his cane over his head and whacked the old woman’s body, over and over again.
Blood seeped through the floorboards and splattered his face and something broke inside him. Like a frightened animal, Daniel scrambled away to the back of the house, no longer caring about being silent.
As he crawled out from under the house, Duke came running around the corner, screaming his name in fury. Without thinking, Daniel scooped up a handful of mud and threw it at the older man. The mud hit Duke right in the face and open mouth. Seizing the moment, Daniel charged, his bodycheck slamming Duke against the ramshackle shed. As the man fell, Daniel spun away, but not quick enough. Duke’s ebony cane whacked him in his side and Daniel felt something snap in his side. Fear gave him an adrenalin rush and he leaped into the bushes, blindly crashing through the foliage.
“CATADUPAAAAA!” Duke bellowed in rage. “You a DEAD mahn!”
From the frying pan into the fire, Daniel thought as he ran through the forest, branches sweeping into his face and tugging his dreads. Duke and his henchmen ran behind him in hot pursuit, close enough to hear them cussing as they used their machetes to clear their way. He was still ahead, but they seemed to be closing in. Pain stitched his left side, where Duke’s cane had whacked him.
Suddenly he was clear of the forest, but the situation had not improved. His blind panic had led him straight to the cliffs. He sprinted along the edge of the cliffs, not looking at the ocean slamming into the rocks below.
No shelter.
Something whistled past him, followed by the crack of a gunshot.
Fresh adrenalin flooded his body and he ran like the wind, ignoring the pain in his side. Running like the devil was chasing him, as Mama Benga put it. She was an old woman and Duke beat her to death for insulting him. Daniel had no doubt that his fate would be worse if they caught up with him.
Something tugged at his clothes and sliced the skin of his hip, but he couldn’t stop. Another gunshot came from his left. Instinctively he swerved to the right, not realising his mistake until he ran out of land.
At the edge of the cliff, Daniel whirled around.
Fifty yards away, Duke strode towards him, his trademark scowl visible as he bridged the distance on his long legs. Like eager puppies, his henchmen flanked Duke, but a few steps in front of him. As if he wanted to prolong the moment, Duke’s stride seemed to slow to a leisurely stroll. Panic froze Daniel until Reggie pointed a gun at him. Duke whistled sharply and the henchman lowered his arm, his grin a white flash in his dark face, but the spell was broken.
Daniel looked behind him. The ocean crashed into man-sized rocks that looked like pebbles from this height. He took a few steps towards his pursuers, then turned and sprinted to the edge.
Duke yelled and gunshots cracked as Daniel closed his eyes and dived, his arms whipping forward.
For a moment, his body seemed suspended in flight, and he heard the voice of his old physics teacher. ‘The problem is not that humans cannot fly, but that they cannot land’.
Gravity reappeared and Daniel plunged down, his clothes flapping in the wind that tore the tears from his closed eyes.
Jah, be merciful.
Dark death embraced him in her cold arms and squeezed the breath from his body.

aas-ghosting


WRITING: I Want To Write A Novel, But Where Do I Start?

Having a passion for something, but no skills yet and several hindrances to acquire those skills makes for quite a challenge.

The easiest answer would be ‘find something else’, and there would be truth in it. Writing a novel (or even a short story) is an appealing ambition – I read somewhere that eighty percent of all adult Americans seriously entertain the notion of writing a novel, which is also why there’s a whole industry that facilitates burgeoning writers with creative writing courses and workshops and seminars, and enough books on the art & craft to fill several bookcases.

The reason writing a novel is so popular is because it’s an attainable goal (most arts require more than a pen and a piece of paper) and it carries prestige as good writers are revered, their works read both during and after their lifetime.

So what you have to decide for yourself is – do you really want to write a novel, or do you want to show people a shiny cover with your name on it and bask in the adulation? Because the first is hard, and the second is a pipe dream.

I’ve written five novels (published four) and four novellas, just as frame of reference to my answer – if you don’t want to let go of your dream, this is my advice:

Lower the pressure of writing a novel by not writing a novel.

What you will be writing instead, will be a Draft. A Rough Draft. An unreadable shitload of words, not intended to be read by anyone but yourself. That last part is extremely important! Nobody must read that Draft, because it’s not intended for public consumption yet.

The Draft is the Baby, the Novel is the Adult.

People don’t make adults, they make babies that shit and cry and demand food and attention and will keep you up at night. Have you heard writers referring to their novel as a baby? Yes? They’re not actual writers yet, because the draft is the baby, the novel should be an adult, capable of standing on its own legs and fending for itself. If their novel is still their baby, then they haven’t finished yet and they have published prematurely.

The Horror, the Horror…

Before a novel can stand on its own legs, it needs to be born first, which is a messy process. Thus, the Draft is a baby – a stinking smelly mess that will hijack all your attention and cause you to lay awake at night, worrying if it will ever be able to be independent. This is not the kind of baby that you show your family and friends – starting the Draft is not an accomplishment. So shut up about ‘writing your first novel’ and never ever talk about the plot and the characters and the theme. Screw all that. Talking about your creative work kills the spark. Just write and write. Is it garbage? Don’t second-guess yourself, you won’t be able to judge it now, you’re much too close. Nobody throws out their baby, no matter how much it smells. Just keep on writing. Don’t edit. You can’t edit a baby, it has to become an adolescent first.

The Need.

Visit any writing forum and you’ll see the many many questions, that boil down to one single question ‘Is This Any Good?’. It’s the fear of failure, the angst of wasting time, and the need for validation. We have been programmed to desire approval – from parents, from teachers. You won’t get approval for the Draft. Don’t ask for it. Just write it all down.

The Rules.

How long is a chapter supposed to be?’, ‘How do I write a dynamite first chapter?’, ‘Should I use present tense or past tense?’, ‘Is writing in First Person easier than Third Person?’, ‘When do I Show, when do I Tell?’
If you visit writing forums, you’ll hear a lot of talk about rules, but those rules are not for drafts. Those rules are to clinically dissect a finished manuscript prior to publication. Do you have that? No, you haven’t. You have a smelly mess that isn’t nowhere near finished, so forget about all those rules. Because in the end there is only one rule – Engage The Reader. And your baby won’t need to engage the reader yet. It’s a draft, intended only for your eyes.

The Work

Anyone with a knife and a dead pig can butcher a pig, but that doesn’t make you a butcher. And it sure as hell doesn’t make you a veterinarian.
So you wrote an essay at school and the teacher gave you an A. Does that make a writer? No, but it’s a start. If you can read this, you can probably write. You can string words together, maybe in some pleasing way, but five hundred pages of words is not a book. A book is when the words disappear and your imagination shows you the film in your head. That’s the hardest part, and the most neglected part – writers want to write pretty words or show off their ostentatious vocabulary, but what you want to do is tell a story. Tell a story in such a way that the reader forgets about the book or the e-reader and is transported to another world – fictional, but just as ‘real’ as this one. And that requires not only a large vocabulary, but also a decisive mind to apply just the right word. And if you get that right, you won’t need the validation anymore, because there is no better feeling that getting a sentence just right, a paragraph that leaps off the page, and a chapter that you don’t want to end.

But before you get there, you have to put in the work. There’s a common ‘rule’ floating around that to become a professional at something requires putting in something like 10,000 hours. I never measured that, but I do know that I’d been writing for twenty years before Reprobate was published. And I’d been working on Reprobate and all its predecessors for most of that time. Learning the craft, honing my skills. Draft upon draft upon draft. For Reprobate, it was something like forty (!) drafts. Literally every paragraph was rewritten at least once. Edited and polished. That’s the education.

Don’t Do The Crime If You Can’t Do The Time.

My second novel, Peccadillo, was half finished when Reprobate came out. I finished Peccadillo in three months, spending a total of fifteen months on writing it. I wrote the novella Locked Room in three weeks. Microchip Murder took me less than two. And the novella that gets the highest praise, Fundamental Error, was written in eight days. Rogue, the third novel took less than 12 months. And Ghosting, the novel I’m working on now, clocks in at about eight months, despite my battles with kidney stones and glaucoma.

Every time you write, you will get better at telling the story. Writing this answer took me about an hour, with no rewrites or polishing necessary. And that’s because I’ve done the time.

So do the time. Stop fretting about whether you have something to say or who will read it. Write that draft first, the rest comes later. Let me know when you finished a draft, and then we’ll talk about how you can become a writer…


Excerpt from the new standalone noir, In Pocket:

Around nine-thirty, I entered Small Talk, a luncheonette at the corner of Van Baerlestraat and Willemsparkweg, ordered an espresso and went upstairs to the first floor.
Lilith followed me inside and added a cappuccino to my order. She sat down across from me, took a brush from her shoulder bag and brushed back her damp hair. After dabbing her face with a tissue, she unbuttoned her jeans jacket. Her nipples jabbed the damp fabric of her T-shirt. She shivered and gave me a reproachful look which I ignored. It wasn’t my problem if she didn’t know how to dress for this fickle weather.
“So how many did you take?”
I sipped my espresso. “You didn’t count them?”
“Seven?”
“You’re guessing,” I said. “I told you to observe indirectly, not to let your attention wander.”
Lilith leaned forward, her damp breast touching my jacket. “Could we drop the hostilities?”
I looked into her pleading eyes. “You think I’m being hostile? You blackmail me into instructing you while you have absolutely no aptitude whatsoever for my profession. I’m wasting time I don’t have on this farce, so—considering the circumstances—I think I’m downright congenial.”
“Listen, I’m sorry if I came on like a bitch, but I wouldn’t do this if I wasn’t desperate. Have you never been desperate?”
“Never.”
“Lucky you.” Lilith slouched in her chair, her gaze on the tabletop. “I never had any luck.”
“Spare me your life story. Save it for someone who actually gives a shit.”
I could see she wanted to punch me, but her desire to stay in my good graces apparently got the better of her. She rested her chin in her hands and studied me. “How about yours?”
“My life story?” I snorted. “Nothing to tell.”
“Nothing?” She looked up, tilted her head. “I find that hard to believe.”
I shrugged.
“Why don’t you tell me how you become a pickpocket?”
“How?” I smirked. “I became a pickpocket by sticking my hand in other people’s pockets.”
“You don’t want to tell me?”
I finished my espresso. “See? You can be perceptive, with a little effort.”
“Are you going to be like this all day?”
“What did you expect? That I’d ‘revel’ in teaching you my ‘craft’?”
“I’m sorry if I’m a nuisance.”
“You’re not sorry. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. I’m not an idiot.”
“I mean it.”
“No, you don’t. If you were truly sorry, you’d get up and get out of my life.”
“I can’t. I need this. I need you.”
I shook my head. “I was just the sucker who made a mistake in your vicinity. Now I have to pay for it.”
I got up and she followed me to the counter, where she paid for both our coffees. I didn’t thank her, but led the way to the nearest tram stop. The rain turned into a steady drizzle and I noticed she was still shivering in her thin jacket.
She rubbed her arms. “Where will we go now?”
“Albert Cuyp. You bruise easily?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Why do you ask?”
“Just answer the question.”
“If I’m knocked about I’ll bruise, but I don’t plan on getting caught.”
I shot her a scornful look. “Never heard of ‘collision theft’?”
“You want me to bump into someone and pick his pocket?”
“You bump into the mark. Extracting wallets is my department.”
“Oh. Okay, no problem.”
I scowled. “We’ll see.”

In Pocket cover by Farah Evers