Writing novels – finding time and setting challenges

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One question that I often get asked is, ‘why do you write novels?’, often followed up by ‘how do you find the time to write novels?’. The answer to these questions is part of the same process in some respects. As far as I remember, I started writing my first novel, Hijacking Japan, following a training session about writing (academic work) and the recommendation to do some ‘free writing’ at the start of the day to get the fingers working. As I learnt to type very quickly from a young age after my mother bought an early Amstrad computer, just a few minutes each day meant that I could quickly build up a body of text if I wanted to. I found that it really doesn’t take long to write a book if you put aside even 15 minutes a day.

But another reason for doing the writing is for its therapeutic qualities. Having done a PhD and written academic books, my brain seems to be wired to write books. The nature of academic writing means that various restrictions apply. Such restrictions don’t apply in fiction and this freedom allows me to make observations and comments in a way that I couldn’t in my academic writing. But there is more to it than that. Writing fiction provides a mechanism to deal with issues and problems in the mind as well as to escape the reality of what is around you. Even taking on subjects that I have otherwise been encouraged to make a smaller part of my academic work can be therapeutic.

When I write fiction, I set myself a number of challenges. Some of these I may write about in posts on this site, others I may leave readers to try to work out.

In Hijacking Japan, the main challenge I set myself was using the 170 words per minute formula to bring in an element of ‘real time’ progression to the storyline. I suppose part of this was the influence of watching the TV series 24, which was popular around the time that I started planning the book.

Whilst the 170 words per minute adds an element of real time progression in the story, it’s not perfect; for example, it would suggest that all the characters speak at the same rate, all of the time.  Using this style of writing also created some problems, such as trying to balance sufficient description of the scene alongside the conversations whilst keeping within certain time limit restrictions required by the story’s timeline. It also meant that the book grew to be much bigger – over 150,000 words in total – than is typical for novels. So, whilst the main chapters are set over a little more than a day, albeit with gaps during the night, it probably takes people longer to read than that. With the story being set over little more than a day, the characters don’t develop in the same way as they may be expected to in a book of this length.

There were limits to the degree of time realism I could cope with. I also couldn’t easily introduce an equivalent of 24’s multiple boxes so the viewer can watch different characters doing different things in different places at one time. Another challenge was how to fill the text. Whilst characters in 24 sometimes seem to go a long time without eating or going to the toilet, in Hijacking Japan, there were times when characters do go to the toilet and for one reason or another it didn’t make sense to have this happen while the focus moved to another location. But whilst normally an author can merely say that a person went to the toilet, I needed to fill up the text sufficiently to take account of roughly how long it may take for the person to go to the toilet. This provided an opportunity in some cases to explore what the person may be thinking, for example, rather than describing what they were doing, and I hope this helps readers connect with them.

For more information about my novels see Hijacking Japan and Tokyo 20/20 Vision.

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