Writing a novel, part II: not such a lot of fun now, is it?

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY I started to tell you how to write your first novel, stressing the importance of having people in your novel, and how some of them should be nice and some should be nasty. That sort of thing.

Now you have to decide which characters should be based on people you know in real life. This is where we begin to run into trouble. A lot of novelists maintain that their characters are not based on real people. They even go so far as to say at the begining of the novel that any resemblance between characters in their book and people they know is an incredible coincidence.

What a load of poppycock. All fiction is extrapolated from experience. To put it in English, a novelist can only write about what he knows. That disclaimer is put in not by the novelist but by the publisher's lawyer. The publisher knows that occasionally people see themselves portrayed in novels, don't like it and sue. So they put this disclaimer in the front, rather like those notices you see in car parks saying that the management takes no responsibility for anything left on the premises . . .

Now, that disclaimer wouldn't be put there if things weren't sometimes nicked from the car park, would it? Similarly, you wouldn't get that disclaimer in novels if novelists never based their characters on real people.

The fact of the matter is that if you don't base your characters on people you've met, they will probably be rather feeble. Remember the shining honesty of the French novelist Raymond Queneau, who once wrote at the start of a novel: 'All the personages in this story are based on real people; any resemblance to fictitious characters is completely accidental.' And remember that in other respects novelists pride themselves on getting things true to life. If they describe the Sixties or Seventies, they don't say: 'All decades in this novel are imaginary.' If they describe London, they don't pretend it's somewhere else. No, they are proud of getting it right. If, like Peter Ackroyd, you set your story in London today and London in the 18th century . . . That's another thing. If you can't make up your mind whether you want to set your novel today or in the 17th century, why not do both? He has always got away with it. I'm sure you could too.

Oh, by the way, we haven't mentioned giving names to your characters. The safest thing to do is normally to use English village names. Almost any village name makes a good name for a character. There's a village near us called Upton Scudamore. Must be an American lawyer. Another one called Kington Langley. Sub-librarian. I knew a man who fell in love with a signpost on the Foss Way to two places called Dorn and Batsford , and dreamt of writing a novel about a girl called Dawn Batsford. He never did, actually. But he did write a book about English place names. Under the pseudonym of Compton Pauncefoot, as I remember. (What you mustn't do is use the real name of the person you have based your character on. That is going a bit far . . . )

Another thing you have to decide is which character is going to be the narrator. There doesn't have to be a narrator. But if not, you have to establish this early on. Occasionally people play tricks with the narrator's identity. Agatha Christie wrote a thriller in which the murderer was the man telling the story, but you never discovered that till the end. Good, that. And Daphne du Maurier wrote a novel in which one of the three siblings featured in the story told the narrative, but you never found out which, because the storyteller always said 'we' instead of the usual 'I'. Very clever.

Here we are, ready to start writing the novel, and already it seems rather difficult doesn't it? Didn't have any idea it was going to be so tricky, did you? Doesn't sound a lot of fun, does it? Well, it's not. And that's why we say for goodness sake think twice. There are far too many novels around as it is, and we don't want any more.

This leaflet - 'Writing a Novel?: Forget It]' - is an Arts Council publication, issued by its Campaign For Fewer Novels.