Tuesday, July 9, 2013


I’d written lots of stage and radio plays which were produced and broadcast and a few short stories, but it never occurred to me that I should try a novel until I read about a competition and decided to enter. This was so long ago that blogs, Facebook and the rest didn’t exist and even PCs were scarce and definitely unaffordable. So I wrote it in longhand and typed it up. It didn’t win the competition but I sent it to an agent and he took me on. That novel was The Sparrow Conundrum. In terms of awards, it’s my most successful novel so does that mean that, once I’d finished it, I went downhill? Well, that’s for others to judge but I don’t think so. I’ll explain.

When I give talks or hold workshops, I tell the would-be writers there that you don’t ‘write a novel’, you write some words, then some more words, then some more – and eventually there’s a substantial pile of paper on the desk and you realise you actually have written something that’s a lot longer than a short story. That’s making it sound easy and unstructured – it’s not, and I have great respect for the form and conventions of novel-writing, but that was my experience with the Sparrow. I invented the characters, had a great time with them and actually looked forward to getting back to the writing to see what happened next.

In the end, the agent didn’t manage to sell it, but the important thing was that it had shown me I could sustain and control an extended narrative, so I started writing the next one, which was an early version of The Darkness and which led me to another agent and my first published novel, Material Evidence.

So now you’re yawning and asking ‘So what?’

Well, I’m suggesting that ideas, words, even apparently unwanted stories can be successfully recycled. The Sparrow Conundrum has been through so many changes I can’t put a figure to them. It started as a spoof spy story, moved to a spoof crime story, changed locations several times and titles even more – but its personnel and central story were there from the start. I’ve always had a soft spot for it because it’s intended to be a frankly comic novel which I wrote purely to entertain. It’s the only book I posted on Authonomy in the brief period I spent on the site and there’s no doubt at all that it benefitted enormously from the reactions and constructive criticism of the other writers there.

The Darkness, too, has changed significantly since its first draft. As I said, it was the second novel I wrote but, after many, many rewrites and changes of title, personnel, and themes, I think it’s become one of my best. The original book was about unthinking revenge but it turned into an examination of what we mean by ‘good’ and ‘bad’. So ‘recycling’ doesn’t just mean you keep sending it off to one agent and/or publisher after another, it means keep working on it, rewrite, edit, polish, improve. OK, some ideas don’t work and should be discarded, but give them a chance and only throw them out when it’s obvious they’re rubbish.

But don’t throw anything away until you’ve given it a second, third or even more chances.


Mark W. Danielson said...

I enjoyed your post, Bill, mainly because I've had similar experiences. With fifteen completed novels stockpiled that I've never tried to sell, I've found that for now it's easier to keep moving forward than looking back. I suppose one day when I'm older and far better organized, I may give them a re-look, but the most important thing is I had fun writing them.

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks, Mark. Your remark about looking forward rather than back set me thinking. I agree totally with you and yet looking back gave me a fresh perspective on myself and my style and how I/it had changed between then and now. It was fun to revisit the 30-year-old me but still recognise some constants. He didn't know that I was his future. And that's all part of the fun you highlight.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I enjoyed your post, Bill, as well as The Darkness. I spent ten years on my first novel, Escape on the Wind (republished as Escape, a Wyoming Historical Novel), and it continues to outsell all my other books combined. I must have rewritten it a hundred times and still wonder whether it's the subject matter (Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch) or the humor or intrepretation of Wyoming historical events. My second historical, No Escape, hasn't sold nearly as well although it contains most of the same elements. Makes me wonder.