RULE NUMBER ONE IS DON’T have a short, bald hero who isn’t very interesting – if you start with him, you’re just making a rod for your own back.
Before you start you need to decide how fat your book is going to be. If it’s going to be a doorstop, you’ll have to fill a lot of pages by describing things in great detail as if people had never seen, for example, a house. Or you can introduce a vast army of minor characters who are briefly amusing but then suddenly get killed or emigrate to Canada.
The longer the book, the shorter the title: one-word titles for over 600 pages e.g. Quagmire, one-syllable titles for over 1000 pages e.g. Quag. Very short books must have long titles such as Yesterdays of Ephemera. You can get away with titles like this because once you’ve read the title you’ve picked up most of the plot and are a good way through the text. Short books have sad endings because in order to have a happy ending, you have to start happy, get sad, and then regain happiness. Short books don’t have time for all this, so they start miserable and get worse quickly.
Fashion applies to novels as it does to everything else. These days publishers won’t be breaking your door down to sign up Tea with Mr Piffin or Let’s Put a Stopper on the Hun. Seamy undersides are all the rage, especially if the overside of your underside isn’t very pleasant either. The general rule is that books are miserable. Only one book a century gets away with the bright underside of the lovely overside. If life was that cheery, people wouldn’t be reading books, they’d be outside frolicking.
They say you should write about what you know. Whoever they are, they’re talking rubbish. This is a trick by publishers to stop stamp collectors getting their novels published even though they’ve got snappy one-word titles like Unhinged. The great thing about fiction is that you can make it all up without doing a jot of research about anything. As long as you have one gratuitous fact per page, readers will think you know all about nuclear fission/Iceland/micro-surgery.
All novels these days must have long passages of gratuitous sex. These are very difficult to write if you’ve never had any gratuitous sex, let alone long passages of it. If you make it up, there’s always the danger that you’ll make some fundamental biological error that will embarrass you in print for ever. This is possibly the only time when it’s an advantage to have a short bald hero with the sexual magnetism of a face flannel.
© GUY BROWNING IS THE AUTHOR OF ‘NEVER PUSH WHEN IT SAYS PULL’ AND CREATOR OF ‘TORTOISE IN LOVE’ (DVD) – USED BY PERMISSION.