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  • Writer's pictureNondiarist

I did it — I grabbed the advice and wrote a novel.

Great Zimbabwe ruins in Zimbabwe.
Great Zimbabwe - The conical tower. Photo by author.

It took me a long time. I had an idea and I like writing, so I thought ‘Let’s have a go’ and it became a hobby. I read all the advice on novel writing that I could find and tried to fit the task around a full time job (two, in fact, one of them being housework), a busy social life and exercising and looking after my horses and dogs. It has to be said that writing has never had career status for me.

So over the course of about ten years I built up the story and redrafted it countless times, then after all this effort I decided I didn’t like what I’d produced and rehashed the whole thing. Not the most efficient way to do it but, hey, I was an amateur with no pressing need to finish it, a regular salary coming in and no publisher breathing down my neck.

There’s a serious amount of advice out there on how to write novels and I’ve no doubt most of it is valuable — I’ve studied a lot of it. It does take discipline for sure. I dallied about with the structure and the content in a very vague, undisciplined manner at first but once I’d decided to do the rewrite I started to set myself proper goals and ensure that I did something with it every day, even if it was just a few paragraphs.

I was that bookworm child that tends to get branded anti-social because it always has its nose in between some pages.

Small girl on a sofa reading a book
Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

I still read a lot — mostly novels — and as the experts will tell you, this was of utmost importance in making up my mind what kind of story I wanted to write (needed to write, in fact, because I knew I had to write for readers, not myself) and which styles are the most engaging. If I didn’t like a book, I tried to analyse why it did nothing for me before giving up on it. Sometimes this just comes down to individual preference but it could lead to I must not write like this. Choice of reading matter is ultimately a very personal thing though and we all have different tastes. And why not?

Anyone who compiles documents or copy of any sort has their own way of going about it. I’ve written innumerable technical reports, manuals and articles and my personal method is to create a Word file (usually from a template), set out rough headings, then dump text in it from all the sources I want to use plus my own thoughts in a very draft format. I build up the sections with much cutting and pasting (thank heavens for the electronic age), matching of formats and rewording.

This works very well for me. If I try to write anything on Lewis Carroll’s begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop basis, I just run into a brick wall. A series of brick walls usually.

I write articles and blogs for my own website and others in this way and I did the same with my novel. It’s a coming-of-age story that takes place over the course of about a decade and a lot of the background is based on historical fact. I started off with a section for each year and did the word dump thing using chunks of text from a variety of reference sources along with my ideas on what I needed my characters to do, experience, say and think during that time.

I knew I wanted most of the events in the book to be set out in chronological order with minimal use of flashbacks. Flashbacks are useful but can be tricky and complex. I’ve read novels in which the author has applied these extremely well and with great effect and I’ve read others that jump around in time so clumsily they’ve confused the hell out of me.

Doctor Who - Tardis whirling through universe
Image created by author

An unexpected challenge was choosing a method for chapter naming/numbering. It’s not something I’d really thought about before starting this project. I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong answer — as long as it fits the story. I divided my story into three parts and in my first completed version I simply numbered the chapters in each part, starting at One each time. The second version has the same three parts but it was such a massive reconstruction that I’ve now titled each chapter as one day. I’ll explain more about the rewrite in a bit.

So when I thought I’d completed the novel, I was satisfied that I’d created a good story set amid accurate facts with the use of interesting vocabulary and correct grammar. I sent the manuscript to a literary consultancy for a critique with a small part of me hoping they would love it, recommend it to one of their agents and it would be on the best-seller list within months.

My, how we dream. What I got back was a comprehensive report, the conclusion of which was that my storyline, my characters, my chosen setting and my use of English were all indeed worthy of commendation but — and it was phrased more diplomatically than this — the novel was old fashioned with extensive improvement required in the overall construction. The author of the report was right.

Looking back, it’s true that the book came across more as a memoir than a novel and several of the friends and colleagues who had kindly volunteered to read extracts during the writing process had asked me if it was an autobiography, even though my main character goes by a different name. Yes, it’s set during the time I was growing up. Yes, some of the events are based loosely on experiences I’ve had or that I know others have had. Yes, the politics and the war in the background are things I lived with. They always say write about what you know about after all. But it’s not my story and I didn’t want it to be.

I’d also fallen into the trap of self indulgence, but that’s a very human trait so I excuse myself. I’m a horse lover, horse rider and I’ve owned horses so it was inevitable that a number of equines found their way into the narrative. Needless to say, my main character is an equestrian — okay, I admit it — maybe that bit of her is me.

The equestrian background is an essential part of the linkages in the story but I over did it because it’s my passion. While there’s a huge number of readers out there who will buy horsey stories because they’re just as nuts about the gorgeous, captivating, frustrating beasts as I am, it’s still a limited market. My choices were to either make the book completely about horses or have their presence as a background only and I’d done neither. I’d gone for the background choice but then I’d written large chunks related to the technicalities of training and riding that would turn off a whole bunch of readers. Years ago I read a book by an author who clearly had a passion for fishing and who fed me far too many bait by bait accounts of fishing exploits and techniques. At every opportunity the author offered his knowledge on optimum times to fish, places to fish, types of fish, equipment — you name it. Now everyone’s entitled to their passions and the characters in a novel are likewise entitled to fish and to enjoy it, but a little bit of relevant fact and dialogue that drives the story forward is enough and if I really feel the urge to take it up as a sport I can Google it or join a club.

Which leads me to the biggest criticism I received from the literary consultant — lack of show, don’t tell.

This has been the subject of much of the writing advice that’s available. I reckon it’s very good advice by the way, although like anything it can be overdone and inexperienced writers like me can try too hard to do it.

What is show-don’t-tell? It’s a way of getting your characters to give the reader information by their actions and the things that they say rather than simply telling the reader in a statement of fact. It’s best demonstrated with a simplified example:

Tell: John was very angry.

Show: John flounced out of the office and slammed the door.

This hasn’t always been considered a necessary technique in novel writing. The consultancy’s advice that my style was old fashioned is true. I cut my teeth on novels that told the reader everything and going back now, re-reading some of those books I grew up on, the difference in style is very, very obvious. To yesterday’s me it was just the way books are but today’s me gets frustrated by being told so much by the writer that it’s apparent I’m thought incapable of recognising a character’s emotions or desires for myself.

Angry man about to slam door
Image created by author.

Today’s me doesn’t want to be told that John is very angry in so many words. I get a much more satisfactory image of the angry John from his actions.

Of course there are times when telling is very necessary but it’s my belief that this should be limited in fiction although I don’t think anyone can offer definitive advice on when telling should or shouldn’t be used. I went by feel. I hope I’ve got it right.

I redrafted a large proportion of the book according to the advice I’d been given and resubmitted the manuscript for further critique. The feedback was positive but not positive enough and deep inside I knew something needed to change.

Very conscious that the story was still too much like a memoir I got a bit rash and opted for something drastic. I decided to take exactly the same story and re-write it in the present tense.

Sounds relatively straightforward, right? You just change the tense of everything.


It involved a major rearrangement of events and a complete rehash of my neat chapters. In the process I slashed all the detailed (old fashioned) set up and explanations I’d put in at the start of each of my old chapters and began each ‘day’ — ie a day on which a significant event or revelation in the story occurred — with some sort of hook that would intrigue a reader. Writing in the present tense immediately ups the tone and the punchiness but have I handled it correctly? I hope so.

The entire novel is written in the first person. This means that it’s only told from the point of view of one character and all the other characters have to express their views, personalities, quirks and decisions through conversation with the main protagonist or by actions that she observes or learns about. The main character’s thoughts in this particular novel are what takes the reader through the story — initially those of a nine year old child and eventually those of a young woman.

It won’t be to everyone’s taste of course, but I hope I’ve learned lessons during the writing and critiquing and reading-of-other-novels that I do regularly and have produced something that’s readable and engaging and that touches a lot of people. Anyone who’s lived in Africa, especially Zimbabwe and its previous incarnation, Rhodesia, will readily identify with the characters’ experiences and it would be very satisfying to think that those who’ve never been there will learn something new.

I am passionate about the history of Africa and of my country and I have conducted extensive research for this novel to supplement my own experiences. Chimurenga is not a political history of Zimbabwe, however. I wanted to write a novel about a complex mix of characters with varying opinions, all struggling to come to terms with a bitter war and equally complex politics while pursuing their own personal journeys. I also wanted to write a novel about love.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, from the air.
Victoria Falls seen from the air. Photo by author.

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