The goal was to find something that:
- I’d never done before
- Developed a useful skill
- Produced something useful
- Was really difficult
I actually came up with the idea to write a novel during Quarantine Challenge #1, which was to read 7 books in 7 days. Most of those books ended up being novels and I wondered if writing fiction would be something I would enjoy.
How long do you need to write a novel? I had no idea. I know generally novels take years to go from blank page to bookshop shelf, but I also remember when I read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, it was mentioned he wrote the whole thing in three weeks.
I know from experience that while starting to write a book is easy finishing it almost never happens. In fact, probably quite a few of you have started writing a book at one time, and 95% (or 99.99%) probably never got finished. So the key to finishing this challenge was setting a strict deadline and publishing no matter what.
Have you heard of Parkinson’s Law? It’s a rule that says, however long you assign to a task, that’s how long the task will take. If you give yourself one month to make a movie, you’ll do it in one month. If you give yourself one year, it will take you a year. And we all know this rule is true! Cramming for exams is the perfect example. If you’re given three weeks to prepare for an exam, you’ll use all three weeks. But if you’re only given one week, you’ll cram and cram and cram, and you’ll probably be just as prepared as you would have been with three weeks. But this time you only needed one.
Initially I thought about making it a 7 day challenge. That sounded attractive because it meant I would only need to work on it for a week. For a 60,000 word novel, that would mean ~8,500 words a day. Not impossible, but I know the finished product would’ve been garbage, with no time for proof reading or editing.
Three to six months would have been ideal, but I wasn’t trying to start a career as a novelist. Dedicating that much time wasn’t possible. Four weeks was more reasonable – 15,000 words a week over four parts. Tough, but still gave me time to write and edit properly. Challenge accepted!
Choosing a storyline
Since all my stories on this blog are true and based on real-life experiences, creating a story line from scratch is new to me. While trying to develop a plot I took inspiration from Where The Forest Meets The Stars by Glendy Vanderah, which I read last year.
I have no idea how Glendy came up with such a brilliant and captivating story, but something that stood out in her book was the detail she used around her main character. This character was a researcher for bird breeding or migrations (I don’t remember exactly), and she lived near some woods where she kept track of bird nests. I thought, “How does the author know all these weird things about birds!?” but at the end of the book her author profile came up, and the first sentence was “Glendy Vanderah worked as an endangered bird specialist before becoming a writer.”
That seems obvious now but I knew I would need to do the same and write about something I knew intimately. I could have tried a surfing story or a boxing story or a running story, but I don’t know those things with extreme intimacy. The only things I know about better than anyone are the life of an accountant and the life of a traveller.
Finding inspiration and writing productively
I learned quickly in this process that inspiration is everything. There is no point sitting in front of a blank screen for hours with writer’s block and hoping something happens.
You need be inspired by something and sit down for your writing session with an idea already brewing in your head. That way, the writing just flows out of you and it feels like you can barely type fast enough! Then these ideas lead to more ideas, and soon you have 5,000 words on the page.
The best way to be inspired is to watch people who are doing your job better than you are. So the best way to be inspired to write something really good, is to read something really good.
At the time, I was reading a book called Friday Night Lights. The book is a true story following a high school football team in Texas through a dramatic season, and it’s one of my new favourites. I still have bookmarks sitting throughout the book of pages that sparked my creativity, so much so that I would stop reading and run to my laptop and start writing out scenes.
This is how much of Part 1 of my novel was written. In fact if you read Friday Night Lights, and then read Part 1 of my novel, you will likely see a lot of stylistic parallels. Whenever I finished a paragraph that really engrossed me, I would bookmark it, then go to my laptop and try to use similar prose and techniques in a scene of my own (I’ll share some examples below).
There were many other books I took inspiration from too – The Tender Bar especially is another favourite of mine that I’ve read many times, and the style of dialogue in that book inspired a lot of the dialogue I wrote for this.
That was actually advice I got from a great book called The War Of Art (I might be wrong, but I think it came from there, great book regardless), which said pretty much all great pieces of writing have just been ideas stolen from other people and changed up a bit with a new flair. I prefer to use the words “inspired by” but it’s the same thing 🙂
For example, The Notebook, or Romeo and Juliet. The plot is basically the same as every other love story, just the names have been changed, the country has changed, the year has changed, but the story is the same – boy meets girl, boy is too poor (or naughty, or wrong religion, or wrong family, or wrong skin colour) for the girl, so they don’t end up together, but then they do end up together. That’s basically the premise of every famous love story and chick flick, and every year someone writes the story again and makes a million dollars.
It’s the same with musicians, when they say who their inspirations were growing up, and if you’re a fan you already know because you’ve heard traces of those people in their songs.
This meant I was never sitting in front of the screen for hours wondering what to write. If I had nothing to write, I would read until it sparked an idea for me and then I started writing.
Writing Part 1
The full storyline is explained/spoiled below. If you would like to read the novel first, it is available for free by clicking here.
From here on I’m going to share some scenes in the story and where the ideas for these scenes came from, what inspired them and what I was trying to achieve with them. Obviously I can’t break down the whole book but hopefully this shows you some of the process I used to get this challenge finished.
After deciding to go with the accountant story, I needed to think of ways to make it interesting. Obviously nobody wants to write a boring book.
One thing I’ve liked to do in my travel stories is take trips where nothing crazy happened and still turn them into an interesting story on the page. A good English teacher of mine in high school taught me this idea, to never write crazy stories about “gangsters in Chicago” in creative writing; instead choose something very simple and make it interesting with language. I remember in that exam I wrote a story about me playing billiards with my friend and made the 8 ball scene very dramatic and he gave me close to a perfect score.
How can you make accounting life interesting? Well you can’t, really. But you can try to make the human interactions interesting and the characters interesting.
To make the characters interesting, I based them on real life characters. It’s difficult for me to create a character from scratch, because I tend to lose track of their overall personality and can’t decide how they should react in certain scenes. It’s much easier for me to think of a real person I know, and ask “what would he do in this situation”, and that gives me a direction I can take to keep everyone’s behaviour congruent (I’ve learned most novelists do this too).
Another storytelling inspiration is from a TV show I really loved many years ago called October Road. The story is about a guy who leaves his small town and becomes a famous writer, writing stories about all his old friends and neighbours. He changed the names but used clever monikers, for example, one of his best friends was Owen Rowen, so in his book he names the character Kevin Levin.
I loved that idea so I did the same thing, for example my boss’ surname was Newlove, so in the novel his name is Drewlove. The character Steven Black is based on my good friend Steven Brown, also an old colleague from my accounting job. I can’t give all the characters’ real names but if you were wondering where the character names came from – they’re all based on actual people from my old office and all rhyme or tribute their real life counterparts in some way.
Another inspiration I took from Friday Night Lights was this idea of very long-winded and detailed character introductions. I loved the storytelling aspect of it and thought it would be perfect for this book, as I was relying so much on the depth of the characters.
For example, here’s a sample from Friday Night Lights. This is only the beginning of a character introduction that’s almost a whole chapter long:
And here’s a character introduction it inspired in my own story:
“Of course the boss always called him by his real name, Gordon, but the rest of us called him Chocolate, to quote his oft-told stories, “all the girls in Thailand” used to call him that – so we all started calling him that too. One time, his sister came in to the office to meet him for lunch and we overheard her say as the elevator doors closed, “Did that guy just call you Chocolate?” It was apparent nobody outside the office called him Chocolate, only we did, and if they heard us say it, they didn’t know why. Some thought the nickname came from the daily Peanut Slabs he ate from office vending machine; a logical guess, but not close at all. We guessed those Thailand stories were just for us, and maybe they weren’t even true. Didn’t matter, we started calling him Chocolate and he never minded, and we never stopped.”
This introduction also goes on for several more paragraphs. I’d never thought to write so much about a character so that he/she almost has their own sub story, but I can’t imagine writing the book any other way now.
The one non-accountant character introduced in Part 1 is the “auburn haired girl”. The funny thing about this girl is she’s actually a real person. The entire story about her in Parts 1 and 2 are 100% true. Even that part in the book where I purposely didn’t smile and felt bad about it is also a true story. But in all those years we never once talked and I never found out a single thing about her, not even her name, which I always found odd. I hadn’t planned for her to come back into the story in Part 4 (that part isn’t true), but I knew I had to write her in as one of the quirks of young professional life.
One final thing I did while writing Part 1 was make a scene list. This started as just a page of random notes but became more structured as the month went on. Each scene was listed in a specific order, with a specific goal:
With such a long story I found I would lose direction often, and go off on tangents that were irrelevant. With this list I could just focus on the goal, and once I’d written enough story to fulfill the goal, I moved to the next scene. Of course new ideas popped up all the time and I had to add and move scenes often, but having this list really helped me a lot.
Writing Part 2
While reading Friday Night Lights, I read through a few scenes of the author describing different parts of town. Here’s a short snippet from one of them:
It was while reading this I realised I hadn’t described Auckland city to my reader. I’d never thought to do it, because I know Auckland extremely well, but I realised most people don’t know it at all.
That inspired the whole scene in Part 1 of walking through the city to dinner, because I needed an opportunity to show what Auckland city was like. It also inspired the opening paragraphs of Part 2, where I described the park across the road from the office and why it was there.
“But even back then, Victoria Park was much more than just a large field lined with London plane trees. There was history in that park. Great Britain and the NZ Maori had played a rugby league match there once. During World War 2, US soldiers were housed there in temporary barracks. At the height of the 1918 flu, the fields were lined with bodies, a temporary morgue while the city figured out how to bury that many dead. Over the years wealthy businessmen had tried to close the park, more than twice, in an attempt to build a mall or a skyscraper, or something else that would surely be worth many slabs of gold today. “The city needs a new carpark, and there is no better place than here!” But they never could. Through one hundred years of wars and plagues and property sharks, the park survived.”
Part 2 was less about characters and more about describing the quirks of office life. I wanted to show what it was really like to work in an accounting office – mostly the small things that entertained us each day – like taking a long lunch, or a special coffee recipe. Such insignificant things but we treasured them. The toilet scene is also a recounting of an actual experience I had.
There’s also lots of dialogue, as I wanted to show the closeness between us – not just workmates but friends – because we needed to be united in that place. The internship scene is also semi-true, not the actual Milo making, but our firm really did hire interns one summer and they literally had nothing to do. I thought that was pretty funny and I should write it in.
An important scene in Part 2 was the girlfriend scene. This was the scene where the narrator has his weekly date with his girlfriend, and I wanted to try and show how much an office job of that nature drains from the rest of your life, to the point that you don’t have energy for anything else, and nothing else is exciting anymore. The job is stale and that makes your whole life stale.
“In our earlier years, things had been quite exciting. We talked about doing a gap year in Spain, where we’d learn to dance, and take weekend trips to Portugal. We said we’d save for a year, and then we’d go. But then her Mum had an operation, and she wanted to be around for that, and then she got promoted, and then my third year began, and our talks changed to how we were a little older now, and she wanted to think about buying a house. And you couldn’t spend a year in Spain when you had a mortgage, of course. A year in San Francisco would have been cool, we had talked one night about going there too, after Spain, riding those trams, watching the 49ers play, holidaying around California. We’d still be young, right? What’s an extra year abroad? But she seemed to laugh at them now. “Dreams we had when we were kids,” she called them one night. Yeah. I guess she was right.”
I don’t know if you’ll notice this, but the narrator doesn’t have a name in the book. Most of you will probably assume the narrator was me, but I made sure that the narrator had no name, and no face. Any time the narrator has to say his name it says something like “I introduced myself”, and his face is never described either. He remains nameless and faceless the whole story. I wanted to show how that environment strips you of your identity, not just your dreams, but who you are. You wear the same clothes as everyone and do the same job as everyone and lose your individuality. I don’t know how well it came off but that’s the idea I was working towards with that. At one point I also tried to keep it so you couldn’t tell if he was male or female either, but that became too difficult.
Part 2 is also where my favourite scene is. It’s the scene where the narrator is talking to Sienna the receptionist and finds out she’s in drama school.
This scene was inspired by two things. The first was an actual guy at my office named Hector, who was the most stereotypical accountant ever. I didn’t know him that well, but I sat with him at lunch one day. He told me he was going to kickboxing training after work. I remember feeling so shocked when he said it, because seriously, nobody in that office had any outgoing hobbies like that. People went to the gym and played soccer and so on, but most people just went home after work and maybe at the most went jogging or something. Kickboxing was like, wow! (this was before UFC and “boxfit” type classes became really popular). So I asked him, if I could go with him one day to training. I ended up going with him the next week, to this super grungy gym hidden way up in the top floor of an old industrial building straight out of Rocky III. I ended up joining that gym for a while, and if I look back it’s actually the moment that sparked my journey into learning martial arts.
So the scene was to introduce someone with a reasonably normal hobby or interest, but make it leave a really big impression on the narrator just because it’s so rare to meet someone adventurous in an office like that. As you can imagine, the arts scene never comes up in conversation in an accounting office (and I’m sure accounting rarely comes up in the arts scene).
The second thing that inspired this scene was a conversation I had with a girl in a hostel in South Africa, who introduced me to the play A Streetcar Named Desire, and that’s where the drama school part came from. I’ll touch on this more when we get to Part 3.
“Well, what are you studying?”
“Drama? That’s a subject?”
“Yes, dick. It’s a subject.”
“So, what it’s…bachelor of drama?”
“Bachelor of arts.”
“Oh. And wait, let me guess…majoring in drama.”
“See…I’m arty. So what does that mean…you going to be an actress or somethin’?”
Another thing that made the book easier to write is – I didn’t write all the scenes in order.
Often when I imagined a scene in my head, even if it was one of the later scenes, I wrote it and put it away for later. This scene above was actually one of the first scenes I wrote, at the beginning of Week 1. I knew I wanted an “outsider” type character, and I wanted it to be Sienna. Sienna’s character is also very closely based on the real receptionist from my old firm (though the art school stuff is made up).
Writing Part 3
Apparently the third quarter of a novel is the hardest part to write. It’s where all the characters are developed and the scene is set and now you have to create some big event to lead up to the climax of the book.
I felt this and struggled to put together something I was happy with. I had lots of good scenes to write, but it was hard to bring them together into any meaningful storyline.
(Lots of spoilers from this point on).
The “big event” I came up with was some kind of hostage/shooting situation. The idea partly came from a shooting tragedy New Zealand experienced which really shocked the country, which I won’t say any more about. The second part of the idea was inspired by the movie The Breakfast Club! I liked the idea of having a bunch of people stuck in the office over a weekend, where they go through something traumatic together.
One of the difficulties of this part was filling in all the plot holes and making sure everything was believable. I don’t know anything about hostage situations or SWAT teams or how police work, so I had to Google and make some guesses and just do the best I could (for example, who in the police handles a situation like this? Is it a detective, a sergeant, a superintendent?)
The final scene in Part 3, of Sienna and the narrator sitting on the couch talking in the middle of the night – that’s the very first scene I wrote from the whole novel. I wanted a scene that had them reflecting on their lives, exploring how we might talk if we knew we were going to die soon. To be honest I didn’t want to end Part 3 on that scene, but had to cut it there as I ran out of time. A lot of Part 4 probably belongs in Part 3.
You might also notice there’s a lot of drinking throughout the book. Lots of scenes with the boys drinking as much as possible, peer pressuring each other to drink, and talking about the girls in the office. The “fuck marry kill” scene is a good example. I had to have several scenes like this because this is exactly what that life was like. Friday night drinks was always the highlight of the week, and when the boys were alone they always talked about the girls in the office (and likewise the girls gossiped even more about the boys). The drinking culture is heavy in the New Zealand office scene, I wanted to capture that.
Writing Part 4
Early in Part 4 there’s a long scene where the narrator and Sienna sneak up to the rooftop. There’s a long conversation and Sienna tells him why she wanted to become a playwright. It’s not the play she was reading earlier, A Streetcar Named Desire, but a play she saw when she was younger, called A Raisin In The Sun.
“I just remember thinking, I want to do this. I’m not much of an actress, but I want to do this, I want to make something like this. I want to make something people love this much.”
“A Raisin In the Stars?”
“A Raisin In The Sun.”
“What’s it about?”
“Maybe you should read it.”
I wrote it this way because when I first heard about the play A Streetcar Named Desire, it was in a hostel in South Africa. There’s a saying that goes, you should never meet your idols because they’ll always disappoint you. I was talking in the kitchen with a Korean American girl about that. She said it was true, because at her college they had wanted to perform this play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which she loved. But to do so they had to ask permission from the author Tennesee Williams. Apparently he refused, saying that “my play was not written for coloured people to perform”. So in the story I wanted A Streetcar Named Desire to be the play Sienna studied just because she had to for school, but the play that actually inspired her into playwriting was a famous African American play called A Raisin In The Sun. I didn’t have time to craft this message as explicitly as I wanted, but that was the intention.
When it finally came to ending the story in the second half of Part 4, things got very difficult.
I had decided early on that Sienna was going to die. I had guessed she would be the character readers would love most, which meant killing her would have the most impact.
The bigger challenge was how to make that suspenseful and it was mostly just trial and error. I don’t read that much fiction and definitely not from authors who are renowned for twists and turns in their books. That meant I wasn’t really sure how to engineer a story this way. I guess this might be something you learn if you study literature, but I studied accounting 😀
In fact the “twist” in my book was going to be Sienna’s death, but while finishing Part 1 I thought that’s not really a twist and the ending might be a bit boring.
That’s when I got the idea to reveal in Part 4 that Jeffery the Scotsman was the shooter, and I added that last little paragraph at the end of Part 1 to set the story up for that.
How did I bring all this together? Again just lots of trial and error and moving around paragraphs and trying to see which method flowed the best. I’m still not really happy with the Jeffery reveal and think I could do that much better, but I have no idea how right now.
There’s a few other ideas in Part 4 that worked well in my head but I’m not sure they worked that well on paper. I wanted a collection of scenes that showed the “trauma” changed the way the narrator lives. The lesson was it takes a big traumatic event to wake you up enough before you start making changes in your life.
The first change the narrator makes is he quits his job. The second is a scene of him meeting an old client in the carpark, and realising all the negative assumptions he made about that client from Part 1 are totally wrong. The third thing is him finally introducing himself to a restaurant owner he’s known for years but never took the time to learn his name. The fourth is him getting out of his relationship and meeting someone new. Nothing about it was cryptic but I think maybe it was a bit subtle to pick up on first reading. Since I wrote it, it’s impossible for me to say. Ideally that was the intended moral of the whole book though.
Overall, great challenge, learned a lot, improved as a writer (I think). Can also say I’m now a novelist! 😉 Will probably do it again some time. And I would also encourage all of you writers out there to keep grinding away, set some tough deadlines and finish those books you’re working on! It’s a great feeling to write those final words.
Big thank you to everyone who was reading and messaged me with encouragement. Means a lot.