Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Where did the Sparrow come from?

No, this isn't another 'What does the dog mean?' posting, so settle down while I tell you a true story. The picture you see is the cover of my new novel. In fact, it was the first novel I ever wrote, many years ago. As I mentioned in a recent posting – Softly, Softly – I tell writing groups or workshops 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 this first book. 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.

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.

In the end, he 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 Darkness is another example. 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. 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.

It reinforces, too, my conviction that writing and editing are separate processes. In your first draft, don’t be held back by the need to be ‘correct’ – either in terms of grammar, spelling or, for want of a better term, morality. Let the words flow, let the characters do what they want, don’t try to drag them back into any preconceived plotlines without first checking whether they’re actually leading you to somewhere more interesting. Then step away from them, forget about them for as long as possible and return to them as an editor, with your critical faculties sharpened.

The Sparrow Conundrum has been through even more changes than The Darkness. 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 (absurd, farcical) 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.

So there, that’s its story. For the moment, it's available on but soon there'll be a print version, too, available in Europe as well as in the USA. So what I want you to do now is …

… first of all, become its friend or fan or whatever the correct designation is on Facebook. I’ve cleverly called its page The Sparrow Conundrum. Then, after you've written comments there saying how wonderful and funny it is, buy it, read it, tell all your friends and extended families and community groups and reading groups to buy it, order several copies for all the libraries within a twenty mile radius of your home and place of work and, in your spare time, try to get it put onto the reading list of every subject in your local schools, colleges and universities, nominate it for the Man Booker and Pulitzer prizes, nominate me for a Nobel prize, tell the Coen brothers they can have first option on the film rights and … well, that’s enough to start with.


  1. Fascinating post, Bill. I completely agree about recycling material, often making it something different, and better than before. I'm in awe of your ability to get all this work out there, but I'm intending to follow your example as far as possible!

  2. Thanks, Rosemary, but I don't think I can teach you anything about this. I'm a follower remember, and I've seen how you encourage others to do the same sort of thing.

  3. I'm thrilled for you, Bill. And I'm so encouraged by this suggestion of recycling, as I'm StILL revising, adding to, and redefining my characters and their world, even as I send out partial manuscripts to those who requested it. I just don't want to rush the process if there's magic to be had in the remaking. You know the saying about 'selling no wine before it's time', same should go for manuscripts. Headed to Facebook.

  4. Ok. Let me get this straight. The man who considers sloth as his main talent has had - how many books published in the last few months?

    Power to your "pen", Bill.

    On the recyclng thingy, I have 2 novels wot I wrote before the one wot got the deal. I often think of them being like my delinquent children wot need a good shine.

  5. Smiles as I twiddle my thumbs waiting for Smashwords to do whatever it does.

  6. Thanks, Marley, and I know how much time you’ve spent reworking your novel. One wee thought, though – don’t be a perfectionist. We all want our stuff to be as good as it can be, but searching for ‘le mot juste’ can be counter-productive. Just a thought.

    Michael, I didn’t say sloth was my MAIN talent – that one is between me and … well, never you mind. No, I’m lazy when it comes to doing things I don’t like, such as marketing, tax returns, shopping.

    And I bet you’ll let your two shiny delinquents out into polite society before too long.

    Well, My Publisher, as you now know, Smashwords has done what it does and readers can now download the prologue and the first three chapters for free in whatever e-format they prefer from So you can all do that and write a glowing Amazon review on … well, the opening bit.