The fingerprints we leave on our manuscripts

800px-Martin_Amis_2012_by_Maximilian_SchoenherrI read an interview with Martin Amis once where he said that when you’re writing a novel you write about the things you didn’t know were on your mind. This certainly rings true for me.

When I’m writing I certainly don’t set out to write about myself and nobody who has read Song of the Sea God has suggested it might be CiderWithRosieautobiographical. My tale of the rise of a would-be god on an island of misfits told by a dwarfish mute is hardly Cider with Rosie.

And yet, I think that the big things and the little things in anything you write hark back to your own personal experience.

By big things I mean themes, and however much you marry these to your plot, your characters and so on, there will be something of your own concerns in there too. For example, in the book I wrote after Sea God, which is called the Pick Up Artist, and isn’t published yet, the main character’s mother died when he was young and this certainly influences his development and actions. I didn’t think much about this when I was writing but it’s certainly true that my own mother died only a couple of years before I wrote the book. And though I was a lot older when my mother died than when the character in my book lost his, well, we all feel too young when our parents die don’t we?

As for little things – here I’m taking about incident, asides, scraps of plot, flashes of character. I mean the jokes, the turns of phrase, the lines of dialogue, the descriptions. They all come from somewhere, and though they are all ‘made up’ in so much as they start life in your head and finish up on the page, many of them will track back to your own life, your own concerns or ideas.

So what of myself have I left on the page in Song of the Sea God?

People who have been kind enough to review the book on Amazon tend to talk about three things. They talk about the language, they talk about humour and finally they talk about the darkness. Where does this darkness come from?

Well firstly I suppose it reflects the confusion I feel about religion. I’m not religious, in so much as I wouldn’t identify with a particular faith and, if pushed, I would describe myself as agnostic. But admitting that I don’t know the mysteries of the universe is definitely not the same as saying I believe there are no mysteries. The feeling that there must be something more than what our senses tell us, the god-shaped hole in our lives, is something we all share I’m guessing, and those feelings are at the heart of the book.

Then there’s a sense of isolation in the text I think. The island the story is set on, which seems divorced from the rest of the world; the mute outsider who tells the tale. There is a loneliness here despite all the jokes and wise-cracks. I’ve always been blessed with a fantastic and close family – both growing up and now as an adult. Still, I think it’s JohnDonnepossible to feel that as a person, you come into this world and go out of it alone, you are essentially isolated – an individual. John Donne said ‘no man is an island’ but I think Song of the Sea God suggests that’s exactly what each of us is.

I didn’t set out to write about these things, and yet that is what I ended up doing. I believe the process of writing goes far deeper than our conscious mind knows.

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

16 thoughts on “The fingerprints we leave on our manuscripts”

  1. This rings so true. However much we try to ‘be a writer’ we are still writing out of ourselves. Prob why all my characters are feisty females with issues!!! Interesting the way your reviewers discovered the ‘darkness’. ooer – we can run but we cannot hide…not even behind a keyboard!

    1. Mhm – I think I’m basically quite a happy person – but we all have layers don’t we? I think the last place we can hide is behind the keyboard because if you write for long enough then you do reveal things about yourself.

  2. This rings very true for me too, Chris. My novel is loosely based on my partner’s childhood as a skipper’s son, but I know I have left my print about things I value and hold dear within its pages. My work in progress has a whole heap of me in it, not to mention it is about a family I would have liked to have. So near but yet so far 🙂 As for Song of the Seagod, I also felt the darkness and the sense of isolation (hence my allusion to Lord of the Rings). Your narrator is himself very isolated in his own body and world. It makes him a very good observer, though! Another echo of yourself maybe?

    1. I don’t know about you but I often find my self fighting against being autobiographical in my writing – I take the view that people deserve to read about someone much more interesting than me! But I still think that whatever we write about our concerns and preoccupations will poke through. I also think that, as you imply, all authors are good observers, perhaps they are also impartial observers too – they remain apart from the emotion they describe. Graham Greene said: ‘every author has a sliver of ice in his heart’ and I think that’s what he was getting at.

  3. Yep, I’m not a prolific fiction writer but I have noticed that when I sit down to write on one subject I often end up writing something I did not expect. Sometimes this si a very good thing and other times it is not. Either way I get a buzz out of the unexpected process.


  4. My protagonist is a 30 year old male. People have asked me, as I am a 50 something female, how I managed to ‘get inside his head’. I reply ‘by listening’. So you can gather I have spent a great deal of time listening to, and being intrigued how young men think about life today. I certainly brought their comic observations into my novel. So, yes we use what we know. Thanks again for another interesting thought Chris.

  5. This is a very apt post for me to read today as I was just musing on this. So much of myself ends up on the page, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.

    I knew Nezumi’s Children would deal with religion, and it was an interesting challenge as an atheist to develop a consistent belief system. That a main theme if the book is “the gods are oblivious” was never really the plan, but it rang true in that case.

    With Tagestraum, I had no idea until the second draft that it was about depression. I set out to write a fun fairy adventure and ended up somewhere a little different and a lot more personal.

    Your book sounds fascinating. Adding to my TBR pile

    1. Thank you – and your work sounds interesting too!
      I think the joy of writing is that, however formal the process is of getting it on to the page, with planning and plot development and so on, there is still a psychological element to it. You are still connecting to parts of your brain you don’t usually give free rein. I think that’s why sometimes, the final result can be a surprise even to the person who wrote it.

  6. At a flash fiction workshop last week in Bristol led by Calum Kerr, we were talking about this same issue, Chris, and Calum gave a vivid demonstration of it, citing a writing exercise he’d given to a class to write a very over-the-top description about an ordinary event. He told us about one woman who had written making a sandwich that had revealed her inner new-found freedom and energy after a difficult divorce. When we did the same exercise, and I thought I was writing just about the chore of dropping my daughter off at Youth Club, I realised afterwards that I’d inadvertently spilled out my hidden inner angst about her growing up!

    I was also fascinated by comments from beta readers of my just-launched collection of flash fiction, My father, reading a story that I thought was fiction, said “I see the names have been changed to protect the innocent, then” “Quick Change”, who spotted things in there that I’d never noticed – e.g. an apparent obsession with wheelie bins, which appear prominently in three out of 20 stories!! I’m not entirely sure why this is, but I’ve subsequently replaced one of them with a bonfire!

    Interesting that even in tiny pieces of fiction (the stories in “Quick Change” are each between 100 and 1000 words long), there is room for such revelation.

    1. The very best of luck with your book Debbie! What you said about the same situation cropping up more than once certainly struck a chord with me. I was editing my short stories recently and like you I found certain elements repeating, even in some things I’d written years earlier.

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