Stranger than fiction

Charles Purcell explains how working on newspapers prepared him for writing a military thriller.

With my ebook military thriller The Spartan freshly on the e-shelves, and coming from a background in both magazines and newspapers, I can safely say that writing a novel is just like working on a magazine or newspaper.

Except for one important detail: that hypothetical magazine or newspaper has a staff of one. You.

And you must act as all the various roles: writer, editor, sub-editor …. dreamweaver.

Deciding what to write about is the first step. You must don the metaphorical hats of both the writer pitching the idea and the editor receiving the idea: “What’s that? You want to write a book about Sydney’s booming crab racing scene? Stop the presses!”

Then, once commissioned – “so, you’re writing a military thriller after all … good choice” – comes the writing.

Charles Purcell's e-book, The Spartan

Charles Purcell’s e-book, The Spartan

Working from home is like working at the office, except with all the temptations of home: Facebook, Twitter, the fridge full of profiteroles, that cult Scandinavian TV drama boxset lying within easy reach. Somehow you must ignore all these distractions to meet your self-imposed daily quota of words (if you’re a writer from a magazine or newspaper background you should have internalised a set number of words to “churn” out each day. And if you work for yourself, you can now use words like “churn” to describe the process rather than the more office-friendly “craft”, “conjure” or “bring into the light”).

As for research, reading the newspaper each day helps. Really. Truth is often better and stranger than fiction, and many of the events in The Spartan are inspired by real-life events, including the conflict between a rising China and a waning America, and scientists inventing an invisibility suit (really … they are working on that).

You are responsible for meeting your own deadlines. You also have to do all the enforcing of said deadlines: no one is going to send you inter-office emails that say “I’m not kidding: if you don’t file in the next two hours, don’t be surprised if your story isn’t in tomorrow’s paper” or “30 stories, six subs, one hour to deadline – ramming speed!”

And before you send over the first draft to your publishers, you and you alone will decide what does and what doesn’t go in. You are your own editor. You can’t blame the sub-editors for cutting out “all your jokes” to fit the space. You alone must turn your Vogon poetry into sweet sonnets. You alone must know the correct spelling of Banjo Paterson’s surname or that Barbra Streisand is spelt that way and not the more logical “Barbara”.

You alone must “polish turds into gold” (another phrase you’re now allowed to use as a self-employed writer).

As for readability, apart from your publisher, you can’t really “phone a friend”. You must decide your own level of quality: you can’t turn to a colleague in the next pod and ask them “to read my story because I’ve read it so many times already and I can’t decide if it’s shit or not”.

And so there you have it. Writing a book is just like working on a newspaper.

Except for the million other things I haven’t had room to mention that make it completely different.

Charles Purcell is a former writer and sub-editor at the Sydney Morning Herald. He is the author of The Spartan, available on Amazon (Pan Macmillan, $5.99). He is also the author of the unpublished book The Last Newspaper on Earth, which he’s considering rewriting as a zombie thriller entitled Zombies Ate My Newspaper.