Five Things I Learned Writing a Novel


Start before the beginning:

The idea for my novel or, rather, the certainty that I had to write something set in a particular place and time, populated by certain kinds of people, came to me about three years ago. Last year, I finally sat down to write.

In between, I wrote tens of thousands of words that weren’t the novel. They were background, foundation, the other seven-eighths of the iceberg. I wrote detailed biographies of characters that didn’t make the first draft. I took notes and jotted down memories. I did countless writing exercises. Knowing my weakness for telling rather than showing I wrote 700 words of description a day, every day for three months. As I approached the beginning I read about outlines, characterisation, plots, and pacing. I wrote timelines and answered Proust’s 35 questionsfor each of my characters. Nobody will ever read it but without that foundation the novel wouldn’t be worth reading either.

True does not equal realistic:
I relied on memory and wrote a lot of things as near to life as possible, thinking this would give the novel veritas. But when I went back those scenes were weak. My gleaming memories were dull or inexplicable on the page. Gradually I figured out that it was the effect of an event or scene I needed to communicate and the most efficient way to do that was to write for the reader, not rehash details because they meant something to me. It’s the difference between drawing from life and boring a stranger with the family photo album.

Resistance takes many forms:
I expected the daily task of writing to be tiring, confusing, discouraging, etc but resistance took a much more insidious form: boredom. After the first giddy week or so, writing 1200 words a day had all the appeal of breaking rocks. I dug the story and characters and all that but the actual act of writing was boring. My psyche picked this dodge knowing I’m a good Puritan. Give me suffering or opposition and I’m happy as a terrier in a rat-house. Boredom is, by definition, dull and dissatisfying, which makes it deadly.

My advice: don’t get derailed by boredom. It might – as Cheryl Strayed suggests – be a sign there’s something wrong with the book, or it might be your brain trying to make you think there’s something wrong so you give up. Figure out which it is, fix what’s wrong, and push on.

Creating is easy; choosing is hard:
I thought making up stuff would be the hard part. Turns out that was easy. Being consistent in my choices was hard. Every character trait, line of dialogue and description I wrote meant that I couldn’t write an alternate (better?) version. I’m someone who can spend twenty minutes choosing between regular and peanut M&Ms so this was a deep level of hell. I clung to this quote from Cormac McCarthy: “All knowledge is borrowing and every fact a debt. For each event is revealed to us only at the surrender of every alternate course” – and forced myself to keep making choices, day by day, page by page.

It is never too late to improve:
Six months after I finished my first draft, which I thought was pretty good, I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and nearly had a panic attack over things I had and hadn’t done. It was the kick in the arse that started a fresh, necessary round of revisions.

Just this week, I read 78 Reasons Your Novel May Never Be Published by Pat Walsh. I’m worried about at least 53 of of them. I am also grateful to have those alarm bells clanging as I continue work. Not (only) because I’m a masochist, but because I believe in the novel and want to give it the best possible chance of being published.

You Write! What have you learned from a writing project? Share in the comments.

Don’t forget to join us for the Creative Writing Ibiza Salon Tuesday 22 July, 14.30-16.00


2 thoughts on “Five Things I Learned Writing a Novel

  1. Pingback: The Author Extension Community » Five Things I learned Writing a Novel by Creative Writing Ibiza

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