When I venture out from my lovely purple writing room and go into the big wide world to do authorly type events, it’s quite common to be asked how I approach writing a novel. It’s something other writers are often particularly interested in. We tend to view each other’s methods like a weirdly judgmental anthropologist meeting a new culture – we’re interested, fascinated even, but ultimately convinced that all these strange alien ways of doing things are Very Wrong. Anyway, here’s a snapshot of how I do the writing thing…
I’m currently around about 15000 words into the first draft of my new book. For those of you who don’t routinely count the words in every novel you read, a finished commercial fiction novel is likely to be somewhere in the 80-100,000 word region, so I’ve still got a long way to go.
And here’s something I very rarely hear writer-chums say about this early stage of a first draft: It’s truly horrible. I hate it.
There is no one right way to write a novel, but my approach goes something like this:
- Have an idea.
- Make lots of notes and convince self that idea is good.
- Start writing book (completely ignoring all those notes).
- Watch as idea slowly grows and develops in weird, unexpected and uncontrolled directions.
- Spend period from around 2000 words to around 70000 words hating the whole idea and deciding it’s too random and amorphous and will never form a nice coherent whole.
- Abandon whole idea.
- Reread idea so far, work out which bits are salvageable, write lots of new bits, edit all the bits with a viciousness that in any other context would be something of a worry.
- Submit book.
From stages 4 to 7 hating the book is normal – at least it is for me – but stages 4 to 7 are still essential because they’re the way that my brain gets to stage 8 where the book actually gets written. And I can’t do it the alternate way where you plan the whole book in detail before you start writing, and thus avoid the feeling that the story is an uncontrolled amorphous blob. If I do that then I basically have no interest in writing the book because I already know everything that happens.
So what I have to come up with are novel-writing coping strategies and plans to get myself, and my poor innocent unsuspecting book, through stages 4-7. The first of these coping strategies is nicked from the very wise and awesome Julie Cohen and is simply this:
That’s the whiteboard next to my desk this very morning, and it’s a reminder that it’s fine for what I’m writing to be awful at the moment. In fact it’s essential. It’s part of how I write. The book will be bad before it’s good. And that’s ok.
The second thing I always tell myself is this: ‘If you’re at less than 65,000 words it should still be getting more complicated.’ This is because I tend to try to wrap things up too simply and write too neatly from A to B – that’s part of the reason planning too much doesn’t suit me; I end up writing the most direct and efficient route from plot point 1 to plot point 2 which isn’t necessarily great storytelling. The blob of the book should still be getting messier and more amorphous. However h0rrible that feels, it’s right and good and essential.
And finally, I remember that I always feel like this. I’m a writer who routinely ditches tens of thousands of words from draft manuscripts and adds new scenes at the final edit stage. That’s just how I work, and it’s always horrendous in the midst of the ‘writing crap’ phase. But if I keep going and write enough crap, then I get to edit, and, again unlike a lot of writers, I do very much like to edit. So, must get bad words down so that I can make them better later. You can’t edit a blank page.
So there you go, a little snapshot of this particular writer’s mind. Other writers will do it differently, probably more sensibly, and that’s fine. There is, after all, no one right way to write a novel.
If you are a writer and you’d like help finding your personal right way to write a novel, then take a look here for details of upcoming courses. There are still places on the Spring Writing Retreat where you get the benefit of not just one writing tutor’s approach but two, as I’ll be co-tutoring with the much more organised Janet Gover.
And if you’d like to get a book that’s in its shiny, polished, (hopefully) non-crap stage, then there are some here.
When’s the last time you did something to help the struggling author in your life? I’m assuming you all have one. If you’re not sure whether there’s a struggling author in your social circle just look out for the person wearing pyjamas in the middle of the day. The one who doesn’t look like they’ve washed their hair yet this week, and who prods you lightly when you talk to them because they’re not used to the voices they hear coming out of a real physical person. If you’ve got someone like that in your life, chances are you’ve got yourself a writer. Or possibly just a crazy person. Either way, I imagine you will be very keen to help such a person out. And helpfully, I have some easy suggestions as to how you might do that.
1. If your writer is of the published variety, just buy the book. If they’re not published, please try to desist from asking them when the book comes out. They may find dwelling on the subject disheartening and you may find the bit where they growl at you and try to rend their pyjamas a wee bit socially awkward.
2. Once you’ve bought the book, things can go one of two ways. Either you will like the book, in which case tell your writer you liked it. They will get embarrassed and socially inept, but they will appreciate it. If you really really don’t like the book, lie. Seriously, lying is fine. You’re talking to somebody who makes stuff up for a living. The lines between reality and fantasy are already pretty fluid.
3. If you really actually did like the book, write it an Amazon review. I know. It’s time consuming and you have to try and think of something to write, other than, ‘Yeah. It was good. There were words and stuff,’ but the reality is that Amazon is the all-encompassing big brother of book sales these days, and good reviews sell books, and selling books is what allows your pet writer to buy new pyjamas and proper non-supermarket-brand hobnobs. These things are like fresh hay and a lovely nosebag to the struggling writer. They will make your writer happy.
And that’s how you look after a struggling author. Indeedy. Yes.
So, just hypothetically if any of you were thinking you fancied buying a book, Much Ado About Sweet Nothing is still just 99p until the end of January. Totes bargainissimo.
That was the throat clearing. Here’s the announcement.
I am absolutely beyond delighted to announce that I have signed a contract with Choc Lit Lite to publish my first novel. I’m ecstatic to have signed with Choc Lit – they’re a really forward-looking exciting publisher, with a really good reputation for working with their authors and developing new talent. Waaaaaaah!
Obviously I’m a teensy bit excited about becoming a published author, but at the moment the whole thing feels utterly unreal. Fortunately I’ve just spent the weekend at the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference where there were lots of other published Choc Lit authors I was able to poke to check that they were really really real. After they’d got over the poking we even took a big group photo.
We don’t seem to have all managed to look at the same camera in this one, and I do appear to be quite huge – there’s a learning point there about not standing at the front when having your photo taken with thin people – but nonetheless it’s a Choc Lit Authors picture and I’m in it! Huzzah!
At this point I do need to thank just a couple of people. You have three choices about how to read this next bit. You can: a) take a very deep breath and just rattle through it as quickly as possible; b) do the full-Gwyneth and read the whole thing aloud with appropriate sobbing; c) scan quickly for your own name and ignore the rest. If your name isn’t there, it’s because I’m stupid and I’ve messed up and missed you out – unless I’ve never met, emailed, tweeted, written, phoned, texted or spoken to you in my life, in which case, seriously, what were you expecting?
So, in no particular order, thank-you to all of the following who have helped, supported, not ridiculed my attempts to do writing…
Deborah Catesby, Dawn Hudd, Holly Magill, Candi Miller, Tamara Bolger, Anne Milton, Lisa Bodenham, Kate Johnson, Julie Cohen, everyone who I’ve been on one of Julie Cohen’s lovely writing courses with, everyone I’ve ever taught on a creative writing course, the entirety of the RNA but particularly Melanie Hilton and the NWS readers, Helen Harron, my mum and dad (if you’re reading this in Gwyneth style you probably need to weep a bit here), the Choc Lit Tasting Panel, everyone else at Choc Lit, Tim Butler, Tony Judge, Dunstan Power, Clive Eardley, Taliah Drayak, Polly Robinson, all the RNA Conference speakers for the last 3 years (every last one of them), Katie Fforde, Greg Mosse, Kate Hill, Deema Davidson, Rich Badley, Eva Cubero, Isabel Phillips, all the lovely writers and readers on Twitter, the RNA Birmingham Chapter, everyone who has let me play at being a writer on their blog – a big hand for Nikki Goodman and the Write Romantics, everyone I’ve got pished near in an RNA kitchen – I’m looking at you Immi Howson, Jane Lovering, Ruth Long, Jules Wake, Talli Roland, Sarah Callejo, Jane Tranter, Denise Deegan, Colette Caddle, Brigid Coady and others too numerous and fabulous to list – and finally EngineerBoy for his most excellent services to engineering and mortgage paying, while I work the whole penniless writer vibe. Thank you all. Some of you will know how you helped. Some of you won’t ever read this or even know who I am, but thank you all the same.
Right. Gushing over. Time to get bum on seat, fingers on keyboard and actually do this writing lark for real. I’ll be back to the blog tomorrow to tell you all about what happened at the RNA Conference this year. Be warned – it will almost certainly involve pictures of shoes.