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What I’ve learnt from writing a novel

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 This is my desk; and yes, that’s a peacock on the right, made out of sprite cans. I stare at it a lot.

What I’ve learnt from writing a novel
There is always a starting point but you don’t have to have an ending. The idea for Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing came from the sound of a voice in his head; a strong, determined, female voice. He had no idea where this would lead. The idea for Colm Toibin’s widow-novel, Nora Webster, came from the visit of a recent widow to his house and he married this idea to an autobiographical one; his father had died when he was twelve. In the first chapter of Nora Webster there is the seed that leads to his novel Brooklyn; he abandoned the widow idea for the immigrant idea, so strong it must have been. He didn’t come back to the widow idea for twelve years. However there has to be an idea, something, a seed, even though you may not know what it will grow into.

Next: try it. If the idea came from an overheard conversation then try to write the conversation; it might take you somewhere unexpected and stimulating. If it is a place, write about what makes the place so significant; how does the place feel? How does the place make your protagonist feel? No matter how you begin, at some point you must make it clear where you are, even if the location is nowhere; you know as a reader that you like to know where the narrator is, where the story is happening, or has happened.

There are many ways to tell a story, many points of view. Choose one. You could write it from the outside using the all-seeing, all-knowing god-like narrator; a narrator that knows everyone’s inner-most thoughts, actions, and desires, past, present, and future. (Anything by Jane Austen) You could write it from the outside using a narrator that ‘sits’ on the shoulder of one character so the story is told from that person’s point of view and no-one else’s. (My ebook Veronica Comes Undone) You could write it from the inside where the narrator is one of the characters in the story (F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby) There are many variations on these POVs. Christos Tsiolkas’ latest novel, Barracuda, uses two narratives: one in the recent past written in the first person; and one in the further past, written in the third person. Sometimes you don’t need to decide, sometimes one particular way just feels right. Trust what feels right and so write what feels right.

Next: just start. If you only have time to write 700 words a day, so be it. By the end of the week you’ll have 4,900 words; by the end of the month you’ll have 19,600. I wrote Veronica Comes Undone in a year and a half of Mondays.

What you write first may not be chapter one. You’ll work it out later. Write first what interests you first. Every idea you have while you’re writing something may not be suitable for that project, but it might. If you’re not sure, put it in. This is only draft number one, decide later if it is appropriate or not. Wait until you step back and look at it from afar. You can cut and add whatever and whenever you like. You’re god here. You’re creating worlds, lives, actions, and consequences. You are all-powerful.

Just spew it out. Whether you write in longhand in a note book (like Toibin does)or tap it out onto a screen, just blurt it out. Even grammar, spelling and appropriateness can be amended later. Everything and anything can be amended later. Draft 1 can be an utter mess; draft 1 should be an utter mess. No-one sees it but you.

You don’t have to be a slave to narrative time. The journey from one plot point to the next can be instantaneous even if months of story time have passed. If an important plot point is that your protagonist starts a business, or renovates a house, you don’t need to go into great detail writing about choosing tiles. Boring! Cut to the opening, the moving in. Time is your slave.

Of all the tools available to a writer the best one for developing a character is dialogue. Some writers eschew dialogue. I don’t understand this. People, and even nationalities, have conversational idiosyncrasies. Americans says things like “You like pizza, right?” Australians usually use the negative, “You like pizza, don’t you?” Once at a writer’s festival I heard an American writer read from his latest work. His book was set in Rome and one of his main characters was Mexican. The novel, of course, was written in English. He spent many pages vividly describing these people but when they spoke, all the time and ink expended on these characters went for naught: they all sounded the same, like the writer. I don’t know how a Mexican living in Italy might speak English but the writer should’ve thought about this and worked it out. Dickens, especially Dickens, James, Winton, Rowling, Doyle, Tsiolkas, Joyce, and St Aubyn, all paint life-like characters with the way they talk, or think. We all make grammatical mistakes, or different pronunciations but different characters can make different grammatical mistakes; and when we talk we rarely speak in compete sentences, and we rarely speak the same incomplete sentences as the next person.

Don’t underestimate the contribution of the reader. Let the reader do some of the work. Cólm Tóibín in Nora Webster lets the reader do a lot of work, all the work! Characters and places are never described. See my review of Nora Webster About grief: good grief on my blog posted November 2 for more about reader theory. However a succinct descriptive passage can spark the reader to paint his own version of the character. Describing a man as “oval with buttons fit to burst” is all that may be needed. The reader knows he is chubby, greedy, selfish; and uses his own experiences of like-looking people to complete the characterisation that the writer has only, but skilfully, hinted at.

Allow cooking time. Step away from your project for a week or two and write something else; read a novel, re-design the garden, re-organise the second drawer. When you come back to it you will read it with a reader’s eyes and as you’re reading if you ‘jump’ or feel a ‘jolt’ (That doesn’t sound right; How does he know that? Wasn’t she wearing jeans a moment ago? He wouldn’t say that…) then there is something wrong. Don’t let it pass. Fix it.

Ah, the pay-offs. The most exciting time is when you are deep in a scene and the creative juices are flowing, ideas tumble over each other, you can’t tap, or write, fast enough; time is irrelevant, and all your senses are honed in on the scene that you are creating, manipulating, describing, being a part of. That’s such a buzz! But of course, that you know, or you wouldn’t be reading this.

The next good bit is draft 2; when you have all this stuff and you shape it, cut and add, link and re-arrange, mould into the story that only months before was just an idea you had as you sat on the bus on the way home from work.

However the most liberating, the most powerful, and the most stimulating change in the writer’s landscape in recent years is the ability to self-publish digitally. I could paper walls with the number of rejection slips I’ve received over the years from agents and publishers, had I kept them; and the most usual reason for abandoning a work is the feeling of ‘why bother?’ The agent/publisher wall is too high, too thick, too impenetrable, but with digital publishing and the liberation it gives you there comes more responsibility. To self-publish digitally you must make sure the text is ready, edited, corrected, error-free, ‘jolt’ free and something you are proud of. You’re not only the writer, you’re the editor, mentor, agent, publisher, and marketer; and the last in that list is the most time-consuming and, at times, the most frustrating. But all this hard work is worth it when you get your first sale; and this happened to me within 30 minutes of pressing ‘publish’ on August 24th. (See my blog-post Veronica Comes Undone. How did this happen dated August 29). Now that’s the best buzz of all. Access to readers is now at our fingertips and although book-sellers are chiming about the survival of the paper-book and the plateauing of ebook sales, digital self-publishing is a reality no matter what portion of the market it’s claiming. It’s there; use it.

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