The title of this post might lead you to think I’ve got something clever to say about how to write a novel. I don’t really, but I thought I’d take a break from my attempt at writing one to write a post about it.
I started writing my first novel a few weeks ago, thanks to the 2012 Olympics, which inspired me to follow my dreams (there’s a post about it here). When I checked the date of that post, I was amazed to find that it was only about 7 weeks ago, because it feels as if I’ve been slogging away at this novel for much longer than that.
Every now and then, when I get stuck and don’t know what to write next, I wonder if I’m doing it the right way, or even if there is a right way to write a novel. Certainly, in terms of knowing the storyline, it would seem that despite being the author myself, I’m pretty much in the dark. The initial idea I had about it when I began writing has completely fallen by the wayside now because it’s turned into something entirely different. Is this normal, I wonder?
I remember years ago seeing a documentary about J K Rowling, in which she showed a plan of the Harry Potter stories. From what I remember, she had a large sheet of paper which looked sort of like a family tree. The names of all the main characters were on it and their stories and relationships to other characters were noted down. Her organisation of the whole thing was staggering. I believe it was a period of six years from when she had the idea about Harry Potter to when she finished writing the first book, so perhaps that’s why her storylines seem so well thought out.
She famously wrote quite a lot of the first book in a cafe in Edinburgh, using a pen and paper, and I’ve heard of other authors who do this, to great success. I began writing mine by typing directly into my laptop. I think I had thought that there was no point in trying to write it on paper and then type it up, as that would only lengthen the whole process, but when I tried writing by hand I discovered something quite interesting. Maybe it’s because my handwriting is slower than my typing, but I seem to write more concisely using paper and a pencil (I tried a pen but it didn’t cut the mustard, why, I’ve no idea).
Quite a lot of what I initially write, I then chop out when I read it over, and at the rate I’m going I should imagine I might have to write about three times as much as I actually need for one book. It’s tempting to get annoyed with myself for ‘wasting’ days writing things I subsequently discard, but I think it’s all part of the creative process and you don’t get better at anything without practice.
My first goal on the way to completing the book was to reach 10,000 words, which I did yesterday. I hit that point rather earlier than anticipated in my schedule (I’m giving myself 2 years to write the whole thing), but I’m not getting too excited by that because it could well be that the next 10,000 words take much longer to write. In fact, the first 6,000 or so were quite hard to come by, and then the last 4,000 appeared as if by magic. Mind you, it was at the 6,000 word mark that the the book completely changed direction and it worries me slightly that I might end up going back to that point and rewriting everything that follows it, because I’m not yet convinced that I’m going in the right direction.
The jist of all this is that although I have begun the task and am making some progress, I honestly don’t know if this is how you write a novel. I’ve been wanting to write a novel for as long as I can remember, but until now I’ve never made much of an effort to achieve the ambition.
I’m quite fond of quoting a certain piece of good advice to myself that comes from Agatha Christie: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started”. Quite right, if you don’t start something how can you expect to finish it? But it’s not only the starting that’s important, because if I give up now all I’ll have is 10,000 words of text with no middle and no ending. Right now, finishing it seems a long way off, but every journey begins with a single step, and each word I write takes me closer to the end result.
My personal attitude to achieving my goal is simply to crack on and write, even if it seems laboured and dreadful at times, which it does. However, with any luck there will be some gems amongst all the debris.
My mum used to take us shell collecting on beaches when we were small, and the aim was always to find some cowrie shells, which we prized highly because they were relatively rare where we were searching. Writing this novel is a bit like walking along a vast expanse of shelly beach. There are a number of nicely preserved shells of various types, amongst a lot of broken up pieces that have been smashed against rocks and eroded, and every now and then there’s a beautiful whole cowrie shell. A lot of what I write falls into the broken shells category, some into the nicely preserved but common shells department, and every now and then a cowrie, in the form of a neat little idea or a satisfyingly constructed sentence, pops up. These cowrie moments motivate me to keep walking along the beach.
It’s very easy to look at people who have succeeded at something you’re trying to do and assume that because you feel you can’t compete with them, there’s no point in trying. I’ve often thought like that about things in life, but I’ve gradually learned that there’s nothing to be gained from it, other than misery and a lack of self worth. J K Rowling was a struggling single mother living on benefits and suffering from clinical depression when she started writing about a young boy wizard. Her determination and drive to succeed are an inspiration. She had no idea her stories would bring her the fame and fortune that they have, she just wanted to write.
Regardless of her huge success, what inpsires me most about her is that she eventually did what she’d always wanted to do: write books. The only thing stopping me from completing a novel is myself, so if I don’t do it I will have only myself to blame. On the up side, if I do complete it, I’ll have a great sense of achievement. It’s a little early to say perhaps, but, after many years of doubting myself, I think I can in fact fulfil my dream.