My novel began life as a short story about a young girl in the 1960s, but it has grown into a family saga beginning in the 1920s and ending in the present day.
In writing it, I sometimes feel as if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, especially for a first timer. When I began, I had no idea how big a project it would turn out to be, how long it would take, or how difficult it would be to write and plot. Even if I’d known, I suspect I’d have gone ahead anyway, because it really was the only story I was burning to tell.
Since then, I’ve revised my novel many, many times—I no longer count the number but at a conservative estimate, it’s probably 16 or 17—and I’ve learned a lot more about novel writing.
I tried to make a list of things I’ve learned about novel writing to post on this blog, but it kept growing, so I’ve split it into parts.
Please bear in mind, this is only my opinion. It’s what I’ve learned, things that have helped me, and these things may not resonate with other writers. Also, it’s only up to this point in time—to the point of having a final draft of a novel that might never be published—so I may have it all completely wrong.
The list is also incomplete as I suspect I still have a lot to learn …
So here are 10 Things I’ve Learned About Novel Writing—An Incomplete List
1. Just get the story down
Especially in the first draft, I concentrated on writing the story. I had a vague idea of where my story might end, but I didn’t know how it was going to get there. So I just wrote, and often I wrote quite simply, using words like ‘got’ and ‘went’, allowing clichés, and using three adjectives to describe something.
As I wrote, however, I gathered momentum and the words came more easily, and often they were the right ones. It was as if I needed to ‘write myself in’.
I know some writers craft their stories sentence-by-sentence and don’t continue until each sentence is perfect. I tried but it didn’t work for me. I ended up bogged down, having lost the flow of my thoughts. The paragraph would end up beautiful and lyrical, but with no forward momentum and almost at a tangent to the story.
Sometimes, a scene or concept wasn’t fully formed in my head when I started writing, but I had a feeling something was waiting to be uncovered and the only way to access it was by writing.
Other times, I was attempting to capture a fleeting idea before it vanished. And sometimes, there were deep feelings attached to some of the scenes and I had to dig in amongst all that (See also #10).
For me, writing fast helped and later, when I had the scene written, I could return and polish the sentences.
Sometimes the scene came out fully realised—especially if it was highly emotionally charged—but other times, all I could write were the bare bones. Nevertheless, I wrote on and returned to those scenes later and fleshed them out.
I found that by concentrating on telling the story, most of the time the words came, and surprisingly often they were the right words.
2. Write in any order
If an idea came, I wrote that scene. Even if I didn’t know if or where it would fit in my story, I used the momentum of wanting to write that scene at that time.
The downside of this is that not every scene fits into the novel. The upside is, those that do feel alive and have energy.
3. Explore and Play
I don’t worry about ‘wasted’ words. In fact, I don’t believe in wasted words. All the words, sentences and paragraphs I’ve typed have helped me take the story where it needed to go, even if they haven’t made it to the final draft.
As I wrote, I explored different pathways my story could go. I wrote scenes to see what happened. Some of my favourite scenes came from loose ideas that I didn’t think would work but that I tried out anyway.
Plus, experimenting and playing with words is fun!
4. Be disciplined About Making Time to Write
This was the biggest lesson I had to learn.
I had to make space in my day to write—that space didn’t happen by itself. I asked my husband to take the kids to sport or get dinner. My kids became used to me not always being with them because I was writing. I said ‘No’ to coffee mornings with friends—not all the time, but often—so I could write while the kids were at school. I served ready-made dinners because I’d spent the day writing. I got up at five o’clock, before the rest of the family, because that was the quietest time of the day. I switched off social media and concentrated on writing. I sat at my computer for hours and typed.
And I stopped feeling guilty about any of it.
I didn’t make these changes suddenly or dramatically. I made small, incremental steps towards more writing time. The thing is writing begets writing, and it became a habit, then an addiction, and now I get anxious and annoyed if I don’t get my fix!
There were a couple of activities I wasn’t prepared to give up—like my walks and my children’s music lessons—so I drew an inviolable line around those.
5. Write in your authentic voice
I wrote about the problems I had finding my voice in Trusting My Voice in 2013, and I still have issues from time to time.
I’m still learning and I’m not confident in my writing style. Every time I read a brilliant novel, I want to write like that author. Consequently, there were sections of my novel that had a Margaret Atwood/Tim Winton/Richard Flanagan feel—you could almost pick what I’d been reading at the time I wrote those chapters.
As my narrator is an elderly lady, not all of these styles suited her. A few times when I was re-reading, I thought, ‘Ida would not say that!’ and re-wrote the section in Ida’s words.
6. Write your heart and soul onto the page
Even if it sounded silly or weird or embarrassing, I wrote it (see also #10 below). When I re-read it, often it wasn’t as dramatic or stupid or over the top as I’d thought—it was genuine and true. Even if it was a bit much, at least I’d conveyed the emotion I was aiming for and I could pare it back.
And often these sections resonated most with readers.
7. Write about what you really want to write about
Because it will come out in your writing anyway!
I tried to write around my topic. It was meant to be an aside but not the main theme of my novel. I thought I’d succeeded until Carol at Varuna told me what she thought was the theme of my book, which was the very issue I was trying to write around but not about.
I thought about rewriting it and concentrating on other themes, but in the end I just accepted this was the theme, I obviously needed to write it, so I just went with it.
8. Trust your subconscious
I firmly believe our subconscious is the key to story-telling—it’s imaginative and creative and so authentic. Time and again it came up with wonderfully unique ideas that I could never have consciously thought up.
At the time when I was writing my novel, I didn’t notice some of the themes and associations. Then as I re-read it, I spotted links and connections of which I hadn’t been aware.
The hardest part is tapping into that wonderful pool of creativity that is our subconscious. First thing in the morning works well for me, when I’m only half-awake. Sometimes, ideas come as I’m walking, showering or driving, and they come when I’m immersed in my story:
9. Immerse yourself in your story
My best periods of writing were when I was immersed in my novel. I’ve described my time at Varuna, but even at home in my attic, I still get immersed. I forget about the room, the time and my family, and just see the world of my story.
On a good day, I can become so immersed I feel as if I’m writing the story from within, as if it’s real and happening around me, and I love that feeling—the words flow and they’re often the right ones, even on a first draft.
Of course, it’s impossible to stay immersed all the time—I have a family, and Appointments I Must Attend, and Dinner That Must Be Cooked. Some days, I’m lucky if I get twenty minutes at home during the day, so I often take my laptop with me—to school pick-ups, assemblies, orthodontist appointments, music lessons. (I’m typing this at the hairdressers—she probably thinks I’m very antisocial!)
Sometimes, the rest of the world can fade into the background so much, I startle when my child opens the car door and feel quite peeved that my writing time has ended!
10. Write towards the fear
I learnt this in the Freefall course I did in 2012. Write towards where the energy is. If it’s there for the writer, it’ll be there for the reader, too, and chances are the reader will relate.
It’s easier to do this in fiction than in autobiographical writing—but in order to write authentically about what my characters were doing and feeling, I had to access my own emotions, which was sometimes painful.
Sometimes, I wasn’t aware I was avoiding writing about certain things, not until it was pointed out to me. I forced myself to write in that direction and the thing was, it was never as bad as I thought it would be. Actually, it was a relief to let it all out in the privacy of my attic and then to read it so dispassionately on a screen.
These are some of the things I’ve learned about novel writing. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means as I’m still on the learning curve and my novel writing safari is far from complete. In a few years, I’ll probably re-read it with much wiser eyes …
I’m tidying up a post on Things I’ve Learned about Editing a Novel, which I’ll also post.
I hope some of these lessons resonate with other writers, and until next time, happy writing!