How to Write Novel: Part 1


Image by Ralph Steadman.

Having finished Part 1 of 5 of The Novel,  now might be a good point to talk about how that got done. So, here goes…

I once pestered Jim about how he does his planning. In usual writery style he went into ten or twenty minutes of incoherent blather using his mouth, then went away and wrote it all down with great clarity and style on paper. His comments, and the writings of A L Kennedy, Stephen King, Martin Amis, Uncle Jim, Bisherwood, and any number of other writers on Writing all contributed to my thinking and doing on this. None of those people work in the same way. What follows is what has worked for me, so far.

The Throb

‘How do you come up with that?’ is one of the more flattering questions a writer can be asked. It’s also an unpleasant one to answer. While the process remains invisible it can also remain impressive. And you and the questioner can continue to look on your writing as the work of a genius, bestriding the world like a Colossus, great verdigrised balls dangling high above the peons who crawl about in their shadow.

Unforch, the reality is that ideas come not from genius but from an accretion of smaller ideas, each one thought up assessed and then followed for a little while until it starts to branch out into interesting possibilities.

For the current novel, I was originally thinking about writing a Vietnam novel, something based on the shlockier end of cinema’s dealings with the American involvement over there. But I was also on a kick of reading difficult books at the time, the variations of the voices and form of Ulysses got into my head. The verbal and temporal shenaniganising of Will Self’s Umbrella gave me more thoughts, and The Novel became a whole other thing. Something rather more serious and far less about Vietnam itself. More about the legacy.

Martin Amis talks about Nabokov talking about ‘the Throb’ a kind of building need to write one particular thing over the many others. It is one of the writerly metaphors I buy almost completely. For me it tends to feel more like a snowball as those notes accrete, so does motivation and research and thought-space. At some point it becomes The Thing to Be Done.

I wrote six first chapters for six different novels while I waited for the contractions to begin on one of them. In the end it was this.

The Wrong Way For Me.

The last two novels I wrote were written after Stephen King’s approach: one draft with the door closed, one with it open – the idea being to write the thing start to finish as fast as possible working out what it is as you go. When you get to the end you read it through and remould the mass of word clay into something more novel-pot shaped.

The result after the first draft for both of those last two novels was something too close to a novel to make a total rewrite acceptable, but much much too far from anything coherent or readable to be worth saving. They were worthwhile exercises and the process was educational. I wouldn’t be writing the current work as well as I am, if I hadn’t got those two failures under my belt.

So it turns out, Stephen King’s approach was not the one for me. I might still recommend it to someone just starting out. There is a sense of momentum, and of fun, in seeing your word count build. And it gives you a huge pile of rough sentences to go over and correct and learn all the ways to say things badly from. The more you write the more you learn about writing, and the faster you write the sooner that learning comes. Assuming you are stopping regularly to pore over the words you are producing.

Step 1– Prep Work

So with the new novel a far greater level of planning is involved. So I have fussed more, working out how my many narrators interact, and the different plot threads, theme threads, needle and threads connect up or work together. I also needed to do a ton of research on the late sixties in America and Vietnam and early noughts in the UK.

But research is not just stuff like ‘When were the moon landings?’, ‘Could someone have eaten KFC in 1969?’, or ‘Was 9/11 on a Friday?’. It was also things like seeing how other writers had handled similar themes, settings, or formal approaches. That lead to one of my favourite things: reading lists (click to see mine here).

The prep period was – or rather ‘is’ as the whole business continues even as I write the darn thing – also a time of just mulling. After reading stuff, I have to think stuff, then scribble the stuff down before I forget it. I suspect that in a lifetime everyone has the ideas for a great work of art; but because your brain – like mine, and like Soylent Green – is made of people those ideas are lost the minute attention is diverted. This is why writers should always carry notebooks. Always. Just like I would if I didn’t constantly forget them. Also pens, carry pens.

The notes, when they do get writ, are rarely original. They’re more likely to be triggered by some fact (For example, have you heard of Operation Wandering Soul?) but also things I watch or read. Sometimes it’s a case of ‘I have seen X done before, how could it be done in a fresh as fresh new way?’ or something more along the lines of ‘Y is great, what is the next logical step to that?’ or sometimes just, ‘Z is great. Let’s do Z, but in space.’ The old saying about ‘bad artists borrow, great artists steal’ applies.

Step 2– Outlining

At some point the miasm of notes, thoughts, ideas, sexual fantasies, &c… begin to condense into a sticky dew. At which point a more analytical sort of brain steps in and starts to order the fragmented notes (and images and sentences and plot lines and characters and trivia) into something that might, if you squint, start to look like a blueprint for a piece of art.

With this novel I broke the whole thing down vertically into columns which represent the chronology of the book, and horizontally into rows threads which represent various elements: in this book there are several time periods running concurrently, and different narrators for each. Then I add another row for thematic development and another for general notes.

Once I had a sort of map sorted in my head and on paper, I moved on to to a planning document, referring to the table I drop the notes into a rough sort of order, hen jot down specific scenes.

As I go along the planning document changes; I write from start to finish so I have detailed notes of the next few chapters, then less detailed notes for the chapters after that, and vague sentences outlining the sections beyond that; the further away the sentences are from being written, the vaguer those sentences.

Step 3– Drafting

I then set up another document to act as a workspace, notes are transferred here scene by scene. Sentences are jotted down, paragraphs too. Bit by bit they get linked up into scenes or sequences, and finally chapters.

As a section takes shape I go over it again and again filling in the gaps and correcting the more heinous incidences of cliche and general ugliness. Once it looks roughly right, it goes into the first draft document which will eventually contain the entire work in progress.

So far the first draft doc contains the thirteen chapters of section 1.

Step 3.1 – Words

When time, and concentration, are on my side the process of writing looks something like  this article by A L Kennedy only less accomplished. A sort of slow working and reworking, fussing over word choice and rhythm. Looking for something that is stylish and which works with the themes and atmosphere of the particular scene and the general book.

The writing of sentences involve a few main concerns. The negative concerns are avoiding clunky phrasing, ugly repetition, accidental rhyme (deliberate rhyme – or half rhyme – is fine), words with the wrong connotations, phrases containing  dead language, phrases containing cliches. The problem is that the first thought is always the most natural, but it is also the most likely to be derivative. Borrowed language is, as the joke goes, to be avoided like the plague.

The positive concerns of writing sentences are packing as much plot, character, theme, and what A L Kennedy calls ‘atmosphere’ in one of her other essays, as possible into every fragment of language. While doing this you are also looking to make something that sounds readable and/or euphonic and/or stylish and/or beautiful. It has to serve a function in the scene, be clear in what it is describing, and never lose sight of the way the book as a whole works.

The sentence by far the most enjoyable and/or gruelling bit of the writing process for me. As world building, or storytelling, or seeing what characters will do next is for others.

I think there is a subtle divide, one which lives close to the genre/literary divide, between those who enjoy the creation of the story: plot (Dan Brown), character (Chandler), and world building (Tolkien); and those who enjoy dealing with ideas or concepts (Huxley); and with those for whom all of that is just a vehicle for fucking about with words  (Amis, M).

Step 3.2 – The Scene

At a scene level I tend to rush, often back and forth, over the scene. Or write one ideas progression, and go back in the next pass writing in the other thought, or the action, or whatever.

Scenes for me tend to be built up step by step out of stage directions (blocking and dialogue, who goes where, does what, in the course of the scene), exposition (what information is revealed about stage directiony stuff that isn’t directly in the scene), and thoughts. Other passes may focus on tightening up things like how a symbol is used, or details which point to something that I don’t want to state explicitly but I want to be there in the text.

This more rushed the back and forth the more work to be done either in later passes, or in future when I come to do the second draft.

Step 4 – Rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting.

The result of all those threads and sentences is a block of material which should read like a coherent passage. At that point I start to go over it, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, smoothing out the wrinkles, fixing grammar and typos. If it needs big structural changes, or just seems dull, I’ll add notes to look specifically at large scale changes in the second draft.

The ‘step’ nature of this essay is a bit misleading, as at this point and for most of the process all four stages have been in progress, overlapping. I start new scenes before putting old ones to bed. I’ll fuss over sentences before I’ve worked out what all the threads of a scene will be, and I’ll stop mid-scene to go and write an overview of something else later in the book. There’s no hard split between these stages.

Step 5 – ….and Beyond.

So I go back and forth over it all. And then again. And again. Once I can’t see it anymore – because its all patterned too deeply into my retinas, and neural networks, then I copy and paste the piece of writing into a third Document entitled FIRST DRAFT.

Or at least that’s what happens in a perfect world, more likely I rewrite it till I’m sick of it.

And then it is onwards towards the second section.



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