Actually, that’s not true. For the last three months, I’ve been cranking through the first and second drafts of my latest novel. This is my third full-length book. I started the first one with great enthusiasm and naivety, and without a clue how to go about it. In writing the books, I’ve learned a lot, and I thought I’d share some thoughts on writing novels, and on how writing them informs my other work.
If I meet someone for the first time and tell them that I write novels, I get one of two responses. Either they say, “Oh, I’ve got a great idea for a book. I’m going to write it someday,” or they’re terribly impressed, as if I’ve done something rare, mysterious and impossible. This second response often comes from people who also write for a living, but for whom writing a novel seems an unconquerable Everest. However the best response I ever got from anyone was from my hairdresser. When I told her I was a writer, she said, “Wow. That must be amazing. You could just write anything. You could write… ‘It was warm’.”
I think she understood novel writing much better than she might have thought. It’s both what makes it the most exciting form, and what terrifies any right-thinking writer. Because you can write “it was warm”, or you can write “it was freezing”, or “it was steaming hot because we were on Mars”. The novel is the writer’s biggest, blankest canvas. You can create any world, with any weather, that you desire. Unlike commercial work, writing for TV, theatre or film or journalism, it’s a solitary journey. A little like stand-up comedy, it’s just you – just the contents of your brain, which you serve up to your reader.
People contemplating writing a book are also often frightened by the size. An average 300-400-page novel is about 100,000-120,000 words long. It takes a long time, but not an impossibly long time, to write that many words, and it requires courage and belief in what you’re writing to keep going. So many writers have 10,000, 20,000, even 50,000 words of a project, in which they’ve lost faith, and which they’ve abandoned. I’m not a better writer than they are. I’m just stubborn, and I keep going, no matter what. And thus to my first tip for would-be writers:
Keep calm and carry on
When I started writing This Year’s Black, I had the beginnings of an idea, but nothing more than that. I’d contemplated planning it all out, detailing plot points on index cards or creating a big chart, but instead, I just started writing. I was on a train, going to Leeds for a meeting. So I wrote until my laptop battery gave out, at which point I had 1,200 words. I had a novel with me (I think it was Tropic of Capricorn) and I counted the words on a page and did a rough calculation. There were about 120,000 words in that book. So I decided I’d write 1,200 words a day, every day, until I had a novel. It would take me 100 days. So I did. In just over three months, I had my first draft, and I’d broken the enormous psychological barrier that writing a book is too big a project to contemplate. It’s a technique I’ve used on each of my books. 1,200 words a day adds up to something substantial in no time at all. Once I’m well into the story, I make a list of plot points and I write a point a day, instead of hitting a word limit, but the principle is the same. I write seven days a week, no exceptions, and I have to keep moving forward. It means I can’t allow hiccups, writer’s block, apathy or lack of faith to stop me. If there’s a plot problem, I have to write round it. If there’s something I don’t know, I have to skip that bit and write the bit that comes next, and then fill in the gaps when I can do the research. But the most important thing is to keep going, or, as a lecturer of mine at Wits Drama School used to say, “Take your balls in your hand and walk forward.” He was teaching an all-female acting class at the time so it’s an oddly inappropriate metaphor, but we appreciated the spirit.
Once you have a first draft, you have the bulk of the work done. Editing, cutting, embroidering and changing are so much easier once the big picture has been drawn. It’s a technique I’ve used in many other writing projects. You can talk and talk about something, ask for refinements to the brief or pitch ideas, but it’s infinitely easier for clients to know what they want (and what they DON’T want), when there’s actually something down on paper. Also, with everything from ad copy to a script to a novel, any flaws in a concept will become glaringly apparent when you actually try to fly the thing.
In a film theory class many years ago, I learned this invaluable lesson: “If you see a gun in a drawer, someone is going to get shot”. And if they don’t, the audience will spend the whole movie worrying about the gun. Because a novel is such a big project, you can’t believe how many decisions you will make. You will invent (and name and describe) hundreds of characters, major and minor. You will map geographies of rooms, buildings and landscapes. You will build complex chronologies. Every choice you make is significant, or at least your reader/ audience will assume it is. If you mention the song that’s playing on the radio, they will think that song has resonance in the scene. This doesn’t mean you have to neatly resolve every little thread in a story. It just means if something is left unresolved, it should be because you meant it to be so. You’ll also find as you make these choices, that your characters will develop a life of their own. I was 80 percent of the way into this book when I realised that a choice I’d made for one of my characters was not something she would have done. I’d made her have a long-term affair with a married man, but the woman she was (or the woman she’d become in the course of writing), would never do that. I tried making excuses for her behaviour and justifying it in different ways, but eventually I had to go back through the book and remove all evidence of the affair. I liked her a lot better after that.
Keep hold of all the threads
On the same theme, it’s very easy to forget a detail you wrote three months ago and contradict yourself. In the third draft of one of my books, I realised I had four minor characters, all named Susan. In my latest book, The Baby Group, my three main characters are all pregnant, so I had to keep pregnancy calendars for each of them so I knew who was due a medical appointment, what the weather would be like and so on. Everyone makes mistakes: apparently Madam Bovary’s eyes change colour three times in the course of the book. You can’t rely on a copy editor to do this work for you. Be diligent about the details. It’s off-putting to the reader if they spot errors you should have picked up.
If you are writing every day, this becomes slightly easier, because you’re really living in the world of your novel. But it’s still important to keep notes on your characters and timelines. It also helps to get someone else to read it, as they may spot things you’ve missed. Again, this attention to detail is valuable in any writing project. Be alert for consistency in grammar, style, person and tense. Be your own copy editor, and do whatever helps you read most critically: many people prefer to read on paper than on screen, or find that reading aloud helps them to spot errors.
And finally…don’t give up when you fall off
As I said earlier, finishing the first draft of This Year’s Black removed a huge hurdle for me. I’d actually written a book, and it wasn’t that hard. I knew I could write another, and another. I think many people are scared to start because they’re afraid of failure. What if the book doesn’t work out? What if it isn’t published? The answer is simple. Write another one. You can only learn from your mistakes and successes and get better. You don’t have one story in you, you have lots. At this point, I’ve written four books. Two have been published. One did well, one bombed. The third, no one wanted to publish. That was very hard to deal with, as I believed it was my strongest work, but I got back on the horse, as it were. What will happen with this one?
Similarly in the commercial sphere, I’ve written stuff that has received awards and accolades. I’ve had work thrown back at me with the pithy critique, “This is sh*t”. I’ve done hundreds of pages of work that have, in effect, been ignored. But I’ve learned a lesson from every single job I’ve done. Some of the lessons were encouraging, some humbling. Sometimes the lesson was, “Don’t work for that idiot again”. But over twenty years, I know I’ve got better at what I do. I have years left to get even better. And that’s as good a reason for getting up and turning on the computer as I know.