When I first began writing A Grand Old Time, I was a master’s student. A 30,000-word opening to a novel plus a 20,000-word analytical document wasn’t a great ordeal. I’ve never been troubled by a word count. However, despite researching a range of novelists and considering their advice about writing, I was a novice and so the process of planning and writing a novel of between eighty-five and ninety thousand words was a learning curve.
Now I am about to have my third novel published, with a couple more novels written and waiting in the wings, and another two in a slightly different genre pre-edited, I have more experience of the process of writing a novel. It has to be said that the important place to start is to know yourself as a writer: we are not all the same in terms of our preference of planning, writing, editing, researching, being inspired and we do not all share the same work ethos. Once we know our foibles, fallibilities and strengths, we can steel ourselves against the rocky moments that might happen during the novel writing process, promise ourselves that we’ll be gentle with ourselves, and make a start.
Here is my seven stage guide to novel writing. It has to be said, not everyone will share the same experience, but if my guidelines help anyone else, I’m delighted.
Stage 1: Thinking. The idea of what to write, stotyline, themes and characters come first for me, and inventing them is not something I have ever worried about. Ideas come from all around us and the hard part is turning an experience, a headline, a conversation, a place, a moment into an inspiring story. I know other authors have asked friends and family for ideas about what they should write; some people draw inspiration from photographs, travel, from reading: whatever works for the individual is fine. Once you have an idea, it may be best to let it sit for a bit. Stir it around and let it ferment. At this stage, I usually ask myself to think outside the box. Do I want to start from this point? Is there another way the story might be more impactful, surprising, unusual? So not rushing stage one is important.
Stage Two: Scribbling first thoughts down. I usually work with a wheel, or a ‘clock’ shape. Twelve o’clock is the start and the finish, and I plot events around it. I assume that six o’clock will be around forty five thousand words. Then I look at my scribbles as a tension graph. Is there a good mixture of ‘up and down’, comedy and pathos, action and reaction? My ideas are tentative at this point and not ever fixed, not until a novel is published. I find it useful to know how my story will begin, how it will end, and to plot a few important points of tension or change as the novel progresses. Flexibility is important, the opportunity to change my mind as I write. But I start with a plan and, because I like to invent as I go, I keep it loose. This allows me to respond to the needs of the novel, the characters, the action and to change direction and surprise myself as I write. This isn’t a perfect plan: people who like every detail on paper before they start will not work this way: it will feel far too much like flying by the seat of your pants.
Stage Three: Making a start. I try to start somewhere interesting, at a point where the reader will want to find out what will happen next and I write the first thirty thousand words. How much I write can vary but it isn’t hard to write two thousand words a day; I have written six thousand on some days when I have the ‘bug’ and I can’t leave the novel alone. At this point, I don’t know if the novel will ‘grab’ me: there may be some exposition at the beginning, a lot of getting to know the characters myself, but I want to make the story’s development as interesting as I can. So the first ten chapters are written to make the storyline and characters as good as I can make them on the first writing, then I stop and read it back. If I’m not motivated at this point, I won’t write any more. It’s shelved for another day, one that may never come, or I may just steal an idea from it another time. It has to be said, it’s rare now that I abandon something at this stage: I’m getting better at knowing what I can work with.
Stage Four: Doubts and fears. This is the point where doubts creep in and you have to be quite resilient and follow your instinct. Writers are human and they are creative sensitive beings, so it’s natural to doubt the novel’s appeal and potential when you’re only forty or fifty thousand words through writing it. Sometimes, I wonder whether I’ve got a character ‘right’, whether the story ‘sings’ enough, whether it will work as a whole novel. I find it helps to have a friend or a colleague who will read it as you progress: it’s a fair indicator, as long as you trust the person, of the story’s power to intrigue and absorb. Choosing the right person is important: not everyone will like your novels, so you need someone who understands you and who likes the genre. And you need to trust yourself, your skills, your ability to create something worthwhile and you need to believe that you can see it through to the end because, if there is a point where you doubt yourself, this is often it. You are too far in to stop, too far from the end to believe you can make it to the finish. But you can.
Stage Four: The second half of the novel. Writing the rest of the novel, based on your initial plan, is not too hard now from about fifty thousand words, especially if you have organised your story plan in the earlier stages and allowed it to change as it needed to. Once you arrive at seventy and eighty thousand words, you are usually clear about what will happen at the end. At this stage, writing profusely and eagerly is part of the impetus that carries the characters and the action to its conclusion, whatever that may be. I enjoy this stage a lot.
Stage Five: Writing the ending. The last few chapters should not be predictable unless you have made that decision for a good reason. All loose ends need to be tied up, and it’s always nice to finish a novel in a place where the reader feels satisfied that they have had a good deal from the story and the characters: they haven’t been cheated of whatever they invested in from page one. Conclusions are important and although less may be more in terms of the final few paragraphs, and a writer may want to leave an opportunity for a book two, the ending should always enable the reader to stop at a point where their quest, the quest they have shared with the main protagonist, has been in some way fulfilled. There has to be a sense of fairness that the writer has held the reader in safe hands throughout the story. It usually takes me ten to twelve weeks to write the whole novel, even more if the sun is shining and there’s a beach nearby.
Stage Six. Edit like mad. I like to leave the novel for a day or two if not more, and then go through it and edit it several times. I’m looking first of all for howlers, big mistakes, things that don’t work in the story or the characters. Then I’m looking for expression, phrases, readability, making sure that the novel flows well. I want to weed out any inaccuracies of place, time, person, or any factual inaccuracies. At this point, I will ask others to read through and I will consult technical experts. It’s useful to have an editor or reader with a keen eye who will say ‘that won’t work because…’ (My agent is a genuis and a huge asset at this stage.) Then of course there are the typing errors, stupid things you can’t believe you wrote, flying commas and apostrophes, ridiculous repetition and the senseless sentence that occurred when the cat put his backside on the keyboard.
Stage Seven. Let go of the reins. The minute your novel is accepted for publication, a team of experts will work alongside the author and it’s important to go with the flow. In my experience, if an editor says ‘I think you should change that…?’ she or he is probably right and you should change it. There will perhaps be an odd occasion where something is really important to the writer and you can have a discussion about it but my general belief is that an experienced editor knows the market, the genre and the industry, so I tend to trust her judgement. The editing process is remarkable and I find it a real opportunity and a privilege to learn from people with vast amounts of skill and experience. I really enjoy the editing process, and my interaction with professionals influences for the better the way I will work. Copy editors and proof readers are invaluable: they pick up all sorts of embarrassing mistakes, calm down the excessive hyphens and they always know exactly whether everything is all right or alright. They do fascinating work, and theirs is a job I certainly couldn’t do, not having their infinite patience and great eyesight.
At this point, your novel has been on a long journey and it may be ready to go onto the shelves. So, you might think about starting another novel and then the seven stages begin again, but that is a blog for another time perhaps.