‘There is only one thing to do with a novel and that is go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.’ – Ernest Hemingway
I needed to start writing a new novel. (And there – I’ve already jinxed it by mentioning Hemingway. The presumption!)
There are probably as many ways of writing a book as there are books. Here’s what works for me.
I’ve been thinking about the story for at least six months. During that period I have also worked on other things. Publishing my first book (Among the Living – see 15 December), doing a couple of short stories. My day job has also been busy.
All this time I thought about the story I wanted to tell. I didn’t write much down. Putting things in writing too soon closes down options, narrows the choices. As soon as you write the first sentence, the infinite possibilities in your head start to collide with brutal reality. Each sentence closes off roads the story could have taken.
So I do a lot of daydreaming. This is what I think of as the composting stage. The ideas need time to mix together, to ferment and grow, without being led too directly. This can take quite a while.
Once I have a broad outline, it’s time to do something that feels more like work.
Opinions differ on how much planning to do before you write the first draft. Stephen King famously claims he rarely works out the plots of his books in advance. He prefers to put a group of characters in a situation and watch them work their way out of it. Stephen King is a fantastic writer, but I don’t know how he does that. I don’t think I could make it work for me.
I do however understand his mistrust of plotting. On the one hand it feels too risky to plunge into writing a draft without having a fairly good idea of the beginning and the end, and something about what happens in the middle. On the other hand, I fear that if I worked out the story in too much detail before starting to write it would lose its freshness.
My compromise is to write a three or four page summary of the story, along with one to two page descriptions of the main characters. Then, to give me a sketch map to guide the first draft, I write a sentence to say what happens in each scene. For this novel, I did that months ago and then put it aside.
The time comes when you have to get stuck in. Obviously you write whenever you can. But for me the most productive approach is to force myself into a place with no distractions. Where I am as alone as possible with my thoughts. Only when you clear your mind of the routine claims on it do you allow creativity to bubble up. Your characters move into the space you give them, the story comes to life.That is especially necessary at the start, before the story has begun to tell itself.
Loneliness and boredom are key. (Unfortunately.) In order to get a running start at a new story, I find it’s necessary to get sufficient loneliness in the bank. Then, as you write, you mine that quarry of loneliness and it’s surprising what you dig out.
So I recently exiled myself to the wintry seaside and worked hard to be lonely. I love Broadstairs (see July 2nd – Broadstairs – It’s Also About Time). But I have to admit that in winter, and on the cusp of a triple-dip recession, it’s an easy place in which to be lonely.
A fine place to write a thousand words, then pack up the laptop and go for a bone-chilling walk in the dark. To have a pint in an empty pub, followed by dinner in an empty curry house, and a walk back past empty shop fronts. A place to watch the wind whipping the cold sea against the beach.
But the book was underway. Whether it turns out to be any good is not this weeks’ problem.