It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. That’s how it felt for me, anyway. Fifty thousand words under my belt, the finishing line in sight, the light positively dazzling at the end of the tunnel. Almost there. That glorious point almost in touching distance, finally, where the only task remaining would be to mop up all the metaphors.
But then, without warning, where’d the road go? I’d been in Narnia, it felt like, dreamily wandering the pretty footpaths and then – oof – I’d hit the back of the wardrobe.
Ah, thought I. That’ll be writer’s block, won’t it? No. No, it wasn’t that at all.
Back when I wrote my first novel, I didn’t have much of a plan. Like many an aspiring novelist, I’d devoured endless how-to-do-it books, and, for reasons that now escape me, had formed this idea that as long as I beavered away diligently enough – threw enough imagination at it, really went for it – my story would probably just ‘all come together’. I’d started with such a clear sense of purpose, after all – started fast and pretty furiously, in fact, the words tumbling out of me, racing to grab the best spots on the page.
But a novel is a multi-faceted beast. A wild animal. You think you’ve domesticated it, but sometimes it strains against your stewardship, and at other times, it breaks free and gallops clean away.
My novel bolted. Upped and ran and made a break for the border, to ‘drawer-full-of-unfinished-novels-ville’. And though I reined it in eventually (if rather clumsily, with the benefit of hindsight) I learned the first of many lessons about novel-writing from the experience, namely that if you fail to plan you are without doubt planning to fail.
Which is no help to anyone who’s at that 50,000 thousand word point, which is why when I’m teaching, my single biggest mantra is ‘plan it first, plan it first, plan it first’. And by that I don’t mean sketch it out, throw some ideas together, lay out a few variables, I mean plan it in its entirety before you start. It’s the one thing I bang on about ad nauseum. Indeed, the first thing I tell my assembled would-be novelists every term is that if they are committed to the ‘start writing and see where it takes you’ method, they are probably better employed getting the bus home than listening to me wittering on.
Not that I’m some sort of despot or dictator. The truth is that writing in an exploratory fashion is an option. And if you’re not terrifically goal-orientated, it can be a creatively satisfying one too. But if you do have a goal, and that goal is to write a publishable novel in a reasonable time frame, you stand an infinitely greater chance of achieving that aim if you know two key things at the outset:
1. What you are trying to say (as in what aspect of the human condition will form the central preoccupation of your novel).
2. Exactly how you are going to say it.
Well, okay, not that simple. Even though it should be such a self-evident pair of statements, you’d be surprised how many would-be novelists fail to think either through, before embarking on a writing spree about some oh, so compelling character or other, in what’s invariably a great rush of inspiration and enthusiasm (‘I can see that first chapter so completely I can almost taste it!’) with only a loose idea of some ‘stuff’ that’s going to happen to them, that they’ll ‘sort out a bit more’ once they get there. (Ah, yes, that will have been me.)
So stop. Take a breath. Think what it is you want to say. About life, about the universe, about being human, above everything. Then, once you have the answer to question 1 nailed (the redemptive power of love, say, or the consequences of rampant megalomania) answering question 2 should be the first step on the novel writing process and ideally the one to which you devote all your energies before creating that exciting file called ‘chapter 1’.
Which might take months, even a year, so it’s easier said than done, obviously. You’re a writer – you have that itch and you badly need to scratch it, and it would be unrealistic to deny yourself completely. When I’m planning I often find myself writing whole pages of dialogue, just because the action of creating the framework of the story, makes them spring so beguilingly to life. (In writing terms, this is what’s known as a Very Good Day.) You might also find yourself scene-setting, describing minor characters, scribbling down important observations and reflections, writing ‘YESS! The REAL reason X feels so anguished about Y’s actions is because he thinks SHE was the one who did Z to A and B!!!!!’. Also good. You might even want to type yourself some kisses.
But the most important thing to know is how and where your novel is going to end. You need to plan to a degree which means you have the whole thing wrapped up. How else (think about this) will you know how and where to begin it? Because to make a fine novel you need those two points to be connected – to have a relationship with one another that’s clear to see.
Some disagree, I know, and that’s their right. Some speak convincingly about the mystical beauty of the unconscious creative process. Others make a case for there being no fun in writing a novel if you already know what’s going to happen. A third group wax lyrical about the joy of creating characters who run away on their own journeys and do as they please, however hard they try to tell them what to do.
But I beg to differ. Writing a novel is a completely joyous process precisely because you know what’s going to happen to your characters, in order to illustrate what it is you are burning to say. I write towards, always, because the journey is so thrilling. The thrill of getting to the bit where… the fun of knowing you’ll soon be writing the bit when… the tingle of anticipation you get when you know you’ll soon be penning that seat of the pants, life-changing row.
Yes, of course things might change. That’s a given. In that first novel of mine I was three quarters through when I found myself wondering if my original, sketchy ending was, in fact, the right one to choose. Should she forgive or should she not? Should she even want to? Now I’d taken her on her journey (note that’s ‘taken’, not ‘accompanied’; you, the author, are the supreme being here) I was having a bit of a re-think about her options. (That’s another good thing about being a novelist – you learn so much about yourself along the way). In the end, I stuck with Plan A, but I also learned another valuable lesson; that if you feel a powerful urge to radically change the ending of a novel, you will, in all probability, need to make radical changes to the beginning and middle of it too. (In writing terms, this constitutes a Very Bad Day.)
On the whole though, my experience is that if you do your planning properly, such potentially seismic plot-shifts almost never happen. Yes, the small glorious eureka moments still find you, and you’ll embrace them, but that gut-churning ‘this isn’t hanging together’ feeling shouldn’t, because you’ve mapped out your story in sufficiently fine detail that you’ll have already (oh, dear me – all these metaphors upon metaphors) spied them on the horizon and headed them off at the pass.
Which brings me back to that wardrobe. Or, more importantly, to ‘drawer-full-of-unfinished-novels-ville’, which lies just off to the east, by the dresser. Don’t let your novel go there – heaven knows, it’s already chock-full to bursting with them, isn’t it? Plan it before you write it. That’s an order.
NOVEL. Plan it. Write it. Sell it. By Lynne Barrett-Lee. Published by Thistle. 19.08.13.
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