When you first put pen to paper or finger to key, you might think it’s easy. There are definitely some of you out there who write novels the same way you gobble cake, quick, no fuss, but for many of us it’s not a picnic in the park. Here are five things I’ve learnt through writing a novel.
1) Let’s play dot to dot.
As I am writing my first novel, I spent an inordinate amount time thinking about plot and how much plotting I needed to do. Some people like a heavily detailed plot. Some like a heavily detailed outline and pages and pages of additional notes. Some prefer a two-page synopsis and a two-page sketch. Others like just a little light ordering of story, others wing the whole thing, living on a prayer with nothing but a simple idea and a man called Ray.
One is left with the choice and as in all things, if it’s your first foray into the novel, you will probably have no idea. For me, now I am coming towards the end of the editing process, in hindsight, I have realised that I am an excessive plotter. It makes me feel falsely secure and if my characters do give me any trouble, I know with a quick hand brake and an even more rapid u-turn I can bring them back, often after they’ve done something inherently stupid.
2) Characters walk off without even a goodbye.
People told me, constantly, that my characters would up and leave at some point. My colourful, symbiotic creations, the characters I vicariously lived through would choose a different path and make a run for it and I would be left waiting for them to return, like a dumped red- faced bride trying to snatch a remnant of dignity.
It felt too cliché, so I didn’t take adequate measures, instead, the day my antagonist got all creative and wandered off while giving me the dirty finger, I was shocked. I sort of sat there, comatose and when she returned and admitted she had killed a man, my alibi presented a problem.
Your characters will walk and it is honestly like trying to wrestle a salmon. Good luck!
3) Your story gets boring because you’ve read 355 times.
If you have a favourite book, you may have read it once, twice, three times or perhaps if you are really obsessive, maybe ten times. It doesn’t get boring and it also helps that there are often years of time between each comforting ending. It’s not the same with your own book. You read it over and over and over again and often end up wanting to pull the plug on the story and watch it surf down the plug hole like dirty bath water after you’ve cleared your head from lice.
I know my story so well, I think it happened to me. It’s a bit like a full time drunk who likes to tell you stories about their not-so-exciting life and you hear about how they had a row outside the café with Cliff in 1963 and how it came to fistycuffs but Cliff only had one arm. The drunk tells you the same tale every time you encounter him, let’s say, 44 times, so in the end you believe it happened to you, to the extent you’re dream about Cliff and honestly believe you’ve been taken over in some sort of non-attended séance sort of way.
You can’t read your manuscript twice a day for three months without wanting to shoot yourself in the head or trample on your Word document with steel toe-capped boots. It is worth remembering though, that no one else has read it – NO-ONE – and they will have a very different experience of Cliff. He will haunt them in a different way, probably get them sniffing glue or something.
So, don’t press delete.
Stay with us, Novelists.
4) Comma, comma, comma.
Wilde once said ‘I spent all morning taking out a comma and all afternoon putting it back.’ If you want to write a novel, be prepared, this will be you. If you were once laissez-faire about grammar, get ready to become a militant, like a terrorist, but fundamental about the full stop after west rather than The West.
Punctuation can feel rather monotonous, I know – it’s the humdrum to the novel – and although I have met many ‘Grammar Nazi’s’, I have never really understood them. Correcting people on Facebook for instance, seems rather pretentious. Not everyone can spell, knows how to use appropriate punctuation. I am more interested in the fact they are communicating. Unless they’re talking rubbish, then dangle them like a particle by all means.
What will change is the way you treat your own words. Suddenly punctuation will matter, as now it’s the way to dress your beautiful words and whether you are going for a grey pinstripe suit or something more casual, like a pink/purple shell suit, you demand it wears just the right attire to give emphasis to the material that matters.
5) You will never be fully sure.
I used to think you must get to a point with a novel, when you feel ready. You are now on your fifteenth draft. You’ve read it through 345 times. You have edited and rewrote, smoothed and polished and now it’s ready to be sent out into the world with a big red bow and a hard-working flourish. Except I don’t feel that sure and I am full of self-doubt and questions and during the night I wake up panicking because I think it’s shite and during the day, I read it and think it’s quite good, until ten minutes later when I become indifferent and wonder whether I should start again.
You will never be 100% sure, so get to 95% if you can or 90% on a bad day. Surround yourself with people who will support you, pull you through those icky percentages, keep you positive with plates laden with cake. If we all waited until we were absolutely sure, none of us would do anything. You have to put your big people pants on – they are over there by the way – and chase that dream.
I’ll be right behind you.
© Copyright Henrietta M Ross.
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© Copyright Henrietta M Ross.
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