Friday 19 July 2019

So you want to write your very own novel?

It's been on your resolution list for years now, but somehow never gets done. So how do you finally write that book? Bestselling novelist Emily Hourican has some advice

Journalist and author Emily Hourican at her desk. Photo: David Conachy
Journalist and author Emily Hourican at her desk. Photo: David Conachy
Emily signs copies of her book ‘The Privileged’. Photo: Justin Farrelly.

How to write a novel? Well, there's the short answer, and the long answer.

The short answer is - just write it. Sit down, write one word, then another, then another, until you have written around 90,000 of them. Once you get to 90,000, cut that back to about 80,000, and, technically anyway, you have a novel.

Obviously, you must not sit there and think about writing 90,000 words, because chances are, if you do, you will crumble under the weight of all those many, many words and see nothing but the impossibility of it all. Just write a sentence, then another. Watch as those sentences become a paragraph, then a page, then a chapter, and so on.

In fact, really, you should not be thinking about word count at all. You should be thinking about your story, your characters, what you want to say, what you want the reader to feel and understand. Get those things right, and word count will fall into place.

Emily signs copies of her book ‘The Privileged’. Photo: Justin Farrelly.
Emily signs copies of her book ‘The Privileged’. Photo: Justin Farrelly.

But now we are veering into the long answer, so let's go back a bit.

First, maybe 'Why' is a better question than 'How'. A startling number of people, asked what one thing they would most like to do, instead of saying 'surf the Banzai Pipeline', answer 'write a book'.

There is a need in all of us to tell stories, the stories we have within us, that are us. Writing a novel is high on so many New Year To Do lists that it is fighting 'Exercise More' for the top spot.

And yet, for so many, it stays there, on that list, year after year. It doesn't get ticked off. Because writing books is not easy. This is why so many people have the outline of a novel, the first 40 pages of one, or perhaps even a first draft that they know simply doesn't work and needs to be rewritten, but not a finished manuscript. Writing novels is hard. It's not coal-mining hard, but it is hard. Writing good novels is even harder.

Before we go further with this, and despite the very deep reluctance that I, like all Irish people, obviously have when it comes to self-promotion - if I'm going to give you tips on writing a novel, you need to know that I have some credentials.

I have published three novels so far, with the fourth coming out in June. My first novel, The Privileged, was short-listed in the Best Popular Fiction category at the 2016 Irish Book Awards, and all three have sold well and been well reviewed, (a smattering of examples: "Beautifully constructed and elegantly told", "gripping page-turner", "compelling, cleverly-constructed page-turner", "as with most great writing, this packs plenty of truth and social commentary beneath its story", "character-driven drama in the vein of Maeve Binchy, a Circle of Friends for the 21st Century").

So that's me. Trumpet-blowing aside, the thing I am proudest of with these four novels? The fact that I wrote them at all. That I finished them, and delivered them, rather than giving in to the panic of a blank page and the tyranny of 90,000 words to write.

I have written around my regular work as a journalist and editor, with small children, while sick (my first novel was published six months after a cancer diagnosis), when I felt I had nothing to say. I have done edits from a hospital bed and a radiotherapy waiting room, and while on holiday. Because really, sometimes the short answer is the correct answer. How to write a novel? Just write it.

That said, there are things that will make the 'just writing' easier.

Every writer starts somewhere different. For some, it's a character, and a desire to see how that character behaves under pressure. For others it's a story, a plot, a set of circumstances. It can be a sentence, an idea, one particular image. Really, it doesn't matter.

Some writers will have an entire book mapped out in their heads or on paper before they begin. Others will have one line, and curiosity. Again, it doesn't matter. There is no one way to do this. Find your way. Trust it, follow it. See what happens.

That said, keep to the way. Writing can be like crossing treacherous marshland lit only by a will-o'-the-wisp. If you let yourself be distracted, it is all too easy to be beguiled down different paths; paths that may be perfectly interesting, but they are not part of your journey. Be ruthless about staying away from them. A novel is different to old-style seanachai storytelling, and, with a few notable exceptions, anything too digressive and wandering gets boring. Ask yourself: does this further my story? Does this get me to where I want to go? If the answer is no, scrap it (If the distraction is really good, you can save it in a new document. Maybe it belongs in your next book?)

This brings me to my next tip. Not all good ideas fit. It may be a brilliant twist, but does it actually belong? Again, be ruthless. This isn't an old curiosity shop selling bits and pieces of everything, it's a novel. Keep it coherent.

Who are you writing as? Are you a first person narrator? Third-person? Second-person (very tricky, but has worked well for Joyce Carol Oates and Jay McInerney). Does the story you are telling, the character you are creating, belong in the style you have given it? This is worth spending a bit of time over in the very early days. How do you get that person on the page so that they spring off it and into the mind of the reader? Remember, there are strengths, and limitations, to each narrative form. Maybe try a couple and see what feels best?

Hang out with your characters. The more time you spend with them, in your head, the better you will know them, and therefore the better able you will be to know how they would behave in the situations you put them in. Think about them, sketch out their homes, wardrobes, hobbies, early lives (in your mind, you don't need to write this down). Go on walks with them, watch them at work, at parties. Learn them.

Write every day. Even if it's only a few lines. You need to stay in your book until it is finished. If you take too long a break, you will lose your thread, no matter how many careful notes you made. All good books have a thread running through them, you need to keep hold of the thread, and keep stringing beads on to it.

Sometimes, what looks like writing is procrastination. Sorry, but it is. There are only so many background notes that are worth making. Only so many times you can tweak your 'outline'. Eventually, you are going to have to dive in: "Once upon a time there was…"

Don't wait for inspiration. Obviously. Don't wait for anything actually - not approval, not a book deal, enough time, an agent. If you want to write, now is the moment to do it.

As for inspiration, chase it. Open the doors to it. Create a benign environment for it. How? By writing and thinking about writing. That's when it comes.

If you are really stuck - mix it up. Go out and take a walk, listen to music, paint a picture, cook something. Take your laptop into a different room, go to a coffee shop, write longhand in the garden. Just don't get hung up on the idea of the spirit moving you. Whoever said invention is 90pc perspiration (OK, it was Thomas Edison), was right.

I am not a fan of fetishising the writing process. There is no room in my writing life for special notebooks and fountain pens with violet ink, with the moon in a particular quarter. That said, I am a fan of having something - anything - to make notes with, wherever you are. A phone, a notepad, the back of an envelope and a biro. Have these everywhere: in your bag, by your bed, in the car. You never know when an idea will hit, and if you're anything like me, no matter how good the idea is, it may not stick around. Scribble it down.

Not everything is fixable. This is one of the most gutting of realisations. Sometimes, no amount of rewriting will sort that chapter or section out. Sometimes, you need to chuck it and write it all over again, from scratch, using perhaps a different angle, a different perspective or tone. It's painful, but often you will find that, on a second go, you really nail it. (If you doubt the power of this, read Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. Then read Go Set A Watchman, essentially a first draft. If that doesn't encourage you, nothing will).

How do you know if something isn't working? You know. Even if you are having a hard time admitting, it, deep down, you know.

This may be a little controversial, but I am against the using of a thesaurus. My belief is that if a word doesn't spring to your mind, it isn't your word. If you are looking up five news ways to say 'disappointed', you aren't being authentic, you aren't being true to yourself.

If you really think your vocabulary is too limited - read more, and differently. Read non-fiction books to broaden your technical vocabulary, read writers known for their innovative use of language (John Banville is amazing at very unexpected words), but don't go grabbing for elaborate synonyms to fancy up your writing style.

Accept that, in the heat of the moment, you are not the best judge of quality. I have written pages that have felt like squeezing blood from a stone, thinking to myself 'every word of this is crap!' and loathing every second, only to read it back a few days later and realise, 'hey, that's not bad'.

Equally, I have woken up in the middle of the night, grabbed a notebook and scribbled down what I think are lines and thoughts of pure genius, only to read over them the next day and see that they are banal, or absurd. This, ultimately, goes back to the first point: Just do it. Just write, even if you aren't happy with what you are writing, keep going, see where you end up.

You DO have time. Everyone has time. We all know people who have written novels around full-time jobs, small children, sick parents, at 6am and at midnight, in between all the demands of daily life. It can be done. You do not need to 'set aside' time to write. You just need to write.

As Teddy Roosevelt said - and this is the one that has saved me time and again - 'Do what you can with what you have'. You don't need three clear hours for it to be worth starting. You don't even need one clear hour. If you have 20 minutes, write for 20 minutes. You may not get a whole scene, but you might get half of one. Get used to being on your own, but know when you need back-up. At a certain stage, you are going to need feedback. Choosing the person you show your work to is an art-form in itself. This needs to be someone who will be encouraging, honest, ambitious for you, discerning, and able to communicate clearly. They need to know books, and you. I wouldn't go scattering your work around - everyone you show it to will have a different opinion; you can't, realistically, cope with more than two or three. It just gets confusing.

Pick the one or two people, show them, then steel yourself. Having the book you have slaved over critiqued is hard and can feel very personal. But you need to be tough. The point here is 'how can I be better?'

Finally, my best advice - write because you love it. Expect nothing in return except that the book may find a handful of readers who also love it. Be proud of your work - you did it! So many do not! - and allow yourself to be disappointed, a little, with each book, because that fuels ambition for better.

And remember, if you don't, you disappoint no one but yourself. The world doesn't know it's waiting to read your masterpiece - only you know. It's up to you to get it out there.

The paperback of Emily Hourican's 'The Blamed', published by Hachette Ireland, is out now


If you're ready to take on the challenge, here are 12 steps to get you started

1 Write. Just do it. Try and write every day, even if it's only a few lines, because stories require continuity of thought.

2 Do what works for you. Do you need a daily word count, to keep you at it? If so, set one. Be realistic, even conservative - start with 500 words - then if you exceed it, you can feel very smug.

3 Read. Read everything, particularly within the genre you aim to write in. If you like something, admire something, ask yourself, how did the author do it?

4 Get feedback. Be careful who you get it from. Not everyone will get what you're trying to do. Not everyone will want you to succeed. Pick your first readers very carefully.

5 Get a good chair/ cushion/ desk. Seriously. If you plan to do this long term, the wear and tear on your hands, wrists, shoulders etc is ferocious.

6 Not everything is procrastination. You don't have to be physically at your desk in order to be thinking. Some of my best ideas have come while loading the dishwasher. But, keep the book in mind, even when you are not writing.

7 Say what you mean. This sounds easy. But in a way it's the hardest thing of all. It's very easy to get lost and forget what you were trying to say, or settle for an approximation.

8 Show, don't tell. This appears in every writing guide ever written, for a reason. It's the Alpha and Omega of fiction writing. What does it mean? Literally, what it says. If you're finding this hard, try taking one scene and writing it and rewriting it until it reveals itself, rather than you the writer, revealing it.

9 Be ruthless. If you start to wander off, bring the story back on track. It is very easy to get lost in your own book.

10 Kill your darlings. All writing advice contains this bit - for a reason. Find the bits you are most in love with, and put them under rigorous scrutiny. Does that really belong? Is it self-indulgent? Out of place? Nicely written but secretly a bit boring?

11 Write as a writer, read back as a reader. This is connected to killing your darlings. As a reader, look back over what you have done. There is a good chance that those very bits that the writer-you was so proud of, are the bits that reader-you will have to admit don't fit.

12 Be careful - just because it's yours, doesn't mean it isn't someone else's too. Indeed, lawsuits may be taken.

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