Last week I announced my determination to complete my first novel, partly because if I say I will write something, then I will hopefully do the damn thing rather than making about 100 false starts (that is actually not an exaggeration.)
My dad, a writer, always says that writing is ‘one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration’ – a take on a Thomas Edison quote, where this was said about genius. He also likes to quote Mary Heaton Vorse – ‘the art of writing is applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.’
Although now, I think the latter quote is less true (you also need to avoid the internet – the best procrastination tool ever created.) While I’m used to journalise and blogging – often writing articles of up to 5000 words a novel (a real novel – the one I have dived into an am determined to finish) is completely different.
I’m hoping that my friends who dislike Buzzfeed style lists (Rebecca Boey) can forgive me, but here I have listed five things I have learnt in my first week of writing a novel
You start to steal things
See that woman near the counter of your work in the weird shoes, the ones which look like baby shoes, only stretched to their limit to fit the stocking’d vein-y legs of this lovely old lady; you’re going to have her.
Well, actually you’re just going to have her shoes, and her legs and the way they’re squeezed into them, and the way it makes you kind of sad that they are like baby shoes, and they’re on an old lady.
That’s right, you’re going to steal off this vulnerable old customer who calls you ‘dear’ – you will take from her to give to a fictional character – and she will never know.
You will also steal off friends, even your own boyfriend. “She smelt of expensive perfume and tuna sandwiches,” said my boyfriend last week.
Cut that out and keep it.
There’s no end in sight
And this is the utterly terrifying thing about writing a novel. With a short story, a long form piece of journalism, an interview you have to do the damned work, but there is an end in sight. Already the work has a shape, a beginning, an end – a formula.
Try as I might, I cannot plan my novel in this way – it is too big, too alive, already independent, not conforming to what I want it to be. In comparison journalism seems so pliable, and short fiction so neat.
It’s like swimming. I can swim fifty lengths in The Commonwealth Pool – it’s a long slog and hard – but at least it has order, an end you touch in at before somersaulting back, a number you can count. With my novel I feel like I’m in the middle of a cold ocean with no boats or islands to be seen, and the knowledge that it could get choppy at any moment.
It feels dangerous.
Where’s my applause?
It was not until this week that I learnt how reliant I am upon applause. As a journalist it is instant – you write something for a newspaper, and what do you know? – you have new followers on social media instantly – most of whom have lovely things to say. My Facebook friends are also predictably kind and encouraging with comments like ‘ ‘you’re so wonderful.’ Comments I don’t believe, but that buoy me up – which make me think, you know, this is worthwhile. I’m not that crap.
My need for applause/approval – or a reaction any reaction – has surprised me. Why this burning desire for a reaction? Have I been spoilt by the internet, or has it been ever thus even in the age of print? My mother likes to tell me a story about how as a young journalist she bought a cone of chips one night only to discover it was made of one of her newspaper features. The greasy reality of the chips sent her crashing back down to earth – a realisation of the impermanence of news journalism at that time.
Maybe, she thought, a novel is more enduring. And maybe she’s right. Maybe it is, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Maybe it’s a confidence thing, but without people telling me I’m on the right path constantly, I fear I could be lost. Maybe I should learn to trust myself.
Reading things back too soon is a terrible idea
When I read back what I have it sounds wrong, awkward, stilted, like hearing your voice recorded – ‘do I actually sound like that?’
Instantly I want to change it – , to fall into the same trap as all the other times I have started a novel – to begin polishing before I have a whole. I have often dismantled the opening three paragraph, running every word through a thesaurus again and again, until it is perfect then got not further.
I feel like Orpheus, walking back through Hades with silent Eurydice a few feet behind. The temptation is to turn back, just to check, but if you do she’ll disappear. You have to believe that she is still there and she is OK.
You can look back later.
People will have opinions
And they will be different to yours.
While it is important to have trusted friends who will read your work, don’t share too much too soon. You need feedback, but get it too early and it will kill your work. Your friends don’t know where your novel is going, and neither do you – but you’ll figure it out. You’re living it, swimming in it, breathing it.
Last week I changed my novel’s title, or rather it changed it’s own title. I was so excited I instantly told my boyfriend – ‘Really?’ he said, ‘You’re really calling it that?’
‘Isn’t that a little, well, flimsy?’ he said, ‘I really liked your old title.’
Don’t reveal too much, too soon. You may be lost in your novel, but it’s still your novel, and you don’t need to ask for help to navigate it. (Really, you don’t)