Books written by Ray Sullivan

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

How to Write a Novel - A Personal View Part 2

Routine is key, no matter what you write.  Like most writers I don't sell anywhere near enough books to even consider writing full time, so work, family and occasionally sleep take precedent.  But I try to ensure that I write something pretty much every day, even if it's just a blog entry.  Sure, life gets in the way sometimes, but most days I write.

As I explained in the last posting, I often start off with a short story.  It tends to act as a focal point for my thoughts and takes away the blank sheet of paper syndrome that can affect a lot of writers starting to write a book.  I don't even worry about the story being fully formed and I freely admit that writing completely self contained short stories is a skill I haven't developed.  But once the story is written I have two advantages - first, I don't have a blank sheet of paper any more and second, my characters have a life, a background.  I can discard anything I wish from the short story once the book gets going - I know technically I can do that with anything I've written, however that's often a very difficult thing to do, not just emotionally but practically - the logistics of changing the way a character behaves fifty thousand words into a book are far from trivial.

So, how to write your own novel?  Well we all do this differently, but start at the beginning, or somewhere close to the beginning, as a start.  You may find you have to write a few pages of pre-story narrative once you get rolling to make the subsequent story make sense, but starting at the beginning for me is always the way. 

I find that I go forward about a thousand words, then have to backtrack a little, do a sense check before moving onto the next thousand or so words.  If I didn't, I'd probably find the story circling around a problem I'm waiting for the main characters to resolve.  In reality, once you pose the problem, walk away from it for a while, the story will nag you back to it shortly and the change in perspective will let you resolve the issue in time.  If you want to appear really clever either delete the alternative detour or cut and paste it somewhere else. However the tension created by leaving someone in an apparently intractable fix while the story goes elsewhere for a while is a very effective plot ruse, so think carefully before dumping it.

As I've said above, your routine will keep you on track.  I tend to start each writing session by reviewing what I wrote the previous day, often back-tracking a couple of days' worth of writing.  Once I've reviewed and repaired the prose already written, I move forward, writing as much as I can in a session.  Sometimes I struggle to put one hundred words down, other times I rattle off a couple of thousand words in a blink and have to force myself to stop writing early enough to allow my brain to grind to a halt before turning in.

Many books on writing will encourage you to plan your story before investing in a lot of effort, and I'm sure it's sound advice. But this is my personal perspective, not a textbook, so I'm going to ignore that advice. I still get a buzz when I write a twist in a tale that I hadn't expected, when a character does something that takes the story in a different direction, when someone says something that changes my perception of the character.  Plot as much as you like, but you might just miss out on the twist you'd never expect.

Having said all that, I must admit that I usually do have a rough idea about how the story will end - I have an idea in which general direction I need the story to move in, but don't really know what is in the bit in the middle, what route it will take.  And I'm usually wrong in some way about the ending anyway, but there you go.

So the way to write a novel is to start at the beginning and keep on moving forward.  Don't be afraid to edit out anything that's not working, and don't give up.  Don't get fixated about having to hit one hundred thousand words, though; if the story is fully formed in seventy thousand then fine.  But try not to sell the story short.  If you only reach twenty thousand words and the book appears to be complete, then either accept it's just a long story or a very short book, a novella, but just make sure that you haven't missed the opportunity to tell the whole story.

Good luck with your novel.


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