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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Learning to Write XV

Having written one novel and worked your way through the minefields of publication, you may find yourself pondering the possibility of doing it all again. You may find yourself saying (not to your publisher or agent, but to someone altogether closer – perhaps even yourself): I want to write a book, another novel, but I have no idea what it is going to be about.

This is a known hurdle in the evolution of professional novelists; perhaps in the life of all writers?

You already know that it is impossible to sit around and wait for inspiration. If you don’t know that you had better learn it here and now. Inspiration comes from the act of writing itself. Writing produces inspirations. Inspiration doesn’t produce a novel or any other extended work of prose. Got it? Good.

Remember it. Waiting around for inspiration is a luxury only enjoyed by writers with some other form of income.

As a professional writer you will be actively searching for and finding a theme and characters to help you flesh it out. And this process, this activity will give birth to that second being inside you, which Orhan Pamuk referred to in My Father’s Suitcase, his Nobel lecture.

Perhaps you will recognise the culmination of this process as a moment of stillness, nothing more than that, but it will place you once again in command of a set of tools which you can use to forge your next book.

Although we tend to talk about these processes in a semi-mystical way, the reality is that they are won for the artist by engaging in the activity of his or her art. You have to do it before you can discover that you are doing it.

6 Responses to “Learning to Write XV”

  1. Kelley Bell says:

    I found my theme easily enough, and the characters too, but the muddle in the middle has me stuck in the mud, staring at the finish line, unable to run.

    Any New Years advice on that John? What do you do to braid the action in the middle?

    jb says: Hi Kelley, Good to see you. You say you’ve got the theme and the characters . . . but do the characters live with each other? I ask this because that is often one of the problems associated with the narrative becoming stuck in the middle. Do they live with each other, do they respond to each other’s dilemmas rather than negotiate with each other through their author?

    Are you still certain that the novel ends in the way that you first envisioned?

    The other thing you could do when washed up in the shallows is to implement Chandler’s advice and bring in a man with a gun. This is actually really good advice and you don’t have to take it literally. It is a demand for some dramatic action, a turning point or twist in the narrative to test facets of character. It doesn’t even have to have anything to do with the narrative you have already written and you may end up not using it. But it is a way to take the reactions and responses of your characters to another level, or to tease out aspects of personality that you may not yet have envisioned.

    At the same time as implementing the advice in the above paragraphs, you could begin to walk alone and take the problems of the narrative with you. The solution for which you are searching is locked in your subconscious and to help it break free you need to stimulate that part of your brain. Watch out for dreams . . . be ready to write it down as soon as you wake in the night, don’t leave it until morning. Read something, pick up a book you have avoided reading over the past months.

    Lastly, and if nothing else works, find a friend who will be honest with you and let him or her read what you have got so far, then ask them where they imagine the text is going.

  2. bloglily says:

    I very much agree. I’ve just finished my first novel, feel that I have many more tools than when I began, and am about to go downstairs, make a cup of tea and engage in the activity of writing. (It’s early here still where I live!) The good thing is that having waited so long to begin writing, I have had in mind for a while the next thing I want to write, and a glimpse of the one after that.

    jb says: That’s the stage that requires much courage. To actually begin. It always makes me think of this:

    ‘I think that you’ve got to be prepared to write a load of nonsense to start with and then you can tart it up. The business of getting going, getting started, is enormously important, and this can be physical. Solvitur Ambulando as the Romans used to say, which means the solution comes through walking.’ Colin Dexter

  3. Kelley Bell says:

    Thanks John. Wonderful advice. I shall get the gun and start walking.


    Happy New Year!

    jb says: Happy New Year. Don’t point that thing over here.

  4. Charlotte says:

    Thanks for wonderful, inspiring advice. I’m at work on my first novel and am realising that it’s a matter of turning up and getting on with it. I loved that Pamuk lecture; such moving words. I have his Istanbul on my TBR pile, all glistening and waiting for me.

    jb says: Hi Charlotte, Good luck with the novel in 2007. But don’t neglect the blog too much . . . please.

  5. trevor johnson says:

    I really like the Learning To Write posts. A lot.

    I agree that it is necessary to write daily to write at all. Especially if you don’t have a second job. I think that John hit on something by advising Kelly to pick up a book. I work for a branch of the postal service that allows me to listen to audiobooks while I work. I keep a notepad at my console and jot down ideas that come from listening to fiction. A lot of times I just take a tiny tangent from a particular scene and twist it into something else. It’s sort of like rearranging the words in a sentence to say something else, even though both sentences deal with the same thing essentially.

    I’ve written short stories from ideas gathered this way. Some of the best books I’ve listened to have me scribbling dozens of scenarios down; one of these alone won’t constitute a novel but it works for me with shorter fiction, after reshaping it and putting my own personal touches in.

    I’m working on a novella, and I like the idea so much that I’ve put off writing it for over a year because I wanted to really be ready — a better writer. I’ve come to agree with someone, I can’t remember, who said that in order to write good you must first write bad; I think Hemingway said, “The first draft is always shit.”

    I also like this paraphrased quote, though I also don’t remember who said it:

    “Sure there may be stories out there dealing with the subject matter of my story, but no one can write this story like I can.”

    jb says: Hi Trevor, thanks for the encouragement and the quotes. I love the simple format of your blog, by the way. Oh, and good luck with the novella in the New Year.

  6. elaine says:

    Hi there. I am writing my first novel and have got to about 60,000 words. I write it in fits and starts but find it works better if I work on it daily! I have two problems. The first is fititng it in to running a full time business and three children and the second is I am absolutley stuck. Part of it is I feel demoralised (too much work not enough writing!) and part is I have realised I need to work on one of the charactors more – he needs more flesh; but I am struggling to develop him. Maybe I will just go for a walk and ponder. I find being out amongst the trees and fields allows my brain to create stuff.

    jb says: Hi Elaine. Sixty thousand words means you’re almost there. I wouldn’t worry about the character who needs developing. The main thing is to finish the narrative. Get it down first, then you can go back and edit and flesh characters out and delete the chaff.
    Yes, walk by all means. But don’t give up. That thing that makes you feel demoralised is well known to all writers. It’s a bastard, but it comes with the territory. A novelist’s best friend is stamina.