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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Writing a Novel

Long time ago I did an interview with Jo Blogs, and he asked me what the processes were while writing a novel:

I get dissatisfied. Dream a lot. Start taking notes. Get hung on things, concepts. Start actively seeking out metaphors. Write reams and dispose of it. Finally make a commitment and then go back on it 20 times. Try to seek out a point of view, first person, second person, third person. Stop doing other things, cut life down to something spartan like eating, sleeping, writing and not allow anything else in. Discover that I’m getting on for half way there.

Another time, the BBC interviewer asked me what I wished I had known before starting my first novel:

That it all comes from you, it all comes from the individual. It’s not an accident that the novel came about in a period in history when the individual suddenly started to be taken seriously.

I know from questions I get asked, that people who want to write a novel think that there’s some magic formula, or some trick or technique to it. And they’re not quite sure what it is. But there isn’t a trick or technique. There’s only the determination to find your own voice.

What makes me want to read a particular novel is that I empathise with the voice which the novel is told in. I pick a novel up and read a few paragraphs just like everyone else does, and then I put it down or take it with me.

The difference between putting it down or taking it with me is that I empathise, I feel that this voice has got something to say to me.

What that is, is originality. It’s that I haven’t heard that voice before, or I have heard it before but forgotten about it or there’s something about it that reminds me of myself or someone else.

If you want to write a novel and you want it to stand on its own in the world you have to find the original voice which is inside you that no-one else has.

9 Responses to “Writing a Novel”

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    I agree with you here and I think the saving grace for me is that I never wanted to write a novel per se, I simply had an accumulation of stuff in my head that needed to be ordered. Writing was the thing to do with it all – I knew that much – but I never set out to do anything more than write it out. I think giving things names, like ‘novel’, can actually be counterproductive and off-putting at least at the start. Now I’m soul-deep in my fifth I pretty much know what to expect although I find it helps to think I’m only writing a novella. Even now the idea of writing a whole novel feels daunting.

    jb says: Because it’s so daunting we discover displaced activities. I think it was Ted Hughes said something along these lines:

    A block is when we can’t get through to the real thing. Many writers write a great deal, but very few write more than a very little of the real thing. So most writing must be displaced activity. When cockerels confront each other and daren’t fight, they busily start pecking imaginary grains off to the side. That’s displaced activity. Much of what we do is a bit like that, I fancy. But it’s hard to know which is which.

  2. Brad Green says:

    Thank you for this post. Hearing about the stuttering, the flailing about, and the overall stumbling through part of the process is helpful to someone like me who is really just getting going and experiencing that very thing. Bookmarked this post. I’ll be returning to it for some important grounding when I whip out the Zippo in some mad, conflagatory mood.

    jb says: Thanks for the comment, Brad. You might also like some of the pieces in my Writer’s Notebook series.

  3. tali2 says:

    Yes, and I also think that the times when writing is “the real thing,” you just know it. You feel it, it’s your core voice, when you’re skin-deep not in your everyday identity but in its very essence. And it’s like a supreme moment of enlightenment. I think John Keats summed it up best with his coined phrase “negative capability.”

    Even if it takes you many bad writings to get to a little bit of real writing, it’s worth it, the feeling and the writing. (Not that I’ve written ten novels, good or bad, mind you. ;))

    jb says: I think you’re talking about the pay-off, tali2. But you’re right; none of that ever comes about unless you write in the first place. Writers write. That’s what they do. If they don’t write they’re not writers.

  4. tali2 says:

    The pay-off? Hmm, no, I was talking about the writing. But I may not understand what you’re talking about when you say that, jb…

    jb says: When I say ‘pay-off’, I’m using it as a metaphor for that moment of enlightenment. I didn’t mean any kind of material reward.

  5. jeff@Natural Beauty Tips says:

    Hmmm, i dont know where to start.

    First, what a great website, second, thanks.

    I have been pondering over doing a novel for years and years. Have started but gave up as i really dont know how to structure, or even where to begin.

    I always fail to plan, and as they say, failure to plan is planning to fail.

    I think all this info will really help, so a big thanks

    jb says: This is exactly what I needed to hear, Jeff. Good luck with the novel.

  6. Lonnie says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that what you connect with in another author’s work is their voice, their energy and emotions they choose to pour into the work.

    However, I don’t agree that authors should wander around aimlessly trying to figure out what to write, scrapping tons and tons of stuff. While I did some of that for my “first novel” it’s the process of learning what works for you, how you can plot a good story (whether on the fly or in advance), what you care about in a novel, etc. For a first time novelist, that is a daunting task. Courses like the one at (link to commercial site deleted) can make that much easier.

    jb says: Sorry, Lonnie; you made a good stab at promoting the course, but advertising isn’t allowed on this site.
    There may be, somewhere, unknown to me, a reasonable course from which beginning writers would benefit. But in many long years of writing, after publishing nine novels myself, and talking frankly and openly with other writers, I have still never discovered one.

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