desperance (desperance) wrote,

By me, this is how to write a novel.

Oh, but I have been trying not to do this. I have been trying so hard. I wrote funding applications! And hand-delivered them! To offices in town! Twice! And then, walking home uphill, I was waylaid by a friend (for values of waylaying that involved my knocking on doors until someone answered), and was therefore required to sit on a wall in the yummy sunshine and talk about cats and allotments and art until conscience drove her back inside. And now - well, now I am here, and I have wine and nibbles, and I have answered my e-mails and read my friends page and there is nothing else I can do but write a novel, so here is my response to this how-to-do-it meme that has passed through Justine and Jay and Bear (and doubtless others by now, up with whom I have not caught; check with jmeadows for updates).

How do I do it? Like this:

* vague idea

* walkies

* title

* first line

* last line

* type

* (interruptions)

* type

* (displacement)

* type

and repeat until -30-

[why does -30- mean the end of a manuscript, anyone know? Obviously it's a handy graphic that never occurs in nature, and as an ex-printer I understand the need for it, but why thirty?]

To break down the above:

vague idea: honestly truly, this can be very vague, just a hook to swing my imagination from; or it can be a character, or a setting (never a plot); or it can be an urgent passion, a determination, even a Theme. Sometimes it's indistinguishable from step three, the title, and arrives contemporaneous. Examples from history: after I'd written two crime thrillers called 'The Samaritan' and 'The Refuge', I was wondering what to do next, and thinking about the titles, and thought 'The Garden' would make a good third. So let's write a book about a garden. A thriller, with a garden in it. Make it a walled garden, we like that sense of secrecy and isolation, always have. What do you do crime-wise in a walled garden - bury bodies? Nah, too obvious... And here we cut for spoilers, but you get the point. Or, twenty years ago, some Buddhistically-inclined friends of mine were swapping a book around, called 'Selling Water by the River'. I coveted that title, and kept it fresh all this time, and eventually stole it for my current fantasy sequence ('Bridge of Dreams' et seq). It serves up the literal opening image, and the whole series springs from that notion, a man selling water beside a river; and it carries metaphoric weight (I hope) throughout, but at first glance it's not much to build two books and a world upon. Or I wrote three fat books from a four-page brochure advertising someone else's history of the Crusades; or (in defiance of truepenny, who says we may not write any more about assassins) I have an ache inside me to write a story about that whole schtick, the assassin in full fig: the leather, the black, the buckles, the weapons, the jingling, the boots - God of all, the boots! - well, you get the idea. Or I went to Taiwan and discovered that they have two kinds of barbershop and both specialise in close shaves but only one will cut your hair, the other being a brothel - and how does that not have to be a book? Etc. Etc. Vague ideas.

walkies: when I was a teenager, we had two dogs in the house. It was made very clear to me very early on that (a) these were my sisters' dogs, but (b) it was my responsibility to walk them. So I got used to spending an hour or two a day trudging around the local parks, and it became a habit to think about whatever story I was writing while I trudged, and it's a habit I have still not broken, although I am a cat man and do not keep dogs except in effigy. These days I cannot think without walking. I learned this when I was being crime-writer in residence on a sculpture project, in a Portacabin in Sunderland; we'd be talking about a new project, and suddenly I understood that my sculptor-colleagues were laughing at me, and this would be because I was up on my feet and pacing heedlessly while I talked. So I take the idea for a walk, perhaps for many walks, and refine it into something I can work with, something that has a shape in my head that says 'book'. Still not a plot: a sense of movement, perhaps, a situation and a development. Plot just happens, it's what people do, and if I'm thinking about anything specific here, I'm thinking about people. I suppose I ought to think in terms of conflict, but I don't; I'm much more interested in growth. Conflict tends to be around, within the concept. It's food for growth, not an end in itself. All fiction is about change; it's a journey. Which is why, after we've been through

the title: a small thing, but essential; a book with no name has no identity. As noted above, titles are often there from the start, but if not I scrabble for 'em first thing. Give a book a title, and it will grow into that, a local habitation and a name; leave it nameless, and trying to find something to call it when it's finished is a nightmare, because nothing is ever exact, nothing fits precisely, and many alternatives will sort of do. So we fix that, we erect the title like the centre-pole that the whole structure of our book will depend upon; and then we abandon that simile rapidly, because a book is a journey, and what we need next is

the first line: the starting point, what everything will proceed from, gotta get that right. Not in a commercial sense, necessarily, tho' the world will tell you differently; I'm doing this for me, for the art, to establish my ground. Which is why one of my first lines is seventy-one words long. (Oh, all right: it's the opening sentence to 'Dispossession', and it reads: 'Everyone does this once, at least, or should do: where you wake up in the wrong bed with the wrong body nestled close, unfamiliar smells on the sheets and in their hair and a beat of blank in your memory before their name comes to mind, a touch of strange where you touch them because their touch is so different to what your skin is used to, what your bones expect.') And then, because every book is a journey, you need to know where you're going; so next comes

the last line: or at least a confident knowledge of the last place, the last moment, where the book sits down at the end of the marathon. This is usually one character's ending (and it might be only one character out of a dozen, two dozen, more), tho' it might be a bitter little twist, or a sudden door swinging open to show that this is not after all the ending that you thought it was; but something, an end-point, if not a resolution. Actually it's rarely a resolution, because stories don't end, though books have to. A book is a journey, and I need to know where I'm going. I don't need to know how to get there; still less do I need to know what lies around every corner. The point of travelling is discovery, and I like to do that hand-in-hand with the reader, as a fellow adventurer rather than a guide. Which is why I hate to write outlines, and avoid it wherever possible. Some wiser voice than I once said that being asked to write a synopsis of a book they hadn't written yet was like being asked to draw a map of a country they hadn't visited. 'Zackly so. Which is why, once I have picked up an idea and envisioned a shape and broken in my new boots and settled on a title and a first line and have a strong sense of where I'm going to end up, I

type: really truly, I just start writing. From that first line, heading for that end-point, see what happens in between. Sometimes I have licence to write the whole book, sometimes I'm working on spec and I just write a few chapters and then some kind of vague prognostication of where it all might go thereafter, in order to generate interest. At almost any stage of development, I can leave a book for almost any length of time. 'Selling Water' was in my head for almost twenty years before it found a shape and then a publisher. I wrote a book called 'Paradise', a vast summer monster of a book about religious conversion and local crime and council corruption and miracle cures and so forth, and I thought I'd follow that with a similar vast winter monster of a book called 'Shelter', only publishing politics intervened and so did other books and when I finally came to write 'Shelter' it was the slimmest of slim volumes and almost entirely different from how I'd first imagined it, and yet identifiably still the same book. Sometimes it makes a difference, how long you have to wait before you get to typing; sometimes it makes no difference at all, the book's been in cold storage and you can pick it up just where you left off (if any publisher out there finally recognises that they do after all want my book about sex-changing monk assassins, it's all ready to roll...); but whatever the material, I type until

interruptions: which are the facts of life, other stories that have deadlines, and funding applications, and gigs, and Xmas, and family stuff and friends in crisis and and and; and in between and all around I

type despite

displacement: which is all the stuff I heap about myself to stop the typing, because even after all this time it's still scary and strange and I'm terrified of doing the wrong thing, writing the wrong book, and I'd so much rather be doing anything, everything else, because all of that is safe by comparison; so I'll wash up and tend the herbs in the back yard and shop and cook and blog in LJ [hey, has anyone else out there noticed: LJ's own spellcheck doesn't recognise blog, nor LJ?] and e-mail until I'm blue in the teeth, and, oh, anything to avoid the work until the deadlines loom and then I just have to

type until -30- and we're done.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the trick is performed. I forgot to mention research, but some of that happens meaninglessly beforehand (we call this 'reading', or 'finding things out') and some of it happens ongoing, but it's seldom a separate identifiable stage in itself. Even with the Crusader fantasy, The Books of Outremer, my most-researched work, I did researching in the morning and writing all the rest of the day and half the night to boot. Who doesn't read, when they're travelling? And I forgot to mention characters or world-building, but those go hand in hand, the world makes the people and the people make the world; and of course all my fiction is character-driven, but it's often driven by characters who are long dead before the book begins, those people who decided on the actions that caused the world to be as it is when we open with that title, that sentence, that first step on the journey, and then we just wait to see who else is coming along.

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