My novel began life as a short story about a young girl in the 1960s, but it has grown into a family saga beginning in the 1920s and ending in the present day.
In writing it, I sometimes feel as if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, especially for a first timer. When I began, I had no idea how big a project it would turn out to be, how long it would take, or how difficult it would be to write and plot. Even if I’d known, I suspect I’d have gone ahead anyway, because it really was the only story I was burning to tell.
After I completed my first draft a couple of years’ ago, I wrote two blog posts about the things I’d learned about writing a first draft (see Tossing the Plan and Trusting My Voice).
Since then, I’ve revised my novel many, many times—I no longer count the number but at a conservative estimate, it’s probably 16 or 17—and I’ve learned a lot more about novel writing.
I tried to make a list of things I’ve learned about novel writing to post on this blog, but it kept growing, so I’ve split it into parts.
Please bear in mind, this is only my opinion. It’s what I’ve learned, things that have helped me, and these things may not resonate with other writers. Also, it’s only up to this point in time—to the point of having a final draft of a novel that might never be published—so I may have it all completely wrong.
The list is also incomplete as I suspect I still have a lot to learn …
So here are 10 Things I’ve Learned About Novel Writing—An Incomplete List
1. Just get the story down
Especially in the first draft, I concentrated on writing the story. I had a vague idea of where my story might end, but I didn’t know how it was going to get there. So I just wrote, and often I wrote quite simply, using words like ‘got’ and ‘went’, allowing clichés, and using three adjectives to describe something.
As I wrote, however, I gathered momentum and the words came more easily, and often they were the right ones. It was as if I needed to ‘write myself in’.
I know some writers craft their stories sentence-by-sentence and don’t continue until each sentence is perfect. I tried but it didn’t work for me. I ended up bogged down, having lost the flow of my thoughts. The paragraph would end up beautiful and lyrical, but with no forward momentum and almost at a tangent to the story.
Sometimes, a scene or concept wasn’t fully formed in my head when I started writing, but I had a feeling something was waiting to be uncovered and the only way to access it was by writing.
Other times, I was attempting to capture a fleeting idea before it vanished. And sometimes, there were deep feelings attached to some of the scenes and I had to dig in amongst all that (See also #10).
For me, writing fast helped and later, when I had the scene written, I could return and polish the sentences.
Sometimes the scene came out fully realised—especially if it was highly emotionally charged—but other times, all I could write were the bare bones. Nevertheless, I wrote on and returned to those scenes later and fleshed them out.
I found that by concentrating on telling the story, most of the time the words came, and surprisingly often they were the right words.
2. Write in any order
If an idea came, I wrote that scene. Even if I didn’t know if or where it would fit in my story, I used the momentum of wanting to write that scene at that time.
The downside of this is that not every scene fits into the novel. The upside is, those that do feel alive and have energy.
3. Explore and Play
I don’t worry about ‘wasted’ words. In fact, I don’t believe in wasted words. All the words, sentences and paragraphs I’ve typed have helped me take the story where it needed to go, even if they haven’t made it to the final draft.
As I wrote, I explored different pathways my story could go. I wrote scenes to see what happened. Some of my favourite scenes came from loose ideas that I didn’t think would work but that I tried out anyway.
Plus, experimenting and playing with words is fun!
4. Be disciplined About Making Time to Write
This was the biggest lesson I had to learn.
I had to make space in my day to write—that space didn’t happen by itself. I asked my husband to take the kids to sport or get dinner. My kids became used to me not always being with them because I was writing. I said ‘No’ to coffee mornings with friends—not all the time, but often—so I could write while the kids were at school. I served ready-made dinners because I’d spent the day writing. I got up at five o’clock, before the rest of the family, because that was the quietest time of the day. I switched off social media and concentrated on writing. I sat at my computer for hours and typed.
And I stopped feeling guilty about any of it.
I didn’t make these changes suddenly or dramatically. I made small, incremental steps towards more writing time. The thing is writing begets writing, and it became a habit, then an addiction, and now I get anxious and annoyed if I don’t get my fix!
There were a couple of activities I wasn’t prepared to give up—like my walks and my children’s music lessons—so I drew an inviolable line around those.
5. Write in your authentic voice
I wrote about the problems I had finding my voice in Trusting My Voice in 2013, and I still have issues from time to time.
I’m still learning and I’m not confident in my writing style. Every time I read a brilliant novel, I want to write like that author. Consequently, there were sections of my novel that had a Margaret Atwood/Tim Winton/Richard Flanagan feel—you could almost pick what I’d been reading at the time I wrote those chapters.
As my narrator is an elderly lady, not all of these styles suited her. A few times when I was re-reading, I thought, ‘Ida would not say that!’ and re-wrote the section in Ida’s words.
6. Write your heart and soul onto the page
Even if it sounded silly or weird or embarrassing, I wrote it (see also #10 below). When I re-read it, often it wasn’t as dramatic or stupid or over the top as I’d thought—it was genuine and true. Even if it was a bit much, at least I’d conveyed the emotion I was aiming for and I could pare it back.
And often these sections resonated most with readers.
7. Write about what you really want to write about
Because it will come out in your writing anyway!
I tried to write around my topic. It was meant to be an aside but not the main theme of my novel. I thought I’d succeeded until Carol at Varuna told me what she thought was the theme of my book, which was the very issue I was trying to write around but not about.
I thought about rewriting it and concentrating on other themes, but in the end I just accepted this was the theme, I obviously needed to write it, so I just went with it.
8. Trust your subconscious
I firmly believe our subconscious is the key to story-telling—it’s imaginative and creative and so authentic. Time and again it came up with wonderfully unique ideas that I could never have consciously thought up.
At the time when I was writing my novel, I didn’t notice some of the themes and associations. Then as I re-read it, I spotted links and connections of which I hadn’t been aware.
The hardest part is tapping into that wonderful pool of creativity that is our subconscious. First thing in the morning works well for me, when I’m only half-awake. Sometimes, ideas come as I’m walking, showering or driving, and they come when I’m immersed in my story:
9. Immerse yourself in your story
My best periods of writing were when I was immersed in my novel. I’ve described my time at Varuna, but even at home in my attic, I still get immersed. I forget about the room, the time and my family, and just see the world of my story.
On a good day, I can become so immersed I feel as if I’m writing the story from within, as if it’s real and happening around me, and I love that feeling—the words flow and they’re often the right ones, even on a first draft.
Of course, it’s impossible to stay immersed all the time—I have a family, and Appointments I Must Attend, and Dinner That Must Be Cooked. Some days, I’m lucky if I get twenty minutes at home during the day, so I often take my laptop with me—to school pick-ups, assemblies, orthodontist appointments, music lessons. (I’m typing this at the hairdressers—she probably thinks I’m very antisocial!)
Sometimes, the rest of the world can fade into the background so much, I startle when my child opens the car door and feel quite peeved that my writing time has ended!
10. Write towards the fear
I learnt this in a writing course I did in 2012. Write towards where the energy is. If it’s there for the writer, it’ll be there for the reader, too, and chances are the reader will relate.
It’s easier to do this in fiction than in autobiographical writing—but in order to write authentically about what my characters were doing and feeling, I had to access my own emotions, which was sometimes painful.
Sometimes, I wasn’t aware I was avoiding writing about certain things, not until it was pointed out to me. I forced myself to write in that direction and the thing was, it was never as bad as I thought it would be. Actually, it was a relief to let it all out in the privacy of my attic and then to read it so dispassionately on a screen.
These are some of the things I’ve learned about novel writing. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means as I’m still on the learning curve and my novel writing safari is far from complete. In a few years, I’ll probably re-read it with much wiser eyes …
I’m tidying up a post on Things I’ve Learned about Editing a Novel, which I’ll also post.
I hope some of these lessons resonate with other writers, and until next time, happy writing!
Lovely post Louise! Agree, agree, agree with it all, especially the bit about getting annoyed when I don’t get my writing ‘fix’. 🙂 I cannot believe how much I’ve learnt about writing over the past three years, and I still feel there’s so much more to learn. It will be interesting to look back in five years time and see how far we’ve come. And I find stories take me places I’ve never imagined, connections and ideas coming from nowhere – I think that is what happens when you write in your own voice, letting the words flow through you – you can always go back and edit later! xx
It’s amazing how you begin to ‘need’ to write, as much as you need to eat! Like you, I’ve learnt so much, but I know there’s much more to learn. I still feel a novice and I’m sure I’ll continue to feel like that for a long time yet.
You’re right about where stories take you when you let them. I love seeing what my mind dreams up, as it often delights and surprises me! I’m sure there’s some magic involved! You do have to let go of the controls though, and let it come out unfiltered, then, like you say, return with your sieve and edit it.
What a post! I wholeheartedly agree. You are spot on. My journey has been the same. Keep going. Keep believing. It happens. 🙂
Thanks, Jen. I’ll keep going, don’t worry. Thanks so much for your comment and encouragement! 🙂
Great post, Louise. The most helpful lessons I’ve learned about writing, I learned through Freefall, those wonderful precepts from Barbara Turner Vesselago about writing what comes up for you and going fear ward and writing what makes you sweat, and not stopping along the way to edit in those first few drafts etc etc. And also that wonderful notion of writing without any expectation of the outcome. It’s so Zen-like.
But I’m yet to allow myself, or find the space enough, to write fiction.
Non-fiction is another kettle of fish – less time consuming perhaps, though it’s a close cousin of fiction, especially in relation to authenticity and voice.
Thanks for reminding us of the time and effort it takes to get words out, onto the page and before a reader.
Freefall really spoke to me as a way of writing, too. The precepts are wonderful. Zen-like is a good description. I think you have to step aside from your ego and let it come without trying to control it or judge it, at least not in the first draft.
Writing non-fiction requires a similar process—tapping into that inner part of ourselves, writing without judgement, being immersed in the story we’re telling, finding our authentic voice, all of that. I think the two complement each other—autobiographical writing helps us learn about ourselves, which helps us when writing fiction. You just get to invent more with fiction!
Great post, Louise, and yes it’s quite an epiphany, (and somewhat of a relief), when you realize it’s the getting into “the habit” of writing that is more important than being disciplined. Because by gosh, you miss that habit when you skip a day or two or more. p.s. keep writing!
Written by another writing addict! Once you’ve formed the habit, you’re right, you don’t have to be disciplined, you do it for love of it! I’m glad you understand! I don’t know how I used to survive without it. I console myself that at least my habit is a healthy and nourishing one, except when I miss a couple of days. I’m like you—I become a bit shaky, a bit twitchy …
Loved this post Louise. And how lovely of you to share what you’ve learned with others – it’s all terrific advice that will help other writers a lot, I’m sure.
Thanks, Natasha—that’s so kind of you to say! It’s high praise indeed that you agree—I’ll go to bed a happy girl tonight. x
Scary truths about writing fiction, Louise. Thanks for sharing them. They apply also to non-fiction. My two (or maybe three) novels are languishing on my computer, just out of range of my consciousness most of the time. One day I hope I will take them out (or one of them!) and see what I’ve written and what I can do with them. Meantime, I’m fully immersed in writing memoir.
Thanks again for your post.
As I said to Elisabeth above, I’m sure similar processes apply when writing non-fiction and fiction, and the two complement each other. I think the best fiction tells a truth, either about people or society, and you can’t do that without understanding what makes people tick. To understand others, you have to understand yourself, and there’s no better way to do that than through writing …
So much resonates with me too, Louise. I feel like I’ve written 3 novels to get to the one I currently have. I too had to write myself in, and Freefall always helps with that process, I know. The lines between memoir and fiction constantly blur for me and I no longer worry about them. It’s actually exciting to start with a memory and let your imagination guide you towards a story, I find. Lovely post, thank you.
I agree with you, Rashida. Starting anywhere, using Freefall, just writing—frees up so much. We can worry about the shape we give it, or labels, later.
By the way, your roses are still blooming and make the whole kitchen smell sweet! Thank you. x
Terrific post Louise – another terrific post :). I too loved Freefall (I met Rashida in one of them), and i try to keep two things in mind for dry or doubt-filled days; “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E.L. Doctorow, and Nicola Griffiths assertion that if she added up all the years and all the words in all the drafts, her novel (I forget which one) took eight years and two million words to write!
I didn’t know you’d done Freefall, Karen. I loved it, too—I learned so much, and I think it gave me affirmation for the way I naturally wanted to write.
I’m glad you told me about Nicola Griffiths and her novel because I was too embarrassed to tell people how many words were in my ‘Out Takes’ folder—but I just might now because it’s nowhere near as many as in hers!
I am absolutely sucking up any advice at all on writing and I found this to be extremely useful Louise. Especially the part about writing WHEN you feel inspired.
Go for it, Pinky, because your natural voice is so authentically hilarious!
So many important lessons here Louise. I think that’s one of the things about writing your first book. Part of what makes it so hard is developing habits that set you up for life. Once those habits are in place, I think the books that follow come easier – although there are always new challenges with each one. I definitely believe in trusting in my subconscious. Often I don’t know where the story will go but I don’t have to plan it all out – my subconscious takes care of a lot of that for me.
I’m hoping the next one won’t be anywhere near as difficult, and that I’ll be able to apply the lessons I’ve learned from writing this one to that. I appreciate that each new book is different, and with its own challenges—how boring if it wasn’t, eh?
And yes, our subconscious is a wonderful thing! It comes up with much better ideas for my story than is in my plan. 🙂
Such wonderful, wonderful advice. A fantastic post, Louise. It is food for the writer’s soul!
Thanks so much, Kim. That’s very flattering, indeed. Thank you. x
Thank you Louise. I love reading your posts. You are so generous about sharing your writing journey. An inspiring piece.
Thank you, Dee! You’ve made my day! 🙂 I wrote this a couple of years’ ago, but there’s very little I’d change today.
What a lovely, but also usefull post. Could really help us poor starters to continue and finish our draft….somewhere on the computer, waiting to be finished one day. I think you did a lovely job by writing your book. Very inspiring. Thank you ❤
Keep going, Marije! Find that draft and get stuck into it! It’s the best feeling, honestly. 🙂 x