The bookshelves of Ireland are glutted with ‘How-To’ books on novel writing. The internet is another huge resource where you can find a multitude of articles laying down various rules and regulations, tips and techniques. Then when you have suitably frazzled your brain and overloaded your critical faculties on a million and one contradictory ways to write that novel, you come across the much feted advice of W. Somerset Maugham – ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no-one knows what they are.’ But rules and techniques aside, and being very much aware that I’m on a permanent learning curve in this wonderful job, here are some things I have gleaned over the years about writing novels:
- Advice and ‘How to’ books can give you a starting point, provide signposts and directions, and illuminate some of the solitary journey you are about to undertake. They can also be a helpful refresher at any time. But there comes the moment when you have to take that leap into space, stop thinking about writing, and just write. There is no magic formula or golden typewriter. No waiting for permission. You have to begin that scary journey across the blank page all by yourself, putting down one word after another.
- The first draft is ALWAYS tough, whether it’s Book 1 or Book 10 and you can expect your initial attempts to be a pale reflection of what you’re hoping to achieve. I find it a help to think of Shannon Hale’s quote; ‘I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.’
- Regardless of writing competence or talent, self-belief is the biggest attitude you need in your skill set for slogging it through the 100k words required for the average novel. Writing a novel is an endurance sport akin to a marathon race, and you have to believe you can do this. Self-belief will propel you into action, get you past hitting a wall at the 30k mark, enable you to keep up the pace at 60k words, and help you stagger, exhausted but exhilarated, to the finish line. Fake it if you must, otherwise self-doubt will creep in, and that is the biggest enemy of work in progress.
- If you have to wait until you feel a bolt of inspiration striking you before you attempt your daily word count, forget it. Story ideas and plot twists can spark at odd moments and draw you to the page, but adding to your word count takes grit, discipline and perseverance. According to Ernest Hemmingway, ‘Sometimes it (writing) comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.’ After nine published novels, I can personally vouch for that nugget of wisdom. The good news is that the everyday act of moving your fingertips across the keyboard can ease you into the zone and induce some kind of creative alchemy. That’s when the magic happens and inspiration whispers gently in your ear.
- Sometimes life can imitate fiction. You create a story, and months later you meet a person in real life who could have walked straight out of your novel. You set up a particular drama or conflict, and in the fullness of time, something similar happens to your nearest and dearest. There are also times when your novel has been safely consigned to the printers only for you to realise that the drama you have poured across the page mirrors an incident in the life of your friends or family. It has happened to me, and I’ve heard other writers also speak of this phenomenon. But good stories with relatable characters address the hopes and fears that make up our lives, so writers are bound to hit on themes and plots that are out there in the world. I’ve had to learn to ignore any whispers of similarities that murmur in my ear and just get the job done and allow the story to unfold as it will, otherwise I’d never write another word.
Last but by no means least, nine books in, writing and using my creativity is my dream job that I feel privileged to enjoy.
© 2018 Zoë Miller
This blog post first appeared on Celeste Loves Books blog as part of the blog tour for A House Full of Secrets. I’d like to say a big thank you to Celeste, for hosting me on her wonderful blog, it was a pleasure to be featured.