Posted by on Feb 13, 2007 in narrative structure, novel writing | 5 Comments

Writing a novel

Seems to me to be a three stage process. The first stage is when you get an idea that refuses to fit itself to a smaller scope than the novel. It won’t agree to be a short story, nor break itself into a series of stories to serve as a collection – it insists on the larger form.

The second stage is when you have written about half of the novel and everything slows down to the point that you hate your characters and wish they would all die. Instead you plod through the narrative line, feeling as if there is neither life nor hope in this huge unwieldy creature you’re constructing.

The third stage is when you’ve finished and you plane away all the unecessary verbiage and plotlines to leave something like an arc, a sinuous shape, along which the bends and contortions of the story and its inhabitants reveal their various beauties and peculiarities.

What I’ve discovered recently is that I can tell – roughly – the maturity of the writer from the part of the process that they wish to discuss. Beginners are fascinated by the ‘idea’ stage and spend all their time asking how you know you’ve got the ‘right’ idea. Writers with a novel or so under their belts (published or unpublished) are inclined to discuss the end process and the horrors of revising something as large and intimate as a novel. But long-term writers, those with several novels published and more in the cupboard, talk about the middle stage. And it is the worst of the three, by far.

I’m currently writing my sixth novel. The first two were science fiction – one still being considered by a publisher and the other is its sequel so who knows … the third did the rounds of agents and died, the fourth is currently doing the rounds, the fifth is being serialised (it’s pure erotica, not ‘real’ fiction, as the purists would say), and the sixth ….

Well, it’s spent a couple of months dying slowly on its feet, but I have just discovered, or perhaps excavated, the narrative structure that it requires to get itself to a worthwhile ending. It’s a complicated process involving a very tight chronology on the protagonist over slightly under a single year and a longer backstory, each section of which is prompted by something that happens in the eleven month ‘front’ story.

It’s been a minor epiphany and I’ve been telling everybody, by phone and email, that I’ve finally found the route through it. And that’s how I realised that the different points in a writer’s career can be spotted so easily. Beginners asked me about the idea. Middle-term writers reminded me about the hell of revision to come, but the old school writers, without fail, have shared their own heartfelt hells of the middle stage. One sci-fi novelist, with eight titles under his belt, simply said, ‘Do you want to kill them all?’ I said I did. ‘Ah,’ he replied. ‘Then I know exactly where you’ve got to.’

And suddenly I feel heartened. If it doesn’t get easier, even for double-figure novelists, I’m not doing anything wrong, and when now I’m 35k into a 90k novel, that negative realisation might be enough to get me through.


  1. Anonymous
    15th February 2007

    Just made a short story submission with my new and revised (per your blog some time ago) ‘killer’ cover letter.

    Wish me luck 🙂

    Cheers Mark Hubbard

    (Novels! Not for a wee while I think).

  2. Kay Sexton
    15th February 2007

    Fingers crossed for you Mark!

  3. Rhea
    15th February 2007

    I wrote a novel. It came out OK, not great. Tried for years to sell it. No dice. Now I write screenplays. Have done well, got an agent, won a few small prizes. Nothing has sold yet. Hoping for the best. And working at it.

  4. Charles Lambert
    16th February 2007

    You’re absolutely right, Kay. That sense of utter weariness with the thing, which lasts, in my experience, from 50k to 80k words, when you’ve invested so much and still feel that there is a sense to it, but apart from the odd epiphany it’s hard to grasp exactly what it is. It’s like having something refuse to ravel (if the word exists) in your hands. And then there’s the rush that takes you to the end, which is all panic and exhilaration and skin of the teeth stuff.

    And then nobody likes the title!

  5. Kay Sexton
    17th February 2007

    Good luck Rhea, hang in there.

    Charles, so far I haven’t had the title experience – perhaps titles are the thing I’m good at rather than novels …


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