Thoughts on writing your novel

As part of the recent writing workshop with Orbit, I wrote a few articles on aspects of fiction writing. And here’s the first one!

Having a great idea for a novel is one thing. Actually getting the words down on paper or screen so they’re coherent and readable and above all exciting is quite another. It’s my sad suspicion that the world is cheated of many, many fine novels because new writers are simply overwhelmed by the enormity of the task before them – and give up.

If you’re one of those new writers I hope I can give you some pointers to help you in your journey to finishing your book and starting a career as a novelist. It’s by no means an easy task, but it is doable. All you need to do is prepare … then make an enormous leap of faith.

The kernel of inspiration for a novel comes in many guises. For some writers it’s an image, from real life or the imagination. For others it’s a snatch of conversation between shadowy characters they don’t really know yet. There are writers for whom the tantalising question ‘What if …?’ sparks a cascade of events that become their story. Others are inspired by a snapshot. A ruined castle. A painting of a mysterious cottage in the woods. A headline in the local newspaper. An overheard conversation on the bus. The cover photo of an archeology magazine. There’s just no telling where or when a writer will encounter the spark that ignites a novel.

For example: the initial spark for the book that became The Innocent Mage lit up for me while I was swimming laps at my local pool. Two friends, one common and one royal – and the prince was commanding his friend’s death. The scene erupted out of nowhere, it was vivid and visceral in my imagination, and the story grew from there. The Godspeaker trilogy was born from a different vivid scene: a warrior prince listens to one of his men killing an enemy’s infant child and thinks This is wrong. I can’t do this any more. The how and the why and the what then of that snippet became the engine that powered all three books. My new series, The Tarnished Crown, evolved very differently. I wanted to write a bigger story, a tale that spanned many cultures, many countries, and explored the interlocking lives of a large cast of characters. As I continued my research into European history I was particularly intrigued by the collapse of the Carolingian empire, as well as the limbo-like aspect of the Welsh and Scottish border marches, and the violent deposition of Richard II. Book 1 of the series, The Falcon Throne, was born from that research – and from my ongoing fascination with social and family politics.

So you can see … stories are born in a myriad of ways.

But that’s just the first step. That initial spark is the seed. And just as a seed will only become a flower if it’s planted in fertile soil and carefully watered, so will a novel only grow if the writer takes time to nuture and explore that seed of an idea. If you start writing with nothing more to sustain you than that first bright spark? Then your work will most likely die a sad death.

There’s a perennnial argument raging along the corridors of How To Write schools of thought. On the one hand you have the Plotters, and on the other The Pantsers. Plotters believe that a writer Must Always Plot a Detailed Synopsis First. Pantsers are of the opposite persuasion. They believe that detailed plotting and outlining first will kill inspiration and render the finished product dull and uninspiring – if it even gets finished at all. Follow Your Muse! the Pantsers cry. Outlining Kills Creativity!

I think there’s truth to both viewpoints. Rigid and over-detailed outlining can indeed short-circuit the creative process and lead to a story that feels flat and forced. But blindly following your muse without any kind of road map will most likely see you taking wrong turn after wrong turn until you’re hopelessly lost and discouraged – or worse, it’ll plunge you over a cliff and kill your novel before it’s done.

That’s why I advocate taking a middle road. Once you’ve been struck by your great idea, sit with it for a while. Let it gain some weight and substance in your imagination. Then start asking those very important questions that will help you craft your narrative, bearing in mind that while a lot of stuff might be going on, your story’s engine is its characters. So. Where is this happening? When is it happening? Why is it happening? What events led up to this moment? What events occur as a consequence? Who is making things happen? Who are they happening to? Whose story is this? Who gains the most? Who loses the most? Who do we want to win? Who do we want to lose? In the end who does win? And who is the loser? And – very important – how do you want the reader to feel about all of this?

You don’t need intricately detailed answers to these questions yet. You just need a basic understanding, a sense of the shape and colours and flavours of the world you’re building and the people who live in it. How their world works and what their various places and functions are within that framework. However, answering those questions might well require research before you start writing. Sometimes your existing knowledge will be extensive enough that you won’t need to, but that’s something which changes from book to book – and can only be determined by the writer. Here’s a warning, though: skip proper research at your peril. There’s no excuse for sloppy world building and informed readers can be unforgiving. I know there are books I’ve put down, authors I’ve stopped reading, because their lack of research was so obvious, I was insulted.

I also think it’s of enormous value to know how your story ends before you begin writing it. I know some people resist this idea, but here’s my reasoning: who sets off on a journey without knowing the intended destination? I believe you need to know where you’re going – or how will you know which paths to take, and which to reject? Or, to give you a different analogy, who builds a house without at least a rough blueprint to work from?

But having said that, here’s my great big fat caveat: The first draft (yes, I did say first. There will be many more to follow. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that writing your novel is a case of One and Done!) is not intended to be a straitjacket. One of the few joys of writing the first draft (I find first drafts exhausting and intimidating. I’m a much bigger fan of rewriting, because then I’ve got something to sink my teeth into) is the excitement of discovery. As you delve into your story, as it reveals itself to you through the writing process, you’ll be inspired by new ideas, new revelations, new ways of reaching your destination. The characters, like friends you’ve only just met, will page by page show themselves to you. They’ll share their secrets and even surprise you. As a result you might stick with the ‘what happens’ aspect of your outline but find different and better ways with ‘how’ those events unfold. Or you might realise you need to change the ending because you’ve thought of a better, truer one.

Here’s the thing about plotting and outlining: it’s a vital process but it is, by necessity, an ‘outside in’ approach. There’s an analytical distance to the story because you’re looking at it objectively. Writing the first draft, however, is an ‘inside out’ experience. It’s more emotional, more intimate. It’s subjective. You might say that when you’re outlining your novel you’re wearing your editor’s cap. When you start writing it, you’re wearing your writer’s cap. When you re-read your completed first draft you switch caps again. You’re in editor mode, ruthlessly looking for ways to make the work better. And when you tackle your first rewrite then whoops! You’re back to wearing your writer’s cap. Yes, it can give you whiplash. Get used to it!

I can’t stress enough how important it is that you give yourself permission to explore as you write your first draft. By all means stick with your outline if it’s still working, but feel free to deviate from it if you discover exciting new scenes and detours, or if a character becomes more important than you expected. In the early draft of The Innocent Mage Willer was an extra with one line of dialogue. By the end of the writing process he’d become an integral part of the plot. In The Falcon Throne a passing trader started out as momentary comic relief and ended up helping to define and illuminate several major characters.

You must also give yourself permission to write badly as you fumble and stumble your way to The End. The first draft isn’t for anyone but you. Bottom line? You won’t fully know or understand your story until you’ve told it from start to finish. And you can’t craft and polish the narrative to perfection before you actually have a completed narrative and understand what it is you’re trying to say. So whatever you do, keep on writing until you finish the story. Stuff your Inner Editor into a box and padlock it until you need to switch caps. I shudder to think how many great novels have been killed by a writer’s fear of not being good enough in the first draft. I know it’s something I struggle with today, even after writing some seventeen novels. You have to fight the inner critic. It really is a case of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.

Finally, let me say this. How long it takes you to finish your first draft is entirely up to you. Some people have a lot of free time. Some people have a life full of demanding jobs and family obligations, where carving out the privacy and time needed to write is a challenge. Whatever your circumstances, here is the bald truth: if you want to write your book you need to make it a priority in your life. You can’t have it all. Something has to give. And it has to give on a regular basis. Consistency is the key. Two, three, five or even ten pages a day, day after day until you’re finished, when you feel like it, when you don’t, when you feel like the next JK Rowling and when you know in your bones that you can’t write for shit and all you’re doing is wasting your time. You keep on writing. That’s what it takes. There’s no other way to do it. That’s the daunting leap of faith I mentioned earlier. After that comes the rewriting and polishing and crafting to make sure you’ve told your story the best way you can.

Until then, until you’re holding a complete, crafted manuscript in your sweaty, trembling hands, forget about agents and publishers and the New York Times bestseller list. Publishing is a crazy business. The only part of it you can control is the quality of your work. So focus on that. The rest will take care of itself.

Believe in your story. Believe in yourself. Never be satisfied, always strive to do better. Most of all, good luck! The world is always looking for a great story told well.




4 thoughts on “Thoughts on writing your novel

  1. Absolutely! I agree with your stance on taking the middle ground between plotting and pantsing, even though I myself lean a bit closer toward the plotting side of things. The necessary changes after the first draft (combining characters, rearranging the sequence of chapters, throwing out obsolete scenes, etc.) can also only happen, if one is willing to let go of the outline. Oftentimes when I veered from the path that I mapped out, magic and serendipitous moments happened 🙂

    • At the end of the day, it’s about working out what works for you. I can’t stand the folk who claim there’s only one way to write a novel. There are as many ways as there are writers. It’s also helpful to remember that your approach can vary from book to book. But I do think you’re right — the outline should be a guide, not a straitjacket.

  2. I enjoyed reading “….writing your novel.” You make a lot of good points which I will come back to from time to time. Thanks for the info.
    I also had a question not entirely off the topic. In The Innocent Mage you say : “The people of this kingdom have lived for more than 600 years in peaceful prosperity.” Have you ever considered writing a short guide to these years? I’m amind of Tolkien’s appendices detailing the history of Middle Earth. Just an idle musing. Thanks for your novels.

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