The idea for your novel doesn’t often come to you whole and complete. If you’re writing historical fiction then it may do, as mine did for This Human Season which is set in Northern Ireland in 1980 and 1981. That came to me on the platform of Clapham North tube station in 2003. I watched a few trains come and go as it dawned on me. But my other three novels came to life in stages.
Usually, the final novel is the result of an idea that has grown, and acquired more substance like the proverbial rolling stone.
It seems to me though that there are elements to the idea which remain in place through the multiple drafts you will write. The details shift and change as you feel for what’s most moving, most provoking, most important. A novel is a long struggle and it’s good, necessary even, to get a first draft down in a season. But you will return to it at second draft and amend it as new realities and truths emerge. In the meantime, here are the key elements which you should seek, the essentials to your novel, and knowing them might help you originate your own.
Elizabeth Strout has spoken of working in scenes rather than continuity and while I advise my writers to write the first draft story from A-Z to get to know it all, the truth is we have scenes which remain from the first draft to last and we re-jig what’s around them. The crucial scenes expose the lie, and the truth, eventually, which are both vital to the novel form.
Almost always I will start by writing a scene or a piece of a scene. I have learned over the years to take anything that is most pressing to me – it may be as mundane as a concern about upcoming dental work, or as serious as worrying about the safety of my child – and to transpose that emotion into a character. This will give the scene life, as opposed to having it wooden. I am a very messy worker – I push these scenes around our table. It is a big table, and over time I realise which scenes are connected. I have never written anything from beginning to end, not a story or a novel. I just collect different scenes, and the ones that aren’t any good to me, get slipped on to the floor and eventually into the wastebasket. (There are many of those.)
– Elizabeth Strout.
I will have an idea of my theme before I start which is the garden of my novel in a way as it’s usually a strong conviction of mine. What I mean by this is I will know if I’m setting it contemporaneously or in the past and what is making me restless or angry and feels important to prove as a theory or argument. So this will inform the time and place of the setting of the novel. Then I will be very careful not to expose it but to conceal it. I build a case based on the personal, evidenced through a life or lives, and make sure I never put my bias into words in the novel. It must be invisible to operate subconsciously. It is my standard advice not to preach to the reader who is smarter than you. (If you don’t think he or she is smarter than you, please don’t bother us with your book, thank you.)
The Novel As A Necklace of Five Beads
1. The Main Character. Either as narrator (first person) or observed by a third person. I choose mutable people, which is to say, lesser-gendered, women with typically male characteristics or men with more typically female characteristics. This is because I want them dimorphous and diaphanous; shining, floating and alive to change. The novel is the liberal art form which at its heart believes in the possibility that human beings can change. A novel is a moral journey and your character goes on an adventure, often unwanted, to see the world differently. What’s more, this character has a blindspot. One hell of a blind spot. (See the Editing Your Novel course for how to choose perspective.)
2. The Problem. Oh yes, almost immediately he or she is presented with a problem to solve, or a dilemma. But that’s not it. That’s a red herring.
3. Raining Stones. In fact, things are worse than they seem and you add here a volley of stones which rain down on your character, problem after problem, conflict after conflict and here’s where you need to choose an antagonist – a person usually.
4. The Sweet Spot. This is the bleeding heart of your novel. Everything else may change or shift but this insight of yours is the bedrock of the novel and comes 4/5 of the way through the narrative. This is something which has greatly touched you in the last year or two. Often it’s metaphorical. The sight, sound or smell of our common suffering. The only quote I have above my writing desk is TS Eliot’s. ‘I am moved by fancies that are curled, Around these images, and cling: The notion of some infinitely gentle, Infinitely suffering thing.’
5. The Dénouement. The return to reality without the blindspot. I reserve the ending somewhat to my own discovery throughout the writing. I like to have a plan though – I plan for the main character to be here or there, dead or alive, happy or sad after a major event. I do allow myself to worry this bead in my hot writer’s hands as we progress as it’s the final treasure and I’m allowed to handle it. It’s my gift to myself and I want a Christmas surprise.
If you’re world-building, working in fantasy, sci-fi, historical, utopian or dystopian, whether for Adult, Young Adult or Children’s, our Classic course will walk you through the ideation process, help you plan out the book step-by-step and leave you with material ready to roll. It delves deep into your inner life, your own experience and emotions to find the story that’s yours and yours alone to tell.
When testing an idea either mine or my writers I think it’s simple – is this something only I can write and only I will write?
In terms of process, get a first draft down to find the story out. ‘The lab’ is the white page and I test my work in dialogue, as characters develop fast when they start talking to each other and new opportunities present themselves. Then I take a step back after the gallop of the first draft to assess the damage, and think again. At second draft, I will look at some wild possibilities, a change of gender for the main character and so on, as I seek to create maximum impact on the reader. Once first draft is done, when you’ve written your book for you, you can start to consider the work as a reader. As I tell my writers, it’s at second draft you get to look smart, and here you go from writer to author. Get your story down. That Stephen King knows a thing or two about writing.
The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season. If you spend too long on your piece, the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel.
– Stephen King.
Come join us. You won’t know yourself when you’ve got that manuscript on your desk in 3 months time. Because this is what we do at The Novelry, this is our mission; we get novels done.
Louise Dean is the author of four novels and has been published globally by Penguin and Simon & Schuster amongst others. Louise Dean has won the Society of Authors Betty Trask Prize and Le Prince Maurice Prize, and been nominated for The Guardian First Book Prize, and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award. She is the author of novels ranging from literary fiction to historical and her books have been kindly reviewed worldwide and featured on Oprah’s Book Club. From high-brow to low brow, Louise is known for her ‘dark and fearless’ comedic prose style and her warm encouragement of her writers as a teacher. She was formerly a tutor at the Arvon Foundation, was winner of 2016 IDPE best newcomer for independent development professionals in education.