DISCLAIMER: This post is part of a series of posts about the process of writing a novel. I am not a creative writing teacher, and this is not a writing course, but it occurred to me that while there are thousands of tutorials online for painting a picture or doing something crafty, or even tuning a motorcycle, most writing tutorials are taught from a more abstract, theoretical perspective. In outlining the step-by-step route I plan to take while writing a novel, I hope to document the failures and successes of the process. And if someone can learn something from it or chime in with their own advice, then that’s a bonus!
Part One: I have an idea! – The lightbulb moment
You’re staring off into the middle distance letting your thoughts fizz about with abandon, and suddenly, like a flash of lightning, a perfect story idea bounces into your brain. What do you do?
This is the moment when you reach for a notebook and pen, or open that note app on your phone and immediately jot down your brainwave. This is why I have hundreds of notebooks, because this often happens on public transport and it gives me an excuse to run into the newsagents at the station and buy yet another blank notebook…it’s a problem.
It turns out, a lot of writers get their story ideas on trains. And many creative writing teachers encourage students to take their notebooks and/or writing device and get out and about. Surrounded by people and their lives unfolding before your eyes, the writer’s brain cannot help but be inspired by the wealth of material around it. My latest idea came to me not on a train, however. It was whilst I was wandering the pathways of our local woods with my dog. Spring is springing with great abandon here and the sounds of birds and smell of fresh green plants exploding out of the earth around me helped me to start visualising a world I wanted to write about.
I’m not going to write about that story though. What I want to do with this series is take you through the process of how I should have written my first novel.
My first novel – well novella is probably the more correct term as I fell short of the 50,000 word mark – started with a lightbulb moment on a train in 2005. I was on my way to the airport to board a plane to the Southern Hemisphere. I was escaping the freezing temperatures of the Netherlands to go and spend three glorious weeks in the sun with my sister in South Africa. So, I jotted the idea down in a notebook and then spent the 14-hour flight letting the idea ruminate in my mind’s stomach.
It sat for a day or so while I got settled in, but on the second day, in the early morning while the house slept, I pulled out my laptop and opened a blank document… and I just started typing.
Every morning after that I got up and sat at the laptop and typed up another 1,500 to 2,000 words, sometimes 3,000. I was running on pure imagination and coffee and just letting the story go where it wanted to. I was letting the pop cultural mishmash in my brain determine the characters and their names (I was particularly interested in religious mythology at the time, which is evident). By the end of a week, I had about 15,000 words and I had run out of steam. Not to worry, I thought. I’ll just wait until inspiration strikes again and continue. That’s how all the great writer’s work, isn’t it?
This strategy proved to be frustrating and guilt inducing. I spent two years sputtering from writing session to writing session. I would have a bit of inspiration, or force myself to sit down and write, and something would happen, but it was never as good as that first week. I felt like I was running a marathon without having done any training. It was a struggle, but after two and half years, I finally had something approximating a first draft. The relief at writing THE END on the last page was immense. But of course, as any writer knows, this is really only one step of a much longer process. I am still in that process. It has been 15 years since that euphoric first week, almost to the day, but I am still not happy enough with the story to call it finished. And the reason for that is something I want to explore in the next few blog posts. I am starting over. And this time, I’m going to do it the (hopefully) right way.