Write a novel in a year
Joan Brady advises on making your words leap off the page
Writing a novel is something many of us have thought we would like to do but we somehow never find the time. I tried many times and didn’t achieve it. But then something finally clicked and I did it, not once, but twice.
Now, with both The Cinderella Reflex and Reinventing Susannah published I can look back and see the mistakes I made with all those earlier, failed attempts and if you’d like to write a novel in a year, you might learn from them too.
The first mistake was not recognising that a wish is not a goal. When we make our New Year resolutions sometimes it’s just like wishing that a fairy Godmother would bestow these wishes of ours at our feet. We’re not willing to go too far out of our comfort zone to achieve them by ourselves and in fairness, sometimes they are not even that important to us. Day-dreaming is a nice, healthy past time after all, and there’s no law that says dreams have to be anything other than that.
But if writing a novel is important to you then you’re going to have to commit to it, in exactly the same way you would if you decided to run a marathon this year or study for a big exam.
Writing a novel is fun and creative and definitely a cool thing to do but it’s also a big and complex task. If your novel is 100,000-word long novel for example and you want to finish it in a year then you will need to write 2000 words every single week for fifty weeks. (Two weeks off for good behaviour!).
You can see from this that if you relegate your writing to a time when you have everything else on your to-do list done (mistake number two of yours truly) then you are guaranteed that you will not write a novel in the year, or possibly ever.
So when and where are you going to do this thing that is important to you? Whether you are juggling a full time job or looking after children or both, you’re going to have to create the time and space to write those 2,000 words a week. We’ve all read the stories about authors who get up at 5 o’clock in the morning to write. I even know some of these writers, and I’m full of admiration for them but would be hard-pressed to write my name correctly at this hour, never mind a novel.
In the past I spent a lot of time obsessively reading about what other writers routines looked like, thinking if I could just duplicate them that I would find the key to finishing my novel. But it was only when I stopped thinking how the hell they did it and started thinking about how I could make it work for me that I finally started to make progress.
In the end, I wrote The Cinderella Reflex on my weekday commute, on lunch breaks, weekends and holidays. Once on the train coming home from work a woman asked me if I was writing a novel (she was reading over my shoulder) and I was thrilled!
When it came to writing Reinventing Susannah it so happened that I didn’t have a day job any more and I thought that finding time would be the least of my worries. But it was then I discovered that finding time for anything, not just writing a novel - is about much more than practicalities.
I found all sorts of resistance going on about spending my time writing. Going to the gym, washing my hair or even paying bills seemed more urgent and even, weirdly enough, more attractive sometimes.
I do not know why that happens but I do know it’s very common among writers so figure out beforehand how you are going to handle it when it crops up for you. You’ll need to give yourself permission to write. You’ll need to say to yourself (and to anyone else who needs convincing) “my writing is important” and you’ll need to keep saying it until you believe it, which will be the same time you’ll stop fighting with yourself about writing.
Make your writing slots as nice a time as possible for yourself with cups of tea or candles or music and nice walks in the park or the garden if you’re stuck on a plot-point. Anything that will stop it feeling like a chore, which will put a full-stop to your creativity and make you miserable into the bargain.
Next you need to find space. Not as in a desk with a sea-view (although that would be nice) but as in headspace to grow your fledgling ideas into a fully developed story. You need to spend time thinking about the story percolating in your head without real life distracting you from it. So take your notebook or laptop out somewhere, maybe on a bus or train journey, or favourite coffee shop or library and scribble down your thoughts.
When it’s time to craft all those ideas into a story take a page and write ‘This is what I know about my novel so far’. Then write everything down. When you come to a full stop figure out what might happen next for these characters? What got them to this point. What will have important consequences for them now and how are they going to react to these new circumstances?
As you are growing your novel in this way, take the time to keep your writing organised. Eventually you will have a multitude of characters, and a changing plot line running through your scenes and you’ll need to find a way to keep track of everything. Whether you use an old-fashioned paper file with separate folders for your characters and chapters or a software product like Scrivener, you need to keep everything in a way that you can figure out who said what to who fifty pages back.
When you start to write your novel don’t waste time looking for the perfect turn of phrase or meaning. This is your first draft, your playbook to have fun with. There will be time for editing and refining later on but for now your job is just about getting your story down on the page.
Join a writers group or take a class where you can meet people who are as interested in you are in writing so you’ll have support when you get to the part when it’s not working out the way you saw it going in your head. You can encourage each other on to the finishing line and remember why you started out in the first place.
You are creating something out of nothing and giving time and attention to a goal that is important to you. That is pretty special. So don’t be in too much of a rush to get to The End. Enjoy the process and all the new experiences that your writing will bring to you in the months ahead.
Reinventing Susannah is published by Poolbeg and is in the shops now.