Maybe You Actually Do Want To Start That Novel
Or: There's a difference between productivity porn and simply wanting to take your mind off things
I’ve seen a lot of social media posts over the last few weeks about how now is the ‘perfect’ time to start that novel, learn that language, or write that album. I’ve also seen a huge amount of opposing views, saying that to expect productivity at a time of such anxiety and pain is ridiculous, and a marker of how work-obsessed our society has become.
I fall somewhere between these two view points. If you are too tweaked out to even think of starting something creative, I’m not here to judge you, and I certainly don’t think anyone should be “productive” during a global pandemic. However. What a lot of these arguments are missing is that, for a great many people, creativity feels good.
Decoration is nice. Stories are nice. Useless objects created for pleasure are nice. Being totally mentally absorbed in a new project is one of my favourite feelings in the world, and right now, I feel very fucking grateful that I am working on something I enjoy. I can already tell that a lot of the material I am writing will be deleted on the second draft. It’s a young adult novel, a sequel to the one I wrote last year, and many of the scenes are just me remembering things from my own youth but with slightly better dialogue. It doesn’t matter. I’m enjoying myself. Importantly, I’m no longer typing “how long” into Google, like a child on a long car trip.
I have written three novels now (Promising Young Women, Scenes of a Graphic Nature, and All Our Hidden Gifts) and while it’s entirely subjective as to whether I’m any good at them, I know that I do enjoy writing them enormously. Scenes was a bit of a tortured one, just because it brought up a lot of feelings, but on the whole I would call the thing a pleasurable experience. So if you think you would enjoy writing a novel, I think you should try, and here’s my advice on how.
This is a subject I’ve already spoken about on the Nobody Panic podcast, but for the hell of it, I’m going to go into it again.
The Start of an Idea
If you are waiting for the “right” idea to hit you, stop. I knew a girl once who said she desperately wanted to write a novel, but she was waiting until she got back from her trip to India later that summer, because she knew she would feel more “inspired” by then.
She did not feel more inspired when she came back from India.
If you want to write a novel but you don’t know what to write a novel about, that’s fine. Here’s what you do: start with a thing you know a lot about. It can be anything. Let’s say you worked at a recruitment agency for a few years. Think of everything you know about that recruitment agency. The bad coffee, the desperation of the applicants, the sense of shame when you realise that you are supporting several people’s bid for the same job, and are therefore a traitor to all of them. Think about the observations you are qualified to make, and maybe write a few down. Maybe try this while reflecting on a few different areas or time periods of your life. Wherever your thoughts flow easiest is probably a good place to start.
The Meat of an Idea
Now start adding a lot of “buts”. Take the world you know and start warping it slightly. A recruitment agency, but the boss has a secret. A recruitment agency, but one of the top agents keeps sleeping with her candidates. A recruitment agency, but it’s for a very specific kind of job that doesn’t exist in our world yet. I actually have this idea typed up in a Google Doc somewhere: a recruitment agency specifically for young girls looking to work for old, rich women as their “companions”, in a world where old, rich women own everything and are in the habit of willing it to their companions. These are highly competitive positions, and one recruitment agent decides to sabotage a candidate so she can take the job for herself. The book would be sort of like all the Mrs Van Hooper scenes in Rebecca crossed with all the corporate espionage scenes in Rivals.
Every time you add something, you take it slightly away from the world you know and into fiction. Eventually, you’ll land on a combination of elements that is both rooted in something you’re confident about – in this case, recruitment – but is still new enough to make you curious.
The Originality of an Idea
Once you land on your idea, you will immediately find reasons to discredit it. You will find an example of someone else who has done a similar idea before. You will also find no shortage of well-read people in your life who will tell you where they’ve read the idea before. It doesn’t matter. Even if there is a book in the bestseller charts right now with the exact same concept, it doesn’t matter. Write it anyway.
If your book gets published – and that’s a big if – it will probably happen many years after the day you start it, meaning that the bestseller in the charts right now will be a dim memory. But more importantly, books are like snowflakes, in that each one is unique, and none of them fucking matter.
That idea above, about the old women and the recruitment agency? I still might use it one day – I think it’s a cool idea. Does putting it in my newsletter increase the chances that someone else will use it, too? I guess! But my old lady recruitment agency book is going to be entirely different to your old lady recruitment agency book, because we are different writers who will focus on different things. Even if, by some mad chance, we end up writing and publishing them at the same time – and that is a crazy mad chance!! – it will just give us an excuse to pair up and pitch a lot of bookstore events called like Arsenic and Old Lace: How Authors Are Reclaiming Vintage Spinsterhood Through Modern Fiction.
In short: don’t weasel out of doing something you want to do because you’re convinced someone else will do it better.
Writing Your Idea
There’s a lot of discussion about whether it’s better to plan your novel or to free-wheel it. For me, the answer is do both. Write a few thousand words to get into the feel of the thing. Are you enjoying yourself? Is this fun? If the first five thousand words aren’t reasonably good craic, you might as well stop. If you can’t get a new car started when you’ve just bought it, how is it going to handle in a couple of months time? Bin this idea. Try something else. This is not the car for you.
Planning Your Idea
When you find something you enjoy writing about, get about five thousand words in and then stop. Open a word doc and put it in bullet point mode. Start writing plot points, one after another. Where is this going? What beats do you want to hit?
It’s a little basic, but using the hero’s journey is helpful if you’ve never written a long story before. With my first novel, I drew the hero’s journey circle on an A3 art pad, filling in every point – “call to action”, “meeting the elder” – and wrote in my plot points in pen. For Promising Young Women, the “call to action” was Jane working on an advertising pitch for a pizza brand. The “elder” was a line manager based on Debra Meaden. Plot points do not need to be grand and majestic. They just need to push the story along.
Write Your Idea (Again)
Once the plot is figured out, you can go back to writing. You do not need to stick to your plan. You can contradict your plan whenever you want. What’s good about the plan is that when you’re not worrying about what has to happen, you get more time to focus on how it has to happen. The example for this I always use is, in Promising Young Women, I knew that Jane and Darla’s friendship had to start falling apart. I didn’t really know how, but because “Jane and Darla have a fight” was in the plan, I had a lot of time to think about it. The scene I came up with was Darla catching Jane drinking cystitis medicine, playfully asking who she was sleeping with, and Jane maintaining she wasn’t having sex with anyone. They both know Jane is lying. I’m really proud of this scene, because it shows the dissolution of a relationship in a way I hadn’t seen before.
Wanting to Give Up On Your Idea
This is where I usually want to give up on an idea: at 15,000 words, at 30,000 words, at 50,000 words and again at 75,000 words. These are always the pinch points for me because it’s usually where one act is finishing and another is starting. It’s where the hard scenes need to start happening. Scenes that are logistically hard to plan, creatively hard to make convincing, and emotionally hard to get through.
The only tip for not giving up on your idea is to not give up on your idea. Do not abandon it! Shelf it for a few weeks, if you need to get some perspective, but don’t be tempted into giving up and doing something else. Remember those first few thousand words, where it was all so much fun? It will be that way again. I promise.
Finishing Your Idea
Once you have finished a novel, do something absolutely fucking delicious. Get Deliveroo, drink a bottle of wine, finally order that Wolf & Badger dress that won’t stop following you around the internet. Congratulate yourself, and do it hard. Do not fumble over how “it’s just a first draft” and punish yourself over the fact that it’s “probably terrible”. It probably is terrible! All first drafts are! That is a problem for future you. Present you just finished a fucking novel, something a lot of people want to do and not everyone does. Hold on to that feeling. The next stage is edits, and that stage sucks worse than anything. All you can do is live in the glimmering, glittering now. You finished your idea, and I’m proud of you.
Scenes of a Graphic Nature is out in June 2020 and you would help me out enormously by pre-ordering it here.