How long does it take to write a novel?

So how long does it take to write a novel?

National Novel-Writing Month – NaNoWriMo, to the initiated – is in full swing and I hope those of you that have joined this year’s challenge are getting along swimmingly. I’ve never tried it myself. Nothing against it; I’m just happy with my own way of working and don’t feel the need for this sort of mission.

The aim of NaNoWriMo is to write a novel in a month. Possible? Yeah, I guess. But to write a good novel takes longer. That’s because getting words down on the page is only a fraction of the whole task, and not the first one either. The NaNo organisers themselves advise that you prepare by getting some idea of where you want to go in your story. And that work can continue on the project long after the onset of December.

So how long does it take to write a novel? Well, I’ve been working on Night Shift for two and a half years now –

Except that’s not actually true. It’s been two and a half years since I first started typing the first draft. But that was only after I’d abandoned a hand-written attempt. And that itself was after the hours spent lying in bed thinking about the damn thing in the first place. So… maybe three or four years, that’s how long I’ve been working at it.

Chivalry’s been longer. That’s had around six years of work. The only good thing is that you can work on more than one project at once, alternating between drafts.

The actual creation of the first draft is a relatively speedy process. Night Shift only took something like a month and a half to bring to life (63,000 words in its initial form). Just think – something from nothing in under two months. That’s kind of magical, and the act of creation has to be one of the most exciting, wonderful things a human being can do.

But a first draft is nothing. Unless you’re a staggering genius, a first draft will have massive errors and little of merit except its own potential. So it’s back to the forge, hammering and smelting and folding and annealing, testing and sharpening all the way. And it’s always important to emphasise how useful putting the damn thing away and working on something else for a while is to the process. You know what you’re trying to do; what you need is a bit of perspective to help identify where and why you haven’t quite got it right.

Night Shift is now hovering around the 78,000 word mark. Those extra 15k didn’t come from nowhere (and by way of comparison Chivalry’s been cut from 150k to around 137k); the changes have come because they’ve helped make the story more rounded and satisfying. And that all takes time, and the will to improve your work.

I don’t want to be spending my whole life working on the same few projects, endlessly rewriting and polishing and never getting it out. There are many other novels that I want to write. So it’s my hope that what I’m learning on the journey are the sort or tricks and tools that help shorten the process. I think instinct is often the word we give to experience. Knowing what works and what doesn’t, what ideas have depth and what are resoundingly non-stick, is a question of this experience.

So how long does it take to write a novel? God knows. I’m still to finish my first.

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The problem with McGuffins

Editing is a bugger. Over the whole life of a manuscript – from inception to release – the actual writing will take only a fraction of your time. The thinking is what takes the hours, closely followed by time procrastinating or spent staring blankly at the screen.

It wouldn’t be so bad if you were sure that your reworking was improving the work. Unfortunately it takes another person – or at least a fair bit of time (making yourself the other person) – to really tell you if your changes have worked or not. It’s easy to get yourself out of one narrative-hole by creating others, or by subtly undermining your own edifice by removing one ill-fitting, rotten old plank without properly shoring up the area.

After my last draft of Night Shift I went away and looked at the outline of the novel as a whole, cross-referenced with my reader’s comments. I spent time ironing out the problems she’d highlighted – a lot of time, and a lot of caffeine. There was a point in the plot where a body is found. Great – no problem with that. But as I thought on I realised that certain characters needed to know where the body was in the first place. I’d had a vague idea of this, but I saw that I really needed to know what my characters had been doing behind my back.

So I created a McGuffin. A trail for them to follow. A logical and sensible progression that led from a character’s room to the Antarctic wilderness.

And that’s great, but now I have the McGuffin to deal with. I’d created a tablet (the electronic kind), upon which a message, ostensibly from the protagonist, had been left to draw the victim to his death. Having created this I’ve realised that this evidence could be used repeatedly ‘downstream’ and could be a useful prop upon which to hang more tension.

I can see that this idea has potential – but to add a thing like this into the 9th draft of a novel is problematic. I’m having to constantly add references to it, to explain it away, to make it both significant and magnificently unimportant – whilst it’s not quite a red-herring, it’s not integral to the wider plot so I don’t want to overstate its importance.

Perhaps more of a problem is that I’m wracked with self-doubt. As I’ve said before, this draft consists of a major structural re-working. I’ve been adding, deleting and moving scenes. The only way is onwards, but I’m losing track of my own novel. I’m struggling to keep faith with my changes. I’m determined not to be lazy, not just to do the minimum effort to please this reader; I want to strengthen even scenes that had been praised previously.

But am I going too far? Am I ultimately undermining the novel as a whole, making it awkward and unwieldy?

I’ve already determined that I need a ‘draft 9a’ where I got through the text again and try and see the damn thing from an objective perspective.

But it never gets any easier. Each draft, each layer of repointing, is a confusion and a doubt. Which is where beta-readers come in; it sure helps when you’ve someone else to reassure you that what you’ve done is okay. Preferably before it goes out into the wider commercial world.

A certain romance

So what’s this romance thing when it’s at home? The term itself used to be applied to every novel from the Middle Ages and only gradually came to refer to a specific genre, just as every single novel not based on truth can logically be called a fantasy. Either way, modern romance is not my thing. That’s not to say that I can’t enjoy a good love story, but I never go seeking out a book where love is the main motivation. I’ve always preferred it to be a corollary of the adventure or the action or whatever. But I do appreciate it. Mainly because I can’t do it myself.

My first encounter with romance was with Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novels, and anyone who’s read them will understand why it never really grabbed me. Reading them again now (I went through the whole series about five years ago), they’re ridiculously simple. Boy meets girl resulting in love at first sight – a love so strong that even an accusation of murder couldn’t render it asunder. All the books were the same, utterly unbelievable in their simplicity.

But almost every adult novel featuring a man and a woman – or not – will have to engage with the realities of sex, attraction and the normal human balance of ego and rejection. It has to be acknowledged, even if it’s only a tiny aspect of the story. And the truth is that I’m really not very good at it. Take Night Shift as an example. Originally I envisioned it with a developing relationship at its core. But as the drafts have rolled, the more I’ve realised that this just doesn’t work. At various points I’ve forced behaviour to make my characters do what they’re bloody well supposed to. This is never a good thing and will never convince. Readers ain’t stupid.

In my original plot outline I had a ‘happy ending’ of a firm romantic connection developing between my protagonist and his partner. Now I see that the characters can’t have this and I’ve left it as a failed affair. This works, I think, because it’s realistic. Very few real people have one single relationship that lasts forever. It’s also become part of the trilogy of which NS is the first novel; Anders’ (subconscious) search for a ‘right’ partner now lasts through the books until a (possible) ‘right’ relationship develops through to the end of the final book.

More than that, though: what I’ve realised is that I need to learn skills that I don’t currently have. I’m just not good at writing romance. And although I’ll never be a writer of ‘relationship’ stories it’s a skill I need to learn. Even Sherlock Holmes has romantic relationships. Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Sharpe’ novels all include sub-plots of romance. So on my to-do list is to read up on this aspect of writing.

Whenever you realise that you’re not very good at something you have two options: you can run away from that which scares you or you can run towards it. It’s always, always better to do the latter. Horror novelists need to know how to accent the shocks with humour because that will help sharpen the decidedly unfunny bits. Even the most die-hard chick-litterers will benefit from knowing how to write a good fight scene. And I need to know how to describe love and passion and long, lingering kisses that go on for days.

So this learning curve will never end. You can never know too much, will never run out of new skills to develop. And I need to read books I wouldn’t normally choose; and, if anyone out there is planning on running a free seminar in romantic writing in bus-range of my house, book me a slot.

There’s always something more to know and the day I stop learning is the day you lay me six-foot under in the soft soil.

Actually, I hope it’s a day or two before I’m buried. Otherwise something will have gone horribly wrong somewhere along the way.

Blog in the bubble

I was at a writery-type meeting a few weeks ago and the question was raised: what’s the point of social media? And, following on from that, what’s the point of blogging?

Over the last few years it has become an article of faith: if riches and fame an author doth seek, let them face the public at least once a week. It has become not just common but required; anyone seeking a publication deal must have an ‘author platform’. A webpage, a blog, or merely an active ‘soapbox’ on Twitter or Facebook.

What if this accepted wisdom is wrong?

It’s easy to see the problem. If we’re spending time lovingly crafting these tiny essays, carving and paring our Tweets or telling all our friends what we’re up to (‘just burned the toast lol #toastfail’) then we’re not doing ‘real’ writing. Beyond that – and this is the point of the abovementioned conversation – it’s almost impossible to reach any actual potential book buyers through social media. With so many voices clamouring for attention, and no big product to back up your words, there’s no way to get through to the general public. You end up with a circle of people in your position: other authors, in other words, and all the time you’ve spent ends up shared only within an almost incestuous group of people in the same position as you.

An example is some of these ‘blog-tours’ that I’ve been involved with, hosting and promoting other writers on this platform. Let’s be honest about this – although I’m absolutely delighted to have been involved in these, I seriously doubt they’ve really raised profiles, either mine or other people’s.

Well that’s still better than nothing, right?

When I first set up this blog I was explicit about my motives: I wanted to build up my profile so that I would be more attractive to potential publishers/agents. But over the year and a half or so I’ve been going my reasons have changed. I realised pretty early on that I wasn’t going to get thousands of followers all desperately hanging on my every word, who had been entranced by my witty author-voice and were now itching to get their grubby little mitts on my writing. Instead I found I enjoyed the discipline of working out something to write about, of spending my Monday morning writing-time trying a different style of communication. It’s a place for me to muse about writing, my own and other people’s, and to break down in my own head some aspects I wanted to consider myself. Writing is learning. And what better way to learn then by sharing with other people?

And this little incestuous group I’ve formed – it’s actually quite a nice place. I’ve found a lot of blogs, some of which I have great respect for. Finding other perspectives, other people in the same place as me, is a good feeling.

Now I have a backlog of writing that, should I ever actually achieve my goals and get something published, Josephine Public will be able to find once she discovers me via another outlet. I’ve got a history and a personality online, free for everyone to see, that shares a little of my story and my character. This will hopefully stand me in good stead for the future.

Whether this demand for authors to have their voice is a passing phase or the secret to a prosperous future – well, who can answer that? I know I don’t have much faith in ‘interactive fiction’, with its videos and links and electronic wizardry – don’t people realise that the whole point of books is that this already happens inside the readers’ head without having to step outside the adventure to click on the link?

All I know is that I quite enjoy my little bubble. I like the challenge of trying to be interesting. I don’t think that people should be forced to do the same as me, I don’t want to be a statistic or invisible or a lone voice shouting in the void and to those who have made a career in the field without resorting to Twitter I say ‘kudos’. But I like it here. I’ve made my blog and I’ll lie in it.

What do you think? I know many of my regular readers keep blogs themselves (incest!) and I’d be interested to know whether you consider bloggeration a success or a distraction.

But now it’s time to put my toys away and get on with some real writing. Ciao!