The feel of a novel

Emotions Delawer

Copyright Delawer Omar. Used without permission because I don’t understand these things

People talk about genre. They talk of setting. They talk of plot and ask ‘so what’s it all about, then?’ They don’t ask what a novel feels like. Which is odd – or at least it seems so to me – as feel is the fundamental starting point of all fiction. And probably a lot of non-fiction too.

This is a hard thing to describe, but every novel, to me, has its own individual taste; its own colour, smell, texture. Maybe it’s best described as an emotional synthaesthesia; and maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. But when I’m setting out to write a new story the first thing that I develop is a feel, a smell. This is wrapped up in genre and setting but to me is deeper, more intrinsic. It’s like selecting the palette with which you’ll paint your characters.

When I started to develop Night Shift I began with the cold. Add onto that both claustrophobia and a hint of agoraphobia (not quite a contradiction) and paranoia and I had a framework upon which to build the actual plot. Of course setting went hand-in-hand with this: Antarctica makes some of this simple. But it’s possible to set a blazing-hot emotional volcano within a frozen landscape; and it’s entirely possible to build a frigid tundra with no sense of cold.

Similarly, Oneiromancer is a nighttime novel. Its palette is streetlit: umbers, browns, shades of amber. It’s ambiguity and shifting, untrustworthy flickers. It’s no accident that the few chapters set outside London form the Relief Section of open skies, sunlight and the taste of the coming harvest.

At the moment I’m working on three ideas, trying to build them up from nebulous concepts into something I can actually write. I don’t know what genres they will eventually fall into – though I have ideas – but what I have is a feeling for them all:

• The Breton One – paranoia, a sense of being lost, a hunt, ripe sunlight in rich countryside
• The Urban One – identity and the loss of the same; clear skies and cloudy hearts
• The Fenland One – a great, willow-fringed lake; a flatland where the land and the sky are indistinguishable. It’s also wading through knee-high stagnant water with vegetation leaning into you and choking and drowning you at the same time…

So what comes first? Story? Setting? Genre? Maybe all these are just aspects of the same thing. But for me the first stirrings of a novel will always – no matter how I actually go on to tell the story – be the feel of a piece. I’ll know this before I find a universe in which to nurture it.

What you know

Write what you know. Limiting, isn’t it? Who wants to read about an ordinary day in an ordinary life in an ordinary town where nothing out of the ordinary ever happens? It’s just a recipe for dullness that won’t get you into the top 10 ‘Amazon Bestsellers: Banality’ subgenre, let alone catch the eye of an agent. It also seems to rule out the very existence of fantasy, science-fiction, and any even vaguely outlandish title. So why is it such a well-known and well used saying?

The fact is that you know a lot. Even if you have the most boring job, the most boring life in the world, you know a lot. You know how to feel, for one thing. You have beliefs and empathies and skills, no matter how esoteric. See, I think the saw ‘write what you know’ is totally misunderstood and misused. It doesn’t refer to your life story at all. It’s all about emotions.

You know how to love. You know how to fear. You know how to be angry and how it feels to run or to shout or maybe to smash pottery on a hard concrete floor. This is what you know. And writing what you know isn’t about repeating isolated snippets of information, it’s about taking strong emotions and transporting them into situations that are way beyond your life. It’s why I treasure moments where I can say ‘oh, so that’s how it feels.’ Because then you can take that little snowglobe of feeling, wrap it up somewhere safe and warm, and then put your feelings of helplessness and isolation into the middle of a grand space opera, or below the deepest sea, or…

Imagine you’re on a bus, or on the underground. You’re going for a job interview, or for your first day at school. It’s crowded, hot (or cold) and noisy. Shoulders keep jostling you, shaking your grip on your bag. A few seats away a group of youths are playing some horrible tinny music, all bass and swagger. They’re laughing and you wonder whether it’s at you or at that girl across the aisle…

Now take that image and the feelings that it builds in you. Change the circumstances. Now you’re not on a bus but on a planetary shuttle coming in to deposit you and a bunch of soldiers onto an interstellar warzone. The situation’s completely different – but do the emotions differ? How so? Surely there’s something you can take from the one to use in the other. You’ll never be a crewmember on a 19th century whaler but you might know what it’s like to feel the knife-edge of terror and exhilaration as the deck pitches beneath you.

Congratulations. You just wrote what you know.

Your scenes can be the most alien, your characters the biggest bastards, it can all be terribly surreal and impossible. ‘What you know’ doesn’t refer to plot or setting; that’s a job for your reason and your imagination. But the way you bring these situations to life is to transplant your emotions into that world

No matter how implausible and impossible the situation, it is the heart that only you can bring that makes your voice cross centuries and your story come alive.