Hi guys, hope you are all well. Today I am thrilled to have a wonderful guest post from Maggie Alderson for you. Maggie’s brand new novel “The Scent of You” is out tomorrow in paperback, published by Harper Collins, and this book has a) a brilliant, brilliant cover and b) a fantastic premise and I am dying to read it! In the meantime I have, as already above mentioned, a guest post from the author on “The Seven Mysteries of Writing a Novel” – out your feet high and enjoy!
The Seven Mysteries of Writing a Novel
By Maggie Alderson
I can’t quite believe that The Scent of You is my tenth novel. And what I find particularly bewildering is that although I’ve done it so many times, I still make the same mistakes. Every time.
I charge into a new book in a frenzy, never planning anything, never doing a time line, a map of where everyone lives, or a list of the relative ages in families, until I’m about 30,000 words in.
That was interesting when the family in question was a modern jigsaw of numerous half and step siblings in Cents and Sensibility (my fourth one). I realised half way through writing the first draft, when I did finally do a timeline, that I was going to have to make my heroine ten years younger than I’d wanted her to be. Oops.
So as I am about to start my eleventh book, I thought this was a good moment to ponder over what I’ve learned over all the years of writing in the hope it might help stop me making the same mistakes again – and hopefully give some insights to anyone else who might be thinking of embarking on their own fiction adventure.
- Starting it
I remember very clearly when the first of my contemporaries wrote a novel – and got a publisher. I was in awe, dreaming of writing a book myself one day, but too scared to start in case I found I couldn’t do it.
‘How long did it take you to write it?’ I asked him.
‘Six months,’ he replied. ‘And thirty two years…’
That remark returns to me every time I’m writing a book and I’ve allowed myself to get hoity toity about how clever I am making all this stuff up….
Because one day I will have a blinding flash of revelation when I understand exactly what things in my own life have fed into what I’m writing. Even if it’s about rich beautiful people living lives I can only dream, the seed of it comes directly from things I have experienced.
So really, you’re starting a novel every moment of your life. I think of it as adding stuff to the stock pot in my brain, which will later come out as something that seems completely different, but is really that bit of onion I chucked in earlier.
To keep this stock pot topped up, between books I try and have lots of new experiences – visiting new cities, exhibitions, books and any kind of random experience I can have. Once I’m writing a book, I don’t do anything except write the book, so I have to cram it in while I can in between.
- Making it up
This was one of the hardest things for me to do when I started my first novel, Pants on Fire. I’d been making my living as a journalist for about fifteen years by then and sticking to the facts and the quotes was part of my DNA.
In the end I signed up for a Fiction Writing evening course at Sydney University (it was while I was living in Australia) and although I only went to three of them it freed me up to let go and make it up… It was so exhilarating when I first allowed myself to trust it, like jumping onto a flume ride.
- Finding the characters
They seem to find me. When I start a book I know who my heroine is, she’s my starting point. I have an idea what she looks like and I know what she does – that gives me the milieu for the book. Apart from that, I have no idea who else is in it until they stroll onto the page.
I always remember when I was writing my second book Mad About the Boy (not be confused with the more recent Helen Fielding of the same title). The doorbell rang (in the book, not my doorbell) and I had no idea who was going to be behind it until my heroine opened the door.
It turned out to be Uncle Percy, who remains one of my very favourites of all my characters.
Another way I find them is by pulling pictures of people out of magazines and seeing which ones ‘speak’ to me – a technique I discovered after I stuck a picture of a hot guy on the wall over my desk just to gaze at and he walked into the book.
- Staying seated
Sometimes it takes every bit of willpower I can summon to keep my bum stuck to my chair. Music helps me, tea helps me, biscuits help me – then carrot sticks, after I’ve put on half a stone – looking at my phone does not help me. I don’t have wifi on the laptop I write on and put my phone on the other side of the room.
Conversely, sometimes going out for a walk, or a look at the shops helps me stay seated later. I get the urge to flee out of my system by fleeing and then when I come back staying seated doesn’t seem so hard.
- Finishing it
See point 4. It’s the only way. Stay seated, or at least stay in the room – some people write standing up, Hemingway did – and keep going.
- Getting over writer’s block
There are always sticking points when writing a book, when it feels like someone has turned the tap off. That’s when I run to my books about writing.
The first one I reach for is Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. It’s a masterpiece. It was originally an article in Esquire (you can Google it), but I have a little hardback book of it which takes about 20 minutes to read. It always makes me roar with laughter and usually eager to get back to the fray.
Leonard’s first sentence is: ‘Never open a book with the weather.’
My all-time favourite is Stephen King’s On Writing (which David Walliams also cites as a great influence), which is a work of pure genius.
I have another one called Dear Writer, by Carmel Bird, which I find very useful for practical tips on the craft of writing – tense, point of view etc.
My other stalwart is David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction, which is so beautifully written and has a wonderfully varied collection of passages in it, one to illustrate each point.
The section from Catcher In the Rye to discuss skat dialogue entirely created the character of the outrageously dreadful – but actually very vulnerable – daughter Theo, in my book Shall We Dance?
- Surviving editing
Or as I like to call it – re-eating your own vomit. That’s about how enjoyable I find that part of the process. It’s entirely my own fault. If I planned my books more carefully and didn’t write them at high speed as though I am trying to beat Jack Kerouac to the world record, editing wouldn’t be such a trial.
But while I always suffer great editing agonies, it’s always worth it for the feeling of utter elation that comes when I finish. And the book is always exponentially better for it.
I can’t wait to get started on the next one.