Veronica Henry on Trusting the ProcessApr 11, 2021
Veronica Henry is the bestselling author of romance novels and a journalist whose first novel was published in 2002. Her novel A Night on the Orient Express won The Romantic Novel of the Year Award in 2014. In this article she explains her novel writing process and how she manages to be such a prolific and productive writer... .
Just before Easter I pressed send on my 22nd novel. That’s roughly 2 million words I have sent out into the world over the past twenty years. I guess I must have learned something about novel writing in that time, yet I feel as if I know nothing. Because here’s the thing – it doesn’t get any easier (sorry!). And nor should it. It’s not supposed to be easy.
Writing a novel is a complex, tortuous, emotionally exhausting process that takes everything out of you. Oh, and solitary, which is the part I find hardest. I’ve never been that comfortable in my own company. It’s also very difficult to be objective about what you are writing. Is it derivative? Predictable? Pretentious? Simply dull? Which is why it’s important to remember that being published is a team effort, although the first part of the journey is done very much alone
There are a few things I have learned about my process, though. Pitfalls and patterns and phases which I have learned to recognise and embrace. Accepting that these are part of the writing journey has made it a little easier, a little less daunting.
My brief to myself with each book is to do ‘the same but different’. An infuriatingly glib phrase that I first heard when I was a scriptwriter on Holby City. Each episode had to contain all the thrilling ingredients that drew the viewer in, jeopardy and emotional impact and humour and camaraderie and tension, but also had to be fresh and unique. But the phrase is a useful tool for me, to check in with what my readers are expecting and responding to. I analyse my Amazon reviews to see which words and descriptions come up – both positive and negative – and this helps keep me on track.
Starting a new book is like going to a party. There are all these new people to meet, some of whom you feel you might know a little and others who are complete strangers. You circulate amongst your characters, getting to know them and their mysterious ways, and how they interact with each other. And as the party progresses, secrets and surprises emerge, and your impression of each character changes. The person who seemed so scintillating at the start of the party/book turns out to be a crashing bore, whilst the little mouse in the corner has hidden strengths.
This is why I have learned not to be too prescriptive in my plotting, for someone will rock up and change the plan. I’m lucky to have worked in television for so many years that my brain naturally shuffles everything into something resembling a narrative structure as I go along – mental muscle memory learned from story-lining endless episodes of Crossroads (I know, I know). But every now and then I stop and check in with where the story is heading. I like to have an end-point to aim for, and there are usually two or three set pieces that I want to include, so I re-assess my material and recalibrate it, weaving in any new character dynamics or plot twists.
I love it when things change, though, because that’s life, isn’t it?
You think you’ve got a plan and then you meet someone or go somewhere or see something and before you know it, you sell your flat in Belsize Park and go and live in Lisbon. It’s important to keep an open mind while you are writing, and embrace the flashes of inspiration that pop up when you least expect them. Even if that means going back and changing what you have already written.
With every book I write, about thirty thousand words in, a completely new idea jostles in, all pointy elbows, shouting ‘It should have been me!’
Every time I think it’s not too late to change horses, that I can drop what I’m writing and embrace this Shiny New Stroke of Genius. Just as I’m about to put in a call to my editor, I remember that this always happens. It’s a temptation thrown up by my subconscious because I know that the really hard work is about to begin. That I have got to dig deep to bring the story I am writing to life. And I remind myself that if I change tack, the same thing will happen with the Shiny New Stroke of Genius. So I put it to one side, jotting it down carefully in my ideas notebook. If it’s any good, it will still be a Shiny New Stroke of Genius in nine months, when I come to start the next.
So my plot evolves as I write.
I think of it as a road trip. I set the narrative sat nav, because I need to get from The Beginning to The End, but along the way, I might go a bit off-piste and take the scenic route. I do always get there eventually. Sometimes I get lost. Sometimes I end up going down a dead-end road. And that can only mean one thing; cutting.
I’m a massive fan of cutting. Cutting is writing. A lot of writers seem to view cutting as some kind of failure on their part, or a massive waste of time. I see it as an essential part of the process; recognition that something hasn’t quite worked; a necessary act of bravery. And never a failure, for you will have learned something about your plot, your characters and your writing along the way. The words and the time are never wasted, even if they end up in the bin. Two books ago I cut forty thousand words out of my first draft. The moment I’d pressed send to my editor I knew they had to go. I knew that excising them would address every issue I instinctively knew my editor would have. And I was right.
Writing the second draft was tough, for not only had forty thousand words gone, but the rest of the material was affected. Yet I could never have written the book I ended up with, without writing the words that ended up on the cutting room floor. The words weren’t bad – in fact, I loved writing that strand, but it didn’t belong in the story I was writing. So kill your darlings, but thank them too, for the work they have done.
There will also always come a point in writing a book where I start to loathe every character, every subplot, every word. I hit rock bottom, whirling about in a morass of self-pity, wallowing in imposter syndrome, imagining my editor and agent looking at each other saying ‘Will you tell her, or shall I?’ It happens every time. For familiarity breeds contempt. It seems to come at the point where the characters are all bedded in, the story is nicely underway and I know exactly what’s going to happen. Of course, I’m bored with it! There are no surprises – for me. Just a big old slog to the end.
This is the time when I step away for a few days and take my book and me to Relate for a long hard look at where we are in our marriage. I re-read everything I have written so I can fall back in love with my characters, because if I don’t love them, warts and all, then nobody else will. And I always re-read my original pitch to my editor at this point, to remind myself what it was that inspired me about the story and lit the spark. And then I go back in, refreshed, determined to make this tricky relationship work.
Because the most important thing about writing a book is to enjoy it.
I allow myself a certain amount of doubt and insecurity, because asking questions is what makes you push yourself harder. But there comes a point where too much weeping and wailing is self-indulgent. I have my favourite acronym – JFGOWI – just f**king get on with it. I want to relish every encounter; rub my hands with glee at the prospect of writing the next reveal; gasp at the final denouement. I want a little tear to trickle down my cheek as I wrap up my tale, accompanied by a sigh of satisfaction, foreshadowing the reaction of my reader.
And if I get into a real morass of doom and gloom, I re-read a bit of Riders and imagine Jilly Cooper chortling away to herself, pecking away at her typewriter, a dear little jug of primroses on her desk and perhaps a glass or two of Chablis to fuel the muse. Because if you don’t enjoy writing your book, no one’s going to enjoy reading it. That is for sure.
I’m starting a notebook for book 23 today. I’m writing my mantras at the beginning.
Love your characters. Kill your darlings. And JFGOWI.
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