Writing a Novel in 2022

2022 Jan 02, 2022
writing a novel
From the desk of Louise Dean, founder of The Novelry.

The last lines of the poem Lockdown by the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage were inspired by the mythology of the village of Eyam in Derbyshire. 

the journey a ponderous one at times, long and slow by necessarily so.

They may console writers who have not made the progress hoped for in 2021, and I'm here to bring you words of cheer and a plan for the new year... Read on, dear writer.

The story goes that the plague came to the village of Eyam in 1665 when a flea-infested bundle of cloth arrived from London for the local tailor. Within a week his assistant George Viccars, noticing the bundle was damp, had opened it up. Before long he was dead and more began dying soon after. As the disease spread, the villagers turned for leadership to their Rev. William Mompesson and the Rev. Thomas Stanley. (Next slide, please, Reverend…).

The villagers agreed to accept strict quarantine to prevent the spread of the disease beyond the village boundary. They were supported by the Earl of Devonshire, and by other charitable but less wealthy neighbours, who provided the necessities of life during their period of isolation. The plague ran its course over 14 months and according to accounts, it killed at least 260 villagers, with only 83 surviving out of a population of 350.

Lockdown, the poem by Simon Armitage, references the star-crossed lovers of Eyam. Emmott and her suitor Rowland, from neighbouring Middleton Dale, came to see each other each day across the quarantine boundary, until one day Emmott failed to appear…Still Rowland came, day after day, for months.

If the stories of Eyam sound like the stuff of fiction, that’s because they were invented. A description of the plague at Eyam was first penned by Anna Seward, the 18th-century poet, and appeared in an edition of her letters edited by Walter Scott. More details appeared in writing two centuries after the event when William Wood published, “The History and Antiquities of Eyam” (1842). Later editions bore the title “Legends of the Plague”. Eyam has continued to capture the creative imagination of writers. In October 2018, “Eyam”, a play based on the plague, was performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

Eyam is sometimes held up as an example to the world of how we can tackle the coronavirus pandemic. The voluntary quarantine cost the lives of many but it stopped the plague spreading. So we’re told. In fact, there is evidence of many, especially the wealthy, making a run for it...

Surprise, surprise!

It wasn’t physical contact that kept Emmott and Rowland faithful to their arrangement, but the mere sight and sound of each other. To be seen, to be heard, is that not what we deeply crave? If you’ve had a miserable time of it lately, despite being lucky enough not to get seriously ill, the chances are you’re missing the spontaneity of human interaction and conversation, unscripted and unpredictable. 

Conversation can fly in any direction, and brings with it surprise after surprise. This is the raw material of the writer; the mistakes we make when our thoughts slip the shackles of probity and become spoken words. The things we do, the thing we never meant to do, or would never have done were we not together. We surprise ourselves.

What does a writer do with these human errors? We write them down. We preserve them. A writer reaps and keeps what was not meant to be said or what should not have been done.

So, what stories shall we tell, about this time we're living in?

Many are reluctant to tackle a story we find demoralising, yet in time, we will find stories of heroism, even if we have to invent them. That is what we do, don’t we? We create heroes. Our best memories, the things we cherish have at their centre some sort of heroism.

My wish for you in 2022 is that your writing honours the infinite capacity of human beings to surprise us all.

 

A happy new novel!

If you’re about to start writing a novel, it’s likely your fears are:

  1. Motivation – seriously, am I going to do this? Because if I don’t I’ll feel bad.
  2. Structure and Plot – how the hell do I approach the storytelling and what happens when? Will I run out of material? What happens next? (And repeat.)

We know how it is, and we created our programme of coaching, courses and community as a corset for writers with outsized creative tendencies. We'll keep you safe.

Motivation

Let's cut to the chase. Motivation? Don’t be too hard on yourself. See it as an indulgence, not a chore. Stop making an examination of this. It's not, nobody cares! Do it for you. Take time for yourself. Be a time thief. Steal what’s not yours! (I think we’ve all learned it’s time, more than money we really want, in these last two years.) Get up early, go to bed late, skip lunch. Close the door. Use our Golden Hour method as described in our courses. Remember, writing is your gift to you. Potter and play.

Structure

I suppose we’re all sick and tired of the old chestnut ‘planner or pantser’. It’s not an 'either/or' answer, it's 'both', and fast. At The Novelry we recommend a nimble hybrid method. A one-page plan – so you don’t get overwhelmed and heartily sick of the novel before you put pen to paper – and the glory of the wide-open acreage of the white pages with all their possibilities.

These two chums – the plan and the page – talk to each other. Every week, you correct the plan based on what’s happened on the page (think of it as the laboratory where you’ve tested your theory), then you move into the mystery again with a newly tidy plan. Over-rule a dead plan with lively mayhem. It keeps the book alive for you, the writer, and at first draft it’s all about you turning the pages. The reader comes later.

To get cracking, you need two things and everything comes from these.

Character

Character and setting will probably come to you hand in hand. You need to know your main character (MC) – and the pickle they’re in – very well indeed. You’ll want to know everything you can about them. You need to love your MC and take pity on them.

With the setting, whether that's place or time, know it so you can use it, and love it so you want to spend time there. It’s the stage. Once you know its corners, you can get to work. 

Armed with these you can allow the story to unfold in your mind. Think of this duo as a little tealight, modest enough to provide enough of a glow to bring you back to the desk. We’ll show you how to scope out the idea, build the world of your story, and ensure you’ve got to grips with your main character’s problem or dilemma before you put pen to paper. Having these things in place makes for a smooth write.

The Arc

Consider the drama of the arc of change for our MC. How the story unsettles and unseats our hero for better or for worse. In life, a person may not change. In fiction, your main character must.

Some like to do a zero draft and race through the idea from A to Z to find the arc. Not me, but I can see how that might work for writing crime in particular. We’re all different. For my next novel, I quite fancy a midpoint (where everything changes), a divine moment of understanding at about two-thirds, and I prefer not to know the ending to keep me writing.

Setting

I don't always start planning a novel with a setting, but it's a good place to begin and many authors do. 

The setting for my novels is sometimes borne of a place to which I've been a lovestruck visitor. A temporary locus. I call it 'vacation eyes' – when you're alert and alive to what you're seeing. Sometimes our sight dims when we inhabit a place too long. Give that setting a little bit of rose-tinted vision! You may be creating a place with world-building, going back to a place you knew in the past, or doing location visits for your novel. The main thing is you want to spend time there in spirit, you want to haunt it.  You'll need to bring it to life with art for its charisma to shimmer. Here's how...

Charismatic Description

The artist JMW Turner lived in a small house riverside on Cheyne Walk in London in the mid-19th century. Known as 'the painter of light', Turner put things simply as artists do (and intellectuals don't as Charles Bukowski noted).

 

My business is to paint what I see.
JMW Turner

 

Turner’s sketchbooks show rudimentary depictions upon which he made simple notes of mood and colour and the direction of sunlight to inform his later paintings. 

Be like Turner.

Swerve grandiloquence in your prose, dodge embellishment and metaphor, in favour of simply saying what you see. 

This is the method of many modern writers from Ernest Hemingway to Sally Rooney. The job is to put the reader firmly in situ and at ease and move on smartly. Remember, modern readers don't need long descriptions and spoon-feeding. They've got Google if they’re really interested. Simply say what you see. 

After Turner died, another painter took up residence in Cheyne Walk: James Abbott McNeill Whistler lived at 2 Lindsey Row from 1866 to 1878. Here's how he went about note-taking for a work of art.

Whistler would suddenly see the view he sought, stop and stare. He would then turn his back on the river and chant to his companion, “The sky is lighter than the water, the houses darkest. There are eight houses, the second is the lowest, the fifth the highest; the tone of all is the same. The first has two lighted windows, one above the other; the second has four.” If his companion corrected him on the smallest detail, he would stop, turn and stare again at the view he was memorising and repeat the performance – sometimes a dozen times before it was perfectly imprinted on his memory. Then with a brisk “Good night” he would be off to bed, the scene to be painted next morning gathering shape and tone in his mind’s eye....... after a long pause he turned and walked back a few yards; then with his back to the scene at which I was looking, he said, ‘Now, see if I have learned it,’ and repeated a full description of the scene, even as one might repeat a poem one had learned by heart. (...) In a few days I was at the studio again, and there on the easel was the realisation of the picture.
Tom Pocock, Chelsea Reach

Record everything on a few visits. Make sure you record the sounds of the place – memory can be fickle. You'll want to look at nature too, and name the trees and birds to bring the place to life.

Now, to the business of adding charisma. Here's how.

What you're looking for are the inconsistencies, what we might not expect to be present so we can see a familiar place anew. For example, you can add depth and drama by paying attention to the light. To get the detail right, make notes, take photographs or record live onto your iPhone and give it some narrative to get the direction of the light and shadows at different times of the day. Light shows certain things at certain times, and the dark hides them so you’ll find you have a moving canvas for your story setting.

If you're writing historical fiction or world-building for a speculative setting, you'll want to create your own mental map. Again, try to go for depth of local detail rather than breadth, it's a shortcut to creating the illusion of a wider reality.

And relax! To get the balloon up of your illusion of place, you need to bring this luminosity of detail to the opening of your novel, to when we first enter the place, and thereafter mere notes will do (as we describe in our Lucid Compression prose method in the courses.)

If I’m writing historical, I’ll put together a reference reading list using fiction and non-fiction written about the place at the time. I won't use contemporary historical novels. (There's many a slip between cup and lip.) I want faithful true detail and I don't want it pre-filtered. Who knows what might yet inspire me?

Perspective

Once I have a place, and a character, I’ll start thinking about who is telling the story, from what perspective, and to what purpose. I may rule out a narrative voice, especially if I am concerned the story might come too close to home and if it deals with issues very close to my heart. Know yourself as a writer! Some writers work like movie directors and prefer to disappear from the story and simply use the camera of their prose to record events unfolding. Make your choice based on your own comfort. Start as the director to get going, if uncertain. You may find your way into 'voice' when you get your cast speaking.

 Voice

Knowing who you are, as a person and a writer, is the first step to having a voice. If you do one thing with your New Year's resolutions, make peace with yourself. Maybe write a list of what’s bad about you, and what’s good about you and see how they’re linked. Bingo. That’s you, bang to rights.  

Novels don't care if you're good or bad. You're never ugly to your novel. You’re either there – the creator, the parent – or you’re absent.

At The Novelry, we're all working writers, who have a good few years of writing between us. We'll work with you to find an approach to creative writing that helps you produce. It's all about the material at the end of the day. We're a broad church. Nerds, too. We love the technical stuff. Our only mantra is 'tools, not rules.' The lovely thing about being open to all approaches is that one will work for you and unlock your creativity for sure. You’ve got a block? We’ve got the key. 

 

Writing a Novel - A Six Week Mini-Course

On March 6, I'm launching a 6-week mini-course sharing my live writing process as I scope out a novel and get writing!

The module will be available to members enrolled on our courses. (Psst! You've just got time to pack in The Big Idea Course and The Classic Course to come up with your idea and start building the world of your story if you sign up in January, before we start writing together in March.)

Each week, we'll prepare for the writing week ahead and you'll be given direction for your week that will coincide with and enhance our novel-writing course. In hour-long live sessions on Sunday evenings for six weeks we will cover:

1. Character and Place

The kind of book you want to write. Your intentions, please. The books you admire. The questions for which you have no answer. Why and how you should lovebomb your main character to get your novel going.  Thoughts on the dramatic irony that will power the story and the midpoint. Settling upon the setting for the story.

(Homework: sketching out the opening as a test run to 500 words: test and rest!)

2. Casting Out

Building the cast of players. The four types, and the character who causes conflict. Tackling the matter of backstory. Using old material. Creating Hemingway's 'iceberg' to keep the story afloat.

(Homework: deepening characterisation details for the inner circle.)

3. Choosing and Working with a Hero Book

Taking one small powerful tale as a depth charger for theme. Looking at the characterisation arcs, themes and structures of novels we love as 'Hero Books'. You'll be guided to choose yours to help you stay on track and focused during your writing. In the mini-course we'll be looking at the following novels among many others:

  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer
  • My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
  • Normal People by Sally Rooney
  • Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
  • The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
  • Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

(Homework: the arc of your hero book.)

4. Your Theme

Nailing your intentions for the book and understanding the positive and negative aspects of the central theme and organising events and the cast to pull in either direction to create plot.

(Homework: the motivational factors of a title, an epigram and a song.)

5. Structure

Sketching out the key scenes of the story according to The Five Fs of storytelling. Fixing the matter of the midpoint. Steps up, steps down. What's the reader reading to find out? Motifs, recurrences, the pay off for the reader.

(Homework: a one-pager story plan).

6. A Strong Base

We'll look at the one-pager and redraft the opening chapter to include elements important to the theme, being sure to light the fuse for the explosion of meaning. This will make a nice solid base for us to move forward in writing our novels with confidence. In the last live working session, we'll review some pitches to ensure we have the stuff great books are made of. 

Each week, we'll be working side-by-side to create material at a modest 250-500 words a day during the week and test our story from all directions as we deepen the interaction and engagement between members of the cast and allow unforeseen events to take us by surprise.

Let this year be the year you surprise yourself.

Don't leave it to someone else to change your life; take the matter into your own hands. Create with mischief, be wilful. Enjoy your writing. Let's make this our year, let's steal time and seize life and make of it what we want. Twenty-five years ago, a friend told me 'write what you need.' That advice has never got old, but this year it might turn gold.

Happy writing!

 

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