Writing Your Next Best NovelMay 08, 2022
Our Founder Louise Dean looks back on how she wrote her second novel and beyond; how ideas sometimes come fully formed, but only rarely – and explains how to write your best novel yet.
From the desk of Louise Dean.
How do our novels happen?
Sometimes our best-laid writing plans are tossed aside in favour of a sudden insight and burst of feeling. We stumble across the new green leaves of a story, and all that remains – as with turnips – is to pull, pull, very hard to unearth it whole. (Others come and pull too: literary agents, publishers and sundry creative writing course tutors!)
But in truth, novels come to me this way quite rarely.
My normal effort is to configure a character, contrive a concept, then shove it this way and that to make it more ‘viable’ or appealing – and in so doing, I fall out of love with it. It’s as if, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, I refuse to write any story that would have me.
I have spent years forcing my writing trotters into Cinderella-style slippers. It hasn’t worked. So, here’s a fool-proof test to establish whether a story that looks good on paper is a go-er. Question: have you written it yet? If the answer is no, it’s not.
So back to the miraculous…
It’s as if, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, I refuse to write any story that would have me.
— Louise Dean
The divine write.
Behind every miracle is a long road. It takes one hell of a trek to meet God on the mountaintop. Behind every mystical experience is a coalition of circumstances, a conspiracy of coincidences and a craven longing.
Here is a timeline of one immaculate story conception.
Friday morning: I confessed to my friends at The Novelry that I was yearning to write but was revolted by the vast amount of material I had produced in the last years, so much of it and yet nothing was ‘sticking’. No magic.
Saturday morning: with begrudging generosity (surely there’s a German word for that?) I set off to do my duty to visit a relative. And when I got there? Well, I enjoyed myself so much. My aunt’s home is a time capsule, a museum of our past. I felt warm and at ease, and scanned the many versions of me coming together in the photos around the room, on dressers and mantelpieces, even a hostess trolley: as a child, with a fierce and confrontational glare, and in later photos, I saw how that bold look had morphed into a sickly bland amenable smile. Our hug goodbye was a moment of love and truth that moved me. I was, literally, touched. (Nice, huh?)
On the drive home, I looked at people differently. I peered at their passing faces. My phone rang and it was the son of a former writer of ours, who sadly passed away earlier this year. He was calling to say how much The Novelry had meant to his father in his last months, and we shared some memories and laughed about a ‘ballad’ they had found in his belongings that his dad has penned in honour of The Novelry team. I told him his father was a talented writer and we thought it more than likely he would have been published. We closed the conversation by speaking about the son’s own writing, and how he had determined to get on with it. Any which way, published or not, his father had left behind much more than a sea shanty and the family were marvelling at his writing – and how much of himself he had left behind.
Then a car passed me with a man and a woman in the front seat and something in the turn of her face, how close she was to the driver – too close – took me hurtling back through time, more than 35 years to a moment long-forgotten in which I admired someone that way and seemed – corny, I know – to bloom in his presence. He was a wonderful person, and though this may seem contrary in these more circumspect times, we were friends, no more than that. But we were. It all came back to me, everything. I thought: I am coming back to get you. I thought of him saying: get me out of here. As I neared home, I began to think – what if. And I began to imagine the two people in other circumstances and saw anew what they might have to offer each other. As the car pulled on to the driveway, I had a story.
The story came to me in minutes, it seemed. But it didn’t, did it? It was the coalition of circumstances, coincidences and craven longing.
My second novel came to me mystically, too. I was dawdling around London and decided to pay homage to Grahame Greene by going to find his former home on Clapham Common. I stood outside to pay my respects (I have also left a business card at Dostoyevsky’s grave in St Petersburg, so I’m not afraid of a touch of whimsy). I waited there a while and departed without inspiration to the Underground. On the platform for the Northern Line, I watched the trains arrive and depart, over and over, as I sat on a bench to write down the idea for what would become my second novel, This Human Season.
In my fifty-two years of life and twenty-five years of writing, these moments have happened to me too rarely. Today in 2022 on the Cranbrook town bypass, and at Clapham North Station in 2003. Perhaps a sundry few times in-between.
If novels were Tube trains, I’d be waiting 20 years for the next.
The machine and the magic.
I think you have to be humbled and softened, and have done some spadework, to come up with a story you’re going to write to the end. The writer’s mind has to be the most fertile of grounds, turned over a few times.
The tilling of the ground for This Human Season happened by writing hard and professionally (at last) with my debut novel Becoming Strangers which I drafted and re-drafted, experiencing for the first time the revision process to meet publishing standards.
I think you have to be humbled and softened and have done some spadework to come up with a story you’re going to write to the end. The writer’s mind has to be the most fertile of grounds, turned over a few times.
— Louise Dean
The personal factor.
The creation of human life doesn’t happen with a single flick of a switch. There are hundreds of decisions, actions and reactions – some in our hands, some out of our hands – that appear as stop/go tickets in the process of creation.
But at some point, as the mother or host, you commit to the process, even if it’s in the moment of the push. When you write, you push daily, right? Why? What’s the difference between a second of insight in your driveway and a finished draft?
I have plenty of ideas for novels, all stashed as duds in folders. But it takes something special for me to see the damn thing through. After you’ve had one child you know what’s in store, so you’ve only yourself to blame!
With This Human Season, it could be summed up simply. For me, it was all about a scene in a prison yard in which a prison officer says to a young man who is the same age as his son that it’s not personal. The young man replies that everything is personal. Indeed, in Northern Ireland, the political is the personal and vice versa. But it was that moment that I was writing for and towards. It meant something to me. Everything is personal.
Yes, one can have a terrific main character in mind for a novel. But for me, it’s not enough. Yes, one can give them a terrible problem or a clever concept. But for me, it’s not enough. Yes, one can long to be in the place of the setting. But for me, it’s not enough. Yes, you can have a point of view or a theme on what’s wrong in the world. But for me, it’s not enough.
You need to know yourself and know what that personal factor is for you.
For me, it will be an exchange of love, not the romantic kind, a moment in which human beings see themselves as alike, in which there is both euphoria and sorrow. Time, for authors, is the evil; time robs us of what we love more surely than any enemy. So every joy comes with its attendant loss. The matter of this greater love, this wider love, the possibilities of finding likeness is probably the personal factor for me that drives my writing, and it will be that and that alone that makes me see a novel through. Nothing else.
But we are all different, and we write for different reasons.
That’s why our new course for old writers begins with who you are and why you write – to keep your hands at the keyboard! To put some heart into it. The same way it was heart and yearning that drove your progress in the first novel you wrote. The difference? This time you know you can do it. But you must engage your own personal factor from the get-go.
True, every novel is new, and we forget (it often seems to me) that we can write novels. How strange that is. A writer’s prayer would surely be to find Rumpelstiltskin had left us a complete plan for our novel, and we could take the task in daily writing stints.
Well, that’s what we will be doing in The Advanced Writing Course. We’re going to divide you in two, into the taskmaster and the employee. First, the boss creates the working plan, then tells the writer craftsman how to deliver the vision.
That’s why our new course for old writers begins with who you are and why you write – to keep your hands at the keyboard! To put some heart into it. The same way it was heart and yearning that drove your progress in the first novel you wrote.
— Louise Dean
Welcome to The Advanced Writing Course
I have spent the last six months considering how stories work by looking at some great contemporary novels. Almost thirty years of writing have gone into these thirty lessons.
It has taken me half a lifetime to understand how stories work.
Once you know what you’re looking for, you can quickly and adroitly capitalise on your inspiration, if that’s how your stories come to you, foregoing onerous long-winded planning that can sometimes kill a novel for a writer. But if you’re short of inspiration, I can faithfully promise we can show you how to turn out a strong idea in the course. The Advanced Writing Course has got you covered to raise your writing game, again.
I’ve been paying close attention to the connections between the constituent elements of storytelling: theme, character, setting, structure, the secondary character, the subplot, the narrative arc, voice and treatment. While tilling the soil with this plough, I’ve discovered the one word you need to make people follow your main character anywhere; the five elements you need to bring a setting swiftly to life; the four roles you need to cover in your casting and how to confer their qualities with economy.
After we look at you and your writing to date and run an audit on your strengths and what you (really) want to write, the course delivers a simple and homely truth – that your theme is there, always there, concealed like underwear. Your theme may not change between books (now I am regretting the underwear analogy) – in fact it is likely to be the same as it deeply reflects your concerns and preoccupations, but it must be articulated between two polarities, a positive and negative, to allow the author to argue their case in the right order. This is called structure and it drives the plot, and it’s really not hard. It’s very, very simple.
I’ve discovered the one word you need to make people follow your main character anywhere; the five elements you need to bring a setting swiftly to life; the four roles you need to cover in your casting and how to confer their qualities with economy.
— Louise Dean
The Advanced Writing Course begins by getting you back on your story horse to head once more into the kingdom of fiction, very much the monarch of all that happens there.
You must write the book only you can write, but The Advanced Writing Course will ensure it’s in robust shape for success on your terms with a simple but deadly structure and plot articulated by the theme. We’ll create drama and bring your words to life on the page with a few magic tricks robbed from some amazing authors.
The courses at The Novelry are as much part of my body of work as my novels. They’re more important, perhaps, because they incite writers to write better stories than mine. The courses are better than my novels too, in that the author tutors and editors of The Novelry also have a hand in them, not to mention all of our writers. We learn together. Exposure to story, story, story is the way to find out what works. Thanks to you all as always.
We will now crack open the champagne and launch the ship of The Advanced Writing Course with a few last words from our former shipmate and his memorable shanty.
And so somehow we found our way to many foreign parts,
Everywhere we went, we wrote our way into people’s hearts.
We spread bestsellers everywhere, in many a foreign tongue,
There was many a plot-twister laid and many a surprise sprung!
So sail away, oh sail away on the good ship Novelry
Writing our way around the world, like it was meant to be.
Oh, sail away till the end of day, then break out the grog.
And we start it all the next day with some hair of the dog!
—RIP Chris Bruce Alleyne, February 18th 1953 – January 15th, 2022
Founder at The Novelry
Louise Dean is the author of four novels and has been published by Penguin and Simon & Schuster among others.
Louise Dean has won the Betty Trask Prize and Le Prince Maurice Prize, been nominated for the Guardian First Book Prize, and longlisted for the Dublin International Literary Award and the Booker Prize. Her books have been deemed the top books of their year by the Guardian, the Observer and Publishers Weekly. She was also a finalist for the Costa Coffee 2020 Short Story Award.