This post first appeared here.
The first thing to do is take a walk. The road ahead is long and hard and paved with self-doubt. Might as well get some fresh air.
The overwhelming odds are the world won’t take any notice. There’s a pandemic to think about. Also ironing, Instagram, climate change and Netflix.
Accept this as the likeliest outcome and do it anyway. You cannot fall in love with a person while being obsessed with how to sell them. The same applies to your novel.
What you should think about is that kernel in your head. That impulse you feel to write. Where does it come from? Maybe you saw a rat crawling through an upturned trashcan on your way to work. Maybe there’s a fully formed alternate universe floating around in your head. Maybe you have always wondered what it would be like to have been born a different person in a different time. Whatever it is, interrogate it. Dig deeper.
For me, it was Frau P. We met shortly after I moved from Ireland to Germany in 2012 and until her death in 2018, we saw each other once a week. We were seventy years apart but that didn’t stop us from being besties. If anything, it strengthened our bond.
My novel is not about her. But it is informed and inspired by how it made me feel to sit with her in her nursing home room. Chatting about the price of pears. Her upcoming death. Germany’s political landscape. The care-workers’ private lives. Meandering between the quotidian and the profound.
This was the space I wanted to occupy. But it was not yet a story.
I began writing my novel in 2016 and most of the time, I was miserable. I was miserable because I was overwhelmed. Because I was overwhelmed, I became masochistic. If I had a day off work, I would tell myself that I must sit in front of my computer as if I were in the office. I would spend eight and a half hours staring at a blank screen. The only word that came to me was failure.
I have since learned that this is the worst thing you can do. Guilt and shame do not produce powerful writing. Curiosity does.
Different novels have different driving forces. Mine is character. I needed a plot that would take my protagonist on an emotional journey. Figuring the course out became my preoccupation. I would think about it at night. In the shower. On the train to work.
The breakthrough came while reading Story Genius by Lisa Cron. Her theory is that every story is about a character confronting their misbelief. In order to have a misbelief, they must have experienced situations that strengthened their flawed perception of the world. Her tip was to write scenes that did just that.
This exercise, more than any other writing advice I have ever got, injected life into my story. What are my characters wrong about? How did they come to that conclusion? What can I do to challenge their perception of the world? Some of the scenes I wrote in response to those questions became key moments in my novel. Others are no longer on the page but have added nuance to my characters.
Writing fiction, more than any other craft I can think of, is an extraordinary balancing act between the conscious and unconscious. First of all, there are the logistics of time and place and character to think about. One of the things I did was print out a calendar of 2016, the year in which much of my novel takes place, and mark the events of the story as if they were real.
This wasn’t strictly necessary. One of the great gifts of fiction is that time can fly. But verisimilitude and plausibility are important. Even if you are writing the most outlandish fantasy story, the reader must be able to trust the world you have created. All of this is the domain of your conscious mind.
The unconscious, on the other hand, is the repository of ideas and sensations. I ignored mine for too long, focusing instead on my calendar and plot outline. They have their place. But they are no replacement for the stuff that lies deep within you. The things you don’t know are there until the words come out.
Annoyingly, your unconscious cannot be summoned. But I have found that it can be beckoned. A film that moves you to tears. An injustice that fires you up. A good conversation with a close friend. A poignant passage in a book. Certain music. You need to feel something. Anything, almost.
A year ago, when I was 38,000 words into my novel, promising feedback from someone who knows her stuff gave me a boost when I needed it. She had many nice things to say about my work but it was the way she articulated what was wrong with it that made me giddy with joy. The only way to improve your novel is to be able to define the gap between the actual and the ideal. A person who can do this kindly and with conviction, is a gift.
Earlier this month, fueled by the solitude enforced by the pandemic, I wrote the final words of my novel. I can barely believe I got there. There were so many times I didn’t think I would.
For the next few weeks, I am giving the manuscript some time to breathe and handing it over to others to read. After that the work will begin again. To write is to sculpt. The marriage of vision and precision. When all that can be has been done, it will be time to offer it to the world.