Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Joys of Cranking the Engine of a Novel

Recently, for the programme, I’ve been asking other writers how they start a novel and how they get on with completing it. I’ve also spoken specifically about how I was inspired to write my own novel The Lavender House. So, as I’m beginning a new novel, I thought I’d tell you how this process works in my case.

All writers work in their own way. I think I must be a seasonal writer. For years now, in late Winter/ early Spring I will be puzzling, speculating, making false starts, writing sketches (short scenes that may/might be in the novel) waiting for characters to walk onto my roughly prepared stage, into my dreamed landscape, demanding to be named and styled.

Notes, labels, names, sketches, images and maps start to litter the walls of my little room. My computer becomes petalled with notes and reminders. The novel grows first in a kind of impressionistic collage. The big table is stacked with opened books post-it-ed and ticker-taped with wild notes to myself.

In real Spring ( when the bluebells at the bottom of the garden are out) I feel impelled to start to write, to get into gear properly with this job . The story is bubbling up from the depths of my imagination, throwing up sentences and paragraphs like fire and gas from a volcano.The characters are elbowing their way out of the wings into the spotlight, moving from monologue to dialogue. Occasionally there are shrieks. Let me out! Let me out!

This is when I’ll write novel-stuff in my notebook wherever I am – car, cafes, hotels, park bench - taking pages like stored treasure back to the little room for the painstaking and rewarding process of transcription. Sometimes I’m amazed how brilliant the scribble is. Sometimes I can’t make it out, so perhaps it was too brilliant for this world… It's a mad, mad phase. I become more and more excited, and as the Summer moves into place I am buzzing away, writing every day, living the narrative and not noticing too much around me.

Sometimes at this midpoint there is a worrying haitus. Is it really a novel? Am I kidding myself? Am I deluded into thinking I can do this very hard thing? (Some people label this the Writer’s Block. I think it’s just the imagination muscle screaming for a rest.) So I take a good breather then I go back to the beginning and move more slowly forward again, editing and writing as I go.

With the coming of Autumn the days draw in and the growing darkness helps me to focus more closely on the way the narrative works. These latter stages are just as demanding and interesting but are as much intellectual as imaginative. This is the time when the firecrackers that I set away back in early Spring have to take their place in a coherent and interesting story. And in the end the form has to be right, The facts have to be right.

I don’t at all see this part of the process as a chore – it’s the final careful, creative act in making the novel work. It's like taking a garment you’ve just designed and made, and pressing it with care to make it fit and elegant for anyone who chooses to put it on.

By the beginning of December, with Winter set in, the novel is complete and ready to go on, on its own hopeful journey.

But now, with this lovely new novel (called so far XXX), I’m just at the beginning of this journey. I relish the familiar delight and and excited tension threading through my body. Writing like this is a visceral thing. Of all the things I do, my novel is where I am completely myself – travelling alone and enjoying it.


(Pic tomorrow…)


  1. Thank you for the insight into your process for coming up with a story.
    Mine is both similar and very different (not that I can really claim too much yet.)
    I read all the background material I can find about the general topic. As you have probably guessed I am quite visual too, so I look at any images and/or . Unlike you I take almost no notes. Although, I will occasionally write a snippet if I am worried I won't remember it.
    All this is a primer for my imagination, which will usually suddenly kick in. Then it is hanging on as I am swept away by a flood of ideas that cascade from my subconscious.

  2. It should have been "images and/or video".

  3. It was such a pleasure to read about your process. Thank you for sharing this with us. I'm quite clear about my photography process and continue to learn about my writing process.



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