Sunday, 12 February 2012

How do you write a novel?

It’s the question that many people ask me at a book-signing, at newspaper interviews or upon hearing that I’ve published a novel. I’ve been writing since my teens. finished ten novels of which two have been published. I can answer the question --- How I write a novel but other authors will have very different responses.

The old cliché that writing a book is like having a baby is not far off the mark. It gestates for a while, grows inside you, then there’s pain, labour and the child appears. I can’t do outlines, synopses and the like. After the book is finished I’ll struggle to produce a synopsis for a publisher, but I hate them.

Each novel begins with a strong feeling, about something in particular; sometimes for a while not identifyable. A student wakes up to find four eyes in his head. How does he feel about them? God on Texas Death Row. Could it happen? With Gaia’s Children, gestation began with the vision of a country torn apart by climate change, climate refugees hunted down by skinheads, and of a woman who stood up for the refugees. The human race was close to finished. The planet was ridding itself of a deadly virus --- us. The evolutionary torch would be passed on to a new race.

In presenting the new race it seemed to me that the role of human language is critical. It shapes our thoughts, attitudes to the environment. In greater part it affects our psyche. Language cause us to divide subject from object, you from I, outside from the inside. It gets been me and what I observe. Our attitude to the Earth as a dead thing to be exploited follows from language and our thought structure. We can try to change things by creating peace movements or doing environmentally friendly things. All window dressing. Our behaviour will not fundamentally change as long a the old psyche remains. Could a radical change happen if we were shown the way? If we lived alongside a people with a different, non-verbal psyche?

While those thoughts and feelings bounced about, I didn’t put anything down. The character of Linella (inspired by Amber) took shape. Some of the others too but no more than charcoal sketches. The unborn book was growing even when I didn’t give it much attention. I wrote the opening chapters. I had to work out how to present events from the point of view of people who don’t verbalize. Several versions of those chapter went into the rubbish bin. Finally the plot skeleton emerged as a series of chapter headings. I still didn’t know details of what each chapter would contain.

The rest tended to flow. Chapters appeared without my knowing of where or how they came from. But they made sense. Whenever I was stuck, I returned to the original vision and to the characters. After the first draft came the hard part, checking the plot and characters for consistency, voice and motivation. You have to be draconian about throwing out stuff that doesn’t work. No matter how much you like it. Then there came endless editing. Sometimes Polish dialog that makes no sense in English sneaked in. Amber’s ear for dialog caught those. She’d tell me: “Nobody speaks like that.”

Other books followed a similar course. In each case the initial vision was key, the place from which the story flowed. I’ve found that as long as I adhere to it, the rest of the writing process takes care of itself.

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