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How to Build a Novel


July 6, 2017

I write best in the quiet of the morning. When I sit down to my computer soon after waking my brain is not cluttered by the business of living and I can tap into that big imagination machine of dreams. My thinking is unbounded and playful then, more eager to take risks. The work I do tends to be more authentic and original. I have great moments of, well, illumination. At this time of the day, I am audacious and open to possibility. I can happily give a character wings, steal the family silver or put a house to flames, huge flames that lick the bubbling paint off a window frame and explode the wall clock in the kitchen with an almighty bang.

I am a morning writer but I have friends who write best in the quiet of the evening, who do their finest work when they write late into the night. What we all have in common is the experience of finding a still point for contemplation and self-reflection, of engaging one to one with our page.

Writing is a solitary endeavor and unless you are part of a team project, you need to give yourself time to work on your book. Allocate this time and then ring fence it. Put up barbed wire and bring in the German shepherds. As a writer, you must guard your time and space fiercely because there is a world of distraction out there – needy friends and family, social media, a barking dog, the unwashed dishes, telephone calls. It’s a lot of noise and it wants to lure you away from the silence of commitment.

Writing, when you take it seriously, is not a hobby. It’s art and it’s work. It’s more important than watching television or mowing the lawn. It’s more rewarding than driving a fast car or spending a night at a pub. If you are compelled to write then it is the very thing that will bring you happiness.

When I write seriously, when I routinely sit down and plug into that big creative engine, I feel very good about myself. When I’m distracted and avoiding the page, I am a vague and self-doubting animal, wrong-footed and itchy inside my skin.

It’s not always possible to engage or create but the more you put aside time to work, the easier it gets. When you write as part of your daily routine, the connection to imagination and inspiration widens. Words and ideas come more easily to you. You see symbols and discover patterns and dovetails that give your work fascinating complexity. There is flow, and flow is where the joy is.

It takes effort, commitment and skill to write but good writing is not just about the mechanics of getting words down on paper. Good writing contains within it something of the divine, the stuff that falls into your head from the big ‘out there’. These are the ‘I don’t know where that thought came from’ and the ‘How did I write that?’ bits that charge your writing with electricity.

The best advice I can give new writers is to be serious about your craft while also leaving room for play. Be serious about your intention and commitment. Indeed, do the work. But be playful with what you create. Leave the door open for the unexpected and the remarkable. Seek out and open up to your muse.

Let the kitchen clock explode and a neighbour’s dog start barking. Wake up the woman sleeping off a hangover in the bedroom down the hall. Fling open the window and hurl her to safety before the entire house goes up in flames.

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