Writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir is guest blogging at the Irish Writers’ Centre Blog for the month of June. Today we host her final post.
My last blog post for the IWC today – aw! So I am back to where I began: with novels. Thanks for reading and commenting over the past month; it has been a pleasure. To round off my stint here I am giving away a copy of the brand new Stinging Fly magazine. Leave a comment to win! I will post to anywhere in the world.
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Writing a novel is like making a jigsaw with blank pieces – not only do you have to fit all the shapes together, you have to paint the picture too. That is hard and it can feel very confusing and frustrating early on in the work. And the sorriest bit of the whole game is that each time you start, it is like starting over. No two novels come together in the same way.
So, as a budding novelist, what can you learn from those who have gone before you? Maybe the most helpful thing I can say is that there is no one way to write a novel. There is no right way. Just start writing, continue with it and push through to the end. You will learn more by finishing one novel than by starting ten. Whatever way you do it, as long as you end up with a novel at the end, you’ve done it ‘right’.
It takes me about a year to write a novel. It might take you three months (like Kevin Barry) or it might take you ten years (like Arundhati Roy). How long it takes depends on lots of things: family and work commitments; time issues; your personal pace as a writer. I would definitely write books quicker if I had less children and therefore more time, but things are how they are and, truly, I wouldn’t want them any other way. )Though it will be nice when they are all at school and I have five blissful mornings to call my own. Only three years to wait…)
Some writers lay plans for a long time before they even begin to write their book: they think about their characters and their plot, they gather lots of notes and do research. Some write the end first and then compose the rest of the novel to work towards the ending. Others – like myself – have only the vaguest notions of who their characters are or what is going to happen to them when they begin the novel, and they write to tell themselves the story of these characters. I never know how a novel or story will proceed before I write it. I rarely know until I am near the end how it is all going to turn out. I can write scenes out of sequence and then slot the whole together, though I become more linear at points. It suits me to write that way but it may not suit you. Try things out and you will hit on the best way for yourself.
In a sense it surprises me that I wade in so blindly at the start, but perhaps if I didn’t, I wouldn’t write at all. I am super organised in so many areas of my life but when it comes to writing fiction, I free fall. It is a great feeling because when it is going well the act of writing is the best sort of relaxation for me.
To expand the jigsaw analogy I started with, most novels are made up of lots of different pieces that fit together well. You have gathered many of these pieces – ideas, phrases, fragments, observations, passions, interests – over the years and you will gather more of them as your novel progresses. Our brains are tuned in to disparate things as we write and so is our subconscious. It is important that you keep a notebook and that you jot down anything that occurs to you, whether it seems relevant to your novel-in-progress (NIP) or not. If you bring these snippets to your desk, you might be surprised where they can be woven into the narrative, or how they are relevant. Our antennae is out and probing for stuff that will fit, whether we realise it or not.
Novels are not sounded on the one note and it is best if they aren’t. If your novel is sad, you don’t want it to be sad on every page or you will wear the reader out, so make sure when you are fitting together the pieces – paragraphs, chapters – that you mix it up a bit. Lighten the tone after a dark scene; pick up the pace when things slow down; mix dialogue with narrative blocks; vary the conversation (repeated chats about the same topic are dull); get your characters moving – change the location from time to time. Think of it this way: your novel needs to be a little bit bipolar. There should be ups and downs, positives and negatives. These will create an energy within the story that helps move it along while keeping the reader interested.
Learn to love editing. You must, must, must be your own best editor. On re-reading your glorious NIP, if the prose seems a bit pedestrian or flat, liven it up with the senses. Readers love the sensuality involved in scenes where characters smell, touch and taste things – including one another. Don’t be afraid to show your characters enjoying food, or sex, or both.
I began with jigsaws, so I’ll end on them too: when the pieces of your NIP start to fall into place, there is nothing like the self-satisfied glow you get. Hell, you might even find yourself being nice to people. Good humour and literary novel writing rarely share the same space. (Or maybe that’s just me?) Suddenly, you understand what the book is about and why you have bothered to write it. Enjoy the glow, you won’t feel it again until the next novel is neatly slotted together and ready to be abandoned for the next one after that, and so on. Good luck!
Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin and lives in Galway. She has published three collections of short fiction, including Nude (Salt, 2009) which was shortlisted for the 2010 Edge Hill Short Story Prize; three poetry collections – one in an anthology, one a pamphlet – and one novel, You (New Island, 2010). Nuala’s third full poetry collection The Juno Charm is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2011.