Shannon Hale

The Ecology of Writing a Novel

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If you look closely you can see all the pain and suffering and joy and love and laughter that has gone into growing this tree

Nothing comes from nothing.

Even if you spontaneously sit down one day and decide to write a novel, the words have to come from somewhere. They usually come from your own experiences, possibly embellished by books you’ve read, films you’ve seen or songs you’ve heard. They may arrive via a more circuitous route like dreams or inspiration, but these are most likely your subconscious organising your thoughts in secret without your permission.

So you need to cultivate your sources. Live as interesting a life as possible, read as much good literature as possible, watch… you get the picture. Eventually you will have enough raw material to start work. As a convenient metaphor let’s take this majestic fir tree.

I am forty eight and spend the majority of my working day writing computer programs. I’ve been doing it for thirty years and so my usual daily routine does very little to grow my tree. I read as much as I can, mainly novels and magazines like New Scientist, London Book Review and National Geographic, and watch a variety of films and TV series. These things probably help new branches flourish. And I feed and water my tree by watching and listening to real people and conversations.

I found this. Now I’m wondering why I chose trees.

So, if you’re lucky enough to finally have a tree like the one in the picture you’ll have plenty of timber to craft something awesome. You need to whittle away the irrelevancies, strip away the deviations and dead boughs. This is where you’ll write your first draft.

Now comes the hard part. Take your saw, wood plane and set square and set about creating something usable. It’s not going to be the finished product. And it’s going to be difficult. You’re going to doubt that you’re doing the right thing. You’re going to doubt that you have the skill to turn this massive, natural, living thing into something worthwhile. You’re going to doubt that you have the resilience to finish this seemingly endless project… how can there be so much bark to strip, so many branches to remove?

But you MUST keep going. If you stop because of doubt or because you feel it’s just too difficult you probably won’t start again. You’ll only have to start growing another tree. And don’t spend too much time looking back at what you’ve already done. You’ll notice little knots that you’ve missed, or extraneous needles which spoil your overall vision. These can all be addressed in the next draft. Or the next.

Don’t get it right, just get it written – James Thurber

Eventually with enough time and effort you should have something. Not a finished something just something with which you can fashion your masterpiece out of. I aim, and often fail, to write 500 words a day so the first draft of a novel tends to take me more than six months. Stephen King never writes less than 2,000 words per day. I’ve seen people on Twitter claiming back to back 5,000+ words per day. Each to their own. Remember, it’s all about getting the first draft.

The First Draft always seems rough and ready and rarely bears much resemblance to your initial plan.

It’s probably a good idea to lock this pile of wood away in a drawer for a few weeks. You’re too close to the work to objectively assess what works and what doesn’t. You will probably have the urge to send it out to an agent or publisher. You’ve worked so hard to get to this point that it seems impossible that someone won’t recognise the potential and snap it up immediately. However, I happen to know that professionals in the publishing world do not appreciate having half a ton of unfinished lumber dumped on their doorstep. It is a waste of everyone’s time.

Now comes the hard part. While you were chopping your tree down into usable logs you probably had lots of ideas which you wrote into the pile. Now you’ll come to see if these ideas improve or detract from the work. Have they themselves become the main thrust of the story? Or should they be transferred to a future work? There are a million decisions to be made now, but try not to edit line by line. Take a broad overview of the whole novel, look at the structure and the point of view. Ask yourself what you’re trying to say, who it’s for and what it’s all about.

Shaping up to look like a book

Remove or rewrite any parts that distract you. That piece of bark that really catches your eye needs to be trimmed away. It might have been your favourite section of writing in the whole book, you might have felt like you were channelling the gods of literature when you wrote it, but if it doesn’t fit it needs to go.

Ensure your characters and the motivations of your characters are believable. Kick out the Mary Sues or the character cliches.

You have a novel that you can be read, but now comes the hard part. Now you need to polish. Throw away the purple prose and the literary cliches, scour away those the nonsensical adverbs. Look for the metaphors that seem insincere and make them as original as possible. Make sure every sentence, every phrase means what you want it to mean. It doesn’t have to be wordy or complicated. In fact, simple is almost always best.

One of the more subtle problems with close editing is that it can make you lose your voice. All the spontaneity you used when you wrote your first draft are one of the things that make your manuscript unique and you must do your best to keep the essence of that safe.

You should do this until you can read through the whole novel and not change a single character. That’s the impossible dream.

My current work in progress – a common feeling.

Once you’ve completed all these steps, you might want to try and get your novel published. That really is the hard part.