Writing a Novel: what I’ve learnt about time
Once you commit to a course like this one, you’re forced to carve out the time, to secure it as your own. And what a gorgeous thing it is, to be unbound by life’s usual snarl for a few hours every week, and to be immersed instead in something as inspiring as this! All the other things that preoccupy your mind seem stop at the door to the Terrace, high up over Crows Nest and right above the offices of Allen and Unwin. Below us is the bustle of rush hour, but inside, there’s a different kind of energy, as we give into those few hours on a Tuesday night.
Our tutor, James Bradley, directs the course with a kind of conversational structure, an easy dialogue. James told the group early on that the course would offer different ways of thinking about what to write, that some of it we’d use and some we wouldn’t. After the first five weeks, and a notebook already bulging, it seems there is very little from this course that I won’t be using in the process of writing my novel.
In the short period of time since the course began, the class has been exposed to a variety of processes that could be employed in writing a novel. There’s the most obvious elements: documenting or note-taking, research, thinking time (at the desk and away from it), drafting and re-drafting, structuring and plotting. We’ve learnt to consider not only the ‘big moments’ that need to be included in our work, but also the less significant bits that sort of glue it all together.
And what about character? We’ve been encouraged to take the time to get to know our characters, to work out their needs, their wants, to find some way into understanding who they are. What sort of language do they use? What are their contradictions? What’s their public life? Their secret life? When creating the characters in my book, I hadn’t really considered the importance of their names. Now I understand how significant a name can be, revealing things about your character’s family or culture, their needs and desires, or their past. After having the same name for my protagonist since the books inception, I’ve now changed it.
Aside from the actual writing, James has talked about doubt and struggle as being part of the process. What a relief to hear that every good writer struggles to write! In fact, it seems that some of the best things can come when you’re stuck. So writing, I’ve decided, is a bit like life, in that opportunity can come from problems. Perhaps a problem in your work isn’t such a bad thing after all!
We’ve been shown different ways of generating ideas. Margo Lanagan brought in her scrapbooks for the class to see. Beautiful books filled with words and images, so fertile with ideas and inspiration. It was a privileged and intriguing insight into Margo’s private records, her own way into her stories. And they caused me to charge out the next day for scrapbooks of my own!
Margo talked to the class about the challenges she’s had in structuring some of her novels. It was reassuring to hear about the problems once had by an author as successful and established as Margo. And it made me more determined to stop my own predilection for word shuffling, and get on and finish the novel.
James says the thing that you start with is rarely the thing that you end with. That the book will have things that you don’t know is there, and you need time to discover that. As a way of discovery, he told us to write our way into the world of our books, to write all the detail for ourselves, then to take it out later. Tease the story out! Let it grow out of character, reading aloud, re-drafting, questioning and change. Perhaps that’s been the most valuable thing so far, the insight into the ‘bigger picture’ of novel writing. It suddenly seems manageable, achievable – that there will be a way through those problems in your work, because writing a novel is largely about discovery. And to discover, and to write well, takes time.