Finishing your novel: are we there yet?

Sarah PriceFaber Writing Academy scholarship winner Sarah Price offers advice on writing and finishing your novel from tutor Charlotte Wood.

Is a novel ever finished? How do you know when you’re done?

Every writer and industry professional that came to speak to the Writing a Novel group at Faber Academy reiterated the same thing: your novel needs to be almost perfectly complete before it is ready for submission.

So, how do you get a novel ready for submission? How do you know when to move on, or what draft you’re at? Where to begin and where to end? Guest tutor, Charlotte Wood provided us her insight into the process of writing a novel.

charlotte_wood2Wonder and wander in your first draft

What is a first draft? According to Charlotte, this is a draft just for you. You should be building, opening, blossoming, ‘inflating the balloon’. Use the first draft to get to know the characters and the story, to find the voice and accumulate material. It can be messy and chaotic. Rough.

Don’t resist where it’s going and don’t worry about the language. It’s like a dream; let your mind wander. In your first draft try not to think about the reader, just get the story down. Trust your instinct, use intuition, tap into the subconscious. And be aware that some of the best stuff comes from a mysterious place in the ‘letting go writing’ of the first draft.

You’ll know that you have a first draft when all major events and characters are in place. You might have ‘wobbly’ cause and effect, but you’ll have a sense of certainty as to major events, even if there are significant gaps.

Next, leave your novel alone!

Don’t touch it for a month or more. The longer the better.

After you’ve ignored your novel for as long as possible, Charlotte’s advice is to come back to it with a series of questions:

  • What is the novel about?
  • Whose story is it?
  • Does the voice fit? Is it consistent?
  • Does every character have a function to push or to illuminate the main character?
  • How does the physical environment feel?
  • What is the purpose of each scene?
  • Does the story continuously move forward?
  • Do you know the story well enough? Why are you writing it?

Then, start again…

A book is a stream. It needs water coming through, hanging onto old stuff stops the new water coming through.
– Charlotte Wood

In re-drafting be rigorous! A lot of first draft material is often thrown away. Try not to get attached. Be prepared to throw big chunks out. Charlotte wrote three quarters of Animal People after she had written the first draft.

Re-drafting requires you to re-think the book. To write it again. It’s a deep, demanding task. Give yourself the freedom to make significant changes, even in later drafts. Look for symbols and motifs and meaning in your novel. Connect yourself at a deep level to your story. Convince yourself of your own creation! Let your characters feel real to you…they’re out there somewhere, aren’t they?

Charlotte says that some of the hardest work happens in the second, third and fourth drafts. These drafts are much more about the language. And they’re often completely re-typed or re-written, from beginning to end.

Finally, don’t despair!

If all that throwing out seems overwhelming, take comfort in the words of Annette Barlow, Publisher at Allen & Unwin, who told our group that ‘no words you ever write are wasted’.

And from Charlotte, ‘writing is about self exploration. The process is the reward’.

That process takes time and patience. Tenacity. Letting go. Letting in.

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