It starts with an idea, a germ, a gem, something that really catches you imagination. It’s something you’ve been thinking about for years or its something that strikes you out of the blue, a serendipitous thing, two separate thoughts colliding. It’s a wonderful idea for a novel, you can just see it, you even begin to hear the characters talk. You sit down to write, you can’t help it, you jot down ideas, you scribble out some paragraphs, you may even know what happens right to the end and if you are a plotter rather than a pantser (seat of the pants writer, making it up as you go along) you may sketch out a high level or even scene by scene plan.
There are things you can do to keep up the momentum. You must write everyday, even a little bit, you can dwell on your characters on your commute until they become as real as the people you meet every day or become an amalgam of those and your elderly uncle and the grumpy guy from the corner shop of your childhood. You can keep the back of envelopes handy to scribble down random thoughts. (Or as I have discovered the notebook on my smartphone is terrific for short bursts of inspiration).
But there comes a point when you flag. When your book, good as it is, starts to lose direction and focus. It could be somewhere in the flabby middle where you begin to feel that you are filling in scenes just to move to the grand finale. It may be that you have so many ideas and interests that you don’t know where to end including your knowledge of fly fishing and your interest in saving endangered animals in Africa.
Novelist Emma Darwin discusses the importance of finding out what you’re about in your novel, in her blog article ‘What’s Your Project‘. She says that your novel’s ‘voice’ is ‘the embodiment of everything you’re trying to do with the novel: not just who is telling this story, what the world and the people are, but why they/you are telling it: what you’re trying to do with this novel‘ . For Emma, the ‘project’ of your novel is ‘the combination of what you want to tell, and how you want to tell it‘. Once you know exactly what your project is, she argues, everything in the novel should contribute in some way to the cause of this project, every scene, description, character, exchange needs to tie together and strengthen the core thread of your project so you must know what that project is ‘what you are trying to do‘ as Emma puts it.
Taking a step back I was struck recently by how, when we get busy in life, we often put aside the things that we really care about, that are us, that may just be the heart of the way we see the world, what we want our book to be about. When short of time we are too inclined to jump straight in to our writing to use all possible opportunity to get words on the page. But we may become confused, disillusioned even, unsure of where we are going, sometimes why we are even doing what we are doing. We may wonder ‘what was so important about this book in the first place’ and ‘why should anyone care if I ever finish it, what difference will it make in the world?’
We may need to step back and just experience life, art, music, film, nature, the things that move us thus grasping our way back to the heart of our passions. I recently sat down to watch some films (namely The Neverending Story and Amélie) and I also dug out some old cassettes (yes those!) from about twenty years ago, music that was meshed into my life at the time but also seemed to mirror some aspect of identity. Being moved by these experiences I was able to explore and remember what was core and important to me, how I might tell the story in my novel, what strikes me about the world, what is absolute and essential, what means something to me.
So what I am saying is, if you can find this knife of focus you can then cut away what is superfluous, you can make every scene, every description count and contribute to the novel, confident that it is the book YOU want to write.