Don’t keep re-painting the hallway while the rest of your house is falling down: what I learned about writing a novel explained through the (possibly tenuous and somewhat over-extended) metaphor of building a house.
I’m not sure how long it took me to write my debut novel, Line.
I worked on it in fits and snatches over a quite prolonged period, so I have no idea of the total amount of hours I spent on it. But I know I started a very embryonic version back in early 2016, and that it was early 2021 before I typed the last full stop on the final edit. So, in that regard, you could say it took me five years.
This might seem surprising, given that the novel is a shade under 45,000 words.
Partly, this is a testament to how much I simply didn’t know what I was doing with the novel. There was a lot of floundering. A lot. And at least twice I hit dead-ends of such glacial solidity that I stopped working on it for months at a time and instead hid it in a deliberately mis-titled folder on the laptop.
And then there was the things I was working on in-between, poems and short stories (which I wilfully dived into because the thought of being able to finish something was massively preferable to the thought of writing another 500 words on a seemingly never-ending project that was going who-knows-where).
And then there were all the other projects that side-tracked me; an attempted novel about a young backpacker’s comic caperings around Australia, an aborted Canterbury Tales-esque short story collection where different occupants of a shared house each take turns to tell a story, a completed novella in verse.
But mostly it took so long because I spent many, many months plastering and re-plastering the same bloody patch of wall while the rest of my house was falling to pieces around me.
Let me explain.
For me, writing a novel was a bit like building a house.
To start, you need to make sure you dig out solid foundations upon which the rest of the story will rest. In this analogy, I consider the foundations not to be characters and plot (they will come in a bit) but more essential elements like powerful themes, interesting concepts, the potential for the story to explore human wants and desires. On top of these foundations, you then must erect the frame. First come the load-bearing walls (the protagonists, the settings) and then the floors and the roof (all the other things which define the ultimate parameters of your story – antagonists, problems, relationships etc.).
Only with the external dimensions set can you now start running your first-fixings (the central links between key characters and key events) and only with these in place can you then begin to section things off into first general ‘living spaces’ (a three-act structure, climaxes, resolutions) and then further sub-divide into individual rooms (scenes, chapters). With the rooms sensibly partitioned you can now at last run your second-fixings (your minor characters and smaller events) and then start plastering (close editing of whole paragraphs for prosody and imagery) and, finally, the painting and decorating (line-editing on a grammatical and sentence level).
But this is not how my house was built because I, like many first-time builders, made a number of mistakes along the way.
My biggest mistake was impatience.
I dug the foundations pretty solidly I think but, when it came to erecting the frame, the scale of the task before me seemed so daunting that I rushed to get it done. And then, even though deep down I knew parts of the frame weren’t fit for purpose, I ploughed on anyway. But it soon became apparent that things weren’t working; the pipes and wires were all in the wrong place, some rooms were too big, others too cramped. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to have an open plan layout in the middle after all. But the idea of knocking entire sections down and starting again was too much for me, so instead of fixing the obvious underlying structural issues I did what many first timers do – I spent a few years just painting and repainting the same patch of hallway while the rest of the house was creaking around me.
But, and luckily for me, things changed for the better when I eventually managed to get a project manager on board (in this case, my wonderful agent Brian – well I did tell you this analogy might get a bit tenuous). He could see there was substantial work needed, but he thought the project had potential and he outlined a number of possible solutions to get things back on track. I was glad of the direction to be honest, so I got stuck in. And so, after another year of careful renovation, we decided to try to put it on the market.
We must have put together a decent brochure because we got a lot of viewings – but firm offers were harder to come by.
Some people said the neighbourhood wasn’t for them. Some people said they liked the house but considered it too risky a proposition. Others said they liked it but had one that was similar already on their books. Some just didn’t like it. And some just plain ignored our calls. But one party we’d shown around early on, a small Irish family (who we’d both really liked), came back to us. They said they were very tempted. There were some cracks they wanted fixing and the colour scheme was not quite there but, if I was prepared to help them renovate, one last time, then yes, yes they could see themselves in it and very happily. They talked us through their plans for the place. They were ambitious, and from their existing portfolio we could see they clearly had very discerning taste. I talked it over with Brian. We were impressed. We said yes.
I spent another year working with The Publishers; painting, decorating, smoothing down corners and polishing out blemishes.
And then we were ready. To finally be able to throw open the doors and invite you all inside. So please come along, don’t be shy.
(c) Niall Bourke
Willard, his mother and his girlfriend Nyla have spent their entire lives in an endless journey where daily survival is dictated by the ultimate imperative: obey the rules, or you will lose your place in the Line. Everything changes the day Willards mother dies and he finds an incomprehensible book hidden among her few belongings… In its Beckettian sparseness, Line pushes the boundaries of speculative, high concept fiction. Deeply moving, it also touches on many of the pressing issues of our turbulent world: migration and the refugee crisis, big data and the erosion of democracy, climate change, colonialism, economic exploitation, social conformity and religious fanaticism. A stunning debut from a major new voice in Irish literature.
Order your copy online here.